I’ve heard too many stories now of women who’ve been abused, and to put it stereotypically and blunt, the usual "church response" is incredibly damaging not only to the woman but also further damages the situation.
Here is a list of things you should NOT do or say to a woman who says she is being abused:
Don’t ask “did he hit you?”
Abuse is a lot more than just physical. In fact, when looking at the brain's response to trauma, emotional, psychological and verbal abuse are equally as damaging, if not more so. A woman can experience PTSD symptoms from emotional, mental, and verbal abuse - even if her partner never laid a finger on her.
And just because you can’t see a visible bruise doesn’t mean the abuse isn’t life-threatening either. Even if a woman has never been hit before - abusers have a powerful way of conditioning their victim to fear them. A woman can be in physical danger regardless of whether the man has become violent or not.
Narcissistic abusers often so condition their victims to fear them that there is no need to leave a bruise, allowing them to save face all while having their victim under their perfect and life sucking control. Despite there being no physical evidence, the woman's life may be in danger just the same. It only takes one time.
Asking this question dismisses the legitimacy of other types of abuse entirely.
Don’t tell a woman they are part of the problem.
Do I believe that women are entirely innocent in relational conflict? Of course not! But abuse isn’t your typical marital problem and should not be viewed as such. Abuse is 100% the responsibility of the abuser.
I heard this quote one time and believe it’s appropriate - “When a human being is mistreated, objectified, or neglected, when they are treated as less than human, these actions are against God. Because how you treat the creation reflects how you feel about the Creator.”
Telling a woman the abuse is a marital issue, rather than her spouse's problem, is utterly ignorant. Does forgiveness need to take place? Is there a reason why the woman was drawn into this abusive relationship in the first place? Does she play a role in the dynamics of the relationship? Yes. But regardless of what a woman does, under no circumstance, is it justifiable for her to be abused.
Most importantly, BELIEVE HER!
Like I said before, a victim often fears for her life, so coming forward and admitting what is going on takes an enormous amount of courage. She already feels trapped so confessing something like this is HUGE! She is likely risking her life to share this information.
It’s as if you’re drowning and barely able to come up for air but when you do, you have just enough breath to yell for help. Not believing someone in this circumstance is like watching her come up for air and then purposefully shoving her back underwater so she can’t breathe.
To not believe her is to perpetuate the cycle of abuse.
Things you should do instead
Ask her if she feels safe?
If the answer is no, help her make a safety plan immediately. Under no condition should a woman feel unsafe in her own home. If a woman is in danger, she needs to get out of the environment immediately. Asking her what resources she needs to accomplish this and helping provide those resources is extremely helpful.
And don’t be surprised if she tries to minimize the abuse at this point as if it’s not that bad. She has been psychologically conditioned to fear him for so long that her minimizing the situation is the only way her brain knows how to cope with the immense fear she feels in the situation.
Be prepared for behavior that doesn’t always match what the woman is saying.
What I mean by this is, abuse is cyclical. There is often a “honeymoon” period where things seem okay, or the spouse seems like he’s changed. It’s not uncommon for an abuser to be so manipulative that while things might still be terrible at home, the abuser has twisted and manipulated the victim into believing him and thinking things are fine.
Things to remember
If you don’t know what you’re doing when it comes to abuse - you’re likely to do more harm than good. It’s crucial to help a woman find the support she needs in this time from someone who is experienced and knows about this type of trauma.
The most significant threat of abuse isn’t just life; it’s also the loss of the soul. The very thing that God uniquely and delicately crafted to make each person the uniquely lovable person He delights in is taken and shredded to pieces in abusive situations.
I'm a Christian counselor who loves to help people get to the root of their current problems so they can live from a place of authenticity and freedom!