Ideas have consequences. This is particularly true in addressing domestic violence. Men who abuse hold ideas—or, as we will term them, beliefs—that support their abusive behaviors. And, like the verbal abuse and lethal neglect of Nabal in the biblical account of 1 Samuel 25 that nearly led to his own and the death of his servants and children, such behaviors have dire consequences for the men themselves and those who live with them: wives, aging parents, partners, and children. To understand the cycle of abuse and the beliefs that support it, we must first understand the details and reality of those living in abusive homes by defining terms, reviewing the types and frequency of abuse, and examining the beliefs of men who abuse as well as assessing the consequences of these beliefs—and the subsequent actions they engender—on their female partners and children who witness abuse. Finally, I will close with some basic tenets in challenging men who abuse and their belief systems. The standard in the domestic violence field is to address the issue using multidisciplinary teams or coordinated community responses.
The statistics about domestic violence are well known. Four million women per year are victims of violence perpetrated, in many cases, by the men who vowed to love, honor, and cherish them.1 Approximately 1,200 women will be killed every year by those same men.2 Domestic violence costs are estimated at U.S. $5 billion per year (including $4 billion in medical costs).3
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE)4 studies have been produced for more than a decade. They provide the data supporting the conclusion that children witnessing abuse in their homes suffer lifelong consequences. These consequences include medical, behavioral, psychological, and spiritual difficulties.
The state of Oregon has defined domestic violence (DV) as:
A pattern of coercive behavior used by one person to control and subordinate another in an intimate relationship. These behaviors include physical, sexual, psychological, and economic abuse. Tactics of coercion, terrorism, degradation, exploitation, and violence are used to engender fear in the victim in order to enforce compliance.5
The definition I will use is: “Behaviors intended to exert power and control over another human being that wounds the body, soul, and spirit.”
Social psychologist Philip Zimbardo found that four principles allowed good people to do evil acts:
First, we...redefine our harmful behavior as honorable...Second, we...minimize our sense of a direct link between our actions and [their] harmful outcomes by diffusing or displacing responsibility...Third, we...change the way we think about the actual harm done by our actions...Finally, we...reconstruct our perception of victims as deserving their punishment, by blaming them for the consequences, and of course, by dehumanizing them, perceiving them to be beneath the righteous concerns we reserve for fellow human beings.6
The most commonly acknowledged form of abuse is physical abuse, which includes hitting, punching, kicking, pushing, shoving, slapping, restraining, grabbing, body blocking, throwing things that hit the person, spitting on, elbowing, and strangling.7 The list goes on. Physical abuse accounts for approximately 5 percent of the total abuse in domestically violent homes. Physical abuse is like the apex of a triangle. (See Figure on right.)
The next layer below physical abuse on the triangle is sexual abuse. Sexual abuse includes rape, but also includes speech that is disrespectful in a sexual way, pressure or coercion for sex, withholding sex, affairs, engaging in pornography or with those sex-trafficked, pouting when not given sex, exposing someone to sex that is age-inappropriate, and self-gratifying in a sexual way that is unwanted by the other party. The “F-word” frequently comes under discussion in our groups as to whether its use constitutes sexual abuse; the groups always decide that it does.
Below sexual abuse on the triangle is property, financial, animal, and child abuse. “Property” includes hitting walls, slamming doors, throwing something (that does not hit a person), driving recklessly, and destroying property. “Financial” includes arbitrary decision-making regarding the family finances or spending money the family needs on the “wants” of the offender. “Animal” includes violence or neglect of pets, taking anger out on pets or animals. Child abuse includes all the other areas, but also includes alienating the child or exposing the child to violence.
The next level moving toward the base of the triangle is verbal abuse. This includes anything said that wounds another’s soul or spirit. Examples include name calling, swearing, threats, sarcasm, yelling, sighing, demeaning or objectifying comments, hurtful humor, and mocking.
