Many people ask survivors of intimate partner abuse why they stayed with abusers for so long. Why didn’t they immediately leave at the first sign of abuse?
The extremely condensed answer is that one of the reasons why survivors of intimate partner abuse stay with abusers instead of immediately leaving them at the first sign of abuse is because society (relatives, friends, religious leaders and religious organizations, relationship coaches, mental health professionals, etc.) minimize abuse and encourage women to stay with abusers.
For example, many women are told that as long as their husband isn’t putting his hands on them or cheating on them, then they should stay in the marriage and try to work things out.
The message that is being sent to women is that the physical act of adultery and physical violence are the only justifiable reasons to seek a divorce and part ways with a destructive individual.
People who promote this harmful idea that a marriage is salvageable or worth saving, as long as there isn’t physical violence or physical adultery, are severely out of touch with reality, grossly uninformed, and inadvertently encouraging women to stay with abusers.
I’ve even heard people say that ‘non-physical’ abuse (mental abuse, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, spiritual abuse, economic abuse, etc.) doesn’t justify a divorce. As if to imply that the forms of abuse in which an abuser doesn’t put his hands on his target are less harmful, less painful, less injurious, and less destructive of human life than physical violence.
Both Divine revelation (in Scripture) and recent scientific data inform us that all forms of abuse (both physical violence and ‘non-physical’ abuse) inflict physiological harm and long-term physical injuries or adverse physical conditions on the human body. In other words, all forms of abuse inflict physical violence upon the victim.
‘Non-physical’ forms of abuse inflict severe harm and cause serious injury to a person’s nervous system, cardiovascular system, immune system, endocrine system, and brain. Survivors of abuse deal with long-term physiological conditions such as PTSD, memory loss, brain fog, obesity, fatigue/lethargy, weight loss, hair loss, aches and pains, migraines, anxiety, panic attacks, clinical depression, insomnia, hormonal imbalances, and heart problems.
Abuse (like other types of trauma) not only harms a person’s mind, but also restructures the human brain. Abusers instill fear and use fear as a tool to control their targets. The human body releases certain chemicals in response to fear and when the brain is “bathed” in these chemicals on a regular basis (because a person is being abused), it restructures and rewires the brain.
We should find this as no surprise, because centuries ago, God revealed through Scripture that life and death are in the power of the tongue, fear is destructive, and hatred is equivalent to murder.
Fear, intimidation, threats, coercion, oppression, hatred, deception, shunning, isolation, slander, control and manipulation can break a person’s spirit and body. A person can hurt your mind, emotions, and body without laying a finger on you by using certain language, speaking in a certain tone of voice, twisting religious texts, yelling, raging, using certain body language, physically aggressive postures and body movements, stonewalling, social isolation, smear campaigns, gaslighting, projection, triangulation, rejection, pornography, economic/financial abuse, legal abuse, and abuse-by-proxy (for example, by using your child as a pawn to hurt you).
Sophisticated abusers use non-physical tools to assault, injure, oppress and control their targets. So this idea that ‘non-physical’ abuse is less harmful or more tolerable than physical violence, is dangerous mythology.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that most intimate partner homicides were NOT preceded by some form of physical violence in the month preceding their deaths (only 11.2% of victims of intimate partner homicide experienced some form of physical violence in the month preceding their deaths). What this means is that when women are murdered by abusers, oftentimes there was no recent physical violence leading up to the homicide.
This also means that we need to take ‘non-physical’ abuse more seriously, know the signs of ‘non-physical’ abuse, understand that abuse can escalate without any signs of physical violence, and encourage women to flee to safety instead of further endangering them by telling them to stay with an abuser “as long as he isn’t putting his hands on you.”
An abuser might not be putting his hands on his partner, but he might be…
*Calling her derogatory names
*Putting her down and constantly criticizing her
*Raising his voice at her
*Using profanity towards her
*Constantly making her the butt of his jokes
*Shaming her and blaming her for things that she didn’t do
*Negative-contrasting by comparing her to other women (his mother, ex-wife/girlfriend, co-worker, celebrity, model, mistress, etc.)
*Pressuring her to have inconsentual sex (marital rape)
*Indulging in pornography and adulterous affairs
*Intentionally withholding affection
*Stonewalling, giving her the silent treatment, refusing to communicate and acknowledge her existence
*Gaslighting and denying
*Projecting his evil traits onto her
*Monitoring her, spying on her, and doing surveillance
*Running a smear campaign against her (painting himself as the victim or the “loving concerned spouse” and painting her as the abuser, adulterer, alcoholic, drug addict, crazy, unfit parent, etc.)
*Forbidding her from working or trying to cause her to lose her job so that she’s dependent on him and at his mercy
*Refusing to properly provide for her
*Controlling what she wears
*Controlling who she spends time with and forbidding her from spending time with friends and family
*Alienating her in the community (neighborhood, church, town, mutual friends) so that she’s isolated and more vulnerable to abuse
*Constantly starting arguments then accusing her of being argumentative and saying that he “doesn’t want to argue” (blame-shifting, spinning the tables, and crazy-making)
*Attacking her faith, spiritual identity, religious beliefs, and spiritual convictions, exalting himself as her god/mediator/interpreter of Scripture, constantly judging her and telling her that she isn’t spiritual/godly enough
*Twisting religious texts to subjugate her and dominate her, silence her, teach her that her “gender role” is to be a personal servant, have a large family, be a stay at home wife/mom, etc.
*Turning the children against her and using them as pawns to hurt her
*Using legal services (the police, child protective services, the court-system, family advocacy program) to abuse her with false allegations and punish her for not submitting to his control
*Threatening to take the children from her if she ever leaves him
*Accusing her of being mentally ill, emotionally unstable, and “crazy” to medical professionals and mental health professionals
*Restricting her freedom of movement by hiding her car keys from her, sabotaging her vehicle, or refusing to share the family vehicle with her
*Falsely imprisoning her by locking her in the home/room, or blocking her exit from a room so that she can’t leave
*Driving recklessly while she’s in the car in an attempt to scare her
*Threatening to commit suicide in order to elicit sympathy and manipulate her into staying in the relationship
*Threatening to physically hurt her or murder her
*Constantly violating her boundaries
*In a secret competition with his spouse that she isn’t aware of, and he has to win at all costs
All of these destructive malevolent behaviors are red flags of intimate partner abuse and should be taken just as seriously as physical violence.
A person who has an abusive mindset and demonstrates the behaviors that I listed above can’t be fixed through marriage counseling or anger management counseling. Nor should women be encouraged to stay with such malignant individuals, pray for their repentance and salvation, “win them without words,” be more submissive, or attend marriage counseling because “he’s not putting his hands on you.”
Women should be encouraged to confidentially contact professionals (domestic violence advocates, trauma-informed therapists, etc.) and create a strategic plan to escape the relationship as safely as possible.