Why do abuse victims keep silent for years?

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This question is being asked mostly in related to sexual assault victims coming forward. I won’t get into any of those cases. Politics and current events are not in my realm of expertise and this blog isn’t about current events or politics.

However, I do have an interest in abuse culture, otherwise known as the dynamics of a dysfunctional tribe. I would like to answer this question for those who sincerely want to know. And the church is made up of flawed humans, from many backgrounds, so it could help make peace in church disputes to offer up my understanding of how dysfunctional tribes operate. I have seen the survivors God has delivered from that toxic environment attacked in the church, too, for, say, “turning on” a fallen church leader after propping him up by covering up his secret, ongoing, unrepentant sin. So for those of you who sincerely want to know why a real victim may well wait years before shining light on deeds done in darkness, here’s why.

Keep in mind, this is a general answer on abuse culture and dysfunctional tribes. Not on simply sexual abuse. These dynamics can appear in all types of abuse and dysfunctional environments. A dysfunctional tribe can be anything from a family, a workplace, a group of hobbyists, a political party, or even a church.

First, a dysfunctional tribe has dysfunctional/abusive leadership. Abusers in general often, but not always, hold positions of power, these can include: parent, spouse, boss, teacher, coach, pastor, politician, doctor, and any other authorities a particular tribe may respect. Abusers holding important positions in the victim’s life often instill a real fear of the victim coming forward leading to the abuser harming the victim both directly and by turning the tribe against the victim. The abuser often succeeds at that. S/he often presents him or herself in public as a good guy/woman. One of the dysfunctional tribe’s rules is believing in and upholding this public image. This can be so ingrained, only neutral outsiders or members of an “enemy” tribe stand by the victim. The “enemy tribe” may be functional advocates for victims who truly help or another dysfunctional tribe just using the victim to advance their cause.

Abusers are usually found in dysfunctional tribes, and they usually target their own tribe members. Their victims are often brain-washed by the abuser and/or their tribe to keep silent. In such cultures, the victim coming forward, naming names especially, is deemed worse than what the abuser did. The tribe will defend the abuser and attack the victim, convinced the abuser is the real victim. The abuser convinces themselves and their tribe that they only hurt people who deserve it. In the tribe’s rules, it is often the tribe member’s responsibility to bow to the abuser’s every whim and manage their emotions for them. Until the victim gets outside the dysfunctional tribe, the victim may be unaware that managing the abuser’s emotions is solely the abuser’s own responsibility. It can take years for some victims to heal enough to accept it wasn’t their own fault, that they didn’t deserve treated like they were.

The abuser frequently will also insist the person coming forward has blown everything out of proportion, is making things up, or is crazy and imagining things, that nothing like that ever happened. Again, within the abuser’s tribe, this often seems reasonable and the victim often fears everyone will side with the abuser against them. An internal, God-given sense of fairness can set off alarm bells in victims’ minds but it is still an enormous relief the first time an outsider sees what’s going on and says we’re right, it did happen, we truly weren’t treated fairly by our tribe, and we haven’t blown it out of proportion, they are minimizing it.

So, within an abuser’s dysfunctional tribe, there is enormous pressure on the victims to keep silent and bolster the abuser’s ego and good person/perfect saint image. It is far too common for a dysfunctional tribe’s members to surrender to pressure to outright lie to protect the tribe and their dysfunctional leadership from their dysfunctional reality. Why? They don’t want to be abused, too, they don’t know how to fix the dysfunction and fear shining a light on the tribe’s actual dysfunctional reality will only lead to their cause failing and/or the tribe disintegrating. That has happened, too, but such deceit only props up the fallen, keeps the fallen from having to deal with the consequences of their fall, and kills all hope of the fallen ever recovering.

Still, it takes great courage for someone accustomed to this to come forward and tell the truth any point after the fact. For many victims who do come forward, it is often due to encountering the next victim(s.) The first victim starts to think the subsequent victim(s) abuse is the first victim’s fault. Since it could have prevented by speaking up. The victim comes forward when that guilt grows greater than the guilt of speaking out against “a good man/woman, really, s/he just has a little problem with . . . ”

Another way victims within the tribe find their courage is when they see the dysfunctional tribe leader in some way attempting to position themselves to hurt even more people. When that happens, real victims are vulnerable to exploitation by their tribe’s enemies. Especially when the tribe’s enemies are kind and loving to the tribe’s victims while the victims’ now ex-tribe defends their ex-tribe and props up the abusers at the victims’ expense.

