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How to recognise abuse

How to recognise abuse

Our author and Gender Justice Specialist Natalie Collins explores ways to recognise signs of abuse, and what we can do to better understand the issue.


Whenever I deliver training about domestic abuse, the participants are expecting an abuse checklist, maybe ten or twelve points that they can check off when offering pastoral support. They want to confidently assess and diagnose abuse. And there are always at least a few disappointed faces when I tell them I can’t provide a comprehensive checklist. 

Fiona has two children. She went back to work within weeks of having her second child. She works really long hours and seems to spend very little time with her children. Her husband Harry is a stay-at-home dad, who seems to do everything for the children. At church, people mutter about how Fiona isn’t ever looking after her children, many have a soft spot for Harry, some of the women in church offer to help him with meals and babysitting. Fiona wears quite tightly fitted clothing, she is always fully made up and there are occasionally mutterings about how her clothing isn’t appropriate for a woman of her age.

Jane has six children and is pregnant with her seventh. She doesn’t work and is at home fulltime. Her husband Matt works long hours. At church, Jane always looks exhausted. No one offers to help her, there’s often a bit of muttering about how she should probably insist on contraception. Jane dresses in a baggy men’s clothing. She doesn’t wear make-up and hasn’t had a haircut for years.

What people don’t see in these situations is that both Fiona and Jane were forced into pregnancy by their husbands. Harry pricked holes in their condoms, after their first child, Fiona went on the pill, but Harry would hide it so that she would miss it occasionally. Jane’s husband Matt lied to her after their second child, saying he had gone for a vasectomy. After their third child, he would remove the condom during sex, after their fifth child, he regularly raped her. Harry makes Fiona work, he refuses to let her touch the children, he tells her she’ll taint them. All her wages go into their joint account which he controls. Harry makes Fiona dress as a “trophy wife”. He has used violence to keep her controlled and doing as he says. Matt demands that Jane wear clothing that makes her unattractive to other men. He constantly accuses her of having an affair and tells her he doubts the paternity of some of the children. Both men use the children to control their wives. 

No checklist will account for the diverse tactics abusers use. Who would presume that Jane and Fiona, with their totally different lives, are both living with violent and abusive men? No one. 

Recognising abuse is not about having a checklist. It’s about understanding abusive behaviour and the motivations of abusers. An abuser seeks to control his partner (and any children), but the manifestation of that control can be hugely diverse. And so, those who want to be able to recognise abuse, need to take a lot more time in learning about abuse, than simply accessing a checklist. One of the main barriers to recognising abuse is that people’s prejudices and misconceptions about abuse and abusers leave them unable to see what is going on. 

Church leaders regularly tell me that they think abuse is wrong, but when they are then dealing with a pastoral situation, they do not identify it as abuse; because she is too strong, or he is too nice, or the children are too well turned out, or they need to work to save their marriage. Abuse is wrong in the abstract, but for many Christians, it never makes it into the concrete, not because they are not confronted with it, but because they reshape abuse as something more palatable.

I met Rev. Adrian Miller 8 years ago. He talked about the initiative he had developed; Breaking the Silence, which encourages churches to ring their bells on 25th November; the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. He told me he wanted to do more, and I suggested books he could read and training he could attend. Since then he has done the training, read the books and continues to build his knowledge and expertise. He has developed the skills needed to really listen to women and what they say (and what they don’t say). Rather than deciding someone is (or isn’t) abusive, he reserves judgement, building a picture about what is going on, and when an opportunity to offer advice or support arises, he takes it.

Adrian explains, “The learning journey is not an easy one, I think because of those prejudices and myths that are out there and cloud the vision of those of us who want to do some good. But it's worth sticking with it!”

I couldn’t give Adrian a checklist, and I can’t give you one either, but there is so much learning to be done!

Here’s a list of some of the subjects it’s important to understand if we want to create safe spaces for women and children who have been subjected to abuse:

- Believe and listen to women (you may think you do this, but you may not). Riet Bons Storm’s book The Incredible Woman may help you with this.

- Learn about the range of tactics an abuser may use to control their partner; these will include humiliation, physical violence, sexual harm, reproductive coercion, lovebombing, gaslighting, threats (to the children, pets, their partner, family, friends, themselves), isolation, exhaustion, manipulation, lies, demands, coercion and more.

- Develop understanding about the beliefs of ownership and entitlement abusers hold.

- Study the impact of domestic abusers on children and young people.

- Discover more about trauma and the ongoing physiological impact of abusers on women and children.

- Research post-separation abuse.

- Take time to learn about reproductive control.

- Connect with your local domestic abuse service; offer to pay them to deliver training to your church, and ask them how you can support their service (which will be underfunded and over-needed).

As you can see, there’s no shortcuts, it’s going to time, energy and commitment. But as with anything that’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly. Not simply expecting a checklist to fix it.

Out of Control by Natalie Collins publishes on 21 March 2019.

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