The Podcast: No Wonder Abuse Victims Don’t Speak Up!

by | Nov 12, 2020 | Abuse | 36 comments

Why it's hard for abuse victims to tell their stories
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A few weeks ago I deleted a podcast I did for Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

In it, I told a story of something that happened to me when I was 18, and I was raged at in public. I tried to tell a story which was nuanced–I had done something wrong as well. I tried to show how, when you are raged at, you feel shame. You take responsibility for fixing the problem, even when it wasn’t yours to fix. You ask others for help, and others often aren’t helpful.

But in telling the story, I ended up  muddying the waters. I told it wrong, and people felt that I was the one primarily at fault. So I took it down. I only ever meant to use it as an illustration, but it became a big problem.

This week, Rebecca and I revisited it–not to tell the story again (I’m really never touching that one again!), but instead to raise some bigger issues about what the whole thing taught us about the difficulty in talking about these issues.

So tune in!

And here’s the YouTube version! (For some reason we were dumb and it wasn’t focused for the first 25 minutes. I’m really sorry. But the latter part is. And you can still listen!)


Timeline of the Podcast:

0:50 Addressing My Podcast Mistake
3:30 Should we expect victim’s stories to be told perfectly?
7:00 Victims don’t have to be faultless
9:55 An Excerpt on Abuse vs Normal fights & dysfunction
12:18 You don’t deserve it, even if you trigger it.
15:35 Rage vs Anger
22:03 How we talk about abuse can confuse victims and harm them
30:01 It’s all about dynamics!
35.52 It’s not always clear cut, so we need to dig deep

A few things I learned since that podcast:

1. We shouldn’t have to tell our stories perfectly

32 years have passed since that incident happened, and it really triggers no emotion in me. I have no ongoing connection with the guy in the story, and he was never even that close to me. This is about as emotionally distant as one can get from a story like this.

And yet, even I, at that much emotional distance, didn’t tell my story well. I used words that had people picturing something that didn’t happen.

Now imagine that a woman in an abusive marriage is trying to seek help. She IS emotionally involved in this. She’s very confused, very shameful, very desperate. How likely is it that she will tell her story perfectly?

Instead of trying to pick apart people’s stories, or automatically discounting them (as I have done to others in the past), what I’ve learned is that if someone thinks something scarring happened to them, it probably did.

2. There often aren’t perfect victims.

That’s why I chose the particular story I did. I was at fault. I did something wrong as well.

When it comes to abuse, the abuser almost always tells the victim, “you made me do it.” They triggered it. Just because someone is not a perfect victim does not mean they weren’t victimized.

3. Just because someone triggered another person doesn’t mean that they deserved what happened to them.

Many people commented after the original podcast that likely the person who raged at me had been abused as a child, and I triggered that. I agree. That is likely what happened.

But that still does not make it okay.

Just because we trigger someone’s insecurities or pain does not mean that they have the right to treat someone badly in response.

One of the characteristics of abuse is that the victim spends her (or his) life walking on eggshells. You’re always wondering if you’re going to trigger something or set someone off. Before any conversation, you try to judge their mood. How are they feeling today? How safe are you?

That’s not normal. Most wives don’t spend their lives trying to read their husband’s mood to see what kind of night they will have. If you’re walking on eggshells, that’s a bad sign.

4. We don’t give enough credence to what rage does.

I want to spend some time in December talking about anger and rage, but if you have never been on the receiving end of someone’s rage–let me tell you, it’s scary. It’s humiliating. It makes you feel like you want to fall into a hole, but it also makes  you extremely fearful. Being the victim of rage is different than merely having someone yell at you.

I’ve had several emails lately from women whose husbands rage at them, and I do want to talk about this more. It isn’t okay. And those of us who have never experienced it may not understand how different it is from regular anger.

5. Dynamics tell the bigger picture which need to be paid attention to.

We often focus on the WHAT: What actually happened?

I think we should focus on the WHO: Who is the one walking on eggshells? Who is the one apologizing? Who is the one trying to change their behaviour? Who is the one searching for solutions? Who is the one doing the blaming, and who is the one accepting the blame?

