This post is part of a series.
Join us for Part One: What Does God Say About Abuse?
Have you been betrayed, gaslighted, and lied to? You are a victim of abuse. And you deserve safety.
Leslie Vernick, author and expert on healing from intimate betrayal, joins Anne on The BTR.Org Podcast to empower women to begin their journeys to healing today.
Find Safety From Abuse: Begin Identifying Patterns
Abusers create a reality where victims are focused on the honeymoon phase of the abuse vortex, or are so fixated on seeing the good, or the abuser’s potential, that the established patterns of abuse in the marriage go unnoticed.
He’s attentive, he’s being honest, he’s paying the bills, and you’re thinking, okay, he’s changed, he’s got it. He’s doing good and we’re better. But you have to look at the whole cycle. And that’s why the patterns are so important for you to pay attention to because, obviously, most women don’t marry jerks. They know that they have a good side or they wouldn’t marry this person, so they’re on their good side of the cycle, but the cycle is still the cycle. The bad side of this cycle is where they start to get tense or they start to get a feeling of whatever it is a compulsive feeling to act out or watch porn or the shame or whatever is going on with them, anger, that they’re going to abuse or act out again.Leslie Vernick
When victims courageously allow themselves to identify and document patterns of unhealthy and abusive behaviors, they are taking a monumental step toward safety. It is only when victims acknowledge and accept the full truth of their situation, that they are able to begin their journey to healing.
Accept That Divorce Doesn’t “Break” Families: Betrayal & Abuse Break Families
In the Christian world anyway, we have kind of made an idol out of marriage. We so value the sanctity of marriage, and I value the sanctity of marriage, but not above the safety and the sanity of the people in the marriage. It’s really true that the sins are passed down to the next generation to the next generation to the next generation. And when a woman begins to say, I don’t want this happening to my kids, I don’t want to grow up in this environment or have my kids grow up in the same environment I did. I’m going to take a stand and say, hey, I’m willing to work with you if you want to change and be a different person, but if you’re going to continue this pattern, I’m not going to do life with you. That can seem very rebellious in a conservative Christian family. How dare you break up the family. She hasn’t broken that family up; she’s just exposed the truth about the family.Leslie Vernick
One of the major hurdles for many victims of abuse in finding safety is the fear of breaking their family by separating or divorcing their abuser.
Fleeing a person who repeatedly harms you is not breaking or ruining a marriage: his harmful behaviors already destroyed the relationship, harmed your children, and broke your marital vows. If you choose to separate yourself from your abuser, you are simply responding in a healthy way to a very unhealthy situation.
Accepting this truth is a powerful move toward healing and peace.
Find Safety From Abuse By Prioritizing Safety Above All Else
Children who grew up in an environment where there’s a lot of turmoil and screaming and lack of safety, their growth channel of learning and maturing and all that is shut down because their body is hardwired for fight or flight and that comes first. And so, we have to recognize that safety, physical safety, emotional safety, financial safety, sexual safety, spiritual safety, these are important values to God and we do not have to be apologetic, or ashamed for taking them to heart in our own life.Leslie Vernick
Your safety is important. It’s vital. Not only for you, but for your children, and it’s important to God.
When you deeply internalize your own worth and importance, the steps you need to take in order to protect your body and mind from abuse become clearer and simpler.
To begin prioritizing your own safety, you can take small but clear action steps toward self-care, such as:
- Daily journaling
- Mindful breathing
- Walking in nature
- Writing poetry
By prioritizing your physical and emotional health, you may begin to remember your own worth as a human being – something that abusers attempt to diminish by betraying, gaslighting, and covertly degrading you.
BTR.ORG is Here For You
At BTR, we know how utterly terrifying it is to accept that you are an abuse victim – we know how daunting it can be to take those first steps toward acceptance.
You don’t have to do this alone.
Attend a BTR.ORG Group Session today and find the validation, peace, and community that you deserve as you begin your journey to healing and recovery.
Anne: Welcome to BTR, this is Anne.
We are going to continue the conversation with Leslie Vernick today, so if you did not hear the previous episode that’s where I described her bio and all that stuff, so go listen to the previous episode first and then join us here. We’re just going to get right into it.
