Mental Wealth: Spiritual Tools for turning your Pain to Power

Escaping the House of Bondage – Breaking the Bond of Abusive Relationships

“The hardest part of being in an emotionally abusive relationship is actually admitting you’re in one.” ― Anna Akana

“My ex was my Exodus.” Sarah summed it up succinctly one afternoon at the end of an exhausting two-year saga of leaving her abusive husband. Sarah had been enslaved for 10 years and did not even know it. Her Exodus story had its own harrowing trajectory. From charmed and clueless to ‘somethings-not-right-here’ to ‘am-I-really-the-bad-one?’ to ‘everyone-says-I-must-get-out’ to finally, thankfully, getting it and getting out.

It started with her body demanding her attention. Inexplicable stomach pains, nausea. Yet a clean bill of health. The doctors insisted it was psychological. Her sister insisted it was her husband and beggingly offered to pay for her therapy. And so Sarah, reticently, began to talk…

Our sessions were via Skype from a hidden escape room she had created in her attic. She would furtively call when he left the house, crouching by the window to make sure he didn’t come home. At first, she refused to share the full horror story. After all, she had been hiding it for so many years from so many people, most particularly herself.

She blamed herself, naturally, for his barbaric behavior. “I’m so disorganized and messy, of course he yells… It makes sense he’s furious… Of course he calls me names… Of course he locked me out of the house again… I deserved that put-down/push-down/punishment…

I just need to _________ (work on myself more/listen better/trust God more/help him more/stop arguing, etc…)

Any of those fill in the blanks sound familiar? Given that as many as one in three women have been in an abusive relationship, chances are the answer is ‘yes.’ Domestic abuse is the leading cause of injury to women, sending over one1 million every year to doctors’ offices and emergency rooms. And while the wounds of ‘emotional abuse’ may be invisible to the eye, their devastating impact is equally severe.

Too many of our homes are in fact ‘houses of bondage.’ The varieties of abuse are many –  physical, financial, sexual, emotional. Sarah was unlucky enough to experience them all. But even just one of these forms is devastating and deserves remedy.  

Statistics show that 95% of reported domestic violence cases are men abusing women, while 5% are women abusing men. As such, we will be working specifically with the model where the abuser is male and the abused is female. But it is crucial to state that this generalized rule does have exceptions. Abuse is not gender-specific. Women also abuse men, or even other women. There are other variations. But given the statistics, for this article, we will be addressing the dynamic of abusive men/abused women.*

The Biblical Instruction Manual for Escape

The Biblical story of the Exodus from Egypt is perhaps the world’s most famous metaphor – and guide – for how to move from enslavement to freedom. It is potent medicine for anyone caged in an abusive relationship – from marriage to toxic relationships with parents, family members or even friends.

The Biblical phrase the ‘House of Bondage’ (beit avadim) is a particularly powerful image because the truth is that a home where there is abuse becomes a house of bondage. The term ‘bondage’ is also illuminating because in any abusive home there is an essential BOND at work. That is the unyielding bond between the abuser and the abused. That bond is a shackle to which they are both imprisoned. The key to escaping the house of bondage is thus to first identify the bond. Only once we see our own part and tacit agreement in the abusive cycle can we start to extract ourselves. It is always up to the abused to break free of that bond.

Take a moment now to ask yourself, do you have a sense of bondage in any of your relationships? If so, what are the bonds that keep you in unhealthy, even destructive, dynamics?

*

Meet Pharaoh: The archetypal abuser. Powerful, vindictive, charming, punishing, demanding, jealous, authoritarian, rigid, manipulative. The list goes on. Most likely you have been in relationship with a Pharaoh or two in your time.

What makes a Pharaoh? First off, it is crucial to know that Pharaoh enslaves the Hebrews not out of greed, but out of fear. He is terrified of the other’s potential power. To quote Pharaoh himself, “Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we are. Get ready, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they increase, and a war befall us, and they join our enemies and wage war against us and depart from the land.” (Exodus 1:9-1:10) Pharaoh is scared.