When we look at dynamics, it often becomes very clear whether a relationship is safe or not, or whether it’s abusive at its core.

Finally, let’s remember: abused people are often the ones desperate to seek help for their relationships.

That’s why women like these are more likely to buy marriage books and go to women’s Bible studies and go to conferences.

Marriage authors, then, have to always understand that a large proportion of those reading their works will be in destructive relationships. People in trouble look for help. And often they don’t realize they’re being abused, so part of the job of marriage authors is to help people identify when something isn’t right.

I think that’s why so many people have told me that I helped them get out of an abusive relationship, even though  I don’t really write about abuse primarily. Because I try so hard to help people see when “this is not normal” or “this is not right”, people who come here searching for help for their marriage are finally able to name what is happening to them. And then I point them to others who can help, including:

And also check out these books, which I’ve read in the last few months and found very helpful:

  • The Bible Doesn’t Tell Me So by Helen Paynter. If you’re in an abusive marriage, but you feel as if you can’t leave because of what the Bible says about marriage and about how wives should submit, this book takes you through all the Bible passages that are commonly used to tell women they must stay, and shows how that isn’t a correct reading of them.
  • The Headship of Men and the Abuse of Women by Kevin Giles. A great book looking at how certain theologies are correlated to abuse, and how we can see more clearly what God’s heart for marriage is.


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Listen to Abuse Victims: Why Abused Wives have a hard time telling their stories

I know in the past I’ve heard people’s stories of abuse and dismissed them, because they didn’t add up to me. Later, I realized that I had missed telltale signs.

What about you? Have you ever had someone ask for help, and only realized later that it was abuse? Or have you tried to tell your own story of abuse and not been believed?

Let’s talk in the comments!

Written by

Sheila Wray Gregoire


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Doug Hoyle

    I have to confess, after the way you described the incident, I was one who thought it was a pretty poor example. I don’t remember all the details, but if I am not mistaken, you admitted to striking the man. While I am not going to sit here and defend his actions, I really don’t feel they rose to the level of abuse, for a number of reasons.
    Without being witness to the whole thing, One can only try to give the benefit of the doubt to both. You described being shocked and embarrassed. Have you considered how he felt being struck without expecting it. It has happened to me on occasion. One time it was a severe blow that took me to my knees, and I was pretty much helpless to react, but I remember on other occasions, immediately going on the offensive. The one time in my life that I raised my hand to my wife was a similar circumstance. She had done something in jest, without me seeing it coming. She didn’t intend to inflict pain, but she really didn’t think her actions thru, and what she did inflicted a rather intense pain. before I had even recognized what had happened, I came around ready to strike. I didn’t know what happened, or who had done it, I just reacted to the physical. Thankfully, I checked myself before I swung.
    I am not saying that is what happened, but from your initial description, it certainly seems plausible. I think it is a built in response, tho it plays out differently.
    Do I think his actions were inappropriate, certainly. Do I think they rose to the level of abuse. No. He responded verbally to a physical assault. You are talking about how you felt at the time. Have you ever once considered how he felt? How demeaning and belittling your own action was

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Doug, there is no possible way I inflicted pain. No possible way.
      And of course he felt humiliated and embarrassed. That’s what I said–I was also in the wrong. And, as I shared repeatedly in the original podcast, I apologized profusely and tried to make it right. Since I admitted I was wrong, since I apologized at the time, since I’ve admitted that it was a poor example to use, since I apologized and took down the podcast, and since I said I wouldn’t use that example again–I don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish here.
      Also, nothing you’ve said here deals with my five points. You’re kind of proving them.

