It’s been about a year since I spilled my heart out writing about my separation from my dad. There’s not really a great word for that I guess, so separation will have to do.
In the time that has passed, I’ve continued to feel that my decision was the right one. I’ve also done a lot more soul searching and growing and felt inspired to write about the things I’ve learned.
Let’s start with the word abuse. What does that mean to you? I used to believe it meant physical or sexual abuse. These were the things they mostly taught us about in school. I had no idea that verbal and emotional abuse were even a thing. (Parents, talk to your children about these things and from an early age)
At the very heart of abuse is the mind. It’s a mindset of gaining power and control over another person by whatever means are at the abusers arsenal. That includes physical, sexual, emotional and verbal abuse. Oftentimes in the worst cases it includes ALL of the above.
It all starts with the abuser believing they are entitled to some form of control over their victims. While many abusers use their physical strength to over power their victims into submission, others will manipulate by other means. Often, this doesn’t happen immediately into the relationship but it builds slowly over time. For example, if you are dating someone and they start trying to convince you that something is wrong with all of your friends or family. They don’t do it overtly, but slowly over time they begin pointing out all their “faults” under the guise that they are just trying to “protect you” from these people. It’s less to do with the people and everything about getting you isolated so that they become the person you rely on for support.
Secular and religious counselors have different explanations for the errors in thinking that drive this mindset. However, the end result is much the same.
The secular theory that we all have a set of morals that we feel we should live by parallels with the Christian view that we all have been born with this sense of right vs. wrong. The secular view says when we behave in ways that go against this inner feeling of morals, we start this justification process of internally justifying in our head what we did to avoid the feelings of guilt. In Christian terms we would call this guilt from our transgressions or sins.
In Christianity when we feel this guilt, we have two choices. The first is that we start justifying our actions in our hearts and minds. Something like this…
“I didn’t mean to get so mad at her. She seems pretty upset, maybe I should go apologize. But I wouldn’t have blown up at her like that if she hadn’t disrespected me! Who does she think she is! I was right putting her in her place a little. Maybe next time she’ll think twice about asking me questions like that!”
So he started off knowing he was wrong for losing his temper. Then he started listening to the voice in his own head telling him he had every right. He was justifying his actions. The Bible tells us that the more we do this, the easier it becomes. It’s called hardening of the heart.
The second choice would be to allow ourselves to feel convicted. We messed up and we feel bad because we know we messed up. Instead of trying to justify our actions to ourselves we allow ourselves to feel convicted and take responsibility. It looks like this…
“I really shouldn’t have blown up at her like that. I can see I really upset her. I hate feeling so lousy, I should go apologize and make sure she knows I care.”
When we allow ourselves to feel convicted and take responsibility we are humbled and absolved of the guilt we feel. This is called softening of the heart, and likewise it makes it easier and easier to respond this way in the future.
We are all guilty of messing up in our relationships. It’s a part of life and a part of loving. Their is conflict in even the most healthy relationships. In Christianity we view this as a result of living in the fallen world, in our fallen selves.
In abusive relationships, eventually the abuser has such a hardening of their heart that they are NEVER able to empathize with their victims. They’ve justified their own need for power and control for so long that they don’t really even need to justify it any longer, they truly BELIEVE they are entitled.
So how do you know if you are in an abusive relationship? Obviously if there is physical abuse of any kind that is NOT ok and you should plan a safe exit strategy. I will link some resources at the bottom. Other forms of abuse are not always obvious.
Think about your last several conflicts with this person. Did you feel like your grievances were heard? Were they able to admit fault in any part of it or does everything wrong in the relationship get blamed on you? Do they take responsibility for their wrongs or are they always making excuses or blaming others? Again, we all do this from time to time but abusers do it ALL the time. Notice how they act in other relationships, this can be a big clue.
I had a boss once that was a narcissist/abusive personality. I observed her around her own daughter one time and it absolutely confirmed all of my suspicions. Her daughter was a grown woman with a family of her own and her mother was treating her like a child, chastising everything the daughter said and did. I was humiliated for this grown woman being treated this way by her mom!
Abusers will use whatever means they can to keep their victims compliant. It could be a financial “gift” they hold over your head to convince you that they need to make decisions in your life. It could be something embarrassing they have on you that they threaten to release. It could be piling on the guilt, threatening suicide, whatever! It’s all about them getting power and control and that is abuse!
We think about it so often in terms of the abusive husband or boyfriend but these people can be parents, adult children, siblings, friends, bosses, co-workers, neighbors, doctors and even leaders in the church!
The first step is to identify them. Label what is happening and believe it. Other people often don’t see the abuse, especially if it’s not physical. Abusers are great at hiding the abuse and unfortunately the church is not always great about recognizing it. I’ll write about that in another post.
Abusers are so great at the art of manipulation they often have their victims convinced it’s all them.
I’ve dealt with abusers/narcissists like this in my life and can say with certainty that sometimes it’s very obvious and other times I was so entrenched in it that it took decades to see this person for who he really was and even then I didn’t want to believe it.
Once my eyes were finally opened I could never go back.
Each abuser is different in how they act. Sometimes abusers WILL apologize! Sometimes they will even experience genuine remorse. My abuser had apologized over and over and over again over a span of at least 10 years. He sounded so sincere and he sometimes cried and promised he would change. But time after time again he always responded to things the same way.
I thought I was “helping” him by always forgiving him and allowing him to be a part of my life. I’ve since learned what I was doing was in fact “enabling” him. We often think of this as an act of love, but it’s actually just the opposite because the abuser isn’t held responsible and required to really change.
In my next part I’ll talk about what to do next when you realize you are in an abusive relationship.
If you are in an abusive relationship and need help, please go to the following website to get help.