A Catholic Counselor Addresses Domestic Violence

*Both men and women are survivors of domestic violence. However, this article will focus solely on violence against women.

One of the most dangerous places for a woman is often overlooked and hidden in plain sight, behind forced smiles and neatly pressed dresses. We often believe that she is at the highest risk of harm while fumbling with her keys in dark parking garages. The reality is that the most devastating casualties of violence against women will most likely occur in her very own home. Who is the likely culprit? The one who knows her best. Her lover and most unlikely enemy.

Domestic Violence is an abusive pattern of behavior that is used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner. It is not limited to physical or sexual abuse, but can also be covert, such as psychological/emotional, verbal or economic abuse. Domestic Violence includes behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure, and wound another.  Like the tactics utilized by the enemy of our souls, Domestic Violence thrives in darkness and silence. It perverts and distorts our identity as the Beloved and we are instead convinced that we are worthless and deserving of mistreatment.

The typical profile of an abusive man is not what is usually portrayed in the media or described by popular opinion. It is common for an abuser to be charismatic, well-liked and respected in their communities. At times they hold leadership roles within the church and may be in positions of prestige or power in the workplace. When survivors of domestic violence describe their initial impressions of their abuser, they often report that behaved like, “Prince-Charming” and, “did everything right.” Another common reaction upon meeting the abuser is of the survivor feeling as though the abuser was their, “soulmate.” This is typically due to the abuser learning as much as they can about their victim, so that the behaviors and personality they display can mirror the victim’s ideal partner. Some early warning signs in a relationship to be aware of include, but are not limited to: constantly calling or texting, you begin to see less of your friends and family members because you are discouraged to do so or made to feel guilty for spending time with them, telling you that you can never do anything right, violating boundaries, the relationship progresses quickly, they may say, “I love you” too soon, you are idealized, lavished with gifts and bombarded with compliments, your appearance, friends, interests or profession are criticized, sarcastic jokes are made about you and you may also be told that no one will ever love you as much they do, etc.

In the United States, one in four women (24.3%) that are at least 18 years of age, have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Psychological abuse affects 48.4% of women. Surprisingly, women who earn 65% or more of their household’s income are more likely to be psychologically abused than women who earn less than 65% of the household income. The cost of intimate partner violence exceeds $8.3 billion per year, which provides ample evidence of a public health concern.

In, “Mulieris Dignitatem,” St. John Paul II boldly proclaimed that, “Christ’s way of acting, the Gospel of his words and deeds, is a consistent protest against whatever offends the dignity of women.” Jesus was always calling women to “rise” and claim their identity as the Beloved.  St. John Paul II also stated, “Every violation of the personal dignity of the human being cries out in vengeance to God and is an offense against the creator of the individual” (On the Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World, 1988, no. 176).

Yet, why is it that when a woman finally gathers the courage to break her silence or leave, she is shamed or rejected by the very community that promised to be a place of refuge?

Oftentimes, women are made to believe that they cannot leave their abusive partners once they are married because they have been called to, “submission” (Ephesians 5:22). However, God will never call his people to submit to sin – and abuse is just that. A sin. Remaining and enabling harmful behavior would be an uncharitable act. When we look carefully at the word, “Submission”, we can see that “Sub” = means “to be under.” What are we “under”? The “Mission” of our husbands. One must ask, “What is our husband’s mission?” What are we submitting to? Ephesians 5:21-33 describes a mutual submission between spouses, not a one-sided submission. The passage states, “Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave his life for it. He did this to dedicate the church to God by his word, after making it clean by washing it in water, in order to present the church to himself in all its beauty—pure and faultless, without spot or wrinkle or any other imperfection. Men ought to love their wives just as they love their own bodies. A man who loves his wife loves himself. None of us ever hate our own bodies. Instead, we feed them, and take care of them, just as Christ does the church; for we are members of his body.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#369) also tells us that man and woman are both with one and the same dignity. Therefore, one is neither superior nor inferior to the other; they are both made in the image of God. This implies that one neither has power over the other nor reason to lord over them.

Another reason women stay in abusive situations is because they are told that, “God hates divorce” (Malachi 2:16). God does indeed hate divorce, but I am confident that he hates the abuse and mistreatment of his children even more (Matthew 18:6). Some also believe that enduring abuse will be the “cross” that will lead to the woman’s sanctification or the conversion of her husband. No one is being, “helped” in any way by enabling poor behavior. According to Code of Cannon Law 1153, “A spouse who occasions grave danger of soul or body to the other or to the children, or otherwise makes the common life unduly difficult, provides the other spouse with a reason to leave, either by Decree of the local ordinary or, if there is danger in delay, even on his or her authority.”

Our dear St. Rita of Cascia is also used as a defense and reason to remain in an abusive marriage. St. Rita lived in the 14th Century and was forced to marry a man named, Paolo Macini, against her will. Paolo was wealthy and known for his violent temper. He was physically and emotionally abusive towards St. Rita and was also unfaithful. Women that lived during this era had few options and resources. They could not simply “leave.” In addition, remaining in the marriage may have been the only way to preserve her life due to Paolo’s tendency towards violence. There is no indication that a marriage such this was glorifying God in any way. As mentioned previously, enabling an abuser to continue in his sin is uncharitable. However, despite her circumstance, God was still able to redeem her story, even if his desire was not for her to remain in an unhealthy and violent marriage (Romans 8:28). The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states, “Violence is antithetical to Christianity and the Good News it proclaims. The social doctrine of the Church teaches us that violence is not an acceptable solution to any problem, it is unworthy of any human being, and it, “destroys what it claims to defend.” The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in, “When I call for Help” also stated, “Violence against women, inside or outside the home, is never justified. Violence in any form-physical, sexual, psychological, or verbal is sinful; often, it is a crime as well.”

Holy Spirit, we ask for discernment, wisdom and guidance. Lord, we ask you for the courage to speak and ask for help. We pray for all of those affected by violence, that they may find safety and healing. In Him who makes all things new.

Photo by Silvestri Matteo on Unsplash

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, please know that you are not alone. There is help. Be advised that the most dangerous time for a woman in an abusive relationship is when she leaves or plans to leave. If there is an imminent risk of harm to a survivor or her children, please dial 9-1-1. If the risk is not imminent, it is important to call the 24/7 National Domestic Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or Text, “START” to 88788 to speak with Domestic Violence Counselor, develop a safety plan and explore options.  You can also visit https://www.thehotline.org/ for additional resources or chat with a live counselor.

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Kimberly Pérez, M.S., LMHC is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in Florida with 13 years of experience in the Mental Health Field. She specializes in trauma, abuse, and self-worth. She also has expertise in working with survivors of Narcissistic Abuse. She is the founder and primary therapist at the Divine Mercy Healing & Counseling Center LLC. Prior to working in private practice, she has been in different roles such as, Forensic Interviewer for child sexual abuse cases referred by law enforcement and as the State Attorney’s Office Liaison in the 17th Judicial Circuit for sexual battery cases. She has experience providing therapy for formerly incarcerated men and women, the homeless, individuals struggling with severe and persistent mental illness, depression, self-harm, issues with the parent-child relationship and first-time juvenile offenders that have been charged with domestic battery or assault. Kim has also served as Clinical Director at a Rape Crisis Center and Domestic Violence Shelter and supervisor of a team of Family Therapists. Her therapeutic framework is client centered and systemic. She believes that working with the family is instrumental for change. Kimberly is passionate about the prevention of suicide and finding meaning in suffering. It is her hope to lead others closer to Jesus’ healing love and mercy.

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