How Domestic Violence Is Influencing My Theology of Suffering

Most of us have a rather large aversion to suffering. Certainly to our own suffering. But also to truly seeing the suffering around us and in the world. We turn away. We avoid. We try to fix. We blame victims. We shrug our shoulders. We explain it away or explain why it’s necessary (for some kind of greater good). We use religious platitudes (“God works all things for the good…”). When Easter rolls around, we pause for half a breath on Friday and talk a bit about suffering (usually individual suffering…typically not things like systemic evil…), but always with the disclaimer that “Sunday’s coming!! Things are going to get better!! Just hang on!!”

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I began hearing a greater emphasis on suffering and on lament. And it was not in white evangelical circles that I heard these voices. It was almost exclusively leaders of color (some evangelical, some not) that brought this to my awareness. Leaders who pointed out systemic oppression and privilege. Soong-Chan Rah and Mark Charles are two voices that were particularly influential as I started considering new (to me) theological perspectives.

When we encounter the suffering of others, we have two choices: lean in or leave. Leaving means utilizing some type of avoidance, minimizing, denying, blaming, fixing (fixing is avoidant – it tends to be rooted in our own discomfort and is an attempt to make it all go away…quickly). Leaning in means bringing our whole selves into the space and listening. Seeing what is really happening. Believing. Sitting with the one(s) suffering. Holding space. Leaning in requires vulnerability.

My job requires daily leaning in. I am a counselor in a domestic violence shelter. My clients (primarily women) have encountered terrible abuse, generally by someone they love and who they thought loved them. Clients who are currently staying in the shelter are considered to be in “imminent danger.” Suffering and death are everpresent. I can’t tell you how many women have told me over the past year that “he almost killed me” and/or “he is going to kill me” and/or “if he finds me, he will kill me.” I can’t tell you how many more are in incredible danger, but may not recognize the risk. Or may not think there is a way out. Despair is a frequent visitor. I often wonder about certain women I have met along the way – whether they are safe, whether they are thriving, whether they are alive.

I never, EVER tell these women it’s going to be okay. That things are going to work out. Because sometimes it doesn’t get better. Sometimes, despite taking precautions and ample “safety planning” and getting a protective order and calling the police and leaving and going to a domestic violence shelter, abusers kill their (ex-)partners. And children. Sometimes, even when perpetrators don’t kill, they continue to inflict pain and suffering in a variety of ways on the victim for years. Often with little to no repercussions. Even when the victim has long sense left the relationship.

There is immense pain and suffering in the stories my clients tell. As much as I long to provide comfort and to fix it and to tell them the worst is over, I can’t. While we certainly take steps to address the impact of trauma in their lives, much of my work involves holding space and bearing witness to my client’s stories. To sit with them in their pain. To BELIEVE them – something so few people have chosen or choose to do when it comes to women’s experiences of domestic violence (not to mention sexual assault). To be present with them in this moment, not knowing what the next moment brings.

Suffering, death, and despair sound a lot more like Good Friday and Holy Saturday than Easter/Resurrection Sunday. Working with victims of domestic violence is a daily reminder of suffering in our world. It is a daily reminder of individual suffering as well as the suffering as a result of much larger systemic issues. Suffering as a result of patriarchy, toxic masculinity, misogyny. Suffering as a result of a flawed criminal justice system. Suffering that is amplified for domestic violence victims who are part of any number of marginalized groups in addition to being female (being a person of color, being LGBTQ+, being Muslim, being undocumented, being poor, being disabled, etc.). 

It is a daily reminder that people choose to inflict suffering on others. That people (including friends, family, and church members) choose not to support those who are suffering. That people and systems choose to look away. To blame victims and to tell them that if they had done things differently, none of this would have happened. 

Sunday doesn’t always come. Resurrection is not always where the story ends. Not when it comes to domestic violence. Not in this life anyway. The story sometimes ends in death and/or despair. Suffering is not always redemptive. I reject the notion that suffering is always God-ordained or somehow God’s will. I cannot look my clients in the eye as they tell me about the horrible abuse they have experienced and maintain that for some reason God wanted them to experience this. This kind of suffering is the result of choices made by other individuals and/or systems – by things the victim can’t possibly control. It is rooted in evil, not God.

Leaning in to a theology of suffering means not just looking to Jesus to fix it all and put a bow on it Easter Sunday. It means looking to Jesus when he was murdered by the state. Looking to Jesus when he was abused, abandoned, exposed, alone, Looking to Jesus when God was silent. It means sitting in the emptiness and despair of Holy Saturday. Wondering if there is any hope. Knowing you can’t go back to the certainty you thought you had or the way things were, yet not having any idea what is next. If there even is a future.

