Editor’s note: While an abuser can be either male or female, more than 90% are male and approximately 85% of victims are female1. For the purposes of this article, we are speaking primarily to women. If there is any form of abuse in your marriage, separation is a necessary first step to protect the life of the abused and get both the abused and the abuser the help he or she needs. If you are in an abusive situation, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline for help making a plan. Call 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) or visit https://www.thehotline.org/.
For most people, freeing yourself from domestic abuse leaves you physically and emotionally exhausted, barely able to function. Like the Israelites escaping Pharaoh’s chains, abusers vindictively work to make sure the process of leaving is fraught with peril and plagues.
How do you heal from being the target of abuse and reclaim your life to become the person God designed you to be?
As an attorney who helps women overcome domestic abuse, I tell each one of my clients to make healing her number one priority. When we do that, we seek God with all our heart, we come to know Him in ways we never had before, our relationship with Him becomes closer, His blessings flow over us, and we grow spiritually and emotionally.
Recovering from domestic abuse
But the process isn’t easy. The following are a few important steps in the journey of healing and going from victim to victorious.
1. Recognize you were targeted because of your Christlike qualities.
Abusers target people who are kind, sweet, generous, giving, forgiving, agreeable, cooperative, patient, grounded in faith, and invest in relationships. They have all the good characteristics the abuser doesn’t have—which is why they were targeted.
Those who have these traits should not try to change; these are delightful qualities we should cherish. However, in a relationship with an abuser, they will be exploited. The key is not to change these attributes, but to entrust your heart only to safe people who are worthy of such a gift.
The one quality that targets of abuse lack is discernment—the ability to recognize good from evil, truth from lies, good intentions from bad, and integrity from hypocrisy. Discernment is a sign of spiritual maturity, and it is honed through constant use (Hebrews 5:11-14). We should not feel guilt or shame for being sucked into an abusive marriage—after all, an abuser is a professional con man and pathological liar. Most of us are not trained to identify sociopaths.
Even within the church there has been some misconstruing of Scripture that led to incorrect teaching on “submission” for women and what it means to be the “head of the household” for men. Faulty theology can be dangerous and hurts all involved.
2. Reject Satan’s lies and replace them with Truth.
The author of Romans tells us to not be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we can know God’s perfect will for us (Romans 12:2). So how does this happen? We must identify and reject every lie from Satan we have agreed with, replacing it with God’s truth.
There are likely hundreds of lies we have believed about God, relationships, our abuser, and ourselves that we must attack, eject, and replace. Below are just a few of the most common lies, contrasted with the truth that sets us free.
Lies about God. What we believe about God is the most important thing about us. Sometimes, our perception of God is skewed, which keeps us from healing. For example, we may have been told that God sent domestic abuse to teach us something, to give us patience, or to glorify Himself through our suffering. That’s a lie.
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7-8).
“For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness” (Mark 7:21-22). These are attributes of man, not God.
Lies that led you into an abusive relationship. Lies can lead us into abusive relationships. We may believe we must settle for people with questionable morals or serious character flaws because we can’t expect too much from a spouse, or because we believe we can rescue or change that person. That’s a lie we tell ourselves. God wants you to have an amazing, abundant, overflowing life. And if marriage is in His plans for us, God wants the same for our marriage.
Lies that kept you in an abusive relationship. When an abuser tells you, “Mistakes were made,” or he was “Sorry you were offended,” or promised to change, you may have believed your abuser was repentant, even though you saw no evidence of long-term change. Those were lies to keep you in an abusive marriage.
Repentant people are easy to identify. First, they make a true public confession of their guilt, with no excuses, no blame, and no minimizing. Second, they put the person they wronged in a better position than she was before. They make full restitution plus some. Third, they take whatever steps they need to take to correct their bad behaviors and attitudes – whether it is engaging in therapy, a support group, or pastoral counseling. Fourth, they exchange their prideful attitude of entitlement for a humble attitude of service. They don’t demand forgiveness or anything else. Finally, they have permanent change in behavior and attitude. In short, repentance looks like Paul’s 180-degree turnaround as revealed in 1 Timothy 1:12-17. If you don’t see all of these, your abuser is not repentant, and he is playing you.
- Lies about yourself. Sometimes, the lies we believe about ourselves keep us from healing and becoming the person God designed us to be, even after we have left an abuser. For example, you may have been told you are worthless, unlovable, and there is nothing of any value in you. Those are lies many abusers tell. The truth is that God made us uniquely in His image like no one else on the planet (Psalm 139:14), to carry out God’s good works here on earth like no one else can (Ephesians 2:10). God delights in us, sings songs over us (Zephaniah 3:17), redeems us, and thinks about us all the time (Psalm 139:17).
3. Recognize you could not have changed the outcome.
Many Christians are overcome with guilt and shame, thinking they could have saved their marriage if they had just been a better spouse, or prettier, or more handsome, or thinner, or more submissive, or gone to more counseling. It’s important to know that abusers choose to abuse because of their own shortcomings, not because of anything a partner did or did not do.
All relationships with abusers end badly. There is no guilt or shame in trying all you can to make a marriage work. But it is also important to realize when it is time to leave abuse. Like a physician who makes Herculean efforts to keep a patient alive until she must finally declare the time of death, we must declare the death of a relationship after all efforts to keep a marriage alive have been exhausted.
4. Practice healing exercises.
There are a lot of techniques that can help you heal from abuse. Educating yourself about domestic abuse is one of the first steps. Knowledge is a powerful healing tool. Participating in individual counseling and support groups facilitated by an expert in trauma-informed therapy and domestic abuse will put healing on fast-forward.
