When a victim of emotional or narcissistic abuse reaches out for support, most of us want to help. While we have good intentions, our uninformed responses can significantly increase their suffering. Since we certainly don’t want to add to their distress, let’s explore ten unhelpful responses to avoid and discover better ways to respond instead.
“You need to go to marital counseling.”
“Get marriage counseling” is often the first response Christians give to victims of emotional abuse. The goal of marriage counseling is to help couples work together on building a mutually beneficial, functional relationship. An abusive individual with narcissistic traits is missing the foundational characteristics required to build a healthy relationship with anyone.
For example, before someone can learn how to run a three-legged race, they must know how to walk, run, and tolerate being tied to another individual. A toddler, no matter how athletic, can’t be taught how to run a three-legged race. Their physical development hasn’t reached the point of them being able to coordinate with another person. Similarly, a narcissist’s stunted emotional development prevents them from having the capacity to work together with their spouse.
This lack of development will not only make marriage counseling ineffective, but it will likely end up being re-traumatizing to the victim. The counseling setting isn’t magically immune to the abuser’s manipulative behaviors. Emotional abuse by a covert abuser is often invisible to everyone but the victim. Even counselors who specialize in covert abuse know how easily even they are fooled by these master manipulators. Not only is the counseling setting dangerous, but the information the abuser gleans during the session can be used at a later time to punish, manipulate, and control their spouse. What should be a safe space for the victim ends up being harmful.
Survivors have found that many well-intentioned Christian friends, family members, and spiritual leaders relentlessly pressure them to seek marital counseling. When they resist, sometimes they are accused of being unwilling to forgive or do their part in a restoration process. Naturally, then they may feel ashamed, judged, and helpless to explain that they are protecting themselves by setting healthy boundaries.
A helpful response is to support a victim’s need to seek safe, individual healing resources.
“You need to stay in the marriage to demonstrate your belief that God can change anyone.”
When a victim leaves their spouse and doesn’t stay in contact, some Christians believe this means the victim is ruling out any possibility of God changing their abuser. Some go as far as to blame the victim for robbing their spouse of the hope they need to fuel the hard work of change. However, a victim leaving doesn’t prevent an abusive spouse from working toward change.
The point of no contact is to stop the abuse, so the victim can move out of just surviving and start to heal. They are leaving the battlefield where they are continually being wounded and finding a safe place to recover.
A helpful response is to support a victim’s decision to limit or end contact. Don’t question their faith or obedience to God simply because they are not currently in touch with their abuser.
“Are you sure it was abuse? I’ve never seen them be abusive.”
Many victims report that other Christians are still minimizing emotional abuse and responding differently than they would if it was physical abuse. Some have faced intense questioning about the abuse with the intent to find ways to minimize it. People might ask,
“You were just scared and thought something might happen, right?”
“Do you think they know you were frightened?”
“They haven’t even laid hands on you once, have they?”
Victims have typically spent a long time minimizing and rationalizing the abuse. Once they have come to accept what is happening as abuse, it isn’t helpful to ask them to spend their time and energy on proving it to you in hopes of gaining the comfort, support, and protection they desperately need.
A helpful response is to believe them and respond as you would if their spouse had punched them in the face repeatedly.
“You need to be honest and clearly communicate with them.”
This message tells the victims that their failure to be open, honest, and articulate causes the abuse. One of the favorite manipulative tactics of emotional abusers is to flip the script. They assume the victim role by claiming their spouse is unfair, unclear, unresponsive, etc. Abusers will tell others lies like, “They blindsided me. I’m in the dark. They just left without telling me anything.” These are all manipulations designed to convince others the abuser is helpless and a victim of mistreatment by their spouse.
In reality, victims have spent excessive amounts of energy explaining to the abuser why their behavior is problematic. They’ve faced threats, psychological warfare, and berating because of their efforts to communicate. Their spouse has heard them, but instead of correcting their behavior, they shift the blame. Meaningful communication isn’t possible with an abuser who doesn’t have the goal to understand or change (even if they adamantly claim they do).
A helpful response would be to let the victim know you understand how manipulators try to paint themselves as helpless victims. Let them know you don’t buy into this narrative. We are all responsible for ourselves and independently addressing our destructive behaviors.
“I think if you work harder at finding out what they need and meeting those needs, they wouldn’t get so frustrated all the time.”
