Loss of Perspective: The Cost of Enduring Abuse

Do individuals suffer harm when they remain in verbally or emotionally abusive relationships?  Cindy Kunsman illustrates the effects through an account of spiritual abuse.

 

Photo credit:  Metropolitan Museum of Art

Photo credit:  Girl at a Window by Balthus    @ Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

By Cindy Kunsman, UnderMuchGrace.com

After reading Julie Anne’s post questioning whether divorce from an abusive spouse is actually a “sin,” I found myself thinking of the loss of perspective and the gratification that the abuser experiences when an abused person “submits” to their abuser and remains in the relationship. As Patricia Evans puts it in her book, The Verbally Abusive Relationship, the person who suffers abuse gradually loses their sense of “confidence and self-esteem without even realizing it” (pg 47). I also recalled a quote from her book that I’d highlighted before and found it when I sought it out today – a statement made by a domestic abuse survivor who just started learning about the nature of her relationship with her husband (pg 38):

If you’ve never been in a verbally abusive relationship, you would have an extremely difficult time knowing what it’s like.  If you’re in a verbally abusive relationship, you may never have recognized it.”

 

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An Illustration

Let me offer you a personal example as I paint a picture of where I found myself in life. As many of you know, I spent four years in a high demand, fundamentalist Christian church that was affiliated with a Charismatic Shepherding-Discipleship organization, loved Bill Gothard’s material, and followed a very similar order of worship to Sovereign Grace Ministries (pre-Calvinism). I was devastated when I left, sought exit counseling, and even found private Bible study to be quite difficult for at least two years. We relocated half way across the country just a year after we exited that church. When we started attending our new church, I would weep all the way through worship at every service, mourning over what felt like the loss of sacred music because it had become tainted. My husband chose a church that was sixty miles away from our home in the Texas Hill Country where he felt safe. Though we tithed and participated in ministry within that body by helping people in need, though we chose not to join.  We naturally discussed this with the pastor.

I refer to the next few years that followed as our “desert experience.” I spent a solid five years with an infection requiring constant antibiotics and steroids, and I finally required surgery which was horrible. That was in between injections in my pelvis and back to treat a back injury. My husband struggled with three life-altering illnesses, used medical leave twice, and during the course of seven years, we flew to both the East and West Coasts to find effective treatment for him. Unrelated to those illnesses, he suffered a car wreck which eventually claimed his eye. He had several surgeries during a terrible six months until his eye was removed for pain management.

A year later, he had another unrelated surgery. On the evening of the accident, I phoned the home of the elder who had been friendly with us, left a message, but never heard any response. I phoned the pastor the next morning and told him that my husband would be kept in the hospital that was just twenty minutes down the road from the church, and he would be there for a few days. No one visited, but three weeks later, I did get a card in the mail from an elder with whom I once shook hands.

Between mailing in my tithe checks, I made it to church only twice during that six months. I did all of the driving, worked along side my husband at work all day, then went home to manage our home in the country and his medical needs. When I phoned the pastor to let him know about the final surgery he said very glibly, “You know, you’re always welcome to come back here.” I think I was too tired and stressed to even process what he’d said, considering that I didn’t know that I’d left. When well enough to make it to church again, my husband said that he didn’t want to go to a place that didn’t care whether he lived or died. I started irregularly attending two different churches when I could, but my schedule didn’t allow for much more.

Seeking Reconciliation

After another sad life event a few years later and in need comfort, I decided to go back to the church to “make things right.” I had invested in people there and loved them, and I needed love that day. We’d never talked to anyone about feeling abandoned by the people at the church, and I showed up weeping on the church doorstep on a weekday afternoon to be greeted by a new pastor. He talked with me for awhile, but he was more interested in where I was going to church now and why I wasn’t a member. I finally just said to him in frustration and brokenness, “Here I am now, showing myself to you – like Jesus told the leper to show himself to the priest. I am willing to be healed.” But I found that all very odd and was shocked in hindsight that I’d even uttered such a thing – a statement of shame. The scene didn’t seem like one that was fitting for a sick, contrite, weeping woman? He jotted down my name and number, said that he would have to talk to the elders, for he felt at a disadvantage for having no knowledge of me or the situation.