Documenting Abuse Helps Victims Identify The Abuse Cycle
Anne: So, what would you recommend for victims, so that they can see facts in all the hurt and emotion and how do facts help us to get out of patterns of enabling and into safety?
Leslie: You know that’s why we encourage people to document for a number of reasons. One is to help them see that, also to help them see that they’re being gaslighted because they can go back and say, wait a minute. Yesterday or two days ago, two weeks ago, he did say this and he did say he would do this and now he’s saying he never said it, but he did say it because I remember writing it down, and I can prove to myself, even though I’m not going to convince him he’s going to lie and cover-up and tell me I’m nuts. But I’m documenting my own sanity so that I can see that this is gaslighting or this is crazy-making. I think facts can be really really helpful for a number of reasons. God calls us to live in truth and reality, and not in wishful thinking.
“Patterns Are So Important For You To Pay Attention To”
And I think if we think about the abuse cycle, if your audience is familiar with it, you know you have an abusive incident, whether it’s pornography or physical abuse or lying to you or cheating on you or whatever it is, and then sometimes there’s a honeymoon phase where, you know, it feels good and even if you were to look at the facts, he’s attentive, he’s being honest, he’s paying the bills, and you’re thinking, okay, he’s changed, he’s got it. He’s doing good and we’re better, but you have to look at the whole cycle. And that’s why the patterns are so important for you to pay attention to because, obviously, most women don’t marry jerks. They know that they have a good side or they wouldn’t marry this person, so they’re on their good side of the cycle, but the cycle is still the cycle. The bad side of this cycle is where they start to get tense or they start to get a feeling of whatever it is a compulsive feeling to act out or watch porn or the shame or whatever is going on with them, anger, that they’re going to abuse or act out again.
Understanding What Forgiveness & Restitution Really Mean In The Context of Betrayal
That’s the piece that we need to see factual change. How do they handle those moments? That’s where we begin to understand: is this person really making changes or are we still in the same abuse cycle? And so this is really important for women to educate themselves so that they can understand what that looks like. And let me just give you a quick illustration. I was teaching my pastors at my church about how to recognize this.
We attend a big church and I said, “Okay, so let’s say that someone was texting and they crashed into your car while pulling out of the parking lot. They weren’t paying attention, and they said, ‘Oh my gosh,’ as they jumped out of the car. They said, ‘Pastor, I am so sorry that I crashed into your car, it was an accident. I didn’t mean it, but you know the Bible says that love covers a multitude of sins and love keeps no record of wrongs. I’m so glad you’re the pastor because I know you’ll forgive me, bye.’ And you’ve got this cut on your head and your car is crumpled and they’ve never offered restitution. They’ve never offered any kind of care for the pain you’re in. That somehow, you’re supposed to bounce back, get over it, and they’re sorry.”
“It’s Easy To Say You’re Sorry”
And that’s sort of what happens in these relationships where the abuser may say, “I’m sorry, but don’t show me your pain, don’t ask me to take you to the hospital, don’t ask me to pay for any repairs or make any amends because that’s being hardhearted and unforgiving.” And so that’s where we really need to stay clear on the facts. What is really happening? Because it’s easy to say you’re sorry and then hold the other person accountable for being the Christian that they should be so that you have no consequences.
Anne: That’s a really good analogy. I like it.
Leslie: All the pastors laughed, and they said, we would never let that happen. I said, and so let’s say he did it next Sunday and the Sunday after that? Even if you were gracious the first Sunday, and he kept doing it over and over again, pretty soon you’d say do not come back to this church, or don’t drive your car, or whatever. You would have some boundaries there to protect yourself and other people from this person who feels entitled to be reckless and careless with no consequences or no amends.
Abuse And Entitlement
Anne: You brought up the word entitled. How do you think that plays in with abuse? I mean, we know that it’s a cornerstone of abuse, right. Without entitlement there isn’t abuse, but can you talk a little bit more about that?
