Seeing the Unseen Victims of Domestic Abuse in Your Church

Evelyn was a regular at women's Bible studies. During prayer time, she would often share that she was struggling with anxiety. She was concerned about how her many perceived failures were affecting her young daughter. Over the two years I had known her, I had seen her become more distressed, retreat from friendships, and literally wither before my eyes.

I invited her to lunch one week and gently inquired why she believed she was failing her daughter. She responded, “Bill tells me I am a terrible role model.” I had to fight my instinct to immediately counter her husband's criticism. It was essential to find out more. So I asked, “Why would Bill say that?” Her stories of oppression began flowing. 

Over the next hour, she shared Bill’s criticisms and accusations of her. She believed his words: she was lazy, an ungodly ball of fear, stupid, incompetent, prudish, and a waste of space. 

My heart shattered, and I wanted to combat what I was hearing, but to discern what was happening, I remained quiet for a bit and drew out her stories. 

Barriers to Seeing Abuse

Abuse occurs behind closed doors when no one is looking. Most of us are unaware of its prevalence. We are not aware that women are enduring abuse in our churches. We do not ask questions or look for things we do not think are happening, so we miss it. But abuse is happening—and probably to someone you know, since one in four marriages are abusive. Here are some reasons we fail to see domestic abuse in our midst.

1. The Victim’s Perception

Oppressors are usually masterful at disguising what they are doing. So much so that often their spouses—the victims—fail to see the abuse. Abusers maintain control by creating a climate of confusion and making their victims feel responsible for punishments they endure (Jer. 18:18). 

Evelyn believed she was failing as a wife; she could not identify that what was happening to her was wrong. On some level, she knew that her husband was losing his temper, but he made her think that it was reasonable because she was exasperating. Evelyn believed what her husband told her: she was the problem. If Evelyn could not identify the abuses, how then could she ask for help from God and others?

2. Our Perception of Victims

The abuses that victims undergo day after day, year after year, do particular damage to their personhood. It shapes them in ways that others mistake as sin or faith struggles. Evelyn’s friends saw a depressed, anxious, and frail person. They heard her talking about her guilt as a wife and parent and assumed her self-assessments were accurate (Titus 1:10, 16). No one was aware of the horrors she faced at home.

3. Our Perception of Abusers

Oppressors are often publicly perceived as charming, even pious, while they are privately terrorizing their families. They are masters at deception, and chief among the people they deceive are themselves (Prov. 21:2; Jer. 17:9–10). When detecting abuse, we cannot rely on what we see or think we know about someone. Evelyn’s husband was a model deacon and he served his church well, so no one suspected that he was doing so much harm at home.

Cutting through the Confusion

When abuse is not overt or self-identified by a victim, it can be easy to miss. Here are four ways we can help identify oppression in the lives of people we are ministering to. 

1. Know what abuse is. 

To see something, we have to know what we are looking for.

Abuse occurs in a marriage when one spouse seeks to control and dominate the other through a pattern of coercive, controlling, and punishing behaviors. 

This controlling pattern of behavior is commonly called domestic abuse or domestic violence. I like to use the term oppression since it provides a category that is addressed in Scripture and captures the domination involved. No matter what form oppression takes (physical, emotional, spiritual, sexual, or financial), its intended outcome is the same. An oppressor will punish and wound their victim to get their world the way they want it. Oppressive behavior says, "Serve me, or suffer the consequences!"

2. Ask questions to bring abuse into the light.

These questions are designed to look for patterns of punishment and imbalances of power in a marriage. You can ask them when you are speaking with a spouse that you suspect is being victimized. As you ask these questions, make sure the spouse in question is not present and ask for detailed examples (Eph. 5:11–13). (This is best done in person, as many victims’ phones and emails are monitored.)

  • Do you have the freedom to give input on decisions at home?
  • What happens when you say “no” to your spouse’s requests?
  • Do you ever feel fearful around your partner?
  • Have you ever been threatened or physically hurt in this relationship?
  • Have you ever participated in a sexual act against your will?
  • Does your spouse blame you for things that go wrong? How?
  • Does your spouse monitor your interactions with friends and family?
  • Do you have a say in how your economic resources are used?

