When we think about domestic abuse, we tend to think about acts of physical violence. We picture women with bruises and black eyes, or worse. While this is an all-too-common occurrence, this assumption about domestic abuse causes us to miss the fact that the primary weapon abusers use against their victims is not their fists but their words. Does this surprise you? It’s true. Abusers seek to dominate and control their victims and most of that is done through conversations that coerce, manipulate, and pressure them into compliance. Abusers believe that their wives owe them unwavering and unquestioning allegiance and anything less usually results in harsh retaliation. This is clearly sinful and a far cry from a godly marriage based on mutual self-sacrifice. So, why do we, and even the victims of this type of abuse, often fail to see it?1
Consider Lucy. Her husband never raised a hand against her. He used his words to harm her instead. Over time, she came to believe that her husband was right to withdraw his attention, affection, and financial support from her. It was only for her “good” that he kept her from friends and family as they were a “bad influence.” Jim would routinely lecture her on her failings as a wife and pray that God would help him “endure the torture of her voice and find her attractive again.” Lucy believed that she was the cause of her husband’s disdain, and so did the members of their small group. Jim often shared how his wife’s failings hurt him and their children. It seemed reasonable not just to Lucy, but to the other group members, that Jim was right to be perpetually displeased with her—his frazzled, discontent, and nagging wife. It is for this same reason that I often hit a brick wall when I sought help from a woman’s church leaders. Many times, they struggled to believe that a man they experienced as godly and good-natured was capable of such evil.
You might wonder: “If the abuse is really that bad, how do helpers and victims fail to see it? If it really is abuse, wouldn’t it be more obvious?” The simple answer is no. Oppressors use their words to create and perpetuate distortions that define reality in their favor. And as long as we struggle to know what is real, what to believe, and who is to blame, they remain in control of the narrative and use it to obscure their destructive actions. As one who has watched this play out hundreds of times, I have learned that verbal misdirection is extremely effective at deceiving helpers and victims alike. So, while Jim groomed their small group to sympathize with him, he also regularly told Lucy she was intolerable, disgusting, un-submissive, and unworthy of salvation. When she came to me for help, it was to help her address her sin, not to talk about the cruel behavior she was enduring.
1. Oppressors use words to shift the blame for their sin onto their victims. It sounds something like this:
“If you weren’t so stupid, I would not be so angry!”
“I needed to teach you to respect me!”
“If you enjoyed sex, I would not have to force you to have fun!”
Abusers use their words to justify their actions, leaving their victims paralyzed with shame, thinking that the rage-filled rant they just endured was their fault.
Oppressors are masters at acting like they are the victims. There are many examples in the Bible of people shifting the blame for their sin onto others (see Gen 3:12–13; 16:5; Ex 32:22–24). But though blame-shifting is common, it is an ongoing method of control in domestic abuse situations. It eventually enslaves the victim who accepts blame to avoid retaliation and more abuse.
As helpers and church leaders, we need to remember that no matter the excuse offered, blame-shifting is always wrong. No one can cause another person to sin (Matt 7:15–18; James 1:14–15; 4:1–2). One spouse is never responsible for the sins of the other, and we must not be distracted by words that suggest otherwise.
2. Oppressors use words to attack and accuse. There is no limit to the evil words used by oppressors to harass the spouse they have pledged before God to love. I have witnessed vile accusations made by abusive husbands trying to get their way.
“You’re a horrible mother!”
“Just looking at you makes me sick.”
“Your prayers betray your stupidity.”
Such verbal attacks are devastating. David was right to compare what comes out of the wicked to an open grave, as it is never satisfied in its quest to devour and destroy.
Even more soul-destroying is when oppressors twist Scripture to demand compliance.
“God calls you to respect and obey me!”
“The Bible says your body is mine. I have a right to sex when I want it.”
Uncovering the specific language that an oppressor uses can alert you to the tactics being employed.
3. Oppressors purposely use their words to deceive outsiders. Oppressors use smooth speech to cover their wicked plans (Ps 55:21; John 8:44; Rom 16:18). They use their words to trick and enchant us, projecting a carefully crafted image so they can get away with great acts of evil. I have seen oppressors perform well in a counseling session or on a Sunday morning, showing compassion for others or evoking sympathy like Jim did. There are many warnings given to us in Scripture to be on alert for nefarious pretenders, and we should heed them. Victims need us to go beyond what we see and hear, to take the time to enter their world and learn how they experience their spouse.
When words are the weapon, there are no cuts and bruises. There are wounds; they are just invisible to our eyes. If we want to care for victims, we must believe that there are people in our midst who use manipulative words to abuse and control and then obscure what they are doing. This is mission-critical. Understanding how oppressors work will help shape what we are alert to and how we seek to help. We can take great comfort as helpers when we remember we serve a God who cannot be deceived, exposes evil, executes justice, and is a refuge for the oppressed (Ps 9).
1 Women may be perpetrators of abuse. We see this is true when we consider child abuse; we readily see women perpetrating abuse. In the parenting relationship, they naturally have power which they can misuse. In marriages, however, it is rarer that they have the power over their spouse, though that can happen. This blog focuses on female victims as that is a more common occurrence, especially in our churches.