The Lazarus Project

Resurrecting hope for Christian victims and survivors of family violence.

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verbal abuse and older abuse victims

A reader e-mailed me this question:

"Need to ask your expertise. I have an aunt who is in her 70's and her health is not well. She is a believer but has lived a life similar to Tamar. My uncle has caused years of verbal abuse. He has a drinking problem and my aunt has just accepted it all these years.

I am concerned for her and feel it is time to stop the abuse and live the rest of years in peace and comfort… She is retired and manages the finances. How would you manage the precious broken heart, and speak to someone who has lived a life of isolation and abuse? She never smiles and often is withdrawn."

         My heart hurts for your aunt. I know firsthand how damaging verbal abuse can be. It tears at your self-esteem and often destroys your self-identity.  What's even worse is that after hearing the put-downs and the accusations and the constant demeaning for so long, the victim of verbal abuse often internalizes these negative messages and says them to herself (or himself), in what essentially becomes a self curse.

Let me give a few examples to explain this concept:

          I.  a)  An abusive sibling says to a child, "You did it wrong again. Can't you ever do anything right?"

              b) Then the child begins to think: "I'm a screw-up. Everything I do is wrong. I'll always be a loser."

         II.  a) An abusive husband says to his wife, "You fat cow.  It's no wonder I'm not attracted to you. You're disgusting."

               b) Then the wife begins to think: "I'm ugly/fat/deficient. That's why my husband keeps being unfaithful. Something is wrong with me."

         III. a) An abusive parent says to a child: "You're a moron.  You're helpless, hopeless and useless."

               b) Then the child begins to think: "I'll never amount to anything in life. Maybe I really am dumb."

            So after a lifetime of abuse, it is quite likely that your aunt thinks of herself in exactly the way he has programmed her to. No wonder she has lived a life similar to Tamar! Desolate, depressed, inconsolable.

           But yet, she is not without hope. She is a believer, so she knows the Author of Hope. But she may not know that He is able to resurrect hope in her life.

            I also think you should know that at the age of 70, it is probably unlikely that she will leave him to pursue a life in peace and comfort.  Research on older battered women (and she is one, even if he never struck her) has shown that it is relatively rare for the victim to leave once she is at or near retirement age. The reasons for this are myriad, but suffice it to say that:

         1) in general, people who are aged tend to resist change, especially changes in their living environment--and this includes battered women;

         2) she may be unsure how she would be able to support herself if she did leave, and dependency is a powerful motivator for one to maintain status quo--even if it is abusive;

         3) she may be afraid to tell the family secret--although it's clear now that you know, and maybe even others do too--but she may fear that by telling all that she has endured, that she might lose the respect and support of her family;

         4) in general, as people age, they tend to become more dependent and less independent.  They rely more on the people in their lives for help in everyday things--even if those people are less than stellar individuals. Part of this is because of the fear most people have of being alone in their old age.

            Now, if she had some alternatives to choose from, this may be a different story. Perhaps she's had enough by now and would make a change, if her other needs could be accommodated by doing so.  But the fact that she's not taken this opportunity in the years when she was younger and more capable of living a life of independence, makes it pretty improbable that she would do so now, particularly if her health is failing. I'm not saying this to be discouraging, but only so that you can have a reasonable expectation of how you can best support her.

            If she were to want to make such a change, is there a family member that would take her in and help to care for her? Would she have any means of financial support if she did? Many aging people do not want to be a burden, and would choose to endure a less-than-ideal situation rather than cause hardship for family members.  But keep in mind that even if these options exist, she might not be willing or able to avail herself of them.

            What you can do for her in the meantime is to remind her of who she is in Christ, in a way that directly undermines the things her abuser is telling her. For example, if he says to her, "I don't know why I put up with you all these years. If it weren't for me, you'd be completely alone." You can remind her that God promises to be with her in good times as well as bad, and that He will never leave her or forsake her. 

            When he says things that make her feel worthless, you can undermine that lie by reminding her of how precious she is to God, if not to him.  God chose her from before the very foundations of the world to be His child, and He is more proud of her than she is of her own children.

