The Most Important Thing to Do If Someone Confides in You About Abuse

“Don’t speak to me unless it’s about reconciliation.”
“Don’t speak to me unless it’s about reconciliation.”
“Do NOT speak to me unless it’s about reconciliation.”

I’ll never forget those words repeated to me by my former pastor and friend during the summer of 2011; the summer that changed my life forever. I had been married to my ex-husband for eight years. Throughout our marriage, he was emotionally and psychologically abusive. I experienced a daily onslaught of name-calling, put-downs, manipulations and crazy making. That summer I also found out he was having an affair with a woman he met at work.

I needed space. I needed to find clarity and figure out my next steps, so I drove eight hours from my small town in Tennessee to Destin, Florida to get away and figure out once and for all what I needed to do.

I asked my ex-husband not to call me while I was there; a reasonable boundary considering the circumstances. But like every other boundary I had tried to set in our marriage, he failed to respect it. So I called my pastor and friend for help. My simple request, “Please ask my husband to stop calling me. I need the space to figure this all out.” And rather than listen to me or offer any kind of encouragement, my pastor cut me off mid-sentence and repeated those words over and over until I finally, through tears and anger said, “You don’t know anything that I’ve been through and I guess we will never speak again.”

And sadly, we haven’t.

Over the last six years since I made the decision to leave my ex and begin the healing processes, what I have found to be true is that it wasn’t the abuse from my ex-husband that was so traumatizing to me in the long term. It was the Double Abuse from my pastor and friends who responded in similarly harmful ways. When I reached out to them for help, their judgmental responses to my abuse took its toll on me. I still work to mend the brokenness in my soul from Double Abuse… even today. One way I do this is through my work at The MEND Project.

Along with principal founder Annette Oltmans, we co-founded The MEND Project to shine a light on the Double Abuse harming countless victims in our society. The MEND Project defines Double Abuse as what happens when a victim of any kind of Primary Abuse (bullying, rape, domestic violence, etc) finally gains the courage to speak out or reach out for help. Instead of being received with compassion, empathy and acceptance by her support system, she is ostracized from her family and/or community or subjected to judgment, ultimatums or incorrect therapeutic treatment.

Whether intentional or unintentional, Doubly Abusive responses often lead the victim to feel hopeless and alone and can contribute to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD) and Complex PTSD. For example, my pastor thought he was responding to me in love, but his ultimatums were traumatizing and harmful. When I needed hope and a compassionate ear, he turned his back on me and refused to listen. And I will never forget that moment.

It’s important to recognize the power in our words, the harm we might do to another if we don’t slow down enough to be present, show compassion and really listen to someone if they are confiding in us about the trauma they’ve experienced or abuse they may be enduring. Often, we believe we know what’s best and we want to express that, or we want to fix the situation and give uninvited advice. What ends up happening is that we cause a victim exponentially more pain, making it that much harder for her to heal.

On the other hand, the gift of listening can have a profound impact on her that can literally shift her mindset from despair and self-blame to hope and restoration.

It’s important to recognize the power in our words, the harm we might do to another if we don’t slow down enough to be present, show compassion and really listen to someone …

So what does the act of listening look like? Listening means that instead of retreating or turning your back on a victim, tell her that you are there to listen only. Then do just that, listen, listen, listen. No judgments, no suggestions, no interpretations. A person experiencing abuse is vulnerable and must be approached with empathy and compassion, not pity or condemnation.

I cannot stress this enough: listen with big ears and a closed mouth. For the listener and the victim, it’s a much simpler solution because it takes the pressure off the listener to fix the situation and it fosters a safe environment for the victim/survivor to find clarity.

I think often of that day when my pastor failed to listen. I wonder how different things might have been had he done that one simple act. It wouldn’t have changed my decision to leave an abuser, but would it have helped my husband face accountability rather than unconditional support? Would it have aided my restoration? I believe that it would have.

I am one of the lucky ones. I have refused to be defined by my abusive and Doubly Abusive experiences and I have worked hard to mend. I have learned the hard way to surround myself with an empowering community of friends, loved ones, pastors and a small group who does listen with open minds and hearts.

Add to that a strength of character, a lot of soul-searching and trauma work which has led to a new life with a loving, listening husband, a new baby daughter on the way and a meaningful job to train communities on how to respond correctly to victims of abuse. I have thrived despite those destructive responses, not because of them. If you have faced something similar, I want you to know that you can thrive too.

So I leave you with this, if you have a friend or family member in an abusive situation and would like to know more about how to respond appropriately, please visit our website www.themendproject.com and check out our Healing Model of Compassion.

Images via Sadie Culberson

Johanna, Executive Director of The MEND Project, has spent the last eight years working with International Justice Mission and other organizations on justice-related human rights issues. She is a survivor of domestic violence and Double Abuse from friends, family and church leaders who refused to believe her cries for help and emboldened her Alleged Perpetrator. As a result, Johanna is a passionate advocate for those who have no voice. Her work has been published in multiple media outlets, including The Huffington Post, Darling Magazine, The Girl Who Knows, The Yellow Conference, Holl and Lane, and others. In 2016, she co-founded The MEND Project with Annette Oltmans.

20 COMMENTS
  • Cassidy July 20, 2017

    Joanna,

    Thank you for sharing such a personal story of pain and healing.

