Learn to Say “Stop It!” –
Last week I began my series on Holding Your Abuser Accountable. In this series I am describing the process Jesus outlines in Matthew 18 for holding a brother who sins against you accountable. This series is for you if you or someone you love is a victim of emotional, verbal, psychological or spiritual abuse. If you are a victim of physical or sexual abuse, please check out my Get help page for hotline numbers in your country, and call them as soon as you feel safe doing so.
The advice below is from my book A Journey through Emotional Abuse: from Bondage to Freedom. Be aware this advice is not meant for someone in a physically abusive relationship. Note also that an abuser who has not been physically abusive might become physically abusive when you try to stand up to him*. Consider your actions carefully. Check out my blog entitled When Emotional Abuse Turns Physical. How Can a Victim Prepare?
Last week I described how you can use boundaries to begin holding your abuser accountable. This week I will get more specific, and I will describe setting limits with your abuser based upon the book The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans.
Start Setting Limits
Your abuser probably has many behaviors which bother and upset you. You will first want to think through those behaviors and decide which ones you are no longer willing to accept. Some examples might be:
- Calling you names
- Yelling at you
- Ordering you around as if you were his servant
- Threatening you
- Making a joke at your expense
- Keeping you from resources (such as cars, phones, computers)
- Any other behavior designed to hurt you or make you angry
Once you have decided what you are no longer willing to accept, then you need to call him on those behaviors every time he does it. When you do this, speak firmly so he knows you are serious.
Practicing what you will say before you are in a difficult situation with your abuser is a good idea. For example, you might need to say:
- “I will not accept being called names.”
- “I will not accept you yelling at me.”
- “I will not allow you to order me around.”
- “I will not accept comments or ‘jokes’ that put me down.”
- . . . and other statements applicable to your unique situation.
If, at the moment of abuse, you are speechless, you can train yourself to say in a firm voice, “Stop it!”
Your goal will be to say something about every offensive thing your abuser tries to do. When you do this in a firm tone of voice, you will be letting him know you mean what you say. Do not explain yourself, your needs, or what you mean. That is probably how you have responded in the past, and it most likely didn’t work. Responding that way gives him more fuel with which to continue abusing you, and keeps you stuck in the same old patterns. Simply call a halt to the abuse, and let that be your final word.
Be Prepared for His Reaction
You don’t know how he will react. A person who is not a confirmed abuser, or who is willing to make changes for you, may immediately back down, or at least consider what you are saying. On the other hand, a true abuser will likely get angrier, because he sees he is losing control over you. Since the purpose of his abuse is to gain control, when he sees he is beginning to lose that control, he will not like it.
How he reacts will help you to determine whether your abuser is willing, or even able, to stop abusing you. Don’t wait until things are unbearable before seeking change. The sooner the better!
Be prepared for your abuser to suddenly act like the injured party. For example, he might say, “I’m just telling you the truth because I love you,” or “I can’t believe you would be that disrespectful to me,” or “You always need to win an argument,” or “I never said that,” or any number of things. However, you know he is not abusing you because he loves you, you are not being disrespectful, you are not trying to win an argument, and, in fact, he did say that! Ask the Lord to help you to stand firm in this difficult situation. 1 Corinthians 16:13–14 says:
“Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong. Do everything in love.”
Remember, allowing your abuser to continue abusing you is not showing him God’s love.
Be Prepared for Difficulties as You Try to Make Changes
If you have decided this relationship is important enough for you to try to salvage, and you want to try to risk making these changes, you should look out for these potential bumps in the road:
1. Guilt: You may feel guilty for learning about emotional abuse, since you’ve probably been blamed for the abuse.
2. Insecurity: You may have been conditioned to feel wrong about setting limits and refusing to accept abuse.
3. Denial: Once you begin setting limits, your abuser may continue to strongly deny he has done anything wrong. If you have grown accustomed to believing everything he says about himself, and about you, you may have difficulty believing your own perception of what is happening. Accepting your own perceptions and feelings is critical. Ask the Lord to help you see the truth about what is happening. 2 Timothy 1:7 says,
“For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.”
4. Self-doubt: If the abuse you’ve experienced has occurred primarily in private, you may think you are misreading his actions. You may think something is wrong with you because no one else is around to say “Hey, that’s abusive!” Or, you may think your abuser has no idea what he is doing. If this is the case, remember that most crimes are committed in secret. Just as a thief knows what he is doing in secret, the abuser knows what he is doing in secret. He may not understand what compels him, but if he continues to deny the abuse, is unwilling to discuss the abuse, and remains hostile toward you, he has become a confirmed abuser. Unless a person or circumstances cause him to reevaluate his life and actions, he is unlikely to make any lasting changes.
5. Grief: Another difficulty you may have is realizing you are the primary, and perhaps only, person he is abusing. You may then ask yourself, “Why would he do this to me?” You may also have to accept the loss of the illusion that your relationship is fine and will improve on its own. This is a real loss, similar to a death. Take this pain to the Lord. Be honest with Him about your feelings. Also, now is the time to really lean on your friends, counselors, and mentors; in other words, the support system you have created for yourself.
6. Danger: Finally, and most upsettingly, your abuser may very well intensify his abuse.
If you have not yet done so, I strongly encourage you to make a safety plan for you and your children before you begin asking for change. A confirmed abuser can become angrier and violent when faced with resistance to his abuse. Even if you have not prepared for this, you have every right to leave a dangerous situation and take your children and pets with you.
A Word About the Abuse of Withholding
One category of abuse will not be helped by standing firm and telling your abuser to “stop it.” That category of abuse is called withholding. I am very familiar with this type of abuse because this was my husband’s favorite tool.
So, what is withholding? An abuser withholds any kind of affection or attention to his mate. He keeps all his thoughts, feelings, hopes, and dreams to himself. He may completely ignore his partner, to the point of not responding to her if she speaks directly to him, or stepping around her if she goes near him, as if she does not physically exist. My husband used to ask the children at the dinner table to pass him the ketchup which was next to me, as if I were not physically present. If your abuser is a withholder, you know the extreme pain of living with someone like this.
Telling an extreme withholder to “stop it” will do no good at all, since he does not acknowledge your existence. Patricia Evans says withholding is a violation of your boundaries, and you need not accept this behavior. She recommends you leave your abuser’s presence, saying matter-of-factly, “I am feeling very bored with your company.” Then, you can be gone as long as you wish. You can read a book, visit a friend, or take your kids on an outing. Anything you do will be less boring or painful than sitting through the silent treatment. I tried things like this, but it made no impact on my husband whatsoever. Perhaps you will have more success than I did.
A person who is willing and able to change his behavior will reconsider his actions when confronted in such a respectful way. If he continues to behave the same way he always has, or his behavior gets even more abusive, you will need to decide whether you want to continue on with the next step of the Matthew 18 process, or whether you would be better off making plans to leave the relationship. If you decide you should leave, please contact a domestic violence advocate, and make a plan to leave safely. If you would like to move forward with the Matthew 18 process, check out my next blog.
I pray the Lord will watch over you, and you will feel his loving arms around you, lifting you up, and surrounding you with his unfailing love.
* In this blog, I use the word “she” to identify the victim of abuse, and “he” the abuser. The same principles apply if the abuser is a woman and the victim a man, or if the victim and the abuser are the same gender. Patricia Evans, The Verbally Abusive Relationship, How to Recognize It and How to Respond (Avon, Mass:Adams Media Corporation, 1996), 117-131.
 Evans, The Verbally Abusive Relationship, 140.
 Evans, The Verbally Abusive Relationship, 140.