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Signs of domestic abuse: Red flags in relationships

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Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 04/28/23

Your marriage vows do not mean you have to stay in a dangerous situation, says Catholic expert on domestic violence.

It’s hard to talk about such an ugly and upsetting topic, but domestic abuse is a reality that’s all around us. 

Given that about “1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner physical violence,” according to the National Coalition against Domestic Violence, there’s a strong chance you know someone currently affected, or who has survived domestic violence yourself.

The subject of domestic abuse can be complicated for people of faith, who believe that marriage is forever and may struggle with leaving even an unsafe situation. So it’s important and helpful to hear a Catholic perspective on these issues.

I had the chance to hear from Jenny duBay, author of the forthcoming book Don’t Plant Your Seeds Among Thorns: A Catholic’s Guide to Domestic Abuse.

Jenny-DuBay
Jenny DuBay

A survivor of domestic abuse herself, duBay dedicates her career to advocating for other survivors and helping them find healing. She generously answered a few questions, including sharing information from her forthcoming book.

What led you to become involved in advocating for abuse survivors? 

DuBay: Domestic abuse is often crafty and subtle. It’s not merely physical battering, but emotional, spiritual, and psychological in nature. Often women in abusive relationships don’t even recognize they’re being abused, at least not until the relationship is well-established and their sense of self has been effectively diminished. This is what happened to me. It took me over a decade — and through the guidance of loved ones, who could see and admit things about my marriage that I couldn’t face — to realize that my marriage wasn’t merely “difficult” as my husband claimed, but that he was verbally, emotionally, psychologically and even physically abusing me. After this shocking realization, I decided to learn all I could about abuse, and through the process of my own healing I began my ministry in order to help other Catholic women struggling through the same suffering. 

What exactly is domestic abuse, which can often be misunderstood? Any warning signs that one can look for?

DuBay: When the topic of domestic violence is mentioned, people often visualize black eyes, broken bones, and clenched fists. However, manipulation and control over another individual takes many forms. Domestic abuse can violate a person not only physically but emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, sexually and financially. 

Some examples of domestic abuse include:  

  • name-calling and insults
  • extreme and controlling jealousy  
  • constant criticism, both overt and covert  
  • threats to kill or harm one’s partner, children, or pets  
  • destruction of property  
  • forced vaccination, sterilization, or abortion  
  • sexual assault or coercion  
  • blaming others or constantly making excuses for negative behaviors  
  • physical violence  
  • undermining and belittling  
  • being deliberately evasive in conversation, omitting information and other forms of lying  
  • circular talk (conversations become dizzying and impossible to follow)  
  • the victim isn’t allowed to have opinions separate from her abuser  
  • intimidation by subtle threats, looks, actions, or tone of voice 

The consistent, continual pattern of domestic abuse is dizzying and bewildering, especially since an abuser shows a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” personality. He can often be charming and sweet, and during those times the victim will feel overwhelming relief and gratitude. Eventually, though, he becomes “Mr. Hyde” again, exploding in aggressive rage or covert criticism, often employing manipulative tactics that are more dangerous because of their subtlety. These tactics are all part of the abuse cycle. 

Bishops’ helpful document

DuBay recommended a document from the USCCB, When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence, written in 1992 and revised in 2002, calling it “one of the most important documents the Church has put forth on domestic abuse.” The U.S. bishops give this concise and accurate description of domestic abuse: 

Domestic violence is any kind of behavior that a person uses to control an intimate partner through fear and intimidation. It includes physical, sexual, psychological, verbal, and economic abuse. Some examples of domestic abuse include battering, name-calling, and insults, threats to kill or harm one’s partner or children, destruction of property, marital rape, and forced sterilization or abortion.

She pointed out that physical abuse is far from the only kind of domestic violence:

Although physical abuse is the most obvious form of domestic violence, it’s less common than emotional/psychological abuse, which includes verbal attacks, gaslighting, fierce control of one’s spouse, and other manipulative tactics that limit the life and joy of the abused partner. When a spouse isn’t a trusted friend and companion — but instead is insistent on controlling his partner and the relationship — domestic abuse is likely. 

Warning signs

Regarding warning signs to look out for, DuBay shared several articles she’s written on the topic, including the following:

The biggest red flags early on, she said, are “love bombing” and “jealousy”:

Of all these topics, the most important to focus on early in the relationship are love bombing and jealousy. If a relationship moves too fast — it’s “love at first sight” and “too good to be true”— then that’s a warning sign. Relationships take time, devotion, friendship, and eventual vulnerability. Abusers will often rush a relationship by forcing a false sense of security and intimacy, even within the first weeks or months of a relationship. Speed over discernment is a huge red flag. 

Another red flag that’s common to many domestic abusers is that of extreme jealousy. Some abusers like to flaunt their “conquests” in front of others, as they would a flashy sports car. While this is also a red flag that the relationship is that of objectification rather than mutual self-giving, the more common reaction of domestic abusers is to be excessively jealous, to the point of socially isolating their partner. A controlling partner often has many excuses as to why he behaves the way he does, and all of them sound good: he’s never loved anyone as much as you, he’s afraid you’ll meet someone better, his ex cheated on him, his mother cheated on his father (or vice versa), and other similar tactics. The thing to remember is that even if true, these are merely excuses to control the relationship. 

Red flags in your situation?

If you find that these red flags sound all too familiar for your situation, duBay recommended two resources for physical safety:

For spiritual help, she said, “I can’t recommend Hope’s Garden enough. The free community there is incredible. This site is a sisterhood of Christ-centered healing and love.” 

Most of all, she encouraged Catholics to remember that their marriage vows do not mean they have to stay in an unsafe situation. 

When a person is in an emotionally or physically dangerous marriage, the Church doesn’t insist a victim must stay. The Code of Canon Law states: “If either of the spouses causes grave mental or physical danger to the other spouse or to the offspring or otherwise renders common life too difficult, that spouse gives the other a legitimate cause for leaving, either by decree of the local ordinary or even on his or her own authority if there is danger in delay” (CIC, Code 1153).

Whether to stay or go is an individual decision that must be discerned through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Much can be written on this topic — I dedicate an entire chapter to the topic in my upcoming book, as well as a chapter on the possibility of change and healing.

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MarriageRelationships
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