Leslie: Yes, so just like you started this interview with the lies that women believe that may keep them in a destructive relationship too long, there are lies that abusers believe. One of them is, I’m entitled to act however I act with no consequences. Now they wouldn’t believe that at work. They wouldn’t expect to come in late every day, not show up on certain days, and expect a promotion or a raise. They probably wouldn’t expect that, but yet in our Christian teaching we have said your husband can act like the devil, but you’re supposed to pretend like he’s Superman. Like you’re supposed to just praise him and encourage him and build him up and never say, “Wait a minute, you’re acting like a fool, I’m not doing this.”
The Entitlement Mindset of An Abuser
And so, a husband can drive a family straight off the cliff and a wife is supposed to submit and smile and trust God, and that’s just not reality, nor does God asked her to do that. And so, they feel entitled, especially in marriage. I’m entitled to sex whenever I want, it doesn’t matter how I treated you. Your body is not your own, and they’ll use scripture to confuse a woman. I’m entitled to get out of consequences because you have to forgive me. I’m entitled to have my cake and eat it too, as long as I say I’m sorry. I’m entitled to hurt you if you hurt me, and this entitled mindset has to change if you are ever going to rebuild broken trust. That you’re not entitled to act out just because you feel hurt, or you feel sad, or you feel lonely or you feel angry, and that’s why that second side is part of the new cycle. When they start to get emotional, whatever that emotion is, is what they need to learn to manage.
That’s why it’s so counter-intuitive that betrayal trauma counselors would try to tell a wife that she can’t ratchet that part of the uncomfortable space up, so his counselor can help him deal with that versus I’ve got to soothe him down, so he doesn’t feel uncomfortable. He has to learn to manage that.
Anne: Lean into it, lean into the pain so you can learn to manage your emotions rather than trying to make somebody else do it.
“You Can’t Make Someone Do What They Don’t Want To Do”
Leslie: It’s not possible. It’s not possible, even if you wanted to. An example I use with my girls is, let’s say your husband’s a diabetic and you really feel sorry for him, and you want to help him manage his diabetes so you’re going to cook right and you’re going to buy all the right food and you’re going to do everything. You know, count his carbs and do all that, and you see him on the couch eating Doritos and doughnuts. Like you can’t make someone do what they don’t want to do.
Anne: We need to embroider that.
Leslie: Yeah, on our forehead.
Anne: I think the problem with the manipulative abuser is that they make you think that they want to do it. So, you think, oh, of course, they don’t want to act like this, they’re broken. You know, they experienced their own childhood abuse, of course, they don’t want to act like this, they’re really a good guy. They don’t want to, they just keep doing it accidentally or something, I don’t know. And then you believe that they don’t want to do it and they’re like finding themselves or something. I think that’s the mark of a truly manipulative person. Is that they can continue to do this behavior while making you think that they don’t want to do it. When, if they really genuinely didn’t want to do it, they would stop.
Identifying Covert Red Flags
Leslie: First, I would say to the woman who’s listening to her husband in that place. When he’s sorrowing like that, when he’s, oh, I’m so horrible blah, blah, blah. Listen to what he’s sorrowing about because usually, it’s not about who he is. It’s not like he’s saying I’ve been a liar, I’ve been a cheater, I don’t want to be that kind of man, I want to be a good husband. He’s not saying that. What he’s saying is, I can’t believe you’ll leave me, I’ll be all by myself, how am I going to make it without you? He’s sorrowing over the loss of his family; he’s sorrowing over the consequences. He’s not really sorrowing over his character. So that would be one big red flag that would help you discern where he’s at. But even if he were, I believe that there’s many of us, some of us who maybe eat too much or whatever. We’re like, I hate that I eat too much. Why do I eat that? Like I had a cookie for lunch. I haven’t had cookies for lunch for a long time. I’m like why don’t you eat that cookie? I don’t really want to eat that cookie. So, we have to kind of say to ourselves, okay, what’s going on with me. What do I need to do differently, and then how do I get accountability, support, and structure into my life so that what I want to do, I’m capable of doing it?
So, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak, Jesus says. So, for example, when I wanted to run a half marathon, I had to get an accountability group and I had a running partner, and that’s the only way I did it. I wouldn’t have done it if it was just up to me, right? I wanted to, but I wouldn’t have actually done the work. And so, we have these men who might want to have a great marriage and want to be a better character but they’re really not willing to put in the work that’s involved in getting there.
