After I wrote my last post about minimizing abuse, I got to thinking a lot of thoughts. I will try to put them into somewhat coherent words although it won’t be easy because they are sometimes more intuitive and abstract than concrete, and sometimes not exactly fully formed, and sometimes I feel them so deeply that I can’t find the words to express them, and sometimes I find them so complicated that putting them into words make them too simplistic. If that makes sense. But I will try because I think it’s important.
I wrote about both Brock Turner’s rape of the unconscious woman and the struggles we have had with my family and now with EJ’s family. In some ways, I understand that they seem not to be related, and it is as if I am comparing a very major form of abuse (rape) with something that is very minor in comparison. And that gets me thinking about the different forms of abuse.
I realize that some forms of abuse seem much more serious than other forms. For example, physical and sexual abuse seems to be much more serious than verbal or emotional abuse. The damage from physical violence must surely be more than mere words, right? And yet if verbal or emotional abuse is so minor than why do so many others feel so damaged by it? And why does the effects of these different forms of abuse all seem to cause similar emotional wounds? On the surface the different forms of abuse seem so different but underneath they seem to be very similar.
When I try to put into words the damage of verbal or emotional abuse, I find myself tripping over my words because it seems as if I am comparing one type of abuse to another, saying one is more damaging and another is less, and I actually think that every form of abuse is damaging. I also think that forms of abuse often overlap so it’s difficult to fully separate one from another. For example, physical abuse is usually accompanied by verbal and emotional abuse, sexual abuse involves physical violence, and so on.
I think that physical, sexual, and even verbal abuse is easier to recognize and understand than emotional abuse, which is more hidden and less obvious although still very damaging. I mean, people can understand that it is abusive to hit, rape, or insult while they often do not recognize or validate emotional abuse. That lack of recognition, understanding, and validation often results in emotional abuse victims being further victimized. Because of this, I will take a moment to describe why emotional abuse is damaging. In doing so, I am in no way comparing or minimizing other forms of abuse but so many people do not recognize emotional abuse that I have to try to put it into words. Just bear with me.
First, verbal and emotional abuse seem very similar, but they are not the same. Verbal abuse is saying terrible things like “You are stupid. You are worthless. You can’t do anything right. You will never amount to anything.” Emotional abuse can involve verbal abuse, of course, but it also is more hidden and subtle which makes it very difficult to recognize or pin down. Emotional abusers are shape-shifters who are very skilled at appearing very sweet, charming, or even spiritual to others while they torture their victims in private. They can use the truth or half truth to tell a lie, they can insult with compliments, they can tear down a person’s self-esteem by pretending it’s all just a joke, they can instill fear by pretending as if they care about their victim’s safety. They manipulate, lie, deceive, gaslight, and guilt…but out of love, just joking. It’s difficult to challenge the abuse when the abuser appears to just be someone who means well and is just trying to do what is best for you.
Emotional abuse is particularly damaging because there are no bones or bruises to prove that it happened. Many people do not see it as abuse because emotional abuse mostly just involves words, and even the old nursery rhyme recognizes that it’s physical abuse that hurts us–not words. Because of this, the victim’s abuse is never recognized or validated. It’s hard even for the victim to recognize this sort of abuse as abusive…at least at first. By the time the victim begins to recognize that, yes, this really is abuse, she has already been very damaged by it.
So this made me begin to ponder if words were really less damaging than “sticks and stones” and if emotional abuse was a less serious form of abuse and, if so, why so many victims are so totally damaged from it. And then I thought that words are actually probably one of the most powerful forces in the universe.
God spoke the heavens and the earth into existence with words. Words create reality. Words can heal or destroy, they can break a heart or mend it, they can strengthen or weaken, they can bring about hope or despair, they can instill courage or fear, they can cause victory or defeat, they can cause the rise or fall of world leaders and of nations, they can bring life or death. Hitler, with his words, inflamed hatred and brought about the death of millions. Churchill gave courage to his people with his words: “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be,” he said. “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” The people were strengthened to fight back against the Nazi regime because of those words. The words of the Bible has changed the world and affects all of eternity. The Bible has this to say about words:
The tongue [i.e., words] has power over life and death; those who indulge it must eat its fruit. (Prov. 18:21)
The tongue is a fire, a world of wickedness. The tongue is so placed in our body that it defiles every part of it, setting ablaze the whole of our life; and it is set on fire by Gei-Hinnom itself. For people have tamed and continue to tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures; but the tongue no one can tame — it is an unstable and evil thing, full of death-dealing poison! With it we bless Adonai, the Father; and with it we curse people, who were made in the image of God. (James 3:6-9)
And that is why verbal and emotional abuse is so dangerous and damaging: Long after bones and bruises have healed, the words are still within a person causing deep, deep damage. Using “only” words, the abusers create a false reality that strike at the very core of a person’s identity.
