When the subject of domestic abuse randomly crosses the average person’s path, a number of myths surrounding this subject immediately kick into play. One of these myths has to do with the domestic abuse target, herself. What kind of woman does an abusive man target, anyway?
I’d like to talk about three things here.
First, what kind of person is she?
Second, what does her abuser do to her that causes her to become a domestic abuse victim?
And third, why is it so difficult for her to change her identity from victim to SURVIVOR?
What Kind of Woman is the Domestic Abuse Target?
The average person on the street thinks a domestic abuse target is a pushover. Spineless. Weak. Coward. Can’t stand up for herself. Doesn’t “handle” her man the right way. Has little self-esteem.
The average religious person, if they believe she is a victim in the first place (which they usually don’t), believes if she married a guy with problems, she needs to hunker down and sleep in the bed she made for herself. How bad can it be?
The domestic abuse target can be anyone. She can be a business owner. An attorney. A professor. A doctor. An author. A homemaker. A company president. A police officer. And contrary to the opinions of those who don’t understand how abuse works, she isn’t targeted because she can’t stand up for herself and has low self-esteem.
She’s targeted for her strengths. And they are many.
Here are a few of her strengths—specific strengths that are sought out by an abusive man and used against her. We’ll talk about why in a minute.
- She has the kind of character that puts the needs of others before her own.
- When she makes a commitment, she sticks to it. Faithful. Trustworthy.
- She takes responsibility for herself and those around her. She’s a woman of integrity.
- She is generous to a fault—giving more than she takes and doing it with pleasure.
- She is kind and compassionate. Empathy oozes from her pores.
- She is intuitive. Sensitive to the emotional environment around her. She picks up on tone and body language, and she adjusts her approach accordingly.
- She is forgiving. She will forgive and forgive and forgive – without being asked. Her love is deep and wide.
- She is patient and long-suffering. She will endure the attacks of her partner, believing the best about him. Believing in his potential as a human being.
- She is courageous. She survives the rejection of her love and the dehumanization of her spirit, and still she goes into each day with hope.
- She is resourceful. She takes what she is given and multiplies it even though she is offered only criticism and rejection in return.
- She doesn’t want to betray her abuser. She is loyal and doesn’t desire revenge. All she wants is to be treated with honor, as a human being.
This kind of woman, when paired with an emotionally and spiritually healthy man, can co-create a beautiful marriage.
But what happens when an abusive man (a “psychephile” as Don Hennessy calls it in his book, How He Gets into Her Head) targets this kind of woman?
What is he looking for, and why?
How and Why the Domestic Abuse Target is Targeted
The average person on the street thinks the domestic abuse victim is targeted because of the weaknesses listed under the first myth.
The average religious person believes she hasn’t been targeted at all. Nobody would be that mean! Instead, if she doesn’t like her husband, she’s got issues, and she’ll need to learn how to pick up her cross and carry it. To suffer as a domestic abuse victim is a privilege and honor, and to give her help would undermine God’s sovereign work in her life. (Plus it would take time and energy, and by golly, the suffering is for her—not them. THEY didn’t marry a bad egg. Why should THEY suffer for her idiocy? If she’s even telling the truth. Harumph.)
The domestic abuse victim is targeted because of her strengths. Here’s how it works.
First, let’s define Hennessy’s “psychephile” term, because this term helps us see exactly what the intimate male abuser is actually doing behind the curtain:
The word psychephile combines the root of ‘psyche’ meaning mind or spirit, and ‘phile’ which comes from the Greek for friend. (Taken from How He Gets Into Her Head)
The abuser’s goal is to get into her mind (to “befriend” it) and control her from there. This isn’t that difficult when you’ve got:
- A shared bed (intimate partner abuse is insidious.)
- A marital commitment
- A religious belief system
- And all the beautiful character qualities listed above.
1. Because she puts the needs of others before her own needs, he can get her to dismiss her own human instinct to not ONLY take care of others, but to also take care of herself. Add to this her religious community encouraging her to “die to self,” and you’ve got a perfect petri dish for mind control to thrive and grow.
2. Her commitment to her word is the Gorilla Glue that keeps her tied to her psychephile. He knows this and picked her because of it. Add to this a religious community that teaches divorce is the unforgivable sin and excommunicates those who initiate divorce, and you’ve got a very real prison from which there is no escape. Truly, the victim doesn’t even consider this as an option until she is so scared for her physical and/or emotional well being that she takes that drastic step, fighting for her life against all of her core beliefs. Most religious victims will stay two to three decades before finally getting help and leaving. Not because they are weak willed. But because their strength of perseverance is Herculean. (She will almost always suffer from C-PTSD as a result.)
3. Because she is so committed to taking personal responsibility, when he blames her for his own bad behaviors, she accepts the blame and works hard to “do better” next time in order to avoid the guilty and shameful emotions that follow an abusive incident. This is perfect for him. He gets away with anything by shifting the responsibility over to her. He can control her actions once he controls how she defines his abuse of her. When her religious community tells her to “forgive and keep no record of wrongs” and “as far is it is up to you, be at peace with all men” and “your role is to build your husband up” and “a good wife will a happy husband make”- she re-doubles her efforts to take responsibility for the well being of the relationship. And she slowly disappears.
4. Because she is generous, she gives and gives of her resources, whatever they may be, believing she is investing in the most worthwhile relationship one can invest in on planet earth. She will work hard at her career to bring in monetary value. She will work hard at raising the children, taking care of their home, and prudently spending. No gift is too great, in her mind. It’s all a pleasure to give. If she is a woman of faith, she does it for the glory of God as well. She believes that even if it goes unnoticed by her husband or others, God sees her efforts, and she will reap a good harvest one day. This works dandy for the abuser who views her as his servant, created to make his life comfortable and happy. He targeted her for this reason. Her religious community colludes with the abuser by keeping the focus of her generosity disproportionately on her since she is the active and willing partner. This is exactly what the abuser needs to continue harming her with impunity.