Entitlement In The Bible
Anne: That is what I meant. Like, they’re not doing anything about it.
Leslie: Well, there’s this really interesting story in the Old Testament where Naaman had leprosy, and he goes to Elijah’s house, and he says to Elijah that he was told that he could cure him of leprosy. He was not a Jew. He bangs on the door and Elijah doesn’t even answer the door and he says, “Man of Israel, come out and help me. I have leprosy, the King of Israel told me that you would heal me.”
And he said, “Go wash yourself in the Jordan River, dip yourself seven times.” He didn’t even open the door. And Naaman was outraged. How dare he talk to me this way. Who is he think he is? And so, it was like Naaman did not want to comply with the treatment plan that Elijah said is necessary for you to get rid of leprosy. I want it to be easy, I want it to be fast. Just say a prayer over me, and that’s all I want to do.
“If You Don’t Do The Work, You Don’t Get The Results”
And that’s sort of the attitude of these men. I’m entitled to have something easy and fast and if that’s not going to happen with a restoration of my marriage or restoration of my character. That doesn’t happen easy and fast, you have to put in a lot of work in that. And when you’re not willing to do the work, you don’t get the results. Whether you’re not willing to save for retirement, you’re not willing to stop eating so much, you’re not willing to stop watching porn. Whatever it is, if you don’t do the work, you don’t get the results. It’s just how it is. That’s life.
Anne: The facts. I love how you’re talking about that. I think those are other facts that we can look to, observe, both in them and in us. You kind of hit home. I’m eating pudding right now, I have to admit, chocolate pudding.
Leslie: Yeah, it can give us compassion and empathy to say, you know when Galatians says you who are caught in a trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in the spirit of gentleness. But understand that restoring someone who is in a habitual pattern of sin; you’re not to do that in vain. It’s possible, but it’s not going to happen instantly. You have to do your work and your work is honesty, accountability, you need to be in a group where people know you and can support you. And if you’re not willing to do that, then you’re not going to change, it’s just as simple as that.
Restoration After Abuse Is A Long Term Commitment
And I think as counselors or coaches we do someone a disservice when we tell them that the treatment plan is just like some sort of simple prayer, and you know, forgiveness, and then it fixes everything. It doesn’t. Just like if you had cancer, and you needed chemo every week for the next two months, and you went to your doctor and said well I don’t really feel like doing that that’s too hard. I can’t take off work that much. It’s too embarrassing to have to come to the hospital and do chemo all the time. I just want to come once and that’s it. No doctor in the right mind would say, okay, well let’s give that a try. But so many counselors let the client dictate the treatment plan. For this kind of serious issue, you need intensive treatment. It’s not going to happen with just a promise and a prayer.
Why Do Family & Friends Side With Abusers?
For third party people, maybe family members or friends. Why do you think it’s so hard for them to wrap their head around the fact that their loved one is an abuser? How come you think they frequently side with the abuser and decide that the victim is cray-cray town?
Leslie: You know, I don’t know if its blood is thicker than water or that you don’t want to see your own child in a bad light, or if you were in that kind of environment so it’s normal to you. And it just is normal, and they don’t see it as abuse because it happened to them. It happened to their parents. It happened to their grandparents, and so it just feels like why is this such a big deal to you? This is just marriage. This is just how things go. This is how men treat women. Don’t get so upset over it. Don’t get your knickers in a knot. You know, men watch porn, just let them do it, that’s what they’re gonna do, right. Men will be men. Men will cheat me. I mean, I’ve heard that so many times.
“It’s Easier To Blame Someone Else Than Face Your Own Pain”
I had a client once whose husband sexually molested her daughter, and all of her little friends at her birthday party, they were like six years old. It was horrible. He was a youth pastor and was arrested and put in jail and had to go to trial and everything. His parents still blamed her. Like you’ve made this all up, you’ve vilified our son, you’ve ruined his career, and it’s easier to blame someone else than to face your own pain at what’s going on in your own family. So, I think there’s a lot of that going on. I don’t want to see that my kid has a problem so it must be you.