  2. Jane Eyre

    I love your point about focusing on the dynamics. That takes away the focus on “maaaaaybe she should have done this” or “maaaybe he meant something different.” If someone is walking on eggshells, physically ill from mental stress, or feel that s/he cannot express an opinion, that is a terrifying dynamic.
    Moving right along: people talk about “fight or flight.” This is wrong. “Freeze” and “feign death” are also psychological responses. In the context of rape, a woman who knows that she will be overpowered either way may choose to play dead (for lack of a better term), which will result in less physical trauma to her vagina or fewer punches and body blows. It’s still a horrific and violent act, but her body may try to avoid even worse.
    Dissociation happens involuntarily. Placating can be involuntary; it’s learned, but it’s not something you even know you did until after it happened.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Very true, Jane! Fight, flight, freeze or fawn. It’s not always fight or flight at all!
      In regards to what you said about dynamics–I’ve heard from so many women who have left abusive relationships, and have had health problems all of a sudden clear up. Chronic back pain, wounds that won’t heal, chronic pain, arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, migraines–so many things that disappeared overnight. We’re learning so much more about how our body does carry stress. It is very harmful.

  3. NL

    I never understood why people took that story so badly. Good grief, teens do a lot of dumb things teasing each other. That is not a reason to react in rage or public humiliation. Where’s a sense of perspective?
    I have experienced rage directed at myself and at others in my family, and even if there is some fault, rage is never an appropriate response. Rage is demeaning and dehumanizing, regardless. And it tastes like hate.
    Don’t we deal with this in kids? “I don’t care if she put her foot on your side of the car-stuck her tongue out at you-didn’t give you a turn-you still don’t get get to hit-pinch-call her names, etc.” I mean, honestly!

  4. Ylva

    Hi Sheila,
    I really really appreciated this podcast! I became a Christian while being in an abusive relationship (thankfully unmarried). And I was just like these women you mentioned – I devoured every Christian relationship book, bible study… because maybe I could be the one to help him find God, see what he was doing wrong and marry me (cause that’s what he was supposed to do)! All the purity messages did their fair share, afer all, I had given him a part of me and now no good Christian man would want me anyway, so maybe my purpose was really showing Christlike love and submission to this man. If, if only, he would marry me!
    I felt that if Christians would have preferred me marrying him over breaking up and waiting for someone better. Which sounds ridiculous to even my own ears now, but then, abuse really changes the way you think. I would even read your blog on spousal abuse and think… oh, but I don’t have that abuse and it’s my fault anyway that I am living in sin.
    But, well, I eventually broke free to land the arms of yet another abuser, this time a “good Christian guy”. Thankfully, I noticed that sooner and then I spoke up about it – which led to me losing a ton of friends and being called to be like Satan for “tainting his testimony”.
    Anyway, I am just super thankful for voices like yours because these teachings can be really dangerous. It makes me so sad to see how the church of all places is failing victims of abuse so often.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      oh, Ylva, I’m so sorry that you’ve gone through all of that! But I’m so glad that you didn’t marry either of them. Sounds like you escaped something quite awful.
      But I’m also sorry that the Christian circles you were in were so unhealthy. Increasingly I’m realizing this is quite common, and so I have a challenge to issue to some of my readers: Many of us stay in churches that give extremely unhealthy advice about marriage (and other things) because it’s not hurting us personally (maybe you’re in a good marriage) and you enjoy the people, and you don’t just want to leave your community. I get that. But remember–by supporting this unhealthy church while you yourself are healthy, you tell other people, “Look! Healthy people go there!” So they don’t understand that the church might be unhealthy.
      And then, as you volunteer and give money and are just generally a great person, you grow that church and keep its ministry going, so that it will attract people like Ylva. And then people like Ylva will hear what Ylva heard.
      What would happen if those of us who were healthy decided not to support things that weren’t healthy anymore? What would happen if we found churches, maybe smaller ones, that were safe places where Jesus was front and center? I bet then the smaller churches would become the larger, more influential ones, and the larger ones would wither. There are more healthy people than unhealthy, if our surveys are right, but our churches as a whole are not giving healthy messages. This will only change when we change it.

  5. Active Mom

    Your original post actually made sense to me. It was realistic. Sometimes someone can do something that may be wrong and then get an over reaction. I liked the point that you made. There typically aren’t perfect victims. Yet often we expect victims to respond perfectly in the face of injustice.
    e.g. don’t yell, only use a certain tone of voice when you are trying to address it. Honestly with how difficult it can be the women who persist and can find the strength to leave amaze me!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Thank you. That was what I was trying to say–that the vast majority of abuse victims blame themselves and try to fix the problem themselves. These dynamics matter. And yet because we think of abuse as perfect victim/horrid perpetrator, then if a narrative doesn’t fit that, we assume it’s not really that bad. I still stand by the message, even if the example I used did muddy the waters.

