The Shape of Oppression

by Ann Maree Goudzwaard

Earlier this year, a friend came to town to take a class at a local seminary. She knew I was training as a domestic abuse advocate, so she asked if we could get together and talk about one of her counseling cases. When we met for breakfast, I sat quietly listening as she described the situation. I was stunned. I thought she was describing a case I had recently counseled. I remarked at the time that it didn’t matter if we were talking about an abusive situation on the west coast or the east coast; they were basically the same.

I read an article recently that was very helpful for putting that thought to words.[1] It described sweeping generalizations that can be observed across a wide spectrum of coercive controllers, and the thinking behind their behavior. While the article focused on behaviors, what I found most helpful was how it helped me understand the thought process of oppressors and the environment they create–albeit without using biblical terms. Some of those identifiers include:

  • The message in the home is that the man is more important than the woman and she exists to serve him.
  • The oppressive man becomes the main frame of reference for how the woman behaves.
  • Physical abuse is unnecessary for the oppressor to achieve his desired outcomes. “The more skilled and experienced ‘interrogators’ avoid it.”
  • Threats are sometimes unspoken, but consequences for resistance are fully understood.
  • The type of oppressor who resorts to coercive techniques has a thorough disrespect for truth and individuals.
  • Oppressors (in marriage) tend toward their systems of coercion unconsciously. They likely have more awareness of desired outcomes rather than methods to achieve them.
  • The oppressor’s goal is to get what he wants and to do this, he tries to control the victim’s heart and mind. Her thinking is then “shaped by [his] actions and beliefs”
  • The oppressor is the most powerful person in the victim’s life.
  • “This atmosphere of threat is enough to “convince the victim that the perpetrator is omnipotent, that resistance is futile, and that her life depends upon winning his indulgence through absolute compliance.”

In the past, I think the church has been overly focused on the man’s behavior in cases of abuse. This has led to what Jeremy Pierre calls a “forensic investigation.”[2] That approach inevitably gets lost in a “he-said/she-said” narrative. One of the ways we will be able to better help a couple in an oppressive situation would be to turn our attention to the dynamics of the environment.

Continue reading with Part 2.

Our new IBCD Observation video on domestic abuse is a resource churches can use to help better understand these dynamics. It is now available on DVD from the online store.

[1] The Guardian, “It’s like you go to abuse school’: how domestic violence always follows the same script.”

[2] I am indebted to Jeremy Pierre for this idea as articulated in preparation and execution of the upcoming IBCD Observation Video on domestic violence in the home.