Over and over I have seen documented several behavioral patterns in the abusive person. The truth is that these kinds of obsessively controlling and vindictive people act in some common ways, and yet others cooperate with them a lot because they do not recognize the kind of wicked web in which they are participating. These kinds of abusers can be men or women, and their targets can be men or women. They may be family members or not. These patterns of behavior can take place when the targets are marital partners, family members, or people with whom there is some kind of workplace or social contact or interaction. The target may be well aware of the abuser’s malicious and aggressive intentions, and be avoiding them as much as possible, even to such actions as changing jobs, changing churches, changing contact information such as telephone numbers or email addresses, moving away. It’s also entirely possible that the abuser is so well practiced and so devious and downright sneaky that the target may not have seen any of the red flags which others have seen, so that the target may be unaware of the other person’s malicious and destructive agenda and may not have discerned these intentions yet.
Here are the patterns I’ve seen documented in the literature and in real life:
RED FLAG # 1: The abusive person talks about his or her targets behind their backs a lot.
The amount of talking about someone who is not there is one of the easiest markers to discern. It’s no exaggeration that one of the abusive person’s favorite topics of conversation is the target, when the target is not there or within earshot. The abusive person may have no visible closeness to the target – perhaps no ongoing relationship at all — and yet claim good and wonderful intentions and a special closeness and relationship with the targets. Moreover, the abusive person mixes a grain of truth with a gallon of falsehood and exaggeration about the targets, and, when these are exposed as lies, tries to justify it by loudly drawing attention to ‘the grain of truth.’ And what goes for the grain of truth may simply have been offhand remarks, small talk twisted to vicious and belittling extremes, and isolated incidents of things said and done far in the past.
This kind of backbiting and backstabbing is often tolerated because the abuser puts on his or her charm, and tries to make it entertaining by mixing it with mockery, ridicule and counterfeit compassion. The purpose is to isolate the target socially and to make the target a recipient of ridicule and contempt.
It only takes several reminders from scripture to show the wickedness of this subtle but pernicious behavior:
- “Whoever conceals his hatred has lying lips, and whoever spreads slander is a fool.” (Proverbs 10:18).
- “When words are many, sin is not absent . . . “ (Proverbs 10:19)
- “A perverse man stirs up dissension, and a gossip separates close friends . . .” (Proverbs 16:28).
- “A wicked man listens to evil lips; a liar pays attention to a malicious tongue.” (Proverbs 17:4).
- “A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much.” (Proverbs 20:19)
Several extremely reasonable questions can usually bring this to a stop. I’ve adapted these from Neil Anderson and Charles Mylander, Setting Your Church Free: A Biblical Plan to Help Your Church.
- What is your reason for telling anyone/ me this?
- Where did I / you get your information?
- Have you gone directly to the source?
- Have you personally checked out all the facts?
- Will you allow yourself to be quoted on this?
It’s also reasonable to ask, on any past incidents or statements asserted as having come from the target, about when and where it happened. Information about other people has an extremely short shelf life, and it may be found to have long past the ‘expiration date’ of having any reasonable validity.
RED FLAG # 2: The abusive person recruits others to spy on his or her targets.
It’s amazing how naive and gullible people can be when the abuser seeks to get information on his or her targets. The abuser seduces them into being his spies and informants. This often accelerates when the targets start to distance themselves from the abuser. The spies, which become known as the dupes and henchmen of the abuser, apparently do not make the connection that the reason the targets distance themselves from the abusers is because they find the abusers to be dishonest, untrustworthy, envious, and cruel.
It’s noteworthy that no one in scripture who is wearing a ‘white hat’ – Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Hezekiah, Josiah, Paul, and especially Jesus – ever did anything like this. Rather, it is the ones with ‘black hats’ – Saul (I Samuel 22:8) and Tobiah (Nehemiah 6:19) especially – who do this. Moreover, one of the common complaints against the unrighteous in the Psalms is that they engage in this kind of spying and gossiping on others. This kind of behavior therefore cannot be justified as having any scriptural basis in either precept or example.
RED FLAG # 3: The abuser stalks the target from place to place and sometimes for years.
This is a particularly strong red flag, and it can in fact be a felony in many US states. Here is the Ohio definition of ‘Menacing by Stalking’ (Ohio Revised Code 2901.211):
No person by engaging in a pattern of conduct shall knowingly cause another person to believe that the offender will cause physical harm to the other person or cause mental distress to the other person . . . .
The pattern of conduct includes . . . a threat of physical harm to or against the victim . . . and thus would include repeated attempts of deliberate physical intimidation.
“Mental distress” means any of the following:
Any mental illness or condition that involves some temporary substantial incapacity;
Any mental illness or condition that would normally require psychiatric treatment, psychological treatment, or other mental health services, whether or not any person requested or received psychiatric treatment, psychological treatment, or other mental health services.
There is much more to the statute, of course. This kind of behavior is often is characteristic of the obsessive controller or person who will not let go of a grudge. This kind of person will often continue to try to ‘get at’ the target even if the target tries to put some distance between himself and herself and the abuser. Any believer should therefore beware of anyone that tries to get a group in a church fellowship or in any kind of ministry situation to play tormenting games against someone else as kind of vicious entertainment, to ‘mess with his or her mind’, and understand that the other person may well be trying to incite others to conduct which is not only unChristlike and unscriptural, but also probably illegal and may potentially rise to the level of felonious conduct.