Family, friends, and even some counselors tell victims that discovering what their spouse really needs and learning how to meet those needs is the key to addressing the abuse. They theorize that if the abusive spouse is getting their needs met, they won’t resort to abuse to get what they need. While this might appear to help, it actually can make the abuse worse in the long-term. Pastors and counselors working with the abuser falsely believe their methods are effective. This can give the victim a false sense of security and lead them right back into a vulnerable position.
The changes won’t last because the foundational issues driving the abusive behaviors are unchanged. Even the “nice” behavior is harmful to the victim because it’s for a manipulative purpose. The victim will end up feeling duped and betrayed once again. Even worse, when the abuse resumes, outsiders might join the abuser in blaming the victim for not continuing to fulfill their responsibilities in the marriage.
Abusive behaviors (gaslighting, projection, manipulation, devaluation, etc.) aren’t caused by dynamics in the relationship. They’re caused by the foundational deficits and abusive behaviors of the abuser. An abuser wants their victim and everyone around them to think that if their spouse just stops upsetting them and better attends to their needs, then their behavior will change. The truth is that a victim doesn’t make their spouse abuse them, and even if they attend to every need of the abuser, the abuse won’t stop.
A helpful response is to not question the victim’s efforts in the marriage, but believe them if they say they tried everything possible to please their spouse. You can remind them that narcissistic abusers have a bottomless well that nobody can fill. Until these abusers recognize their need for God to heal them and fill them up, they will search relentlessly for something no human can provide.
“They want to work it out with you. Don’t let your unforgiveness and bitterness stand in the way of allowing God to restore the relationship.”
Spiritual narcissists will work relentlessly to appear humble, broken, forgiving, and willing to change. Religious abusers are notorious for making statements such as, “I’m just a broken, humbled sinner in need of a Savior. Aren’t we all? Thank the Lord for His boundless grace that reaches down and accepts even the worst of sinners, of whom I am the greatest! Thank Jesus He didn’t walk away from me! I love my spouse and stand waiting with open arms and a heart of forgiveness.” Quoting scripture, song lyrics, verbose prayers, and cliché Christian phrases is done with the motive of convincing others they are sincere. Sadly, it often works.
Narcissists may even admit to some mistakes or ask for prayer that God will change them; however, the narcissistic abuser is often not seeking change or mutual reconciliation. Their goal is to get their spouse back under their control.
The abusive cycle of love bombing, devaluing, and withholding something important has likely played out many, many times in the marriage, and now the victim sees through the dramatic displays of affection, crocodile tears, and the sudden flurry of altruistic behaviors. The victim is also now aware that all of that is not genuine but a part of the abusive cycle. It’s important to know that a victim’s refusing to “work it out” doesn’t necessarily indicate unforgiveness or bitterness.
A helpful response would be to let God work with them in His time on forgiveness. Especially after a victim has just left a spiritual narcissist, their understanding of love, forgiveness, and grace is all tangled with abuse. We can want them to “forgive” or move on in order to resolve our own discomfort with the situation. Instead, encourage them to focus on protecting themselves from further abuse, so they can continue to heal.
“Marriage is a reflection of Christ’s relationship with the church. If you leave the marriage, you poorly reflect Christ to the world and ruin your testimony.”
While this statement isn’t usually put so bluntly, some Christians try to shame victims who leave an abusive spouse with such reasoning. A narcissistic abuser broke the marriage covenant from day one by neglecting their spouse emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually. Instead of loving and honoring them, they used manipulation and control to force their spouse to place them above all else, even God, to feed their insatiable need for attention, control, power, and admiration.
A marriage to a narcissistic abuser is NOT a reflection of anything godly or how Christ loves the church, even if it took years for the abuse to be recognized.
A helpful response would be to remind the victim that God doesn’t need them to stay in a destructive relationship to protect His reputation.
“You must submit to the leadership role God gave your husband.”
Both male and female emotional abusers demand an idolatrous level of devotion and expect their spouse to create feelings of value and importance in them. When their spouse can’t meet this God-sized task, they punish them by withholding such things as attention, respect, affection, and money. No amount of devotion and obedience is enough to satisfy the deep void in their soul and create the feelings of value they crave.
God calls us to place Him first in our lives and all other relationships second. Bowing down and submitting to an idol is sin, even if the one demanding this worship is a spouse.
A helpful response would be to remind the victim how pleased the God of the universe is when we place Him above all else. It’s a beautiful act of worship for a person to choose God over their spouse’s sinful demands or what friends or family want them to do.
“You need to give your spouse a list of exactly what changes they need to make.”