I want to have hope. As a therapist, my job includes “holding hope” at times when my clients cannot. I do the work that I do with the hope that in many cases, things will get better. I fight against oppressive systems and resist against patriarchy (among other things) because I hope for a different world. I hope for justice and redemption and resurrection.

And yet. 

Sometimes Sunday never comes.

Beyond Black Eyes & Bruises – Recognizing Domestic Violence

If you stood on a street corner and asked people to define domestic violence, responses would likely focus on visible physical injuries. Assaults. Emergency room visits. Battered women. An out-of-control, raging, drunk man.

And while these ideas may be a part of the picture, they are but a teeny tiny snapshot of domestic violence. Yet most of us, including many victims, don’t recognize the signs of abuse that are much more common. 

Domestic violence is a pattern of coercive control utilized by an individual (typically a man) to maintain power over an intimate partner (typically a woman). This pattern of power and control may include acts of sexual and/or physical violence, but typically less frequently than other strategies. 

If I could only use one handout for the rest of my counseling career, I would choose the power and control wheel. Hands down. It has been the single most useful sheet of paper I have reviewed with clients in any counseling setting in which I have worked. It has produced the most frequent “light bulb,” “ah-ha,” “oh wow,” “THIS is it” moments with clients. 

The traditional version of the wheel describes eight typical strategies utilized by domestic violence perpetrators: coercion & threats, intimidation, emotional abuse, isolation, minimizing/denying/blaming, using children, using male privilege, and economic abuse. Each of these spokes is connected to the central driving force of establishing and maintaining power and control over the victim. Sexual and/or physical violence may be used to reinforce that control. Not every strategy will be used in every situation. Some abusers will only utilize a few, some will use all of them, some will change their approach over time. They will employ whatever methods seem to be the most successful at maintaining control.

I could share story after story with you of examples for each part of the wheel. And while each victim’s experiences are unique, my clients also repeatedly express a sense of shock at just how well the power and control wheel describes the abuser in question. I have had many clients make exasperated statements along the lines of “oh wow, they’re all the same”or “do they take a class in this?!” I was sharing a power and control wheel with a client once because I was wondering if domestic violence was occurring and before I could finish she had grabbed a highlighter off my desk and started marking all of the things her boyfriend was doing. 

Many of my clients express feelings of relief as well as disbelief when they see a power and control wheel for the first time. They are relieved to begin realizing that they are not “crazy” and have not been imagining what has been happening. They are relieved to begin finding language that expresses their experiences. They are also often in disbelief at how many of their partners behaviors were/are signs of domestic violence. At how many behaviors constitute abuse. Again, we tend to focus on physical violence when hear the term domestic violence, often missing other abusive tactics that are occurring. 

Which is where we all come in. We must call domestic violence for what it is. It is, in fact, violence. Regardless of what (if any) acts of physical violence have occured. It is abuse. Controlling behaviors are not okay. They are not justifiable or excusable. They are signs that something is not right and has the potential to become increasingly physically violent and dangerous. The emotional toll on victims is also profound. Many women experience symptoms of PTSD as a result of domestic violence. I have had many clients tell me that healing from the emotional abuse is much more challenging than healing from the physical abuse.

We must also recognize that the responsibility for change lies solely with the perpetrator. It is not the responsibility of the victim to better herself, to fight for her marriage/her family, to “love him out of it/through it.” This is dangerous. When the community holds these types of beliefs, perpetrators have very little motivation to change. And victims often go without help. If they do find the courage and resources to leave, they quickly discover that leaving is always a process when it comes to domestic violence. Abusers do not simply relinquish control and move on. They will employ any number of strategies (from promising change to threats and everything in between) to regain power over the victim. This is why leaving is the most dangerous time for a domestic violence victim. This is the most likely time for an abuser to kill the victim (and often any children involved and himself), the ultimate act of exerting his power.

While difficult to measure, estimates are that 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. That is a HUGE number. So let’s become more aware of what it actually is. If you see some of these patterns in your own relationship, I encourage you to talk further with a trained domestic violence advocate – you can call (or chat with) a local or national hotline or contact your local provider. They can ask additional questions to help you better understand the level of risk you may be in, to discuss resources available to you, and to help you plan your next steps (whatever you want them to be).

We all need to learn to recognize these patterns. To BELIEVE victims when they express concerns (and to be PATIENT and supportive) and to validate what they are describing (abusers will try to convince victims that it is their fault, that they are exaggerating, that they are crazy, etc). To ask how we can help. To hold men accountable for their behaviors. To speak up. To name it. Let’s get to work. We all have a part to play in this.