RED FLAG # 4: The abuser makes insinuations against the mental stability of the targets.
False accusations of mental illness and instability by abusers are one of the most common markers that the abuser is pursuing some malicious and vindictive agenda. It’s amazing how so few note how eminently unqualified the abusers are to make any such allegations and amateur diagnoses. They often throw out labels in a pretense of a sophisticated understanding of mental illness. This works for a little while because they know that others may not understand and will not take the trouble to verify what the abuser is actually saying.
There are two possible bases for the insinuations that may be evident. The first is that the target may actually be going through some life crisis, and may actually be suffering in some way. Or the abuser has heard of a previous life crisis of the target, and is presenting to others the past suffering of the target as an ongoing and present reality. It’s actually normal, though, for a person to be sad and hurt over a lost relationship, sudden unemployment, the death of a relative or some other life crisis for a period of time. It’s extremely cruel and callous for anyone to insinuate this kind of normal reaction is any kind of mental illness or evidence of any kind of mental instability. Rather, it fits into the abuser’s campaign to isolate and torment the target, to exploit their times of suffering to deepen the misery that they want to inflict on the target.
The second possible justification is that the alleged mental illness and instability of the target is actually the sadness, hurt and avoidance from the prolonged suffering caused by the abuser. Over the past few years some psychiatrists have come to the conclusion that some sufferers of depression, for example, are simply in prolonged abusive relationships, and that medicating them for depression amounts to anesthetizing the victim of abuse to the effects of the abuse – which is exactly what the abuser wants. The person who actually is demonstrating mental instability is the abuser. One of the signs that this is true is that after a period of separation from the abuser the target starts to show less evidence of sadness and hurt and starts to get back to getting closer to others. This time of separation, when the target is visibly more ‘normal,’ sometimes alerts others, then, that the behavior of the abuser is the real problem.
It’s logical to inquire very pointedly about the qualifications and reasoning of anyone who makes any insinuations about the mental stability of any adult who has not been professionally diagnosed and is not under professional care. Upon honest examination many times these will be found to be slander. Moreover, it is reasonable for anyone who hears any gossip about anyone who actually is undergoing any kind of professional care to put a stop to it, since such gossip and insinuations are practically never the business of the recipients of the gossip. Moreover, this kind of slander often seems to be an effort to undermine legitimate efforts by the targets to overcome past difficulties and suffering, to put and keep them having to deal with isolated incidents far in the past, and to grow and go deeper in the Lord. And again, this kind of behavior can have severe legal consequences for the abuser, with consequences spelled out in slander, libel and stalking statutes.
RED FLAG # 5: The abuser exercises assumed and legitimate authority in a Satanic, not a Christ like, manner.
The abuser often assumes authority over others that he or she has not earned, or may seek some legitimate authority. The abuser’s exercise of authority is most definitely not in a Christ like way. Moreover, it is indicated in scripture and throughout the experience of Christians around the world and throughout history, that these kinds of leaders are often under demonic deception. At times they become troubled over their behavior, but the deep and stubborn pride that goes along with the deception often precludes facing the truth and coming the depth of repentance needed to escape the net of deception.
- The abuser sees authority as authority over other people for self aggrandizement. For him or her, authority is not a place of responsibility before God to glorify God and a place to serve others in a Christ like fashion (Luke 24:24-27, I Peter 5:2, II Corinthians 1:24).
- The abuser does not serve as an example of his or her own expectations, but demonstrates incredible hypocrisy in the conduct of his or her office (I Peter 5:3).
- The abuser is incredibly dishonest, vindictive and cruel in the exercise of authority. The abuser uses a lie at every opportunity to cover his or her mistakes and misconduct and to make life miserable for his or her targets. This demonstrates his affinity to ‘the father of lies.’ Sometimes this issues in false prophecy as well (cf. the false prophet Shemaiah and the prophetess Noadiah in Nehemiah 6:10,14).
- The abuser believes and demonstrates that he or she can and will use any means, malicious and wicked as it may prove to be, to get others to follow his or her wishes, even when these wishes are clearly unscriptural and malicious. Sometimes the abuser, under demonic deception, even believes and says that God has given him or her special permission to inflict hardship, difficulty, suffering and ‘discipline’ upon the target. Legitimate scriptural authority is authority to build up, not to tear down (II Corinthians 10:8).
- The abuser attempts to conduct and pursues virtual murder against his targets from the position of authority. This is not an attempt to extinguish the physical life of the target but rather to extinguish the God given individuality of the target where it differs from the abuser’s likes and dislikes. Often it seems to be an incredibly arrogant attempt by the abuser to remake the target in his or her image. Those in abusive relationships often attest to the torment of this attempted slow, insidious personality murder. The goal of scriptural authority, rather, is the Christlikeness of the person who has been made in the image of God, and sanctifies the God given individuality of the person that he has created (Romans 8:28-30).
The leaders and members of the body of Christ must understand their responsibility before God to recognize, to refuse to assist, to rebuke, and to place these abusers under church discipline if there is no repentance (Matthew 18:15-17, Galatians 6:1, Ephesians 5:11). They must recognize that these actions cannot be whitewashed with claims of love or good intentions. These red flags mentioned above are not intended to serve as license for either undue suspicion or intrusiveness, but for discernment of problems which are often camouflaged underneath counterfeit spirituality.