Ironically, abusers are typically deeply wounded and notoriously insecure. It is their essential weakness that makes them so very terrified of their partner’s power. Thus they mask their soft weak side at all costs by becoming hard, bombastic, aggressive, violent, critical. These defensive masks become encrusted into their identity. Like Pharaoh in the Exodus story, their hearts become proverbially hard.

In their fear, they view their partner as yet another potential enemy who must be dominated. Like Pharaoh, they are simultaneously afraid that their partner will fight against them and that their partner will abandon them. And so they enslave. As the text next reads: “So they appointed over them tax collectors to afflict them with their burdens.” (Exodus 1:11) The goal of slavery is not free-labor, it is domination over another.

In the abuser’s desperate bid for a sense of power he puts down his partner to build up himself. His heart gets progressively harder. He afflicts the other to the point of his own undoing, causing the very thing he was trying to avoid – their fighting him and leaving. Acting out of fear so often ends up creating the very negative outcome it was desperately trying to avoid. Pharaoh is actually a ‘Fear’oh.’  Destructive to himself and those unfortunate enough to be around him.

Meet the Slave: The slave is the small/scared part of us that agrees to take the abuse and serve the master. The slave is also overtaken by fear. In the tango of abuse, both partners are acting from a shared place of insecurity, smallness and inner terror.

While the abuser totally dis-identifies with their smallness, the abused over-identifies with it. She is blind to the very strength within her that leaves her abuser so threatened. She all too readily takes on the role of the helpless victim of the other’s inexcusable behavior.  

In the entire text of the Exodus, it never once says that the Hebrews protested. For over 100 years of enslavement they don’t so much as make a whimper of complaint, much less a lunge at rebellion. Noticeably absent from the story is any hint of the slaves’ selfhood or expression. The slave is notoriously speechless, helpless. That identity is encrusted and reinforced with each new put-down, smack-down, or silencing.

Below are a list of 10 defining characteristics of abusers and abused – and how they are bonded to each other. These are universal dynamics found in ‘houses of bondage.’

The 10 Plaguing Characteristics of the Bond between the Pharaoh and the Slave:

PHARAOH/ABUSER

SLAVE/ABUSED

Charming/Powerful

He is often the leader, the initiator (the King). Initially showers with praise, is overly expressive, emotive and puts on a flashy front.

Low self-esteem/Unexpressed/Weak

She doubts her worth and so, she is pulled in by his praise. She is often under-expressed and feels weak and so, she is extra drawn to his flashiness. Even once the abuse sets in she thinks, “This is the best I can get.”

Jealous/Isolating

He views other men as romantic threats. He also views friends and family as threats and demands she cut out other relationships lest she leak what is really going on. Like Pharoah, he is afraid she will join his ‘enemies.’

Isolated

She feels alone, like no one understands her. She hides the truth from her family and friends in fear of his (and their) reactions. She closes in on herself in fear and self-silencing.

Manipulative

He shrewdly detects her weak spots, using her vulnerabilities and past, wounding to his advantage. Like Pharaoh says, “Let’s deal shrewdly with them…”

Innocent/Gullible

She simply does not think in manipulative ways and cannot imagine that he would either. She non-objectively takes in his (cruel/untrue) words as truth. “He’s right, I really am being selfish…”

Controlling

He demands she report where she is going and who she is with – at all times. He will hide the keys to the car or house to limit her freedom. Pharaoh is in absolute control of the slaves’ reality.

Dependent

She feels dependent on him – financially, practically, emotionally, and unable to create her own independent reality. She craves the security of someone telling her what to do. Even once the Hebrews leave Egypt, they continue to bewail the security (and even the cucumbers) they have lost.

Blames Others

He insists he’s the victim. His poor choices are everyone else’s fault. When he loses his job, or gets into a fight, it’s always because of the other person. “You made me hit you.”

Blames Self

She always takes the blame. He’s acting this way because I am lazy/stupid/bad.  If she protests his bad behavior, he insists she is the abusive one… and she believes him.

Narcissist

The world revolves around him and his needs. Like Pharaoh – who was literally considered an immortal god – he requires adoration, praise and the fulfilment of his every demand.

Lacks Sense of Self

Has no sense of self; desires, needs or dreams. Views her needs as secondary. An “annihilation of identity” is reinforced by the abuse and breeds a negative cycle which further wears down the sense of self.

