Bad Things to Say to a Domestic Violence Survivor

For survivors of domestic violence like me, the struggle to heal and recover is a daily journey. Every aspect of my life was touched by the abuse, even my spiritual life. The church’s response to my situation was, at times, hurtful and inappropriate. Part of this was due to lack of education and awareness. My prayer is that when someone who has been a victim of domestic violence walks through the doors of your church, you will respond with love, grace, and a concern for the victim’s safety. I’ll share with you some things that have been said to me that have negatively impacted my journey. In a later post, I will share with you ways the church has been helpful. God, as the Great Comforter, has sent me other survivors to comfort in the way I have been comforted. Several of them have also been told similar things, showing that the lack of awareness of domestic violence in the church is, unfortunately, a widespread problem.

“He has probably calmed down. You can go back home now.”

I was at a point in my abusive relationship in which the violence had not only become physical, but it had escalated. I had a young child at home, and was also pregnant. My abuser became very violent toward me one day, and I went to our church for help. The pastor gave me and my child some lunch. He then made the above statement to me. I was so weak and vulnerable from all the abuse, I didn’t know what else to do. So, I went back home. Less than two weeks later, I was talking to police officers and being checked out by paramedics, scared I was going to lose my baby. My abuser had become physically violent toward me again, right in front of our child. If an abused woman comes to your church and is brave enough to reach out for help, please take the necessary steps to make sure she is safe. Call the local domestic violence shelter for advice and assistance if you are unsure how to help. Whatever you do, do not send someone who is danger back home!

“He has a diagnosable mental illness. He can’t be held responsible for his actions.”

I was told this after my children and I finally left my abuser. We were in a crisis situation after fleeing for our own safety. Yes, my abuser had a mental illness. I even blamed his violence on his mental illness, until I realized that even if that was true, there was no excuse for him to treat me the way he did. The truth is, he systematically abused me like an abuser. His mental illness may have worsened the abuse, but it doesn’t matter. There is no excuse for domestic violence.

“If the domestic violence shelter is full, go back home. We can’t help you.”

This statement was made by the same person who made statement #2. We were staying in a hotel, had little money left, and literally had the clothes on our backs. Fortunately, God led us to some people who did understand, who helped us, and who would not let us go back home. However, the majority of these people did not go to my church. I will never forget their kindness and generosity. One woman literally gave me the coat off her back. Again, please do not send someone who is in danger back home. I would advise instead to contact your local domestic violence agency and learn about resources available in order to prepare yourself before an abused woman in crisis comes to you for help.

“Why did you stay? It must not have been as bad as you say it was if you stayed for so long.”

I have been asked this question a lot over the years, and it is one I have wrestled with myself. I was so worn down emotionally, physically, and spiritually, I did not have the strength to leave. I didn’t believe that I was worth more than a doormat. I also did not have a job for most of our relationship, so I had very little in the way of economic resources. He had also managed to isolate me from my family, and I had very few friends. I did not have much moral support. I wanted to try to hold our relationship together because I do not give up on people easily. I was taught to believe it was my job to hold us together. There were times my abuser would confuse me by acting nice. I had no place to go, no money, no support, no confidence, no self-esteem, a very shaky relationship with God, and my abuser’s confusing behavior. Mainly, I was scared to leave. I was more scared to leave than what I was to stay. I thought if I left, I would get killed. For me, I did not leave until I saw my kids’ lives flash before my eyes.
The fear that I experienced during my relationship was paralyzing. I know others have a hard time comprehending this fear, because to most people, it doesn’t make sense to be so scared of another person. Let me assure you, this fear is all-consuming. You won’t understand it unless you live through it. It is this fear, coupled with the lack of resources, that keeps women in these relationships. Just telling a woman to not be afraid is not enough. The decision to stay or leave is a personal one, and there are valid safety concerns involved with leaving or staying. My advice is to celebrate the strength of someone in your congregation who has left an abusive situation instead of questioning the existence of abuse based on how long they remained in the relationship. Being in an abusive relationship is like being in a war every day! The fear, anxiety, and sometimes the post-traumatic stress that result from it is enough to keep anyone from feeling strong or resilient. Concentrate on the survivor’s strength.

“If all that really happened, why didn’t you press charges?”

This question is a really hard one to answer, and it has taken years of healing work to get to the point of being able to answer this question. As I mentioned before, the fear was paralyzing. Personally, I knew if I pressed charges, I would be putting my life in great jeopardy. Sometimes, I was manipulated into not pressing charges, and he even thanked me for not pressing charges more than once. It is very difficult for me to look on my past weakness from today’s strength without asking myself why I didn’t press charges. Just as in statement #4, I was weak, worn down, and scared, and didn’t feel like I was worth legal action or protection. There is a time and place to explore this question, preferably with a trusted counselor. Again, it is not helpful to take on an attitude of disbelief toward the survivor because they did not press charges. Just because a woman does not press charges does not mean that she was not abused. She needs your compassion and support, even if you do not understand why she didn’t press charges.