At the base of the triangle, psychological and spiritual abuse account for the vast majority of abuse perpetrated. All of the prior forms of abuse are also psychological and spiritual in nature. Abuses that are uniquely psychological include looks, stares, glares, puffing up, body posturing, or standing over. Spiritual abuse includes using God, the Bible, or religion to justify abuse or using religious position of superiority to self-justify.
While these are not exhaustive lists, the progression is found in abusive homes. Physical abuse is never seen in isolation; it is the end result of a process that begins at the base of the triangle and works upward. This triangle does not tell the whole story. The triangle is like a roof of a house. Inside the house, more subtle behaviors of the offender control the tone and choices of others, including constant questioning of decisions made, using anger so family members do not have friends visit, or the silent treatment. The foundation of the house, on which everything rests, are the beliefs held by the offender.
The house of abuse provides a framework for understanding frequency. Men who are court-mandated to our domestic abuse groups are required to complete a letter of accountability, which includes a full accounting of the abuse they had perpetrated after age 18 against intimate partners. For the purpose of this exercise, the acts are quantified. The men are asked to underestimate. If they believe they did an act once or twice a month, they count it as once a month. The number of abusive actions for a man in his 40s is commonly in the 40,000–60,000 range. As our groups are secular, we do not incorporate spiritual abuse. A colleague who leads specifically faith-based groups reports numbers in the hundreds of thousands.
To understand these numbers, we will start with one word: “dumb.” He calls her “dumb” three times a week, and they have been together twenty years: 20 years x 52 weeks x 3 = 3,120—and this is just for one word. He gives her a dirty look daily (psychological): 20 x 365 = 7,300. He mocks her every other day (verbal): 20 x 365 x 0.5 = 3,650. He slams a door once a week (property): 20 x 52 x 1 =1,040. He pouts about sex twice a year (sexual): 20 x 2 = 40. He hit her once (physical): 1. Total: 15,151. “But he only hit her once.”
“He only hit her once” reflects a belief that only hitting is abuse. Men who abuse are not the only ones who hold myths that support abuse. Several years ago, I asked the men in our group what they thought I should tell the faith community. Much of what they had to say flies in the face of what the community believes about abuse being unintentional. The men want the faith community to know:
- She was told by the church, “He’s a man; he has a right to
- do that.”
- Abuse is hidden.
- I knew I was doing wrong; instead of stopping, it gave me power.
- I didn’t like myself, but it gave me power.
- Children were the collateral damage.
- All abuse is ultimately psychological.
- If you don’t see abuse, you are not looking hard enough. It’s everywhere.
- The more I took her power, the more I didn’t have to deal with my own loss of power.
- I would pride myself that it was never physical. I did more damage with not being physical.
- The women changed, but not the pattern of abusive behavior.
- Don’t minimize psychological abuse.
- Tell them about the numbers.
In addition to society holding beliefs that support abuse, the men’s own belief systems supported their behaviors and enabled them to justify, minimize, or deny the damage of their actions. Beliefs that support abuse include:
- I am the man, the head, the king of my castle.
- I am the boss; I make the decisions regarding money and time.
- If she isn’t submissive, then it’s my right/duty to make her submit.
- If she makes me mad, I have the right to . . .
- She is MY wife [in the sense of ownership] and is supposed to do what I want, meet my needs, anticipate my wants.
- Women are opponents.
- If it is not hitting, it’s not abuse.
- God ordained me to be dominant in the house.
- She is supposed to be the “perfect” woman for me.
- I did what I did because she . . .
Such beliefs support domination of the husband and subjugation of the wife and allow gaining compliance by any means necessary. The consequences leave their imprint on a victim’s mind, body, and spirit. Often, victims do not believe that God cares about them. They believe that some fatal flaw resides in them that elicits the violence. For many of my female clients, their treatment goal was to make their husbands “less angry.” Many women have left the church, rejecting a God they hold responsible for mandating such behavior. Many fear that such rejection damns their own souls.