A dysfunctional tribe is often blind to their own contribution to a victim’s “fall to the enemy.” The more valid of an enemy it is, the more serious the victim’s fall is, the blinder the tribe is to how the tribe has been a stumbling block to the victim.

Let’s be real now. Instead of objectively analyzing evidence offered against a trusted tribal authority, most of us are prone to dismiss it out of hand, sure it couldn’t be true. It is also too common for people to think their enemy tribe’s failings outweigh and somehow justify our tribe’s own. When a victim exposes one of our own, our eyes are prone to seek any reason the victim is the guilty one, and to question why they didn’t come forward sooner. The short “why” is because the abuser’s own tribe holds power in the victim’s life and will assume the victim is the one in the wrong without proof of that rather than give serious consideration to evidence of the abusers’ guilt that is coming in the form of eyewitness testimony.

Rather than dismiss eyewitness testimony out of hand, let’s at least seek actual proof the witness isn’t credible.

Now, it’s apparent many of us don’t know the difference between eyewitness testimony, other evidence, and accusations. To the best of my understanding, I’ll give some examples:

Accusation: “She/he is X negative identity.”

Eyewitness testimony: “This person did X wrong act to me or someone else in front of me. Here are the details to the best of my memory, given with the discretion called for by the nature of the act.”

Counter Accusation: “S/he is a liar!”

Counter Evidence: “Here are multiple separate cases where the same person has targeted multiple separate powerful men who fit a certain profile with asexual assault accusations. Here are recorded calls/emails/letters sent to all of the accused, demanding hush money or otherwise attempting to blackmail all of the accused.”

Counter Evidence: The same person has told the same story six different ways six different times and contradicts him/herself.

Counter Evidence: Four eye-witnesses to Christ’s execution and resurrection give the exact same account of the same event. This would have been evidence of liars colluding on a story. What we actually find in the Bible is four separate eye-witnesses giving testimony that contradicts each other on minor, insignificant details. Such is evidence the eye-witnesses are four ordinary humans telling the truth to the best of their own recollections.

In our modern tribal disputes, often, both sides of a dispute are contradicting each other and calling the other side a liar. We need to examine the credibility of both sides’ arguments objectively. That can be tricky, as it is human to be biased in the favor of our own tribe and the tribal authorities we love and respect. We could all stand to check our biases and more fairly evaluate the evidence and the objective credibility of eye-witness testimony. If, on careful examination, one side of a modern flap is giving detailed eyewitness testimony and the other side is mainly throwing out accusations and deflecting responsibility for their own behaviors, the latter side is at least acting guilty.

So, if you are innocent and someone is falsely accusing you, it’s best to resist letting yourself get caught up in defending yourself and lashing back at your enemy. Especially if you’re a Christian; that is not what our God calls us to do. Instead, pause. Reflect on how things looked from the other person’s viewpoint and ask “what could I have done to discourage incidents like this in the future?” Without taking the answer as justifying any wrongs done against you. It doesn’t. These steps are meant to help you calm down and to calm down the situation with a contrite, humble response.

Sociopaths, narcissists, and many other dysfunctional tribal leaders NEVER consider others viewpoints or admit to their own faults, and certainly not in public. In most situations, we’ll find we did contribute, though how we could’ve avoided the incident does not make it our fault. Unless the incident was ourselves lashing out, of course. Either way, owning your contribution, apologizing, and seeking to change can show either your innocence or genuine repentance and make peace. Victims are scared to try that, though, and our reasons can be valid with dysfunctional tribes and abusers. Pray hard before trying that tactic on an abuser or a dysfunctional tribe known to be apt to use your admitted flaws against you. Either way, take the brave road. Resist defending yourself. Resist lashing back. Instead seek to offer kindness, respect, love, a humble, soft response, knowing God is with you and will help you.

 

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