Compassionate Love: Displaying compassion for those who struggle with mental illness (c)2015 Nancy Virden
Emotional abuse can be subtle which is why so many people miss it. The damage however, is very real. Research shows that people on the receiving end of emotional abuse suffer just as much or more with the aftereffects and long-term mental health issues as those who have been physically or sexually abused.
PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), anxiety disorders, and/or depression may develop from emotionally abusive relationships. Married christians are not immune. These disorders* often affect a person long after the emotionally abusive relationship is over. Once I heard that the first step toward recovery from abuse is to stop the abuse. Still, the harm done affects the victim’s relational abilities and can require years of therapy to overcome.**
If emotional abuse is so horrible, why then do churches largely ignore it? I knew an actively involved woman whose church silently watched her leave with only a couple of people asking her why she left. Vague knowledge of marital problems in the family only stirred up enough interest for gossip and misguided “prayer support.” Evidence of emotional abuse was not visible – no scars or bruises – and her behavior had probably seemed extreme in response to what others could not see. I believe churches often ignore emotional abuse because it cannot be measured and easily described.
Another reason churches may disregard emotional abuse is because it does not seem extreme enough for church leaders to become involved. One pastor told me he would not confront one of the male volunteers in his church because accusations against him may be false and the volunteer could sue the church. No discussion, no questions asked. Within marriage however, even quietly oppressive power plays build up on each other until the cumulative effect is destructive. This is not a light matter.
I am not describing disappointing marriages. The emotionally abused person will be afraid of the abuser, and will question her perceptions. She can lose her identity and cease to thrive.
“Abuse is fundamentally a mentality…while this mentality of power and control often expresses itself in various forms of physical abuse, it just as frequently employs tactics of verbal, emotional, financial, social, sexual and spiritual abuse. Thus, an abuser may never actually lay a hand on his wife and yet be very actively terrorizing her in incredibly damaging ways.”***
Stigma, ignorance, and well-intentioned but unhelpful advice and counseling remain staunch elements in churches and elsewhere. It is our responsibility to learn the facts and react appropriately to emotional abuse.
Church discipline is a scary idea to ill-equipped pastors and elders. If one is to pay attention to our mandate in the Bible however, the statements “expel the immoral brother from among you” and “with such people do not even eat” are about how Christians are to clean up their side of the street, so to speak.**** It is after failed attempts at encouraging one’s change of heart that the church expels a culprit. Only after significant and time-proven changes in behavior and attitude is the church to welcome this person back.
One of the sins listed in these passages is the old-fashioned term, revile which means abuse. It is sometimes translated slander. Cruel, dishonest, denigrate, run-down, and scorn are a few synonyms for revile. Yet not only do churches neglect to approach the issue of emotional abuse, perpetrators can be leaders, teachers, pastors, and the like. All the while their faces of excellence defy patterns of terrible behaviors at home. Wives are afraid to speak out for many reasons, some of which this blog will discuss on Thursday.
Mental bruises, cuts, and scars are invisible. This does not mean they matter less than wounds we can see. Part 3 of this series will describe a case of emotional abuse and what one particular victim feels.
Resources I recommend:
- The Silent Killer of Christian Marriages” by Amy Wildman White at http://christiancounsellingcentre.ca/sitecontent/ur3P9wM1inxspbnup9fYhQ–/mfiles/the-silent-killer-of-christian-marriages.pdf
NOTE: I am not a doctor or mental health professional. I speak only from personal experiences with and observations of mental illness. In no way is this website intended to substitute for professional mental health care.
If you are struggling emotionally today or feeling suicidal, or concerned about someone who is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Hope and help is yours.
-pictures from qualitystockphotos.com
*Psychological Disorder. (n.d.). In Alleydog.com’s online glossary. Retrieved from: http://www.alleydog.com/glossary/definition-cit.php?term=Psychological Disorder) (Disorders involve thoughts, behaviors, and emotions that prevent persons from functioning, meeting their own personal needs, or who become a danger to themselves or others.)
**What’s Worse: Physical Scars or Mental Scars? A domestic violence guest post by Joseph Pittman. Retrieved from http://domesticviolencestatistics.org/whats-worse-physical-scars-or-mental-scars/
*** From A Cry for Justice, italics mine. Retrieved from http://www.cryingoutforjustice.org
**** 1 Corinthians 5:9-6:11