When helpers are caring for people who have suffered at the hands of others, they are often perplexed by the question: Is it abuse? Is that pattern in the home just a bit of volatility or is it abusive? Is limiting a spouse’s spending a wise use of money or is it a way to control and dominate? This blog will provide you with some preliminary ways to think about gaining clarity. I will also give you a list of resources to help you further determine the presence of abuse and a few first steps forward if it is.
Is it abuse? What a weighty question. The implications of getting it right are quite significant, so feeling unsure of the answer is unsettling. I have been there. As I listen to stories or observe someone in counseling, I sometimes have more questions than answers.
Abuse can be difficult to detect. We cannot always depend on the presence of certain behaviors (hitting, manipulation, isolation) to determine the answer. It is about detecting if one spouse coercively controls the other. Control can be established subtly, especially with emotional and spiritual abuse. It often takes time to uncover patterns of behavior and gain confidence in our interpretations of them.
While not having certainty is uncomfortable and challenging, it is not necessarily problematic. The Bible reminds us, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” (Prov 3:5–6). God does not ask us to operate from our knowledge but from his. He is our source of wisdom and direction. Or to put it another way, it is okay that we do not know because the Lord does, and he is the one who will be our guide. It is our job to walk in faith and do what he asks of us.
If the Lord has placed someone in your life to care for and you suspect domestic abuse but are not sure, there are several things you can do to gain clarity.
First, identify the source of your uncertainty. Abuse is confusing for both victims and helpers. Are you unsure because the person you are caring for has not yet shared enough information to make the determination? Or maybe the person is sharing many details of the struggles at home but is coming to you for help with marital communication issues, or anxiety, or depression. You suspect abuse, but the person is not framing the problems that way. Are you lacking confidence in your ability to label something as abusive? Each problem has a different way forward, so start by locating the source of your doubts.
Second, lean in to what you know. If someone is sharing about being harmed by a spouse, it does not initially matter if it rises to the level of abuse. You can still lament with the person about being sinned against. It is good and right to name and grieve sin. Any occurrence in a marriage that harms a spouse is serious, so whether or not it is abuse should not change our investment in offering care and support.
If a person is the victim of abuse, labeling it as sin will give clarity that what is happening is wrong. Most victims believe that the abuse they suffer is their fault. So by simply reminding them that they cannot make another person sin against them, you are helping them sort through their confusion. You do not need to know everything to begin unpacking the stories you are hearing and helping sufferers make sense of them. And though it may take a while before you are ready to offer advice on how to respond, you can share with them God’s heart for their suffering.1
Third, lean in to what you don’t know. This is vital. The one gift you can offer victims of abuse is to learn more about abuse and their story. Victims need helpers who understand abuse and who are willing to know them better. Start by reading more about the signs, the dynamics, and the damage of abuse. Seek to understand coercive control and what the various types of abuse look like. Then try to draw out these sufferers. If possible, ask questions that allow them to share their story. As they respond, follow up with questions like “Can you tell me more about that?” or “Has that happened before?” You should know what their world is like before you speak into it. And be patient. Building trust will take time. Victims are not always ready to share their story. It is good and right to go slow, being humbly aware of what you do not know.
Finally, be praying for wisdom and for the sufferer. Ultimately it is the Lord who reveals and rescues. We are privileged to be part of the redemptive story, but we are finite helpers, and abuse is a problem we cannot solve. It will be the victim, with God’s help and our guidance, who has to take steps to address the abuse. It is hard on us when we feel a sense of urgency about gaining clarity. However, unless sufferers are ready to speak and tell more of their story, all we can do is pray, pursue, and attempt to draw them out. I know it is hard to wait, but pushing past people’s readiness to share will most likely only cause them to shut down. Embarking on an unsure journey with the posture of prayer is the best way to set your course and create dependence on the Lord. Ask him to bring truth to light. When you do have clarity on the situation, you will no doubt need his guidance all the more.
As you consider these matters, my heart goes out to you. I have sat where you are too many times to count, and often it is with someone I genuinely care about and whom God has called me to help. I have felt a great responsibility in getting it right, and as I waited and prayed, I have seen him, who is always right and just, reveal the truth again and again. This has fostered a humbling, but proper, dependence upon the Lord. May he grant us all the patience to wait on him.
His love endures,
1 Until you have more clarity, do not suggest a confrontation with a potentially abusive spouse. It might not be safe and may further endanger the person you are trying to help.