“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 M3ND Project.

Along with principal founder Annette Oltmans, we co-founded The M3ND Project to shine a light on the Double Abuse harming countless victims in our society. The M3ND 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

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14 comments

  1. Good article Johanna. It reminds me of the same phenomenon that typically happens to whistleblowers in the workplace. They speak up about being harassed or mistreated, only to be responded to in a similar abusive or dishonest way. There are so many cases of this, many of them high-profile.

    I also think that your pastor’s response is typical of the kind of behaviour that has turned many people away from the church, and God. I’m quite disgusted by his response actually.

    All the best with your project,
    Stephen
    Psychotherapist, Glasgow

  2. One caveat I might raise to this article-
    As someone who has survived an abusive relationship and has received therapy and has since healed and moved forward to a brighter life, I notice there was one thing that helped me climb out of the sadness that followed ending that damaging relationship. The quality that really healed me was refusing to label myself “victim”.
    Continuing to live life drowning in the reality that I was hurt did not help me to heal. I was living expecting everyone around me to know how much of a victim I was and to treat me accordingly, but that was unfair to the people around me. I now look back and see more power in telling yourself “I am not going to live like a victim anymore” and walking forward with hopeful expectation that people can treat you normally (not as a delicate, hurt thing).
    Hopefully this can be a unique perspective to the healing process that comes after abuse.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

    1. 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.

  5. 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.

    1. 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.

  6. 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!

  7. 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.

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