Within the abuse experience, a distorted view of hierarchy is prominent. Every couple chooses to have an egalitarian or complementarian position in certain areas of their relationship. In the theological world, within the complementarian style of relationship, there is a greater risk to use scripture to justify harmful hierarchy within the couple. Usually there is not as great a risk in an egalitarian framework, however, that view can mask abuse that does occur in the shadows. What is essential to understand is that in abuse situations patriarchy or hierarchy is used for coercive control and as a repetitive power play, eliminating any possibility of mutual respect. This skewed and harmful use of hierarchy is a complex problem that may need serious and experienced professional help beyond your personal belief systems, your scope of training, or your pastoral experience. We encourage you to invest in reading materials that will illuminate your knowledge base, so that your pulpit etiquette will not inadvertently encourage further harm to victims who are already suffering.
If you do not have trauma and domestic violence training and working experience, you must disqualify yourself. *This does not mean that your next step is to direct the couple to couple’s therapy, because to do so would set in motion further harm to the victim. Couple’s therapy is strictly contraindicated until such time as clarity of the issues has been achieved for the victim through reading, a domestic violence support group, or expert therapeutic work. For the perpetrator, his active engagement in a full batterer’s program needs to be required because it serves a dual purpose: the victim is protected while the perpetrator is held accountable.
The Role of Voice
Embedded in working with victims and perpetrators is the crucial matter of VOICE. The perpetrator is used to speaking and hearing the sound of only his voice: demanding, demeaning, suppressing the other’s. For the victim, she is used to NOT having her voice: it is buried, unworthy, and dangerous. One of the most significant shifts that must occur for both the victim and perpetrator is for the victim to find and use her voice. She must be able to define herself and express her needs and wants. This new achievement will feel foreign and maybe frightening both to her and the perpetrator. She may feel too forceful, too masculine, or too powerful. The perpetrator will have a difficult time adjusting to his partner having her voice, and hearing what she is saying. But without this achievement, there can be no shift in the hierarchy that exists and no healing for the trauma that has occurred.
What you can do to help
Teach the difference between abusive submission and mutual and beneficial surrender. You can inform the perpetrator that traditional thoughts of male dominance and superiority are harmful, and that anytime one partner invades or overrides the other person’s self efficacy in opinions, voice, or needs, that constitutes abuse. The highest rates of religious divorce occurs in marriages where there is not mutual equality. A dominant style of marriage may appear to work well for some relationships, but far too often this appearance hides the reality that the hierarchy enforced fosters an abusive relationship.
Expert training for clinicians and pastors underscores that you must guard the confidentiality of the victim and thus avoid falling into a pattern of listening to the perpetrator only. Male pastors are particularly vulnerable in breaching this necessary protocol and protection when mentoring or counseling the male partner of a couple. This breach of protocol harms the victim exponentially, emboldens the perpetrator, and establishes your liability of being an accomplice to the abuse. This secondary form of abuse is called Double Abuse and for the victim exacerbates PTSD into Complex PTSD, making healing an even greater challenge. (*Please read more about Double Abuse here.)