Those Suffering Domestic Violence

Those Suffering Domestic Violence

The month of October has been designated Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The goal of this month is to raise public awareness about domestic violence and to educate communities and individuals on how to recognize, prevent, and respond to domestic violence.  

This article is part two in a series on domestic violence. We began the series by defining domestic abuse, its widespread nature, and its threat to children, along with the frequency and duration of statistically documented cases of domestic abuse. In this article we will briefly discuss the victims and/or survivors of domestic abuse. 


In our book, Is it My Fault?, Lindsey and I use the terms "victim" and "survivor" to refer to those suffering domestic abuse. Now is a good time to explain the distinctions among these terms.  When the term "victim" is used, it signifies the cruelty and unfairness of domestic violence and puts the responsibility for the assault where it belongs: on the assailant. Likewise, the term "victim" is often associated with the early trauma following an experience of domestic violence, and emphasizes the fact that, frequently, a crime has been committed. This term is also used for emergency department responses.

The other term, "survivor", is often the chosen word for those who do not want to be viewed as remaining under the abuser's influence and control. Some victims do not prefer the term "survivor" because they do not feel like survivors. For this reason, this term can bring along with it a sense of shame, as if the victims of domestic violence have failed or done something wrong in the healing process. It should also be recognized that the unfortunate reality is that not all victims are survivors, as some victims of domestic abuse are killed. 

Those whom have suffered domestic violence should be supported in whatever term they adopt for themselves.

Who are victims of domestic abuse?

The number of occurrences of domestic violence is staggering. At least one-in-four women are or will be victims of domestic violence in her lifetime.[1] Statistics point to the fact that the overwhelming majority of domestic violence victims are women. There are male victims out there as well, who sometimes suffer from the added burden of feeling that it is unacceptable, or a personal failure, for a man to be the victim of domestic violence. Men who have been victimized should not be forgotten, though the number of female victims is disproportionately greater. 

What kind of abuse do they suffer? 

Lenore Walker, in her book The Battered Woman Syndrome, outlines what she calls the "Cycle of Violence". On average, only about one-third of domestic violence victims can identify with this cycle. Clearly, not all domestic violence relationships fit the cycle and not everyone's experiences are the same. However the "cycle" can be useful in describing key dimensions of the abusive relationship.

First, there is the tension phase. During the tension phase, the victim often feels like they are walking on eggshells. This stage may last for weeks or even months. It is a high-stress time when communication breaks down, and the victim senses a growing danger. Many times, the victim's family denies, minimizes, and/or blames external factors for the growing instability in the relationship. 

The second phase, which Walker calls the crisis phase, is easily recognizable. During this stage the abuser often "snaps". This kind of crisis can last anywhere from two hours to 24 hours, or even span over several days. At this point the abuser becomes explosive, unpredictable, and often times violent. The victims are blamed for bringing this on themselves, and in order to survive they often accommodate the demands of the abuser. It is also true that victims may escape during the crisis phase, yet often return sometime during the next phase.

The third phase is called the calm phase. This stage is the "calm" that follows the outburst of stage two. Here, the abuser may be extremely remorseful, seek forgiveness, and promise to change. He may display kind and loving behavior as indicators that he has turned a new leaf. In response to such "repentance", the victim's family and children may serve as caretakers in order to keep the peace. 

But it is a cycle, and therefore the victim eventually finds herself on the tension-crisis-calm rollercoaster all over again. In time the abuser begins to fantasize about abusing the victim again. In his mind he obsesses, thinking about what she's done to wrong him and how he'll make her pay. Then he makes a plan for turning the fantasy of abuse into reality. Once the abuser decides to act, he will set the victim up and put his plan in motion. When she fails in some action, behavior, or response (as she is bound to, since it's a trap), he convinces himself that he is perfectly justified in punishing her. 

Now the abuser excuses himself for his abusive behavior. Sometimes the abuse is physical: hitting, kicking, or hair-pulling. Other times, the abuser won't ever lay a hand on the survivors--but they will be shamed, called names, humiliated, threatened, and manipulated.

If the abuse isn't physical, that doesn't mean it's not abuse. Most abuse cases begin with emotional, verbal, and other nonphysical forms of abuse and then escalate to physical forms. The scars of emotional abuse are very real, they can run very deep, and they are not to be dismissed. In fact, emotional abuse can be just as damaging as physical abuse - sometimes even more so.

Regarding physical abuse: domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women, topping car accidents, muggings and rapes combined. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop reported that domestic violence is the greatest single cause of injury to American women. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the United States, more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined.[2] 

How do victims feel?

For those trapped in the cycle of abuse, making sense of these complicated relational dynamics--especially when the relationship is intimate--can be suffocating and confusing. Many victims feel emotionally numb and helpless, wondering if they really have brought this suffering upon themselves. Maybe they have provoked their partner's jealousy. Maybe they're the crazy one. But as domestic violence expert Lundy Bancroft point out, "Abuse is not caused by relationship dynamics. You can't manage your partner's abusiveness by changing your behavior, but he wants you to think that you can." [3]

Many victims feel that God is punishing them, and they look for causes in themselves. They may think, "I haven't been a good wife or mother, so God is punishing me," or "I did something wrong when I was a teenager, so God is punishing me," or "I haven't been a good enough Christian, so God is punishing me."