Healing is a process best done in community. Praying, spending time in God’s Word, reading good books, journaling, writing, telling your story to safe people, and joining a Bible study are essential steps in allowing God to heal our wounded spirits. Practicing thankfulness and singing praise and worship music will drive out anxiety and usher in joy. Healthy eating, drinking, exercise, and sleeping will replenish your body. Creativity uses a different part of your brain and lifts the spirits—so feel free to paint, sing, play music, sculpt, make crafts, write, and do other positive creative activities. Creating a safe, peaceful, loving new home will bring a sanctuary of peace. Making steps toward financial independence will help with financial healing. And adopting a cat or dog is incredibly healing for both you and your new furball.
It is also essential for healing to have no contact with the abuser (or as little as possible if you share children). Just like a razor blade will always cut when it is in contact with the finger, an abuser will always harm its target when there is contact. The Bible also calls us to go “no contact” concerning abusive and divisive people for our own protection (2 Timothy 3:1-5; Titus 3:10; 1 Corinthians 5:11; Proverbs 22:24-25).
5. Establish healthy boundaries.
Establishing healthy boundaries is often difficult for people who have been in abuse. Unhealthy boundaries usually fall into two categories: a person wants to control others or lets others control him.
Because an abuser strives to control others, he often looks for someone who allows him to control her. Establishing healthy boundaries will help the person healing from abuse ensure that future relationships are healthy. It is important to know that a healthy boundary is an action that you yourself will take to protect yourself when another person acts inappropriately. For example, as an attorney, I must represent facts to the court and to opposing counsel. I need to have absolute credibility. Therefore, I have a boundary that I will not represent someone who has lied to me. I tell clients up front that if they are untruthful, I will withdraw my representation. Other healthy boundaries may be to leave the room if another person is disrespectful, to eliminate manipulative people from your life, or to refuse to be involved in conversations involving gossip.
Practicing assertive communication (not aggressive or passive-aggressive) is also a key to establishing healthy boundaries. It is important to distinguish between “I can’t” and “I won’t.” Changing our behaviors and attitude is difficult, and we must not fall into thinking we cannot heal when, in fact, we choose not to.
6. Know your identity and that God is with you.
A person coming out of an abusive relationship often feels fearful and alone as she stands on the brink of an unknown future that will be very different from the past. She may feel like Joshua standing on the banks of the Jordan River looking into the Promised Land—a land unlike anything he had ever known. But Joshua had a command and a promise that we can claim too: We should be strong and courageous, not fearful or discouraged, because our almighty God has promised to go with us (see Joshua 1:9). Once we truly believe God goes with us, that He takes what others meant for evil and uses it for our good, and that He is always working things out to benefit us, we can go forward with confidence.
God wants us to have a mindset of victors not victims, fearless not fearful!
Knowing who we are and whose we are shapes everything about us—how we think, how we act, how we react to adversity. Jesus was the perfect example—He knew who He was and who sent Him, He spoke with authority, He knew his purpose and lived it out, and He was unaffected by either praise or verbal abuse.
When we know our identity, we hold our head high, we are gracious to others because we are filled with the Spirit which overflows, and we don’t let the words of those who wish us harm affect us.
7. Know your mission.
Every good company has a mission statement. It is a public declaration of their purpose for existing. The company declines anything that does not align with its mission statement so that it can focus on accomplishing its mission and its purpose with excellence.
Likewise, I encourage every woman I counsel to do some self-searching to know her strengths, unique gifts, and talents, and to discover her purpose—why she was put on this planet. Then I encourage her to write a mission statement for her life, outlining the specific purpose that she feels God has created her for in this season. I also ask her to write a vision statement setting forth what she wants her life to look like in 10-20 years. Then I ask her to write a values statement summarizing her code of honor she lives by. Finally, I ask her to choose her own board of directors to keep her accountable.
When we live with intentionality, we are not easily drawn off course. And when we live looking forward towards God’s purpose for which we are called, we can let go of the past and stop looking back. Once a woman knows her identity and her purpose, she can say no to a lot of things, so she can say yes to the best things that God has in store for her.
Changing your mindset from victim to victorious
Gentle reader, have no doubt—escaping from domestic abuse will likely be the most difficult spiritual battle you will ever face. Satan wants to keep you a victim with a victim mentality. We must see ourselves as mighty, victorious warriors. A person who has overcome domestic abuse has risen up and defeated the terrorist. She is a warrior with battle scars to prove it. God has gone before her, fought for her, and conducted a black-ops mission to rescue her. Because we have seen God’s faithfulness in action, our mindset moves from victim to victorious. God moves in us, strengthens us, and matures us. And we become fearless, as He designed us to be.
1. M. Kimmel,“Gender Symmetry in Domestic Violence: A Substantive and Methodological Research Review,” Violence Against Women, 8, no. 1 (Nov. 2002): ; 1332-1363
Copyright ©2022 by Charlene Quint. All Rights Reserved.
Charlene Quint is a family law attorney in the Chicago area who focuses her practice on helping women overcome domestic abuse, and she is the author of the award-winning book, Overcoming the Narcissist, Sociopath, Psychopath, and Other Domestic Abusers (Redemption Press). Charlene is the founder of AbuseCare.org, a nondenominational, faith-based organization designed to provide hope and healing to women on their journey from victim to victorious, as well as to educate and equip church leaders. She is also a certified domestic violence professional, an advocate for victims of abuse, a facilitator of multiple support groups, and a domestic abuse survivor.