The power dynamics of abusive relationshipsWritten by Wendy Kittlitz
What's inside this article
We all shudder when we hear of someone being abused. We shake our heads and feel sick to our stomachs. We know it’s bad, it’s hurtful, it’s destructive, but if someone were to ask us why exactly it’s wrong, we may struggle to put those gut feelings into words.
We may also struggle to define abuse in the first place.
Abuse and power
In a nutshell, abuse involves a person with more power over another person, exercising that power to get their own selfish desires met, without regard for the needs of the other.
This can manifest itself in all kinds of relationships – parent to child, husband to wife, wife to husband, pastor to congregant, professor to student, coach to athlete, friend to friend, adult child to elderly parent, the list goes on.
More explicitly, a parent sneaks into a child’s bedroom at night to get their sexual desires met, oblivious to the harm this does to the child. A husband or wife rages and belittles their spouse constantly, destroying their sense of self-esteem in a misguided attempt to be in control. A man assaults a stranger on the street because of some perceived slight. A young woman coerces all of her friends to ostracize another girl in their social group because she feels insecure and threatened. A woman flees her home in the middle of the night because her husband has threatened to kill her in front of her children.
What these behaviours all have in common is that a person with power uses that power to harm, not help, another person. It is as if the person being victimized is no longer viewed as a person of equal worth and value to the abuser, but merely something to be used to achieve their own ends.
God’s good power
The Bible reveals a God who is all-powerful, but who never uses his power to override the ability of his creation to exercise their individual power to choose. God never forces us to do anything – nothing, ever. He could, but he always respects our autonomy and right to make our own choices. He has absolute power and is absolutely good.
We are not God, but we can look to him as an example of what it means to humble ourselves, hold any power we may have in check, and show respect to those around us – especially those who have less power than we do.
As a parent, I respect my children’s autonomy. Of course, there are days when I desperately want to “make” them do what I think is best with all of my heart. I also confess I have occasionally considered various forms of manipulation, threats and even bribery to get them to do what I want. At the end of the day, though, I resist. I remember they are God’s children even more than my own, whole persons with inherent worth and value.
Unfortunately, there are parents, friends, spouses, dating partners, strangers, teachers, coaches, siblings, etc., who don’t resist that temptation. They decide that their desires are more important. They take what they want by some form of misused power: physical strength, emotional and/or verbal abuse, influence, coercion, intimidation, manipulation, financial or spiritual superiority. They have an insatiable need to be in control and when that is threatened, they take what they want without regard to the impact this has on those in their orbit.
The oppressed and the oppressor
In the Bible, God regularly called out people for such behaviours. He is consistently on the side of those with less power, advocating for them against their oppressors. In whatever our circumstances, we should follow in his ways.
He invites the oppressed to flee to him for safety, where they will find comfort and refuge:
“O Lord, rescue me from evil people. Protect me from those who are violent.” (Psalm 140:1)
“Then Jesus said, ‘Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’” (Matthew 11:28)
He invites the oppressor to repent and use their power to help, not harm:
“Turn away from what is sinful. Do what is good. Look for peace and follow it.” (Psalm 34:14)
He invites the rest of us out of complacency and into engagement on the side of the oppressed, offering support, safety, resources and understanding with no judgment:
“See that no one renders evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good both for yourselves and for all.” (1 Thessalonians 5:15)
“Do everything you possibly can for those who need help.” (Proverbs 3:27)
That being said, God is in the business of changing hearts – we are not. Confronting an abuser is not something to take lightly, as the repercussions can be dangerous for those they are abusing. Additionally, helping someone who is oppressed can be difficult if they refuse to acknowledge the abuse. Safety is of the utmost importance, which is why immense wisdom, discernment and patience is required for anyone seeking to help victims of abuse.
Abuse is often overlooked, misunderstood and potentially dangerous. Abusers tend to be master manipulators, able to evade suspicion by being overly charming and helpful in public spaces, to hide the heartbreaking truth of what goes on in private.
If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, we encourage you to contact our care and counselling team at 1.800.661.9800. Our office hours are Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. PT.
Wendy Kittlitz is vice-president of counselling and care ministries at Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2022 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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