Denise is a 28-year-old mom with two small children. She has recently confessed that her husband has “a really bad temper.” Recently, when she and her husband Doug were arguing, his anger scared her to the point that she told their home group leader about the incident. The home group leader has been trained well enough to know that the relationship between Doug and Denise might be becoming destructive. She wants to help Denise assess the safety of her home situation. The simple question, “do you feel safe at home?” is often not specific enough to help someone assess the safety of the relationship. Over the years, I have advised pastors, counselors, church leaders and friends to go beyond this simple question. Here are some of the questions I ask to assess the level of destructiveness in a relationship:
- Have the children been victims of abuse of any kind (verbal, emotional, physical, spiritual)? How frequently does abuse of children occur (if at all)?
- When he is mad at you, does he react by throwing things, damaging property, or using violent gestures or physical intimidation?
- Does he block you from leaving the room or the house? (This is to get a more specific gauge of the level of violence.)
- Is he willing to take responsibility for his hurtful actions, or does he minimize, blame-shift, tell you that you “just don’t understand” or deny that it happened in the way that you said it happened. (We call this “crazy-making” or, sometimes, “gaslighting”. The victim can come to believe that they must be crazy, and this is usually intentionally manipulative behavior on the part of the abuser.)
- Can he hear you when you say these things frighten you? (Does he seem to have genuine empathy for her? Obviously, lack of empathy is very concerning and very typical with abusive men.)
- Does he attempt to use his intimidating behavior as a bargaining chip? (Severely manipulative)
- Is he severely verbally abusive? What kinds of things does he say?
- Have you ever been an unwilling victim in a sexual act?
- How often are you afraid of the way your husband will respond to provocation or conflict? (When? Where? Why? Under what circumstances?)
- Do you have the freedom to be yourself, make decisions, give your input and say no to things? If not, what happens when you try?
- Can you respectfully challenge and confront the attitudes, decisions or behaviors of your partner? When you try, what happens?
- What was the most recent incident of any type of abusive behavior (emotional/verbal/physical/spiritual)? What happened?
- How frequently does this behavior occur?
- How long has this behavior been happening?
- What was the worst incident?
- What is a typical incident?
The answers to the above questions will help you gain a much better picture of the level of oppression in a relationship. If these questions are even being asked, it means that there is some reason for concern about your client’s, parishioner’s, group member’s, or friend’s safety, and perhaps the safety of their children. Familiarize yourself with the abuse reporting requirements in your state and local area. God takes abuse extremely seriously, and the church must take also take it very seriously. Your first obligation to this person is to help them regain safety, and you have an obligation to report the abuse, particularly if it involves children or the elderly. “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” (Eph 5:11)