Research reveals that abuse impacts women’s health. While injuries from physical abuse are the most obvious, abuse also impacts the immune system. Women who have been victims of domestic abuse have higher rates of autoimmune disease, heart disease, intestinal disorders, fibromyalgia, arthritis, alcohol and drug use, and pain disorders than women in loving relationships.
The ACE studies show that children who experience or witness abuse have higher rates of physical, mental, and behavioral difficulties into adulthood. For example, male children who answered yes to six or more of its ten questions were forty-six times more likely to use intravenous drugs in adulthood.8 One of the many consequences of abuse is early death.
Men who use abuse to control and dominate their partners hold a belief system that has been inherited from their families and faith communities. Their beliefs preclude them from listening to female voices. Few have had their beliefs or their actions based on their beliefs named and challenged. Most of these men will resist hearing another perspective unless forced (either by the courts or by her threat to leave). However, many love their families and want something different.
How can change be accomplished? First, we need to realize that challenging men who abuse includes challenging their basic beliefs which support abuse. The challenge has to be done in a nonabusive, nonviolent way. Consistent with 1 Corinthians 11:28, we must examine ourselves and our own beliefs about the role of men and women, dominance/submission, repentance and forgiveness, domestic abuse, and especially the myths we hold about victims and offenders. We must examine in what subtle ways we might be supporting the beliefs that men who abuse hold. When a married couple only hears male voices, both are led to believe that only men’s voices matter. Jackson Katz,9 Al Miles,10 and many others hold that men must address domestic abuse. Given that men who abuse will not listen to women’s voices, our brothers in Christ must model gender inclusivity in their writings, ministries, committees, and presentations.
Second, we must recognize that, in addressing abuse, we have all used abusive behavior. We have all sinned. We must restore a spirit of meekness (Gal 6:1). Otherwise, we will model the very abuse of power we wish to address. Abuse hurts the victim, the children, and also the abuser.
Third, we must have zero tolerance for abuse and examine how our theology on forgiveness, repentance, violence, headship, submission, and other issues may overtly or covertly support men who abuse. The safety of the victim and children must always be at the forefront.
Once we have examined ourselves, we can address with truth and grace the beliefs of men who abuse. Challenging abusive beliefs must begin with affirming the humanity of both men and women, who are all worthy of being treated as defined by Galatians 5:22–23: with love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control. Further, those who abuse must be called to accountability for their actions and the harm done without resorting to denying the negative consequences of their beliefs and behavior, redefining harmful behavior as honorable, or minimizing the link between their behavior and the hurtful outcome. Every one of us must give account for ourselves (Rom 14:12; Heb 4:13; 1 Pet 4:5.) Finally, new beliefs and behaviors that honor the victims’ healing must be incorporated. Beliefs that support non-abuse will also have consequences: healing, health, and wholeness.
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “NISVS: An Overview of 2012 Summary Report Findings,” http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/cdc_nisvs_overview_insert_fina..., accessed2013.
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Understanding Intimate Partner Violence, Fact Sheet 2006,” http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/ipv-factsheet-a.pdf, accessed 2013.
- USCDC, “Understanding Intimate Partner Violence.”
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study,” USCDC website, http://www.cdc.gov/ace/, accessed 2013.
- Oregon Judicial Department, “Guidelines for Developing Domestic Violence Plans and Protocols,” March 2000, rev. Aug. 2005, http://www.nmadr.org/web_documents/oregon_rev_guidelines_for_dv_plans_fo..., accessed 2013.
- Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect (New York, NY: Random House, 2008), e-book.
- Choking is what someone does on food; blocking an airway is strangulation.
- Vincent J. Felitti, “The Relationship of Adverse Childhood Experiences to Adult Health: Turning Gold into Lead” (San Diego, CA: Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Program, 2002), http://www.acestudy.org/files/Gold_into_Lead-_Germany1-02_c_Graphs.pdf, accessed 2013.
- Jackson Katz, The Macho Paradox (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks 2006).
- Al Miles, Domestic Violence (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2011).