Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times, for the times are evil. (Amos 5:13)
The #MeToo movement has generated a public response of challenges to people who experience abuse and don’t report it. Women who experience domestic violence are often also asked why they don’t just leave. Abusers don’t present themselves as abusers in public. One of my friends refers to such people as, “Street angels and house devils.” This ability to present two very different personas is why the people they assault and abuse are often reluctant to speak up or leave. They suspect – and sadly they are often correct – no one will believe them.
“He’s such a great guy! He’d never do anything like that!”
“You must have provoked him in some way.”
“He was just having an off day. Everyone gets upset now and then.”
Disbelief and Exoneration
And on and on go the excuses that discredit the abused and exonerate the abuser. Occasionally there are false accusations. I can only remember two among the may stories people have told me about experiencing some sort of abuse. In one case the accuser was a young woman who’d been molested earlier in life by someone else. As a result, she interpreted pretty much any attention from a male as a threat. In the other case a disgruntled woman was upset with the leadership of a youth program. She claimed one of the male staff accosted her child. The child said he didn’t. Others testified he was never alone with the youth.
As a pastor I’ve heard many stories from both men and women who have been abused physically, sexually, or mentally. I have my own first hand experience with this. The abusers were almost always men. A few years ago I wrote an article about this for Gather, the magazine of the Women of the ELCA. I addressed some of the reasons women don’t tell and leave. It seems like a good time for a refresher course. Since the vast majority of victims of abuse are women, these are from a woman’s perspective, though men are also abused and some women are guilty of inflicting it.
Why They Don’t Speak Up
Here are ten reasons an abused person may choose to remain silent in the midst of evil.
10) The abuse starts so slowly and subtly that it takes a while to realize she is in an abusive situation. No one wants the think of herself as a victim, so her resistance to the idea she might be an abuse victim can be very strong.
9) Abusers are often quite charming and personable, especially in public situations. Because of their charm they are often successful in their work and social life.
8) She doesn’t have enough money of her own to live independently from the abuser.
7) The abuser has threatened to kill her – or her children or another loved one – and she believes he’s capable of doing just that. The news is full of such stories.
6) He isn’t always abusing her. When he’s not, he is romantic, thoughtful, kind, generous, and loving – even apologetic and remorseful. She lives with chronic confusion about which person will show up on any given day. She keeps hoping it will be the kind one she fell in love with when they first met.
5) She doesn’t have anywhere to go, no money to pay for a place, and perhaps no way to get there.
4) She has children she doesn’t want to leave. Taking them with her presents a multitude of seemingly unsolvable problems.
3) She meant it when she vowed, “Until death do us part.” She believes with enough tender loving and patient care the situation will get better.
2) She feels deep shame and believes it is somehow something she is doing or failing to do that leads to the abuse. The abuser has certainly told her it’s her fault often enough.
1) She’s tried to leave. No one would help her. People didn’t believe her. She was frightened and overwhelmed by the logistics of starting out on her own without adequate support and encouragement. As rough as life is with an abuser, navigating through life on her own seems worse.
A Little Help Makes a Big Difference
If you suspect someone close to you is being abused, there are a variety of ways you can help. These are some of the things people did for me when I was in an abusive situation and needed to get out of it.
1) Over lunch a friend suggested maybe I wasn’t in a good situation and no one was going to criticize me for not wanting to stay in it. That conversation got me wondering if I should start making plans to leave. I had been hoping time would make things better.
2) After observing a rather unpleasant interaction between us at home, a workman said to me after he left, “He sure doesn’t show you much respect.” That validated what I was thinking, but had been dismissing as just the way he was.
3) After witnessing a nasty fight between us in a coffee shop, the stranger behind me in line paid for my coffee and then asked me, “Are you going to be alright?” That encounter confirmed I was making the right choice in deciding to leave.
4) A relative agreed to let me send her cash in small amounts over time to have ready when I needed to open a new bank account.
5) A friend offered up a guest room for a place to stay through a transition period. I stored a packed suitcase there in case I might need her guest room in a hurry.
6) A neighbor offered to go with me to an attorney’s office, under the pretense of a girls’ shopping day.
7) An attorney agreed to communicate with a family member on my behalf when I couldn’t get to her office n person.
8) A colleague offered me additional income-producing work.
9) People asked how I was doing, took time to listen, and believed what I told them.
10) Friends and colleagues offered advice, encouragement, and resources, along invitations to do things to take a break from the situation.
Help is a Phone Call Away
Why don’t they tell? Abused people often don’t tell because they’ve seen what happens to those who do. Maybe they could tell or leave if they knew someone like you believed them and would help them along the way. You can start by giving them the link and phone number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800.799.7233 or https://www.thehotline.org.
At first the abuse is small and subtle. It doesn’t seem like abuse; just a bad temper or an overly-demanding personality. When the abuser gets away with that behavior, the abuse escalates over time until the situation becomes life-threatening.
Due to recent national events around this issue, the hot-line call volume has increased significantly, so callers may have to wait up to five or ten minutes. However, trained counselors are available 24/7 to first listen and give support. Then they will help the caller work out the next best steps to take. Their web site contains a wealth of helpful information to review while waiting to speak to someone.
If you suspect something, say something. The person may initially claim nothing is wrong. None-the-less, you may have planted a seed that will grow into a resolve to put an end to the abuse.