  6. EOF

    I’m very much looking forward to this new series and listening to the podcast. I spent many years in a verbally and emotionally abusive marriage. (Still married to him, but something happened in his life to scare him into changing.)
    Those years were excruciating, and the lack of help from the church made it all the worse.
    Being told that submitting would make him nicer didn’t hold up. Being given books to read on submission did not help. Being told to not argue back with him didn’t work. (She said one person can’t argue alone. But I found that one person CAN scream for hours on end at his wife even without a single response from her.) Even having kind-hearted Christians lovingly confront him backfired because he felt it wasn’t fair since he thought nobody was addressing how horrible he thought I was being. How horrible was I? Here’s an example: he used to give me trick questions, and if I answered the opposite of what he wanted then I was being disobedient for not reading his mind, which would earn me more screaming. He would accuse me of doing things I never did, he would scream at me for “thinking” things I never thought. He had hundreds of rules for me, and I was supposed to memorize each one and live them out perfectly, otherwise I was an unsubmissive and ungodly wife. He would make promises to me only to break them and then scream at me for showing any disappointment. He would call me names until I was sobbing in a corner, then he would order me to stop crying because he’d done nothing wrong. If I pointed out a way he could grow spiritually, he said I had no right to judge him. I could go on, but you get the point.
    Thank you so much for recommending the book The Body Remembers because now I’m not traumatized by any of those memories anymore.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, The Body Keeps the Score is an amazing book! I’m so glad that it helped you.
      What a horrible, horrible marriage you were in. I’m sorry that Christians didn’t see the extent of it and help you better. I hope that we can change the conversation and help people see what really is going on in many people’s homes. Submission is so misused and misunderstood, and it’s really, really tragic.

  7. E

    I am looking forward to the December discussions on anger and rage and how to tell what is normal and what isn’t. Also, how to deal with such situations. Co-parenting with a ‘rager’ has its own special issues (trying to let children know that you agree with the point the other is making, but not the way they are making the point!)

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, yes, that would be very tricky! I’ll keep that question in mind.

  8. Jane Eyre

    I’m so sorry, Ylva.
    There’s a whole dynamic of telling a couple who are dating that they should “make it work,” rather than using dating as discernment. There’s NOTHING wrong with going out on a few dates with someone and thinking, “Not the right person for me.” There’s nothing wrong with dating for a year or two and saying, “We need to break this off now instead of getting married, because it’s not going to work.”
    People are so afraid of singleness. For some reason, it’s really threatening to them if a woman just does not want to date or marry the wrong person. “A man’s interested in you – quick, grovel!!”
    As a Catholic, I am opposed to sinful singleness, but that is not remedied with marriage. It’s remedied by not doing whatever it is you’re doing, and then discerning whether or not you should be getting married. There are people who are single because they want to sleep around or believe that it’s just so easy to find someone at 35; however, that’s their own issue.
    Best advice I ever heard was that if you’re unhappy early in a dating relationship, leave. It only gets worse.

  9. Kristen

    “ People are so afraid of singleness. For some reason, it’s really threatening to them if a woman just does not want to date or marry the wrong person. “A man’s interested in you – quick, grovel!!””
    Thank you, Jane, for saying it so much better than I could! As I’m entering the second half of my twenties, I realize that finding someone may become more challenging the older I get, but I am done pursuing dead end relationships because other people try to guilt trip me into it. I’m done listening to other people’s fear and desperation over what my own instincts tell me. I’m all for giving people a chance, but just because someone is interested does not mean they are the right person, and I regret not heeding my instincts in the past.

  10. Anon

    Ya. The stress of being in a bad relationship takes its toll on your body for sure. I can all but guarantee that if i got a divorce i could come off my blood pressure medication.

  11. Audrey

    I love this idea Shelia. Thank you for the challenge!

