There’s a 2004 movie starring Anne Hathaway called Ella Enchanted that is a retelling of the Cinderella story. Although it’s not a particularly great movie, I have found it interesting because of its message about abuse and boundaries. In the movie, Ella’s fairy godmother gave her “the gift of perfect obedience” when she was an infant. I can imagine mothers joking that, hey, we’d like our children to be a bit more obedient. However, Ella’s gift was more of a curse. She was magically forced to do whatever anyone told her to do, no matter what it was, and no matter what she personally felt about it. “Wait here!” “Hold your tongue!” “Give yourself a pat on the back,” were among the more minor commands she was forced to obey. “Give me your necklace”–the precious one that had belonged to Ella’s deceased mother–“tell your best friend you never want to see her again,” and “Take this knife and kill the prince at midnight,” were the more serious ones. The “gift of perfect obedience” made Ella powerless and helpless. The movie is about her struggle to develop her own boundaries, to be able to say “no” to the things that she didn’t want to do.
This is a battle every abuse victim fights. Abusers either prevent a victim from developing healthy boundaries, or they subtly break down a person’s boundaries so that she feels that she cannot say “no” to the abuse. A boundary is “where you end and I begin.” It clearly defines what you are responsible for and what I am responsible for, and the behavior we will or will not accept from each other. When boundaries are clearly defined and respected, people are able to live together in harmony with neither one being victimized.
Property boundaries are a good illustration of personal boundaries. When property boundaries are clearly defined and respected, there’s no conflict between neighbors. You cannot trespass on my land, or enter my house, or do any activity, or make any changes unless I give permission. Neither can I do it to you. When boundaries are not defined, we both can try to claim the same piece of property. If boundaries are not respected, you might try to take over portions of my property. One of us invades the other’s property and takes it over to do with as we please.
Abusers deliberately violate a person’s personal boundaries, disrespecting the difference between you and me, and yours and mine. They usually do it little by little, gaining a potential victim’s trust and then pushing the boundaries a bit. If the victim resists, the abuser can make her doubt herself by saying things such as “You are too sensitive,” “I was kidding,” “Don’t be so selfish,” and so on. If the victim weakens her boundaries, the abuser can push for more of her. Little by little the victim gives up control of herself. Eventually the abuser will control her and her identity will be destroyed. The gaining of trust and overriding of boundaries is called “victim grooming.”
People with weak or no boundaries find themselves unable to say “no,” much like Ella. I was taught that it was “mean” or “unloving” or “unforgiving” or “UnChristlike” to ever put myself first or to make my own choices. I was taught to always be “nice” and “unoffensive,” to never “make things worse” by “rocking the boat.” Some of the “nos” that I was unable to say sound ridiculous to me now. For example, I found it difficult to tell a neighbor and his visitors to stop parking in our yard. So they parked there. I couldn’t confront a neighbor who dented our fence. So the fence remained unfixed. I was unable to tell a friend that I didn’t feel well enough to take her on a tour through my garden. So I took her through my garden and felt miserable. I was unable to tell my sister to stop insulting me. So she continued and it grew worse. Being unable to say “no” makes a person powerless and helpless.
Typically, when a person first begins to understand that she is being abused, she starts to educate herself about abuse. For me, learning about abuse helped me to understand what was happening to me, why it was happening to me, and how I could stop it. I learned a lot about the dynamics of abuse and about healthy boundaries. The more I educated myself and the more survivor stories I read, the more I could set my own personal boundaries, and the less powerless and helpless I became.
There are certain dynamics that exists in unhealthy families. Of course, no person or family is perfect, but the following characteristics are extremely common in unhealthy families. In fact, I’d say that all unhealthy families have them and that the stronger these characteristics are, the more abusive the family is.
Abusers are very skilled at appearing to be what they are not. Some of them can appear to be very religious, very charming, or very sweet in public, but in private they abuse their families. No one believes such a wonderful person would ever be abusive! Some pretend to be the victim in order to get people to pity them and defend them–and in the process the abusers gain allies to help him condemn the true victims. (There are behaviors that indicate who is the false victim and who is the true one.)
The people who believe or help the abuser become his allies. Some of them are family members. Some are outsiders who are drawn in. Some support the abuser knowingly and some are manipulated and deceived into it. However, if a person is aware of the abuse and still supports the abuser, he is no longer ignorant or innocent. He is participating in the abuse and is just as guilty as the abuser is.
Often the abuser can remain somewhat hidden while he sends his allies out to cause damage. It’s sort of like a person who hires a criminal to carry out his crimes so he doesn’t have to get his hands dirty. Abuse survivors call these people “flying monkeys” after the creatures who carried out the witch’s orders in The Wizard of Oz.