    The MEND Project is beautiful (especially the underlying idea of Kintsugi which I hadn’t heard of until today!). Do you ever partner up with other businesses to talk about Double Abuse? I’ve started an ethical box business that fights human trafficking and would love to do something with you guys to shine light on what people can do for friends or themselves if they’re in an abusive situation.

    • johanna tropiano July 23, 2017

      Hi Cassidy! Thank you for your comment. Yes! We LOVE partnerships. And we would love to work with you. Thank you so much for the offer. You can email me at Johanna@themendproject.com. Blessings to you and thank you for all you do.

  • Daniel July 17, 2017

    Johanna, I’m so sorry for what you went through. I’ve been reading a book called Understanding the Mind of a Woman by Ken Nair and his primary point is that relationships/marriages fall apart because men don’t know how to be like Christ and love & understand their wives. In one of the chapters he describes some scenarios that occur when husbands don’t love their wives and one of them sounds exactly like what you experienced. His book, or ministry might be worth you checking out and connecting with.

  • Rachelle July 15, 2017

    Thank you for writing this article! I co-facilitate groups for women who have experienced domestic violence (physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, spiritual, financial, etc.). We are so thankful when a women tells us that she has a support system of friends, family, and church community, who support her. The disheartening truth is, for a lot of women, the weekly groups are their only source of support. I am grateful to see articles like this, because it means that there is hope for change in the future. You give sound advice. To not give advice. Listen. In our groups we never give advice, and don’t allow the women to “should” on each other. instead we come from the perspective that the women is the expert in her own life. She knows best. Create a safe space where a women can tell her story, so she can hear it for herself, gain clarity, and empowerment to move forward. I want to write more! But I will leave the excellent resource that we use in our groups: https://www.whenlovehurts.ca/ Thank you again for this excellent piece!

  • Heidi July 10, 2017

    I have never posted a comment to an article before, but I was so moved by this and the timing of it in my own life as I walk with my younger sister who courageously separated herself and her children several months ago from an abusive marriage. We have both been shocked and broken to see this kind of double abuse from people we would have hoped would support and help. This is a necessary issue to speak about – thank you so much, Johanna, for your wisdom and compassion. And thank you to Darling Magazine for sharing this message with a broad audience of women who want to make a difference.

    • johanna tropiano July 10, 2017

      I’m so sorry for what your sister and her family is going through and even more sorry for the harmful responses she has received. It breaks my heart. I’m so grateful she has you to stand with her, listen, and validate her experience. She needs you more than ever. Thanks for your encouragement and please stay in touch.

  • Anonymous July 10, 2017

    I had a friend’s sister who was married to a man who turned out not to be who he said he was. Our elders said the same thing, that the only way she could stay in favor with God was to reconcile with him, no matter what dangers she foresaw for not only her, but also her unborn child at the time. They even told her parents they had to disown her if she didn’t reconcile with her husband. They all ended up leaving that church, which in turn lead to our family leaving the church because of the injustice. Though I haven’t been through this, I’ve seen the emotional consequences of this double abuse, and I’m so grateful there are people like you out there who are willing to speak up and help women. Thank you.

    • johanna tropiano July 10, 2017

      I’m so sorry for your friend. It’s never a good thing to put the institution of marriage over an individual person. That individual’s soul is far more important to God than any institution. There are some amazing churches out there that understand this, and I’m so thankful to have found one. It has helped redeem the pain. Thank you for sharing. Hopefully the more we can train churches on how to respond, we can prevent harm like this from occurring.

  • Maureen Farrell Garcia July 8, 2017

    Great article. Expressive and Informative. This happens in Christian environments far too often. Thank you for writing about this.

    • johanna tropiano July 9, 2017

      Thank you Maureen. It does happen in christian environments but also in our schools, universities, families, etc. Our hope is that we can start raising awareness about Double Abuse and training pastors, educators, etc on how to respond so they don’t continue to damage people in this way. Please spread the word and thanks for your encouragement!

    • johanna tropiano July 10, 2017

      Thank you for your comment! And thank you for sharing.

  • Mary July 8, 2017

    Having gone through the same, one phrase resonates with me still, “God gave us mouths that close and ears that don’t.” Thanks to those who know the power of those words and the discernment, patience and compassion to practice them. Bravo on your article and The MEND Project!

    • johanna tropiano July 9, 2017

      So sorry to hear that you’ve experienced a similar circumstance. It happens far too often. But it helps to know that we aren’t alone. Thank you for your comment and please stay in touch!

  • Jess July 8, 2017

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this Johanna. This will empower the abused and their communities alike. Here’s to listening with compassion and creating space for those we love. xx

  • Talitha July 8, 2017

    I love this. You’re amazing and I’m so proud of the way you’ve rooted yourself in the truth that abuse is wrong… .full stop. Empowering people to trust their instincts rather than to conform to the ideal that is being said by a person in authority (who may have authority, but not expertise), is so important. Keep it up!

    • johanna tropiano July 9, 2017

      What a wonderful and smart comment. I’m going to steal a sentence or two. Thanks Talitha!

  • Sarah July 8, 2017

    I can understand where this I coming from. I have experienced similar situations in the past. One thing I wanted to mention, is as much as one pastor had that kind of response, it’s definitely not a reflection on all pastors or the church. But I can see how awful that must have been when help was needed most. I do agree that people need to take the time to listen more, rather than only respond.

  • I’m so sorry about the reaction of your pastor – I’m so shocked! So glad you got out of the situation in the end…

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