Further feelings that are ever-present for victims of domestic abuse are fear, denial, along with a crisis of identity, shame, and anger.  

Fear. Fear is a constant reality for victims of domestic abuse: fear of addressing certain topics because of how their partner might respond, afraid to disagree with them on any matter, fear of their partner's temper, fear of how their relationships with others might be perceived, fear of doing something wrong in their partner's presence, fear of leaving or breaking up with their abuser because they have threatened to hurt them, himself, or someone else. Along with this comes a defensiveness that's been reinforced by having to justify everything they do, every place you go, and every person to whom they talk. 

Denial. Denial and minimization are key methods victims use, as a means of lessening or coping with the trauma from domestic abuse. At first, denial can slow the process down to create a buffer or safety zone so survivors can ease into coping with difficult emotions. Prolonged denial, however, may backfire by increasing the pain in the long run. For if a victim cannot come to terms with the severe mental and emotional tolls she has sustained, she cannot truly heal from it.

Distorted identity. Domestic violence victims live with the constant struggle to maintain their identity when the abuser has worked so hard to distort it. This kind of disgrace slowly erodes a victim's self-image. A negative self-image, provoked by an abuser, fuels an identity founded on self-condemnation. Domestic violence is a powerful communicator of value. And the abuser's actions say, with no less clarity than their words, that the victim is stupid, filthy, foolish, worthless, defiled, impure, damaged, gross, screwed-up, unwanted, and dirty.

Shame. Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist writer, accurately describes shame as "a hemorrhage of the soul." Shame has the power to take a victim's breath away, smothering victims with condemnation, rejection, and disgust. It is a difficult emotion to fight. To be shamed is to be abased and dishonored, to be rejected from the community--especially when a victim is not believed or supported, told to be silent, or blamed. Often victims will attempt to numb this pain through drugs, alcohol, sex, power, success, or whatever else enables them to stop feeling.

Anger. Since domestic violence is unquestionably an evil, sinful act it understandably elicits anger for those who have suffered at its hands. Deep in the hearts of victims, anger swells up against the perpetrator, their rage inflamed by suffering. Anger is a natural and even healthy response to domestic violence. While nearly all victims appropriately experience anger, most express it poorly or not at all. Most victims feel pressure from their families, society, or religion to ignore or suppress it. But suppression does not help anger to dissipate over time. Instead, it will turn into bitterness, hatred, and revengeful obsessions. In fact, unresolved or denied anger can become a destructive force in life of a victim.

Despair. If left unaddressed, identity issues, shame, and anger may all compound in feelings of despair--a commonly reported symptom of domestic violence. Victims feeling that they lost something--whether it's their innocence, youth, health, trust, confidence, or sense of safety--can lead to despair. For those who have experienced the evil of domestic violence, it's likely that they have had an encounter with despair and depression.


Though victims often feel worthless, without dignity, and broken they need to hear a clear word of how God's grace applies to their experiences of abuse and its effects on their lives. The fact is we are all broken people in a broken world. Grace is most needed and best understood in the midst of sin, suffering, and brokenness. Deliverance begins when the victims recognize that what they live with is not healthy, not normal, and not acceptable. They are worth more than the abuse they've grown accustomed. Victims need to hear that their feelings of shame and disgrace have nothing to do with what they have done. Something disgraceful was done to them. But God uses the gospel of grace to eliminate that disgrace and heal its effects.

Hurting people need something from the outside to stop the downward spiral caused by the cycle of violence. God, in His grace, declares that victims will be healed of their disgrace. Contrary to the proponents of the healing benefits of self-esteem for victims, this promise does not come from within you but from outside of you. Fortunately, grace floods in from the outside at the point when hope to change oneself is lost. Grace does not command, "Heal thyself !" but declares "You will be healed!" Take a look at this promise in Jeremiah 17:14, "Heal me, Lord, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, for you are the one I praise."

The abuse victims of domestic violence have suffered does not define them or have the last word on their identity. It is part of their story, but not the end of their story.

Justin is an Episcopal priest and teaches theology, philosophy, and Christian thought at Gordon-Conwell-Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Lindsey, are authors of: Is It My Fault?: Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic ViolenceRid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault. Justin has written or edited numerous books: Know the Heretics (2014), Know the Creeds and Councils (2014), On the Grace of GodActs: A 12-Week Study, For the Worldand Christian Theologies of Scripture


[1] Patricia Tjaden and Nancey Thoennes, "Extent, Nature and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence: Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey" (2009). National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

[2] C. Everett Koop, "From the Surgeon General, U.S. Public Health Service," Journal of the American Medical Association 267 (1992): 3132

[3] Lundy Bancroft, Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2002), 352