Under the Cross: When Relationships Go Bad
By Sandra Madden
In the beginning, when God was making all things, He made it all good. In fact, He says He made it VERY good. He made woman for and from man and made the two to be each other's companions, work in His garden, and bear children as a fruit of their relationship together. Adam and Woman didn’t have power struggles, argue over the direction of the toilet paper roll, try to one-up each other, or have an idea that either of them could even conceive of doing something mean or hurtful to the other.
Unfortunately, our first parents' fall into sin contaminated all their subsequent generations. We still live in the good world God created, and still have intimate relationships, but now those are also affected by sin and the sinful people in them. Sometimes couples just have minor spats and disagreements. Other times. . .it's downright scary and abusive. We don't like to talk about those situations, and so we often pretend they don't exist. But they do. For teenagers, too.
Sin has messed up our world so much that abusive relationships aren't even something that we recognize when they're right in front of us. We hear about celebrity accusations of abuse on an almost weekly basis. Books and movies (even for young adults and children) portray abusers as romantic, dashing, and protective. We gloss over the fact that the victims in the stories fear that they may do something "wrong" and face extreme consequences from their partners, or possibly even death.
What Is Abuse?
Before we get much further, we need a definition of abuse. That word gets thrown around far too easily and it is misunderstood to mean "when someone does something mean to another person." However, intimate partner abuse is a deliberate pattern of behavior used by a person in an intimate relationship to intimidate his or her partner and thereby gain or maintain power and control over the other person.
It's easy, from the outside, to confuse intimate partner abuse with situational violence. Situational violence happens when an argument between two people escalates into a violent episode--mostly because one or both don’t have effective conflict resolution skills.
Abuse is different. It's deliberate. There may not have been premeditation, but it's definitely not due to a loss of control. How do we know? Abusers don't act that way at school or work. They don't act that way towards teachers or teammates. If and when they do hit the victim, they make sure witnesses aren't around, and are careful to hit where a bruise won't be visible. That all takes self-control and some degree of intention.
Abuse also follows a pattern--so predictable that experts have identified a Cycle of Abuse. You're going along with life and your relationship starts to get tense. Your partner is irritable and set off by everything that goes wrong. Eventually, he or she erupts and does something abusive. But then comes the sorrow, the excuses, and promises it'll never happen again. And then the cycle begins again.
The thing about abuse is that it is not defined solely by the abuser's actions, but that those actions serve a purpose. It's all to make the victim to fear the abuser. Abusers don't abuse because they're angry or lose control. They abuse because they believe they're entitled to and completely justified in treating their partner that way to get what they want.
Red Flags that Your Relationship May Be Abusive
Physical: This is the most recognized form of abuse. For some, it’s the only form of abuse they acknowledge (they’re wrong). This may include obvious things like punching, slapping, kicking, and pushing. But it may also be things like throwing objects, not allowing you to sleep, taking away medication, forcing you to drink alcohol or do drugs, not allowing you to leave a room, etc.
Sexual: While it's similar to physical abuse, it's more intimate. This entails things like rape, forcing you to engage in sexual acts or sexual contact against your will, refusing to use a condom if intercourse occurs, insisting you get an abortion if a baby is conceived, forcing you to wean a baby early so you'll be fertile sooner, etc. Note: Marital vows do NOT give sweeping consent to sexual contact or intercourse that overrides consent in the moment.
Financial: This doesn't affect teenagers as much as it does adults, but might include things like making you pay for everything when you go out, stealing from you, opening credit cards in your name, buying expensive gifts for you and getting mad when you don't or can't reciprocate, and buying expensive things for themselves but insisting that you shop with coupons at the bargain store for yourself.
Social: The internet has made it easier than ever to abuse people socially. This kind of abuse may involve situations like insisting on knowing your passcode so your partner can look through your phone (while you're not allowed to do the same), posting private things about you, insisting that you check in with him or her and respond to any texts immediately, tracking you, sending you sexts and nudes, and demanding that you do the same, setting up nanny cams, checking your browser history, and insisting that you only have shared social media accounts.
Emotional: Name-calling sounds like a silly, juvenile thing to call abusive. But when the person who knows you better than anyone else says that you're stupid, fat, ugly, a waste of skin, worthless, etc. on a frequent basis. . .it's easy to believe it must be at least a little bit true. Emotional abuse can also be blaming you for things you had nothing to do with, irrational jealousy, lying, gaslighting, isolating you from friends and family, and threatening violence against you, children, pets, or themselves. Emotional abuse changes the victim as a person. Bruises and broken bones heal in a matter of weeks. The effects of emotional abuse stay with a victim for the remainder of life, even if he or she is no longer in an abusive relationship.
What to Do?
If you see yourself in the above descriptions, talk to an adult (preferably your parents). Getting out of an abusive relationship is not something any victim can do alone, no matter what your age. Talk to a counselor at school or at a domestic violence shelter. They are experts in dealing with these relationship dynamics and situations and have learned the hard way over the years how to best help victims of abuse.
Do what you have to do to be safe. If that means you don’t go anywhere alone for a while. . . welcome to the buddy system. You know your abuser best, and it might not be safe to do anything right away.
If you're in an abusive dating relationship, end it. I know, easier said than done. But do it anyway. You're not obligated to stay in that relationship or work on it if it's not healthy. If you're in an abusive marriage, things get a lot more complicated, but you certainly do still need a break from the abuse. Separation until there is no more abusive behavior going on so you may reconcile is a reasonable and Biblical course of action.
And talk to your pastor. He has been put in your life to tell you who you are in Christ, that you are loved, worthwhile, beautiful, perfect, sinless, without any blemishes or flaws or any such thing. Your Baptism makes that true. He'll remind you to come to church so you can receive God's gifts for you in Christ. Hear what God has done for you through the preaching of the Word, the lessons, and the liturgy. Receive forgiveness for all your sins, mistakes, and flaws in Absolution and the Lord's Supper. And if he doesn't proclaim and deliver these things, tell him to talk to me.
Sandra Madden serves as the new content executive for Higher Things, making her responsible for well…pretty much all the resources you’re enjoying on HT’s new website, app, and media platforms. She loves taking on new challenges and creatively bringing order to chaos. Her lengthy experience with Higher Things (since 2001!) means she understands youth, families, and congregations, and she's thrilled to keep bringing you the content you need.
This article was originally published in the fall 2019 issue of Higher Things Magazine.
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