  12. Audrey

    Also parenting with a spouse that is not raging but is emotionally degrading and tearing children down while he corrects with 30 min. lectures about how they are practicing sin etc. while he raised his voice and shakes his finger at them. Hard for me to know what to do. Step in and undermine his authority? Leave the room? Sit quietly and wait? I generally choose the last option and then try and patch it with the children later and maybe bring it up to him if I feel he can hear it. Often if I bring thoughts on how he could have better handled the situation he becomes depressed and says he’s a terrible person and can’t do anything right. Deeper issues between us as well, clearly.
    Also, Shelia, thank you so much for this blog, you speak truth that most in the church will not.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Audrey, that’s so tough! But in that one, I would intervene. It’s not about undermining his authority; it’s about not scarring the children. Being lectured at by a big man who is yelling at you and standing over you and shaking his finger at you is a scary and humiliating experience. They do need to be protected from that.
      It sounds like you guys could really benefit from some licensed counseling and some parenting help! Have you seen Discipline that Connects with Your Child’s Heart? They have some wonderful parenting courses, and that may help you both think differently about what you want. But, yes, it’s entirely appropriate to intervene when your children are being verbally abused. This isn’t a matter of him having authority over the family. This is a matter of protecting children. And you may need some counseling to work through his rage dynamics. I’m so sorry, because I know that’s hard!

    • Maria Bernadette

      Audrey, he’s not exercising authority. He’s exercising abuse.
      There’s a myth that children must believe that a parent is perfect, or else they will never listen. But it’s wrong. Children listen better when they have a trusting relationship. Your husband is undermining his own authority by verbally abusing.

  13. B

    Thank you for clarifying anger vs rage. I especially appreciated, “If they had a knife, my life would be in danger.” An episode toward the end of my marriage had me expecting him to push me out of the bed because he didn’t want me there. He had been loudly proclaiming his right to be the one who slept in the bed while I lay there telling him we could each sleep on our own side. I felt actual fear that night. However, because he never hit me, and only moved me forcefully twice in 20 years, it was difficult to accept, and even harder to explain, that I was actually living under abuse.
    My counselor shocked me into a physical response when she said, “If you didn’t want to have sex, it’s still abuse even if you had an orgasm.” My body’s response was a lightning bolt from pelvis to skull. It took some breathing to come out of that effect.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes! it absolutely is still abuse. It’s called arousal non-concordance. Your arousal level has nothing to do with the dynamics of what happened. It sounds like you had such a good counselor! I’m so glad, because so many here have not.

  14. Audrey

    Thank you Shelia, I have not seen that book but I will be ordering it. We are just starting counseling, I think you’re right, it’s time for professional help.

  15. Laura

    Thank you for addressing this. I credit you with helping me realize that my marriage was abusive. I’m in the midst of a divorce I never wanted, but is truly God’s mercy to me.
    The abuse hasn’t stopped just because we’re divorcing–he continues to be cruel in every way he can be, including lying on legal paperwork–but my heart is finding freedom from the slavery I lived in and that is JOY.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m so sorry, Laura, for what you went through. I’m glad I could help, and I wish you all the best!

  16. B

    Laura, Here with you, sister. God used Sheila to rescue me, too. God told me, “I will sustain you.” I believe He extends that to you, as well. James 1:17, Psalms 54:4, Psalms 55:22, and more back that belief.

  17. B

    Sheila, my counselor is amazing.
    Without any prompting from myself or others, my 15 y/o daughter was telling me today about remembering how her father would go into yelling rants or spank the kids beyond what even pro-spankers consider reasonable. I have apologizing I need to give to my kids for allowing his actions, but I’m not sure I legally can yet due to divorce papers and “shall not harm parental relationship” legal language. The Church’s admonition to not undermine the other parent (eapecially Dad) has caused my children harm.

  18. Anon

    Kristen, one of the best bits of advice I was ever given was ‘don’t marry until you meet someone worth giving up your singleness for’. In my case, that didn’t happen until I was past 40, but I have NO regrets about being single through my 20s and 30s – I had so many opportunities to learn & grow in my faith and to serve God in a way that I couldn’t have done as a married woman. And now that I am married, the lessons I learned in my single days are coming in so useful as I serve God as one half of a team.