Anne: That’s so hard for victims because they think, well, I’m trying to get help, and they’re trying to get it from anywhere that they can and they sometimes don’t anticipate that perhaps a pastor or a friend or a family member is not only not going to help them, but it’s going to throw them under the bus and enable the abuser, which is really really hard.
The Myth of “Breaking Up The Marriage”
Leslie: Part of it, in the Christian world anyway, is that we have kind of made an idol out of marriage. That we so value the sanctity of marriage, and I value the sanctity of marriage, but not above the safety and the sanity of the people in the marriage. It’s really true that the sins are passed down to the next generation to the next generation to the next generation. And when a woman begins to say, I don’t want this happening to my kids, I don’t want to grow up in this environment or have my kids grow up in the same environment I did. I’m going to take a stand and say, hey, I’m willing to work with you if you want to change and be a different person, but if you’re going to continue this pattern, I’m not going to do life with you. That can seem very rebellious in a conservative Christian family. How dare you break up the family. She hasn’t broken that family up; she’s just exposed the truth about the family. You know, in Ephesians where it says, do not cover over the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. But it’s like pulling you know a blanket off the ground with roaches underneath. Nobody wants to see that so just leave it, leave it alone. It’s ugly.
Anne: So, as you’re talking about these third-party people who are putting so much pressure on her saying, you know, you’re being rebellious because you’re setting a boundary or you’re holding them accountable, and they’re not only feeling that pressure but they’re feeling very guilty. It’s sort of this clash of values, what do I do I feel torn, I want to live in truth, but I don’t want to break up my marriage. What would you say to women who are having that clash of values who want safety, but they also do want a good marriage? They don’t want to break up their family.
The “Clash Of Values”
Leslie: Absolutely. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but you said it perfectly Anne. You said this clash of values. And the interesting thing about it is God Himself has a clash of values. So, let me give a couple of examples. So, in the Bible, for example in the Ten Commandments, it says thou shalt not lie. That’s one of God’s highest values. It’s in the Ten commandments. And yet, when Rahab, the prostitute, in Joshua lied to keep the Israelite spies safe from the people from her own land that were seeking to kill them. She lied, she said they went that way when they really were hiding in another place. God commended her, saved her life. And actually, she’s in the Hebrews Hall of Fame as an amazing woman, but she lied. So, there’s a safety value that God has.
Another example, God says that his value is that we should obey and submit to our authorities. So here we’ve got two examples, one of the Old Testament one on the New Testament, where King Saul was David’s authority, and yet Saul was treacherous. He was trying to kill David because he was jealous of him, and David fled. He didn’t say, now David just trust me and stay put and suffer and sacrifice and I’ll keep. No, he said get out of Dodge, and David did and David didn’t retaliate against Saul, but he didn’t trust him.
“Safety Is An Important Value To God”
And Baby Jesus, when Baby Jesus was under Herod’s authority and Herod was seeking to kill all the babies under the age of two. God woke Joseph up in a dream, and he didn’t say, now Herod is going to try to kill Baby Jesus, but just stay put and I’ll keep you all safe. He said, flee. And the Bible says the prudent see danger and take refuge. So, this hierarchy of values; you can’t stay healthy, be healthy, get healthy, and provide health for your children if you’re living in fear and terror all the time. And so, safety is an important value to God, and it’s not wrong for you to say until we can create safety we can’t live together, we can’t sleep together, or we can’t do life together because safety is important for anybody’s maturity.
Our brain has two channels, one is safety, and one is growth. And if the safety channel is hijacked because you are in an unsafe environment, guess what gets exposed? Your growth channel. You’re not worried about growth when you’re worried about your safety. You’re just worried about safety. And so, children who grew up in an environment where there’s a lot of turmoil and screaming and lack of safety, their growth channel of learning and maturing and all that is shut down because their body is hardwired for fight or flight and that comes first. And so, we have to recognize that safety, physical safety, emotional safety, financial safety, sexual safety, spiritual safety, these are important values to God and we do not have to be apologetic, or ashamed for taking them to heart in our own life.
Understanding Post-Separation Abuse
Anne: I could not agree more. I thought that was an excellent explanation of that. Thank you.