3. Uncover how a couple argues

Gather precise information about how a couple argues. Oppressors do not engage in arguments to find unity and resolution. They view arguments as war. To assist in my detection of potential oppression, I ask, “What is it like when you argue?”

I am looking for controlling behaviors like sarcasm, distorting what is said or done, sulking, refusing to respond or listen, physical intimidation, laughing, turning your complaint against you, acting like a victim, harsh criticism, name-calling, or blocking a doorway.

Women will often share with you the content of a marital disagreement. To screen for abuse, you need a sense of the atmosphere amid their fights. We need to know what an argument looks like and sounds like. For instance: “When he was saying that, where was he?” This allows a spouse to say things like, “He was cornering me.” Follow-up questions are critical—e.g., “When he withdraws, how long does it last?”, “What names does he call you?”

4. Are you observing any relational imbalances?

Look for non-verbal cues that the couple exhibits at church or in a small group. Oppressors tend to control conversations, interrupt others, and fail to show empathy or connectedness to their spouse. In contrast, oppressed spouses often say very little and seem, in both posture and speech, to be deferring to their spouse. (This isn't always true, so don't let the presence or absence of this one behavior cause you to rule out the possibility of oppression in a marriage.) Watch for non-verbal cues that demonstrate discomfort and guardedness.

Victims Need Tender Helpers

It is also helpful to be able to put yourself in the shoes of a victim. 

When your spouse abuses you, you know something is wrong but are often unsure of what it is. Perhaps you've done everything you can and read every book you can find on marriage. But things keep getting worse. Nothing helps.

You live in constant tension, fearful of your spouse's anger, and wondering what you are doing wrong. You have tried so many ways to maintain the peace, that you are exhausted, and yet, you don't stop attempting to please your spouse. Nothing works.

No one around you sees what is happening. You aren't even sure what is happening. You cannot put into words what it is like to live in your home. Nothing seems to capture it.

You sit with many unanswered questions: Why can't I fix this? Is it really that bad? Am I just oversensitive? Am I overreacting? Is it my fault? What did I do to deserve this? Why hasn't God helped me? Nothing stops the self-condemnation.

You need help with sorting through your thoughts, experiences, labeling sin, and someone who is patient while you oscillate between feeling that this is unbearable and that you are just over-sensitive. It is too much to make sense of on your own. 

As a friend or ministry leader, you can help women in this situation by drawing them out as Jesus would. Jesus came near to the brokenhearted, sat with them, wept with them, and heard their hearts. And he did it all with tenderness. As you seek to walk alongside the oppressed, pray that you too can do so with tenderness. 

A Picture of Hope

After about a year of meeting with Evelyn, she was able to consistently and clearly see Bill’s coercive control and cruelty. She asked if I would help her ask her pastor for help and guidance. Her church was able to establish regular counseling for her and found wise people who understood abuse to care for her. When it was safe to confront Bill about his behavior, they began that process. It blessed her and her children to have her shepherds caring for her through something so difficult.

As we come alongside hurting women as tender helpers, it’s important to remember we are not domestic abuse experts. Abuse dynamics in a marriage are difficult, unpredictable, and sometimes dangerous. Ask your church leaders for guidance and input as to when to involve other trained helpers like lay leaders, biblical counselors, or abuse shelter personnel.

When we see the unseen victims, we are restoring hope. We are putting words to their suffering, which gives them words to pray and the ability to ask for the much-needed help they need. Ultimately, we are bringing the darkness that the evil abusers want to be hidden into the light where it can be redeemed. 

For more on this topic, here are two resources to help you and your local church provide wise care after uncovering abuse:

Domestic Abuse: Recognize, Respond, Rescue, a mini-book by Darby Strickland

Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused, a free curriculum

About the Author

Darby Strickland

Darby Strickland is a counselor and faculty member for the Christian Counseling & Education Foundation. She is the author of Is It Abuse? A Biblical Guide to Identifying Domestic Abuse and Helping Victims, and is a contributor to the free web-based training for leaders who minister to abuse victims, Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused. Darby and her husband, John, have three chilren.