The next Sunday, I tagged along to church with my neighbor who lived just five miles down the road. When the pastor walked by and greeted him but seemed not to recognize me, my neighbor introduced me, noting that he thought that we had met already. He acted like the cat that swallowed the canary as he shook my hand, then scooted away. It was amazing. The old pastor who had retired walked by me like he’d never met me, as did the elders we had known fairly well. I went home and waited for my call.

The Bitter Truth

Almost three months after I’d visited the pastor that day, I talked with an acquaintance that I hadn’t seen in some time, and she asked me where I was attending church. I wish that I’d had a video of myself while telling her about how I was waiting for that pastor to call me. It probably sounded like a damsel in a Disney fairy tale, and I was waiting for the cavalry to come to my aid. When proofing my posts about Lifeboats and Lourdes, SSB editor Brad Sargent noted how I created a fantasy as a child to maintain some sense of optimism to keep on living. I guess I’m nothing if not consistent!

I am so grateful to that young woman who very lovingly confronted me with compassion that afternoon. She said, “Cindy. That man is not ever going to call you. Not after three months.” I didn’t really believe her — I didn’t want to think it was true. I went home and wrote a letter of contrition to the pastor, about a page and a half long, typed. At the end of it, I said that I felt as though I’d been told to be warmed and filled like James wrote about in his epistle, but I don’t know that I’d even heard any message of peace. I was still waiting by the phone – until a friend put my waiting into perspective. I think I finally “got it” when the pastor wrote back to me and said that he was told that because I was never a member, the elders felt no duty to us. He called this a sin on my part, and recommended other churches I could attend – as his was no longer an option for me. He also noted that he took the time to contact the pastors of the churches he recommended to inform them of my sin issues. Perhaps one day when I happen over that letter, I may post it online. (Friends recommended that I burn it, but I chose to keep it.)

*  *  *

Just as Evans describes, I lost my confidence and my self-esteem, and I didn’t even know it. My perspective shifted so much from so many factors in my life, and as a result, my level of “normal,” reasonable and acceptable dropped to an all time low.  I didn’t have any energy to be assertive anymore, and didn’t start out from a great place to begin with. Abuse and trauma habituate us into a very unhealthy place in soul and spirit. I am so grateful for that compassionate woman who helped me see how skewed my perspective had become. I’ve composed a summary of the kinds of things that happen to a person as they lose perspective because of abuse. Though I referenced some material on domestic abuse, I used both Evans’ book about verbal abuse and Patrick Carnes book about the bonds of trauma as primary sources.

Reading through the list below, can you identify any consequences of abuse in my personal experience after two successive spiritually abusive churches?

Which of the consequences have you experienced?

Can you look back on a traumatic experience and see a similar pattern in your own behavior? If you can, Congratulations! Welcome to the human race.

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Gastlight

 

Consequences of Chronic Verbal and Emotional Abuse

Confusion/Cognitive Dissonance

  • Negation of feelings/assumption of fault for confusion (“I must have missed something…”)
  • Doubt of ability to “test” or comprehend reality (Such as results from “gaslighting”)
  • Concerns/fears about one’s own mental health or coping

Loss of Self-Confidence

Hyperarousal (Symptoms from Failed Efforts to Avoid Punishment)

  • Fear
  • Problems with decision-making (Includes “freezing” response)
  • Lack of spontaneity
  • Depression
  • Hopelessness/Helplessness
  • Lack of appropriate trust in other relationships
  • Hypervigilance (Carefulness,“on-guard,” or “waiting for the other shoe to drop”)

Coping Mechanisms to Manage Moods (from Effective to Maladaptive)

  • Desire to escape
  • Avoidance
  • Behavior to distract from or numb confusion and pain
  • Eating, drinking, or substance use for “release”
  • Wishful thinking (“It will be better when…”)
  • Compulsiveness
    • Compliance
    • Identification (Assimilating attributes of another person)
    • Self-denial
    • Dependency or self-reliance
    • Care giving or care seeking
    • Self-destructive behavior (Includes self-injury)
    • Relationship “drama”

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Primary References:

Other works cited:

165 comments on “Loss of Perspective: The Cost of Enduring Abuse

  1. Lydia, Paul indeed had no power in the flesh. The only power he had was the truth he walked in, in which God backed him up. In churches, that’s the only power anyone should have.