One of the things that concern me long-term for victims, is that divorce, unfortunately, and contrary to popular belief, does not stop the abuse. It does provide a boundary and it does provide a layer of safety that you don’t have, if someone’s living in your space or if you’re married to them, it can provide some layers of financial safety for example, and other forms of safety. However, it cannot stop the abuser from being abusive. So, for women who share children with their abuser, they can put a bunch of boundaries around that, but the abuser can still be abusive even after divorce. So, post-separation abuse is a very real thing. When you share children there is no way to permanently get away from that. What would you say to women who are continually needing to set boundaries for post-separation divorce, who are dealing with abuse long term, even after a divorce?
“Stay Calm to Stay Clear”
Leslie: Yeah, a couple of things. One is, Jesus says something very interesting, and I won’t have a whole lot of time to unpack it here, but he says to His disciples when they’re going out. He said to be as shrewd as serpents, but as innocent as doves. In other words, he’s saying there’s going to be some people who are going to be out there to harm you and you’re going to be shrewd about that, but don’t retaliate, don’t repay evil for evil, be as innocent as that. So, I think that would be the advice that I would tell women who are in this kind of situation. Is that, you know, it’s very tempting to repay evil for evil and to get into a shouting match or a power struggle, or all those kinds of things with this. That’s not going to be good for you, it’s not going to be good for your kids, but the narcissist or the abuser will try to pull you into it because the more he can make you look bad, the more ammo he has against you with your children.
And so, this is going to be such an important part of you making sure that you’re doing your own work. So, stay calm to stay clear. Don’t get into arguments or defending yourself with them, don’t get into long explanations, don’t get into trying to understand each other. It’s not going to work in marriage, it’s not going to work in divorce. So, you have to do your work to stay like Teflon every time he tries to push a button. You’re not reacting, because the more that he can do that the more he will.
“Brief, Informative, Firm, & Friendly”
If it becomes very boring for him to interact with you, because he’s not getting anything out of it, then he might not do it as much. But if he can provoke you to react, especially in front of your kids or in front of someone else, and make you look like a bad guy and make him look like the victim, he’s going to do it as much as he can. So be strategic, that would be one thing and get some coaching and how to be strategic with yourself and with him. Second of all, if you’ve been married to a narcissist and narcissistic abuser, understand that they have two high values. One is to always be right, and one is to always win. So, pick your battles.
Pick your battles, because they will fight you on the littlest thing, in order to win. So, if you don’t show your cards and you don’t show what matters to you, then they can’t try to win because they don’t know. So, it’s better for you to stay more silent and not say, I really want the kids for Christmas this year or this is really important to me because as soon as you let him know that he will try to hurt you with that. So, keep your cards close to your best and don’t share a whole lot, and try to be as cooperative and conciliatory as you can so that they think they are winning. And you get what you need, which is peace and quiet and not being attacked all the time. And that may take some coaching and some strategy depending on who your abuser is and how you’ve interacted with them in the past, but as little of contact as possible, as factual as contact. So, they have this method called brief, informative, firm, and friendly. Brief, informative, firm, and friendly and I would recommend engaging in that.
Support Groups Help Victims Remember Their Worth
It’s so important for women in this situation to be in a support group. I know that you have one here and I have one. I think, you start to feel so, like, what is wrong with me and why would my husband treat me this way and what was so bad about me that he had to go to all these other women and use porn? You know, you start to have this horrible sense of value and worth feelings in your own self, and when you’re a part of a group of other women and you see smart, talented, beautiful women whose husbands have rejected and abused them, you’re starting to say wait a minute, this isn’t my problem. This isn’t our problem as a woman. It’s a problem in the culture, it’s a problem with men, and I’m not going to feel the shame as much, that’s his sin, anymore because I have other women who I see are just as hurt and just as normal and just as talented and beautiful as they can be, and their husband still did this to them. So, it really helps to detoxify, I think, the shame of what their husband has done. It helps them to put it on the place it belongs and not on them.
Support the BTR Podcast
Anne: Well, thank you so much for sharing today.
Thank you so much for sharing today and Leslie.
Leslie: Thanks, Anne. Being with you is my pleasure.
Anne: If this podcast is helpful to you, please support it. Until next week, stay safe out there.