Hypersensitive/Explosive/Inconsistent

Easily set-off by triggers with little emotional regulation. One minute happy, the next minute furious.

Minimizes Feelings/Numbing

Unhealthy emotional repression. It’s not so bad… Others have it worse… I’m not angry at him… I just feel numb. I don’t want to talk about my feelings.

Critiques Others/Rigid Demands

He is hyper-critical of others’ faults. Demands perfection. Readily degrading and verbally assaulting.

Critical of Self/Perfectionism                                          

Overly self-critical. Why am I so stupid? Also prone to perfectionism. I must do everything myself.… It is my job to take care of the kids, clean and make money.

Cruel/Violent

Inflicting pain and intimidating others is what gives him a sense of power. Abusers are often cruel and violent towards children and animals as well. Think Pharaoh throwing babies into the Nile.

Meek, Overly-soft/Lack of Self-Care

Unable to stand up for self and set boundaries. Takes the cruelty because of a general lack in ability to take care of self. I don’t need to sleep that much… I feed the family but forget to eat myself… I haven’t showered in days.

Insincerely Repentant

Just as Pharaoh repeatedly says he will let the Hebrews go and then reneges on that promise. Five separate times the plagues hit and Pharaoh admits his sins, begging for forgiveness only to ‘harden his heart’ again as soon as the plague passes. The abuser will apologize, buy flowers and swear to stop the abuse only to flare back into a rage after the respite.

Overly-Forgiving/Codependent

She sees her ability to forgive and forget as an admirable trait to be proud of. It builds her self-esteem to be the good one, the forgiving one. Also, she has a codependent sense that they can’t live without each other. Overly-compassionate: But he needs me… What would he do if I left? He has no one else.

*

How to Break the Bonds:

  1.      Break the 1st Bond – the Bond of Unconsciousness. The first step in breaking the dynamic is to become conscious of the bond itself. See and take seriously any tendencies in the directions in the chart above – in yourself or in your partner. If you recognize more than three of these traits, it is time to get suspicious and it is time to get educated.
  1.      Break the 2nd Bond – the Bond of Silence. Now that you are sharing the truth with yourself, start to share the truth with others. Choose at least one friend or family member. Preferably more. Share the scary truth of what is going on behind closed doors. Break the second bond of silence.
  1.      Break the 3rd Bond – the Bond of Habit. Change yourself. When you see yourself acting or thinking in the slave mentality above, make a concerted effort to simply (or not so simply) do the opposite. You can free yourself from low self-esteem by positive self-talk. When you have an urge to self-criticize, to numb out, to ‘perfectionize,’ to ‘forgive and forget’, defy it! You must first free the inner-slave in your own mind. This is your lifetime opportunity to finally and thoroughly empower yourself.
  1.      Break the 4th Bond – the Bond of Status-Quo. Be willing to ‘rock the boat.’ Warning: It will get worse before it gets better. Once Moses approaches Pharaoh with the demand to ‘Let my people go,’ things only get worse, much worse. Pharaoh now demands the slaves make the same number of blocks, but this time without providing the straw. Their burden is tripled. Yours will be too. That is a necessary part of the exodus.    
  2.      Break the 5th Bond – the Bond of Deflecting. Do not wait for – or expect – your partner to change. Hoping that the other person will shift is just another quietly manipulative ploy of your slave part to stay comfortably enslaved. It is not your job to fix or heal an abusive partner. First, fix and heal yourself. Only once you are free of the bonds of the old dynamics will you be able to see if he can free himself from his hardened heart and start on his own path to freedom.    

Breaking any one of these bonds is incredibly hard to do. Do not do it alone. Seek a Moses, an Aaron, a Miriam, a therapist, a friend. You deserve an entire tribe of support. The biblical formula is real… and there is a Promised Land on the other side.    

 

By: Chaya Lester

Chaya is a seasoned Jewish educator, psychotherapist, speaker & guide. Synthesizing Jewish wisdom & psychology, her teachings and therapy are designed to help you thrive. She lives with her husband and 4 energetic children in the vibrant heart of Jerusalem and invites you to come to visit! http://www.chayalester.com


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