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  2. The previous article that appeared here on SSB dealt with questionable opinions about whether divorce causes harm to families, particularly in the presence of abuse. Is divorce a sin that passes sin on to children? As an adjunct to that discussion, I hoped to highlight that chronically verbally abusive relationships do cause harm that crushes the spirit of those who are targeted within them.

    Paul talked about speaking that which was good to the use of edification to minster grace. In the example I gave, I think that the pastors that I wrote about lacked appropriate grace — some in word and some in deed. The focus of this post has everything to do with deeds and fruit, but little or to nothing to do with doctrine. The pastors mentioned here lacked a demonstration of faith by their works.

    Out of respect for those who are in abusive relationships, if this blog does repeat so many criticisms “over and over” about that which is “coming from the pulpits,” could those engaged in that exchange possibly move over to one of those other discussions? It almost sounds to me like an argument that pastors have no duty to be hospitable or that people in churches (like those at Corinth) give cause to pastors today to be justifiably angry with their parishioners. That’s not a discussion for a thread that is this sensitive.

    Please show loving kindness and move any further discussion about Paul and his authority structure in First Century AD to another more appropriate thread. Thank you.

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  3. In my opinion, what I am seeing here are 3 common responses to the extensive Bible text about Paul’s feelings and experience in ministry (recorded in his autobiographical letters that comprise about 1/3 of the New Testament, and Luke’s biography of Paul in about half of Acts.)

    Peter Attwood strongly defends Paul, insisting that Paul was right about essentially everything.

    Lydia glosses over Paul’s behavior, positing it was just unique “communication tactics” and something like boys will be boys, nobody’s perfect.

    Cindy K seems a bit uncomfortable about Paul’s behavior, but doesn’t want to talk about it.

    I am proposing a fourth option. Namely, that we look at Paul’s letters to the Corinthians objectively, and realize that Paul was functioning as an abusive inhospitable absentee pastor / leader, and Paul himself was one of the primary root causes of the problems in Corinth.

    Most Evangelical pastors are trying very hard to “be like Paul.” And succeeding. That is the theological root cause of much of the abuse. Not the only cause of course, but its major, and almost entirely hidden.

    People have a loss of perspective about what a church is supposed to be, and what a pastor or shepherd is, because their minds are filled with Paul the abusive inhospitable absentee pastor, not Jesus the Good Shepherd.

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  4. Matthew, just stop. Enough with the Paul bashing. Either take the whole Bible as Scripture, or take none of it. Don’t look now, but your hatred, venom and animosity against Paul is showing. All that negativity on a blog that advocates for survivors of abuse will only harm those already suffering, and does not help in our healing process.

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  5. “Lydia glosses over Paul’s behavior, positing it was just unique “communication tactics” and something like boys will be boys, nobody’s perfect.”

    Oh dear. I know answering this is an exercise in futility so why bother? I have never in my life taken the tact that boys will be boys. I despise that sort of thinking. I guess I did not communicate well before. I don’t read Paul through Western eyes anymore. I read him in his 1st Century context as a PhariseticalJew who grew up in the Diaspora went on to study under the great Gamiliel and subsequently jailed mostly Jewish convert Christians but after conversion went to convert Gentiles. I find that amusing and proof God has a sense of humor. Paul was a cream of the crop Jew on track to become a mover and shaker in the Pharisetical world. Peter, on the other hand, was fishing with his dad which means he did not make the Rabbinical track.

    I do not think Paul was Jesus. In fact, I would say that unless we know Christ well, Paul is very hard to understand. (Peter said so, too)

    I do think that too many pastors elevate Paul to Jesus status and that is a mistake. I would prefer they focus on Jesus Christ and encourage that Paul be understood through the Jesus Christ filter. Not the post enlightenment filter often used today to interpret Paul forgetting the historical context.

    So Mattthew, you have descended into the typical insults toward those who disagree with you or even those who do not jump on your bash Paul bandwagon.

    How are you any different than what you claim Paul was doing?