“I have talked to him before, and he was nice and respectful. I have never seen him act the way you have described.”

Several of my fellow survivors have heard this statement or something similar. My abuser was very cunning and charming. He knew how to make himself look good in front of others. In fact, the only reason we went to church during our relationship was to give other people the impression that everything was fine. Behind closed doors, he was completely different. He would occasionally act aggressively toward me in public, but not at church. So, the person who made this statement likely never did see my abuser acting abusive. However, just because someone else did not see his abusive behavior does not mean he was not abusive toward me. Taking on an attitude of disbelief toward someone who has been abused is not helpful. Hearing that one of your congregants is an abuser may shock you, but if the one being abused has come to you for help, please find a way to help them. If you feel you are not equipped to help her, make an outside referral to someone who can. Refer the person to a counselor for long-term counseling, if necessary.

“If what you are saying is true, then why does the court let him see the kids?”

I have been asked this question many times. Again, taking an attitude of disbelief toward the abused is not helpful. I also know from my personal experience, as well as the experience of others, that what breaks the hearts of those in the family court system is not what breaks our hearts as Christians. I have learned that outcomes in family court are usually dependent upon who your judge is, who your attorney is, and in some cases, what area of the country you are in. I know women who have lost custody of their children to the abusers. I know women whose children who have been abused by the abuser and still have to see the abuser. Most abused women are upset that their kids have to see someone who has a history of violence, and they are just as shocked as you are that a family court judge would allow such a thing.

My suggestion in this instance would be to comfort the abused woman and her children. Pray for justice. Please remember that these children need mentors, as their primary male role models are obviously not positive ones. Do not be surprised when the mother tries to change the visitation after something adverse happens. Please do not be afraid to call Social Services if these children confide in you that they are being hurt somehow. Not only is it the law, you have a responsibility to look out for these children. Finally, please help these women and children feel welcomed at church. Try to make sure they are plugged into your congregation, and basically get “loved on.” They need to feel like they are part of a family, like they can trust you, and like they have a safe haven at your church. They may resist you at first, especially if they have been hurt at other churches, spiritually abused by their abuser or by other Christians, but do let them know they are respected members of the body of Christ and let them know you care about their situation with words and actions.

“Why are you not dating now that you are divorced?”

I have been asked this question a lot, as have many of my fellow survivors. I think the people who have asked me this have my best interest at heart. However, it takes time to recover from an abusive situation. It is important for a survivor to heal from the abuse before entering into a new relationship. Many women do not wait to heal and end up in another abusive relationship. In some cases, the abuser still intimidates, controls, and frightens the survivor after the divorce, making dating a new person difficult, close to impossible, or unsafe. So, the decision to date after an abusive relationship is a highly personal one for each woman. My advice here is to support and empower the survivor. Many survivors have been told they cannot take care of themselves, and this causes them to rush into another relationship. Try to help the survivor find a job, or help with finding child care, and encourage them to further their education. Refer them to counseling or support groups to aid in the healing process.

Unfortunately, domestic violence survivors are prone to being re-victimized by those who do not understand their situation or by those who respond with disbelief. I encourage you to pray about ways you and your church can prevent re-victimizing these very precious ladies and their children. Contact your local domestic violence agency for further education on the dynamics of domestic violence and how you can help.

The Soul Care Collective often handles content that can be sensitive and in some circumstances, it may pose potential dangers for our writers. For example, writing about domestic violence experiences can expose the writer to increased danger from retaliation or litigation. The members of the Soul Care Collective steering committee believe that no person should have to choose between having their most authentic voice heard and being exposed to harm. Therefore, with some specifically chosen posts, our author’s name will appear as anonymous in order to provide confidentiality. Each anonymous author has been thoroughly screened to validate his or her personal story, and works directly with a steering committee member during the writing, editing and publishing process.

2 COMMENTS

  1. This is an extremely brave and helpful post. It is heartbreaking to hear how the persons in the church added to your pain, but you are teaching us how to become the community of healing we are meant to be.

  2. This is an outstanding article. A must-read for all pastors. Sadly, the church is often blind to the fact that very sick and harmful people fill pews and committees. I probably only see the truth in this because of how close I came to marrying someone who probably would have been like the man in this article. And I have seen issue of judges pan out in step-family.
    To the author, thank you for sharing your voice. May your experience with churches not be repeated in many lives because of your courage and faithfulness.

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