I never thought that I would find myself in an abusive relationship. My parents never raised an unkind hand against me. My mother died when I was nine years old. Even though my father was seldom involved in my upbringing, my memories of our interactions are pleasant. I was sent to religious school from kindergarten to high school. The Bible stories taught during those years helped me to develop a moral conscience, which enabled me to see the good in others. I believe that good has the power to overcome evil.
As I reflect, I ask myself how I could have ever become entangled in an abusive relationship. Many factors played a role. For starters, there was fear of judgment and rejection by others, a sense of failure, and the hope that he could change. The important factors, though, were denial, fear, and love. I will discuss fear and love in future blogs. For now, I want to talk about denial.
It is amazing what denial can do. As an emergency room nurse, I took care of women who had been brutally beaten by their partners. These women excused their partners’ actions. I imaged I would never act this way, even as I was making excuses for my husband’s behaviors. I remember watching the movie The Color Purple. All the belittling and degrading exhibited by Celie’s husband, and her reactions to it, were similar to what I was experiencing in my relationship. And yet I could not emotionally connect to it.
Denial keeps you from dealing with the reality of what is happening. It unconsciously protects you from emotions that you are unable to tolerate, and so you suppress them. It makes it easy to tell yourself and to persuade others that the abuse is not happening. Denial says the truth is not real.
When the truth cannot be ignored, then denial is ready with excuses. It says your partner called you hurtful names and hit you because he was under stress. It says you are overreacting.
Even though he hit you and might have injured you, you believe he won’t kill you. Denial allows you to accept that type of thinking. Consequently, it puts you in danger. We hear stories of women who denied that their abusers would kill them, and yet they lost their lives.
Denial helps you cope with the violence. You come to believe that everything is OK. You desperately cling to the hope that things can change. “Be patient,” you tell yourself, “he will change.” And you look for behaviors that feed this hope. For example, when he makes small gestures of kindness, like taking you to dinner or buying you flowers, it props up the hope that he will change.
However, using denial over time stops the inner alarm that warns us of the danger. Our alarms activate our “fight or flight” response to make us aware that what we are facing is not good for us. When denial is overused in a situation of repeated harm, it turns off that alarm. When your body’s signal is turned off, it loses its fighting ability, leading to hopelessness and helplessness.
I wish I knew then what I know now: Denial hindered my ability to see how I was emotionally and physically exposing myself to danger.
Denial also stops you from relating to others. When others are talking about their experiences, you hold to minor differences to prove that your experience is different. “My partner doesn’t do that, or say that.” Therefore, your situation is different from mine. Denial allows you to believe that since he is not behaving like everyone else he is not abusive.
In reality, the minor differences mean nothing. Each abuser might use different tactics. Yet, the end goal of the abusive behavior is the same: control. The motive behind the actions is to control the one being abused. Understanding that fact was empowering for me.
Even among people who are highly educated, denial is common. Women who have authority at their jobs and the resources to protect themselves use denial a lot. It is shameful, embarrassing, and humiliating for a strong woman to admit that her partner is abusive. This denial might even stop the woman from being open about the abuse when she leaves the relationship, resulting in adverse effects on her healing process. I have encountered many educated women who left their abusers and have moved on with their lives without addressing the violence but are still showing the emotional scar of the abuse.
Unless we are open about what is going on in the relationship, we cannot break the walls of denial. Breaking the walls of denial requires being honest and exposing the truth. We have to expose the abuse, whether past or present, for what it is and ask for help.
It was hard to admit that I was in an abusive relationship. The shame and humiliation that it produced were overwhelming. Even to this day, I have some of those emotions. What do others think of me? Will they believe my story, or will they think that I am out to smear the good name of my ex-husband? Will they see me as being weak? But you, like me, must recognize that we can’t break the bonds of abuse if we don’t acknowledge the truth about what has happened to us. As John 8:32 tells us, “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Just as important as knowing the truth is speaking it. Validating our stories is the first step toward empowerment. If you are in an abusive relationship or have left one, find a safe place, like a domestic violence center in your community, or an empathic listener to tell your story to. You no longer have to wear the mask of denial.
When you tell your story to an empathic listener, you change your brain’s neural pathways, thereby allowing you to change your story. When you change your story, you change your life. When you integrate your story with God’s story, life-sustaining changes occur! -Curt Thompson M.D., Anatomy of the Soul
“And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (John 8:32).”
Next Blog: Understanding Abuse: Fear
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