When working through marital challenges that don’t stem from abuse, it’s often helpful for each spouse to write down what they think needs to change in the relationship. Abusers will use such a list to help them know how to appear to have changed.
“Spiritual” narcissists use religious activities to convince others they are changing. They might go to a care group at church, attend a few counseling sessions, post religious material on social media, or claim to have had a “come to Jesus” moment. However, if they are declaring they have changed after only a short amount of time, it’s a sure sign that they are still manipulating.
Once abusers have their victim believing in the changes and back under their control, these “changes” will disappear, and often the abuse will escalate. For this reason, it’s unwise for victims to give a narcissist abuser (or anyone who knows their abuser) a list of exactly what the abuser needs to do or what specific changes need to occur. They use a list to deceive their victims and those around them.
A counselor skilled in working with emotional and narcissistic abusers can identify their foundational deficits and problematic behaviors. Highly trained pastoral or Christian counselors can address the abuser’s core spiritual issues. It’s not the job of the spouse to identify these foundational deficits, know how to resolve abusive behaviors, or teach a spouse decent behavior that most children have adopted by the age of eight. This is the job of parents in childhood and professionals in adulthood.
Here are just a few ways an abuser’s actions will show change is beginning:
- They will tell others that their spouse made a godly and wise choice to leave and protect themselves from abuse.
- They won’t look to their spouse in any way to help with their healing process.
- They will respect and honor the boundaries their spouse has put in place.
- They will pay an equitable percentage, based on the situation, of mutual debts and expenses without strings attached.
- They will be busy working and focusing on their work and healing, instead of building a supportive fan club.
- They won’t be running a smear campaign that results in factions forming among their family, current and past friends, and social circles (including their church).
- They will want their spouse to have strong relationships with family, friends, and church, and they won’t do anything to sabotage their spouse’s relationships to make their healing from the abuse any harder.
- They will pay for all the care their spouse needs to recover from the trauma they caused if they are financially able to do so.
A helpful response is to remind the victim of what genuine change will look like over time and encourage them to stay invested in their healing process.
“I just want to let you know; I’m not taking sides.
When it comes to abuse, refusing to take a side is siding with the abuser. It communicates to the victim that either you don’t believe them or that the abuse isn’t a significant problem. As Christians, we often feel quite saintly when we stay neutral. Declaring we are “not being judgmental” or “extending grace” allows us to feel better and avoid addressing the abuse. Psalm 94:16 says, “Who will rise up for me against the wicked? Who will stand for me against those who practice iniquity?”
The Bible teaches us to take a strong stand against evil and sin. Abuse is both. Ephesians 5:11 says, “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.” This response is not just for the benefit of the abused, but also the abuser. When we contribute to the abuser’s delusions that they can do what they want with no consequences, we support their destructive path, which isn’t loving at all.
Since abusers often flip the script, it can sometimes be difficult to tell who is the abusive spouse, especially when they both are claiming to be the victim. To complicate this situation even further, after years of abuse, some victims develop reactions to the abuse (anger, depression, self-harming behaviors, addictions, infidelity, etc.), that can cause people to wrongly conclude that the victim is the abuser. Abusers are delighted to showcase their victim’s shortcomings to draw attention away from their own behaviors and convince others that the victim is mainly to blame for the marital problems.
While being a victim neither excuses sinful reactions to abuse nor indicates that the victim doesn’t have changes they need to make, it certainly doesn’t mean the victim is an abuser.
Matthew 25:40 says, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
Being on the wrong side of truth is dangerous for us spiritually. If we are guilty of siding with sin, even if unintentionally, we will end up further harming victims. This is not what God has called us as Christians to do nor is it how He wants us to represent His character. If each spouse is claiming to be the victim of the other, it is vital for Christians to humbly pray for discernment and seek professional guidance from someone skilled at identifying covert abuse. It’s horrific to later realize you contributed to the wounds of a victim by unknowingly taking an abuser’s side.
A helpful response is to do everything possible to protect the victim by absolutely refusing to be a part of any victim blaming/shaming. It doesn’t take two to tango when one is an abuser. However, this stance is not saying the victim is without fault or doesn’t have significant issues to address. It’s saying they are not at fault for the abuse, nor are they responsible to make it stop.
Manipulators are relentlessly trying to use everyone around them for their purposes. For this reason, being in a relationship with them and the victim at the same time can put the victim in traumatizing and dangerous situations. If a relationship with the abuser is continued, it is imperative to refuse to be a part of any conversations where the abuser is playing the victim role or talking about their spouse. If they can’t respect this boundary, end the conversation.