  19. Bethany#2

    One of the reasons it took me so long to realize that my sister is verbally abusive, was because she told me it was me. And when you look up narcissist (what she was calling me), it says that they don’t know that they are a narcissist. So I was confused and had no one to talk to about it. My parents couldn’t be trusted necessarily to get involved anymore than necessary.
    And then part about, “past abuse is no excuse for abusing”, yeah in his apology my abuser played that card. And I got strong feelings that nobody was actually condemning him. Because he too was a “victim”. It was a disgusting thing to feel during the process. (He said it was a similar aged neighbor girl and I was 4 to his 16-18. Not the same)

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m so sorry, Bethany. That was not okay. There are no excuses. Past behavior can help us understand dynamics, but it cannot excuse or minimize what happened.

  20. Elsie

    If you are abused you feel lots of shame. First of all you’ve been blamed and targeted by the abuser to think everything is your fault. It’s sometimes difficult if not impossible to find the words to express what you’ve been through. And often the entire situation is a never ending cycle with no start and no end so it’s difficult to compartmentalize what has happened to you. In all honesty many abuse victims don’t have the ability to describe what they’ve experienced and if they are shy or introverted it’s even more difficult for them. Many experience a numbing of their feelings, PTSD, and dissociation which may take years of therapy to resolve.

  21. Jessica

    At first I was impressed by your humility to admit error but now I see it was just HOW you told the story that was wrong! LOL. Someone sent me the podcast because of the disturbing amount of abuser language- blaming the person you wronged for how you feel over their upset, viewing yourself as the “real” victim and judging him for his reaction. If someone unexpectedly smacked me I would probably pitch a fit whether it hurt or not!
    It’s arrogant to compare justified guilt to a victim’s false guilt. He wasn’t responsible for how rotten you felt over what you did. He didn’t harass you over it, simply wasn’t interested in being friends anymore. I doubt you’d see it the same way if the genders were switched.
    And why would anyone tell you what you did was wrong if you’re obviously upset already, I thought that was a moot point.

    • Rebecca Lindenbach

      Jessica, I moderate comments here. I recognize you THINK you know what happened. You do not. And so yes, the only thing she is sorry for is that she told the story wrong. Because it causes people like you to THINK you know what happened when you really, truly do not. She did not assault someone. She did not hit someone, and that’s why she told the story wrong. She used the wrong word, a word that has different connotations than what she was trying to describe. What happened was more similar to when teenagers laugh and say, “Stop it, Jack!” and then push or swat someone away who is teasing. That’s not wrong, it’s not assault, it’s not abuse. Being raged at as a result, so that you’re afraid you WILL be assaulted, hit, or harmed physically–that IS wrong. And it is abusive in nature. Normal, flirtatious teenage behaviour is not.
      Reactions matter. If you were in the mall and a woman smacked her husband’s arm when he made a bad joke and he turned around, red-faced, and screamed in her face in front of everyone else in the shopping center, would you think “Wow, that woman must be really abusive?” Of course not. We get to judge people’s reactions when the reactions are clearly abusive.
      You may disagree with her, but you do not get to victim blame here. You are proving our exact point–not all victims are perfect victims, and unless a victim is a victim in just the right way, they are written off. If you continue to post victim-blaming comments, I will be moderating them.
      And for the record, when I was in high school I had tons of guy friends who shoved or swatted my arm playfully and it was totally fine because we were goofing off, teasing, flirting. That’s what teens do. So even if the genders were switched, yes, it would still be wrong because I didn’t rage at any of my friends and make them fear that they were going to get seriously, seriously harmed in my fit of uncontrolled anger.

  22. Brooke

    Another great book is by Justin and Lindsey Holcomb, called “is it my fault?” They understand abuse and how the Bible applies. They also give a safety plan for getting out in the back of the book.
    I am a survivor and a counselor and I recommend this book to help people understand what they are in and possibly how to get out safely.
    Your article is helpful, I appreciate you pointing out that in abuse it’s different and that the emotional connection changes how one is drawn in and responds to the abuse (rage, manipulation, belittling…etc.). I thank you for connecting to Sarah McDougal, because she gets it and speaks truth with a passion.


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