            Does she have a church family? Does she read the Word, or at least listen to sermons that can help feed her with the truth?  I have a dear friend who is also working on healing from a lifetime of abuse. Because she has a hard time reading, I bought her the Bible on CD so she could listen to it and be washed with its living water.  For a former client, whose husband forbade her to go to church, I gave her CDs of sermons so she could still be refreshed and renewed in her mind.

            Remember that verbal abuse is essentially spiritual warfare. The verbal abuser becomes a mouthpiece for the accuser of the brethren and spews forth evil words of condemnation and destruction. The only way to fight these effects is by countering the darkness with the light of the Word.  For every negative thing that he says to her, help her find a specific scripture that negates it, and encourage her to meditate on that scripture instead of on his negative words.  When she can't find it herself (and maybe you can't help her find one), she can ask God to reveal it to her--and this is always the most powerful.

            For example, when I felt dirty and defiled because of the rape, God showed me Acts 10:15: “Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean.”  In that moment, God reminded me that He himself had cleansed me, and that I was not speaking the truth to myself when I continued to feel dirty and unclean.  When he washed me white as snow, he not only cleansed me from my sin, but also from the stain of sins that had been committed against me! Isn't that amazing?

             But just remember that a person who's been this torn down, for so many years, may even have some ungodly beliefs about their relationship with God, and so she may not be able to hear Him herself yet.  But just continue to feed her the truth of the Word, reminding her that Her Father wants to embrace her in His everlasting arms, which is where she will find the peace and comfort that only he can bring.

             Since she is the one managing the finances (and having been the breadwinner), she might also be afraid that if she left him, that she would be responsible for him having little/nothing. (Sounds goofy, I know. But when I left my abuser, I took everything that was mine. And when I thought it over--hours after making my escape--I felt guilty that I hadn't even left him a blanket, and I thought I was a "bad person" because he might be shivering in the cold. It's crazy that victims are so enmeshed with their abusers that we make ourselves responsible for the circumstances they create!)  Another concern in her mind could be that if she were to leave him, if it did proceed to divorce, that he might try to get her retirement divided so he could claim half. Sad, but true. I've seen it happen in many of my cases.

            On my website, there are a number of factsheets, one of which is called "how to help someone who is being abused." In it I quote from Ellen Weiss' book, when she says that the support you give to a victim is a "gentle strengthening over time." It might not seem that it's doing anything at all, but it is--just under the surface.

            The other thing you might keep in mind is that if her health is failing, her time to leave this earth could be approaching. I hope I'm not being too blunt in saying that. But it could be that you are the one who could help her to get in touch with the One who will receive her into His welcoming arms in the life beyond this earth.  She may have very well given up, and is just enduring until the day her suffering ends. I know that sounds crazy too. But I did that as well, because I had so much religious crap crammed down my throat that I thought that death was my release from suffering, and I made peace with it. I know now that I was partnering with the spirit of death and the spirit of religion--but at the time, I didn't know that.

            Of course, as believers, we always hope for healing. But the Bible does give us an approximate lifespan of 72 years (I can't find the reference, though I did look for it), and she is now approaching it. Also, we can be believing for healing, but if the person isn't believing for that healing themselves, it will not occur.

            But all this time you can be reaffirming her faith in herself, in her Savior, in the scriptures.  And even if it appears that nothing else is changing, she can be changing and growing within. Remember when Morris Chapman came to our church, three or four years ago? He preached a four-word sermon that rocked my world. He said, "dormant is not dead."  Though the seeds of life are planted in the ground and no blade springs forth above the earth, there are things going on underground. it may be months, even years, before something springs forth and buds (bamboo plants take seven years!), but the germination is going on nonetheless.

            And you, my dear, are planting those seeds of life. They get watered and mature in God's timing. So just stay faithful, like Johnny Appleseed, and leave the results to Him.

--Christine Hagion Rzepka

Posted on 03/02
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