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  6. “Yet, how often do we acknowledge that Paul was the founder and still the absolute leader of this church even when he wrote to them years after he moved away to Ephesus? If you read 1 & 2 Corinthians, you see that according to Paul, he himself still controlled all aspects of the church, from a distance of hundreds of miles away”

    Matthew, get a reality check. Do you know how long it took a letter to reach a place in the 1st Century? They were usually carried by hand when someone happens to be going that way. Or were sent. Have you done a timeline on Paul’s journey and how much time, approximately, he spent with certain churches? You might be surprised. And it might be a wake up call to why his letters sound the way they do. Ironically the only hint we have about “leaders” in the Corinthian church is “Chloe” had “people”. A woman!!! (wink)

    And it would make sense that Corinth Gentiles had a ton of questions. And that is what 1 Corin is mostly about. Answering questions sent to him. It is just that Greek had no punctuation so the translators decided which ones were questions or not to add quotations around them.

    Ok, I am done before I get in more trouble. You don’t want dialogue, Matthew. You want down the line agreement. How are you different than what you are claiming about Paul?

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  7. Cindy K,

    Unfortunately, Matthew has completely disregarded your request that he take his pet issue to another thread. It seems that Matthew has limited capacity to empathetically identify with other people. He does not seem to understand how his off-topic contributions affect other people. In attempting to change the subject, Matthew essentially and effectively discounts the magnitude of the trauma that has been inflicted on those who are reading and commenting here. It appears to me that Matthew is a false teacher–not just in the sense that he is promoting false doctrine, but also in the sense that, in promoting his own anti-Paul agenda, he is missing–that is, he is being false to–the needs of those who have suffered horrendous abuse and neglect at the hands of clergy and others. Your readers need compassion and healing words. They do not need to see their life experiences reduced to a springboard or pretext for somebody like Matthew to pursue their pet obsession.

    We don’t need Paul to inform us that we should mark and avoid such people. I know that Julie Anne has always been very reluctant to censor anybody. However, I do seem to recall her having moved comments to different threads.

    While I believe the best strategy for dealing with difficult people (including wolves/false shepherds claiming the title of “pastor”) is to avoid them, two other possibilities have been suggested to me. You can accommodate them in exchange for their rendering up whatever it is one seeks or needs from them. This is a dangerous game that too easily crosses over into co-dependency, and it should only be played when there is no choice but to deal with the difficult person. The other strategy is to set boundaries from which one simply refuses to budge. While I see this as a better strategy than accommodation, I once again recommend it only when there is no choice but to deal with the difficult person. From personal experience I can testify that when the difficult person is highly narcissistic, for example, the setting of immovable boundaries can prompt extraordinarily hostile retaliatory attacks. (To his credit, Matthew has not attacked those of us who have contested his views.)

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  8. We have properly been asked to take the Paul discussion elsewhere, so if we want to continue it, let’s do that.

    But this post brings up another problem. Nothing here actually addresses the points any of us have made. Rather, it talks about what we’re doing, essentially an ad hominem attack. For instance, instead of actually interacting with the facts and reason I set forth, specifically refuting me where in error if you can, you go to what I’m trying to do.

    Now it is true, and pertinent here, that plenty of evangelical pastors and others are abusive because they are taking Paul as an example, and yet without ensuring first that they are qualified to exercise his kind of authority. An instance of this in the Bible is Abimelech the bastard son of Gideon cutting down a branch and telling his followers do as I do, in this way superficially imitating Gideon. It’s like people growing their hair and wearing sandals and feeling that they’re like Jesus.

    People do that, and, Matthew, you do well to bring it up. But without saying another thing about Paul, having been asked to take that elsewhere, that phenomenon doesn’t say anything about the example such people think they’re following, whether Paul or anyone else. The Egyptians tried to imitate Israel in crossing the Red Sea, and it didn’t work out so well. In the same way, “Christian leaders” trying to do like Paul, while saying something about themselves, aren’t necessarily shedding any light on the ways of the real Paul.

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  9. Pingback: Lourdes, Lifeboats, and Bounded Choice: Part IV (The Complicated Process of Exiting Totalist Groups) | Spiritual Sounding Board

  10. I just read this. I hope it’s ok that I copied it to share with my sister. We are survivors of spiritual abuse, both in church and in the family. My heart breaks over this kind of abuse.

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  11. Pingback: A Glimpse into the Heart of Spiritual Abuse | Spiritual Sounding Board

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