One of the things I’ve learned after years of working in the field of domestic abuse recovery may seem surprising to many people:
Although individuals can admit they’re in a difficult relationship, they often don’t realize that what they’re experiencing isn’t ordinary martial challenges, but is intimate partner violence. This is especially true when the abuse is covert and there’s no physical violence present. However, “violence” doesn’t always take place on a physical level—as a matter of fact, aggression that’s sly and hidden tends to be more damaging than the overt, physical forms of violence.
Why can it so difficult to tell the difference between normal marital discord and domestic abuse?
Every marriage has challenges, and every couple will get into disagreements from time to time—perhaps even frequently. Disagreements, even if they get out of hand, aren’t themselves a sign of abuse.
The true markers of ordinary challenges versus coercive abuse can be seen in how those differences are handled and resolved, and whether or not mutual self-giving exists in the relationship. Situations of power-over—where one spouse attempts to dominate the other or consistently prove the other wrong—are both red flags. Remember, abuse is a pattern of behavior, not a one-time event.
We typically call someone who uses abuse to control or manipulate others an abuser. I certainly have, in countless previous articles, but perhaps there’s a different way we can view these individuals, one that gives us a more charitable perspective as well as relieves some of our cognitive dissonance.
At the same time, we must always remember that there is no excuse for abuse,and those who use such tactics need to take full responsibility for their choices and actions.
Part of my training to become an inner healing life coach has included the study of a therapeutic method called internal family systems (IFS). Developed by Dr. Richard Schwartz, IFS suggests that within each of us are many sub-personalities or “families,” such as wounded parts, those parts of us that try to protect us from further hurt, and parts of us that we may not like.
Although our primary self—made in the image and likeness of God—was created as a cohesive whole, we live in a fallen world. We get hurt, we hurt others; we develop addictions or traumas, we feel anxious or ashamed.
Under the IFS model, we can now separate our core, primary self from our various sub-parts. For example, I’m not an anxious person at the core of my beinghood, but I do have an anxious part, a part that has tried to take over and run the show in an effort to alert me of the emotional danger I was enduring for so long. Now that I’m in a safe place, I no longer need that protector part to be so prominent; I only need her to step forward and alert me to real threats. Part of my own work in healing from trauma has been to create harmony within my nervous system by honoring that part, while integrating it to the background role it deserves—to come out only as a justified warning that something in my life is off-kilter.
Yet how does this idea apply to someone who is abusive in their relationships?
For the Q & A articles, I try to address questions I receive most often. Lately I’ve been getting emails from people asking about the various ways they can receive professional help as they navigate their situation. The questions usually go something like this:
"I’ve been having a difficult time finding a therapist who really understands my situation and is trained in domestic abuse. I also need someone who shares my morals and faith. I’m now thinking about finding a spiritual director instead of a therapist, or maybe a spiritual life coach. What’s the difference between a spiritual director, therapist, and a life coach?"
As a spiritual director, certified wellness consultant, and a trauma-informed Catholic life coach, I’ll do my best to answer your questions.
I'm Jenny duBay, a domestic abuse survivor and now advocate. My degree is in Christian theology with a concentration on spiritual direction, and my vocational emphasis is on helping those who have suffered from domestic abuse to heal and reclaim their true selves.