Unhealthy families tend to develop a “herd” or “group think” mentality in which everyone has to think, feel, believe, and act the same. I’m not sure individuals always recognize how strong this mentality is unless they oppose it. I know that I didn’t recognize it when I was on the “inside” of my family. It’s when I stood against the family’s demands that I saw, felt, and understood the force of the group. It is very difficult to stand against a family that is rejecting you as a group.
Unhealthy families tend to have an extremely strong sense of “family loyalty.” Family loyalty becomes of utmost importance. It’s very “cultish.” It doesn’t matter what offense an individual has committed, everyone must protect the family. A member of the family who tries to set boundaries, escape abuse, or warn about abuse is told, “We are family! You need to love the family! Family needs to stick together! You are being disloyal to the family!” and “We are, after all, family.” It’s sort of like the Mob: Do what you’re told and nobody gets hurt. Be loyal to da family or pay da price.
A part of family loyalty is the Code of Silence. Evil can thrive where there is silence. Abuse can only exist if the abuser’s actions are hidden. So there’s a strong pressure on everyone that you don’t talk about what happens within the family no matter what happens. If you do, you are being disloyal to the family. Be loyal to da family or pay da price.
When a victim begins to set her own boundaries and/or to speak out, abusers get very angry. Boundaries means the victim is becoming more powerful and less helpless. Boundaries mean she is gaining her freedom. Boundaries mean the abuser is losing control, which he values above all. Boundaries are a threat. So if a victim says “no,” all hell breaks loose. I had a “great relationship” with my Mom as long as I was Ella Enchanted with the gift of “perfect” obedience. However, when I refused to let my Mom break up my relationship with EJ or seize control of my marriage, I very quickly saw her very ugly side. Never again could I please her. She pressured me, smeared me, insulted me, condemned me, falsely accused me, and turned my whole family against me. Sometimes she “sicced” a member of the family on me. For example, not long after I resisted my Mom’s control, my Dad called and angrily shouted at me: “It is all YOUR fault. YOU are being disloyal to the family!” Marrying the kind, gentle man who I love is disloyal to my family? Really? I don’t think so.
Although I love family, I’ve lost my respect for this sort of blind family loyalty and silence. The “Family Mob” pressure doesn’t work so well anymore. The more I’m pressured that I must be loyal to da family, the less loyalty I have toward them. I believe there are things that are much more important than blind family loyalty–such as having integrity, doing what is right no matter what it costs, treating people with respect and kindness even if I disagree with them, allowing people to make their own decisions even if they aren’t choices I’d make, respecting a person’s personal boundaries. And there are people who are totally undeserving of any sort of loyalty at all, even if they are related–such as abusers, those who knowingly do wrong, those who insult, deceive, and manipulate others, those who are cruel. I will not excuse or hide wrongdoing because of family loyalty. I will not allow people into my life who in any way disrespect or harm me, EJ, or JJ, no matter who they are.
Sometimes there are tragic stories in the news of a victim being brutally beaten or killed by her abuser. Usually people question, “Why didn’t just she leave? Why did she stay in the abuse?” The answer is simple: Another characteristic of unhealthy individuals or families is that when a victim reveals that she is being abused, the abuse is justified, excused, minimized, denied, disbelieved. The victim is told that the abuse is “not that bad,” that she’s “just over-reacting,” that “it’s probably not what it appears to be,” or that she “must have done something to provoke it.” The victim is accused of being petty, unloving, unforgiving, judgmental, disloyal to the family, or even sinning against God. These are often the very types of things that the abuser is telling her so they are adding their words to his and destroying her ability to escape. It’s very difficult for a victim, who has had her self-esteem and identity destroyed, to seek help for abuse. It is made much more difficult–and sometimes even impossible–to escape abuse if she is disbelieved and told she must submit to her abuser.
Sadly, these abusive characteristics are not just found in a family. It’s also often found in the church “family” as well. That is the fruit of the “cheap grace” teaching. Bonhoeffer defines “cheap grace” as the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance. Because forgiveness is “unconditional” and repentance is not required, abusers can hurt others without censure. No one can confront wrong without being labeled “judgmental, ungrace-filled, or a troublemaker. Thousands of victims (usually women) who go to the church for help have their abuse minimized, denied, excused. With no censure of the abuser’s actions, the victims are being told that they need to love, forgive, submit to the abuser and stop provoking him–and they are shoved back into his hands. When a victim goes back to an abuser after seeking help, or if she tries harder to please her abuser, or if the abuser is supported, defended, protected (which validates his abuse) statistically she is placed in even greater danger.
This is evil. People, families, or churches who support, defend, or protect an unrepentant abuser are not guiltless of the incredible harm they cause a victim. They make me angry. God, who loves and defends the helpless, is also not too happy about such people:
He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous —
both alike are an abomination to Adonai. (Prov. 17:15)
Unlike dysfunctional families, in healthy families
I used to be an Ella Enchanted, who had no power to say no. No longer. I am Ella UNenchanted now. I know how to say no. I have said no. I will say no again whenever necessary.