5. Her kindness and empathy works in his favor as well. Her default is to give others the benefit of the doubt, believing the best about their behaviors. When her abuser treats her poorly, she feels it must be because of something sad and broken inside him, and she desires with all her heart to help him so he can be all he was created to be. She sees herself as equipped by God to accomplish this goal, and she applies all her compassionate being toward the task. Her religious community teaches her that this is the right thing to do. Turn the other cheek. Love covers a multitude of sins. Love will win the day. The psychephile grooms her to the place where he can offend and actually get the victim to feel sorry for him because of his offending! With the church’s approval, of course.
6. The fact that she is intuitive actually makes it easy for an intimate partner to confuse and control her. Here’s how that works: she skillfully picks up on all non-verbal cues he gives her to covertly control what she does or how she interprets her experience. A certain look. An edge in his voice. The way he looks past her when she talks. These are the subtle, imperceptible things others can’t see—that she can. This helps her navigate potential ugly situations, or enables her to fall into them—whichever the psychephile wants at any given time. The fact that his words and his actions don’t match make the experience all the more confusing, throwing the victim into the depths of self-doubt. The religious community tells her she can’t trust her heart. It is “deceitful above all things.” They tell her she is making assumptions, and this plays into her abuser’s narrative. Their voices are implanted deep within her psyche now, and she is unable to tell right from wrong when it comes to her own experiences.
7. As part of her commitment to the marriage, she forgives over and over again, even when her abuser isn’t sorry and doesn’t ask. Her religious community tells her that forgiveness includes allowing her abuser complete and total access to her, body and soul, at all times. It is her duty as a wife, and she takes it seriously. As a result, there is never any sowing and reaping. Her abuser sows destruction in their relationship and in her personhood without any accountability, and she continues to forgive him for the ways he causes her pain, thereby enabling the abuse cycle to continue unabated.
8. She will endure the abuse to the point of falling apart emotionally and physically. She willingly sacrifices, believing that it is worth it if he will one day see what he is doing and stop. If he will one day become the good man she believes he can be. Her religious community teaches her that suffering is God’s will for her, and they do nothing to offer relief or practical help. That would mean circumventing God’s plan of suffering for her life. This also plays into the psychephile’s agenda to keep her doing what he wants her to do—all in the name of God. The ultimate spiritual abuse.
9. Her courage in the face of daily abuse, both covert and overt, is incredible. This inner strength is exploited by her abuser who is both jealous of her strength and desirous of using it against her. When necessary, he will praise her for it, getting her to believe that she must keep it up to win his admiration as well as to survive. Her religious community has zero comprehension of her strength, nor do they see anything of which to praise and encourage her. To them, she is just another woman, merely doing her duty before God, and not doing it well enough to keep her husband happy.
10. The abuse target is often very good at coming up with creative ways to make money or make ends meet. Her contributions are minimized and even circumvented by her abuser, who will insist the extra resources are placed in his capable control. She willingly (at first) agrees to this, feeling that she must trust him as her intimate partner, and yet, she also feels like a slave or child rather than an equal adult partner contributing and controlling equally. When she does finally take responsibility for the resources she is generating, she will be attacked and blamed as a selfish, money-hungry female. She’ll struggle with feelings of guilt and shame and confusion as she hears his voice in her head defining who she is and assigning all the wrong motives to her resourcefulness and hard work.
11. She is reticent to get help for many reasons. One, he is in her head telling her it’s all her fault. She believes this is true. That if she would have tried harder or been different or responded differently, she could have made things better. Her religious community will tell her the same thing. She knows if she tries to explain her experience, the tide of that belief is too powerful to go up against. But also, she has no desire to betray or expose her partner. Her heart is for him. Her motive is to help him so they can have an intimate relationship that is mutually satisfying. Against all the evidence to the contrary, she continues to believe this is possible, and her first attempts at getting help are for the sole and desperate purpose of achieving this end. However, most churches and Bible counselors will not be able to understand her or her problem. The voice of her abuser is in their head, too. In fact, they feed off one another and abuse the woman together.
Why the Domestic Abuse Target Struggles with Going from Victim to Survivor
The average person on the street believes that the domestic abuse target is stupid for not seeing that she’s a target and taking steps to get out of her abusive situation.
Of course, the average religious person believes she isn’t a domestic abuse target to begin with. They believe she is just a good girl doing her Christian duty as a female human.
He has groomed and offended and groomed and offended her over and over again throughout the course of a long relationship. He is in her head now. She is brainwashed into believing his messages, and she no longer sees reality for what it is when it comes to her own experience. This is the crux of intimate partner abuse, and this is why she stays.
But this is not the end of the story. Here is the incredibly good news:
The very strengths her intimate abuser chose her for are not only the strengths that keep her in the relationship. THEY ARE ALSO THE STRENGTHS THAT WILL SET HER FREE.
Using those strengths to get free from the devastation of an abusive relationship is confusing and painful for an average non-religious woman. But women of faith endure even deeper confusion and pain as they navigate the twisted webs of half truths and bad theology to find true freedom in Jesus Christ. The ones who fly free invariably have a strong support system built with safe and spirit filled people who know exactly where they’ve been because they’ve been there too. The Flying Free Sisterhood is a lifeline of support for women of faith in destructive relationships.