I don’t believe there is a “minor” form of abuse. In fact, I believe that abuse of every sort is incredibly damaging because in every form of abuse the real assault is not the bruises and broken bones, which heal after a few weeks. The real assault–in physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional abuse–is against a person’s inner self, her (or his) identity, and this assault damages her sense of value, security, perceptions, ability to trust, faith, world view, and relationships. Abuse is a form of murder–soul murder. In a physical murder, it doesn’t matter what the weapon is–whether it’s martial arts, arrows, bullets, explosions, poison–they all destroy their victim. Dead is dead. The same is true in soul murder. No matter what method is used, the destruction to the person’s inner self is the same.
While outwardly the rape is much more horrendous than EJ’s family’s minimization of their brother’s toxic behavior, in many ways it’s not minor because accepting without challenge the dismissing, excusing, justifying, or minimization of abuse and blaming victims in “small” ways creates a climate in which the minimization of abuse can grow stronger and destroy many others. Although one action is more horrendous than another, the mentality behind it is the same. As C.S. Lewis explained:
One man may be so placed that his anger sheds the blood of thousands, and another so placed that however angry he gets he will only be laughed at. But the little mark on the soul may be much the same in both. Each has done something to himself which, unless he repents, will make it harder for him to keep out of the rage next time he is tempted, and will make the rage worse when he does fall into it. Each of them, if he seriously turns to God, can have that twist in the central man straightened out again: each is, in the long run, doomed if he will not. The bigness or smallness of the thing, seen from the outside, is not what really matters.
In addition, I think that every form of abuse causes ripples that affects many, many others. Brock Turner’s primary victim was the woman he raped, but his action also ripples out to affect everyone touched by it, including family and friends, both hers and his, and widens to include all those who are touched by the situation. It also ripples ahead to affect future generations. Abuse in my family began at least with my grandparents–if not before–and the ripples have affected my Mom and her siblings, and also her children, and her grandchildren, causing pain and wounds and divisions and tearing apart relationships. The same is also true in EJ’s family. It’s probably impossible to trace the original act of abuse or trauma that caused the ripples that affect so many. A “small” ripple in the past may grow into a tsunami of trauma in the future. So I think no abusive act is minor because small abuses, if left unchallenged, ripple into bigger ones.
I’ve read many articles and victim’s comments at websites such as A Cry for Justice, which addresses abuse in the evangelical church. Many in the church who deny, excuse, justify, or minimize abuse actually believe that they are following God. So if a person sincerely believes he is following God does that mean that his actions are not abusive? Hmmm.
Ok, this is complicated and tricky to explain. I think an abusive act is abusive even if a person does it ignorantly because he is still causing damage to others. However, how a person responds when he begins to encounter truth matters and affects the path of his life. For example, the Apostle Paul originally persecuted those who followed Jesus. Acts 8:3 says that he was “ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” Pause here and imagine the suffering his actions caused. In 1 Timothy 1:13 Paul wrote that “formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief.” Although what Paul did caused others much suffering, once he encountered the truth, he repented and he received mercy. His whole life change.
However, many in the church are spiritually arrogant. They think they know more truth than others. They refused to hear, they refuse to see, they refuse to learn. I have encountered several such people, some of them church leaders. They are frustrating because they consider themselves to be so spiritually wise that they refuse to be teachable. You can’t tell them anything. They end up suppressing the truth. As Romans 1:22 says, “Claiming to be wise, they became fools…” and 2 Timothy 3:5 says that they have the appearance of godliness, but deny its power. I think these types of people at worst become abusers and at best aid the abusers in oppressing others. I think these people share in the guilt of the abuse.
Ok, here’s a personal story: As a child, I really did not recognize the dysfunctions in my family because I had grown up in it. It was normal. Plus, because I was compliant, my Mom showed me only her “nice” self. When I got engaged to EJ, my Mom tried to establish great control over me. I resisted. At that point, I encountered her very mean self–the self that manipulated, lied, insulted, and smeared my reputation. For a long time I struggled with whether she knew what she was doing or was she just a wounded person who feared losing me. This is a question that most victims of Narcissistic abuse struggle with–do they know what they are doing? Years later I learned that, yes, they do know what they are doing. The abuse is deliberate. But in the early years, I didn’t know and I wept that it didn’t really matter whether my Mom knew what she was doing or not–the damage was still the same. I began to research abuse. One day, I realized that I was a part of the family dynamic and I, also, had caused damage to some of my siblings. Even though I knew that I had done it ignorantly, I had still caused damage. The horror was almost more than I could bear. I believe that what I did at that point is what determined whether or not I was/became an abuser myself. Instead of denying my part in the family abuse, instead of excusing or minimizing it, I repented of my actions. Like Paul, “I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief.” My acknowledgement of wrong-doing did not stop the abuse or heal the relationships. However, I began to walk on a different path that led me away from my family’s abuse and toward healing. I think that that is a major difference between an abuser and a non-abuser. An abuser is arrogant, believing he is wiser than others. He deliberately suppresses truth and deceives. He intentionally causes harm. He refuses to acknowledge his own wrongdoings and he refuses to change.
Ok. I hope this mess of thoughts make some sort of sense. They are a bit unformed and tangled.