Gaslighting, Domestic Violence, and Trump

One word that is often used in domestic violence circles is the term “gaslighting.” It refers to a commonly used emotional abuse strategy with the aim of making the victim question her own perception, experience, judgement, sanity (see definitions here and here). During my counseling sessions with domestic violence victims, many will tell me that they feel or felt “crazy” in response to the way the abuser has treated them (which has almost always included gaslighting). 

Here are just a few forms gaslighting might take in an abusive relationship:

  • Telling the victim that a recent verbal or physical assault simply did not happen (“you’re remembering that wrong” or “I never said/did that” or “that’s not what happened”).
  • Hiding something important to the victim (like keys or medication), allowing her to tear the house apart looking for it, then putting it back in its original place (without telling her) and insisting it was there all along.
  • Repeatedly telling the victim something about herself that is not true until she eventually begins to question herself or believe the lie (convincing her that she has a mental health disorder, that she doesn’t do anything right or doesn’t do certain things right, etc).
  • Convincing the victim that the abuse is her fault (“I wouldn’t have to treat you this way/hit you if you wouldn’t do/say ________”) and/or that no one else would ever want to be with her
  • Constantly changing the “rules” (one day insisting that clothing be folded and put up one way, then insisting the opposite the following day…and denying whatever was said before…and lashing out each time it is done “wrong”).
  • Manipulating a known concern or struggle (when a victim with a mood disorder becomes upset about the abuser’s behavior, convincing her that she is having a mental health “episode” or is overreacting because of her disorder).

Most of us would reject this type of thing the first time it happens. But over time (especially when coupled with the deliberate attempts to isolate victims that are also key to domestic violence) when you hear something often enough, you start to wonder. You start to question yourself. You become preoccupied trying to figure it all out. Trying to do things “right” and to keep the peace and to prove yourself. And the abuser’s power increases.

Understanding how gaslighting works and how abusers use it may help us to better walk with survivors as they begin to unravel the impact of gaslighting in their lives and the toll it has taken on their mental & emotional well-being. It is truly a form of torture. And is often a very effective strategy for preventing domestic violence victims from trying to leave the relationship.

But here’s the other thing. Gaslighting is not limited to individual relationships. Gaslighting is currently on full display in the era of Trump (there are a disturbing number of parallels between the strategies domestic violence perpetrators use and Trump’s approach to the presidency…). Gaslighting in this context includes:

  • “Alternative facts” such as insisting that the crowds at the inauguration were MUCH larger than they actually were (when the opposite is so blatantly obvious)
  • Claiming to have said or not said things that are well-documented as having been said or not said (or tweeted…)
  • Using an attack ON Muslims as supportive evidence for previously implemented anti-Muslim policies
  • Accusing members of the media as being disrespectful (among other things) when they ask questions about anything other than what he wants to talk about or when any type of concerns are voiced about his policies or statements
  • Saying it’s “reverse racism” when people of color bring up racism, protest racism, are angry about racism

And doing all of this with a straight face and becoming angry at anyone who dares to question. Gaslighting is all about continuously pushing the limits of what the abusive person (or system) can get away with. It’s what often makes individual  domestic violence victims feel they are constantly walking on eggshells. 

We have to be alert and vigilant about recognizing, confronting, and resisting gaslighting at the national level. Otherwise, it will continue to confuse, to turn us against each other, to blind us from what is really happening. That’s the whole point. The “leader” of this country is trying to get us to question everyone and everything except him. And is pairing that with all types of intimidation directed at anyone that might oppose him.

One of the greatest antidotes to gaslighting is not being isolated. For an individual victim, having access to relationships with supportive people who can challenge the lies and manipulation can help that victim to remain a sense of sanity and to increase their sense of empowerment. 

Nationally, this means a few things. It means diversifying our sources of information and news (and considering who is funding our “news” providers). It means having genuine relationships with a diverse group of people and making sure that your circle is not limited to people who look, think, act, believe, vote just like you. It means having a support network that is also willing to speak to and against oppression…being part of some type of community fighting for justice. It means being willing to engage in difficult and challenging questions & conversations. It means studying history and using critical thinking skills as we do so…resisting many of the past and present narratives about American Exceptionalism when our collective past and present behaviors have been far from exceptional (especially for those of us with privilege – male privilege, white privilege, economic privilege, etc).

Another strategy for resisting the impact of gaslighting is to consider behaviors much more than words. I frequently encourage my counseling clients to give more weight to the abuser’s behaviors (and behavioral patterns) than to his words. Actions really do speak louder than words and this is especially true when it comes to gaslighting. Whether we’re talking about Trump or domestic violence perpetrator, it’s what they do and the impact of those actions that really matter – not their promises, public statements, alleged motivations, or alternative facts.

For more information about what gaslighting looks like, check out this great Psychology Today article.

What other examples of gaslighting are you seeing on the national level & how else might we resist? Share in the comments!