Anatomy of an abusive relationship

Last week when talking with Ryan Burton King about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we discussed the response in Russia. Over the past few week’s we’ve seen a lot of examples of bravery from Russians willing to protest, most notably a young Russian TV editor who interrupted a news broadcast holding up a protest sign. 

At the same time, there have also been reports shared of Russians displaying the Z symbol, demonstrating in support of Putin and Opinion polls showing over 50% approving the action in Ukraine.  Some people have picked up on those events and polls to argue that this demonstrates that the Russian people are very firmly behind Putin. This has been used as an argument for sanctions to target the wider population in order to bring them to their senses and show them the consequences of siding with a brutal warmonger.

My argument has been that such efforts are likely to backfire because they will further isolate people from the West.  They will develop a siege mentality. The problem is that for many Russians, their only access to news is what is reported via state media. They are not supporting a brutal invasion but what they have been told is a special peace keeping operation and a response to Nazi aggression. 

I’ve argued that it is no surprise that we are hearing about Russians showing their support for Putin apparently voluntarily and without compulsion. We will expect more, not less of that going on. A bully and tyrant does not always have to use force to get his own way. Most will respond to the misinformation he communicates and if that is not enough, then targeting those who resist will send a message to anyone tempted to go off script. 

What we see in effect is a form of enchantment. Indeed, we might liken life in Russia under Putin to life under the winter reign of the White witch in Narnia. Just as the thawing of the snow showed that Aslan was on the move and her magic was crumbling, so any signs of resistance and dissent from Moscow and St Petersburg are signs of his power thawing and his hold crumbling a little.

But I don’t so much want to talk about the geo-political issues here as think about how Putin is behaving as a bully and abuser.  In the podcast, Ryan pointed out that Putin is going through the classic DARVO response of an abuser to challenge.  What we see him doing on the geo-political stage is what we see many bullies and abusers do in relationships, families, communities and even churches.  So I wanted to highlight some of those behaviours now to help us think about how we respond to bullying and abuse in our contexts.

DARVO is an anacronym which stands for Deny, Attack and Reverse Victim and Offender.  We can see how Putin has done this in response to Ukraine.


Putin has consistently denied that he is invading Ukraine. He has claimed that this is a peacekeeping operation, that he has no interest in occupying the country, he only wants to help the Russian enclaves get their freedom. Human Rights atrocities have been denied and put down to Western propaganda. There seem to be examples of false flag operations being prepared and trialled -a tactic Putin has used elsewhere to make it look like someone else is the aggressor.


I am not merely referring to the horrendous military assault here. There has been a vicious literal attack.  Putin’s response to challenge has been to attack Ukraine and her allies verbally and through propaganda. We see this particularly in the accusations that Ukraine’s government are Nazis and in his claims that Ukraine has no historical right to exist but properly belongs to Russia.

Reverse Victim Order

Bullies and abusers will often claim that they are in fact the victims.  Putin’s approach has been to claim that it is in fact Russia who are the victims of western aggression through the expansion of NATO even though NATO is a defensive alliance.  In recent days propaganda has been circulated claiming that the US have been funding biological weapons facilities in Ukraine.

It’s worth commenting here that often these kinds of lies rely on plausible kernels of truth, at least in the perception of the bully so that they really do believe they are the victims.  In Putin’s case, he can point to the fact that NATO has expanded but that of course involves a significant manipulation fo the story and ignoring the wider historical context of what has happened.

It’s fascinating too isn’t it to see how such behaviours become culturally embedded beyond the immediate sphere of influence of the bully.  Look at how Chelsea’s response to being sanctioned due to their owner being a friend and supporter of Putin was to attempt to bully Middlesborough into playing a cup game behind closed doors in order to maintain sporting integrity. Chelsea wanted us to see them as the victims, this poor team were going to be at a disadvantage having to play with none of their fans present at the ground. That of course ignored that they are the bigger team and have the advantage of years of oligarch funding. 

So, we seen Putin playing out the role of bully and abuser. The result is that he seems to have an almost magical control of those under his influence. Indeed, it is likely that that hold will remain over many until he loses his power and is removed from the situation. We must not underestimate the ability of abusers not just to use brute force but through gaslighting to manipulate and control.

In that context I want to highlight another example of abuse and how a church handled the situation.  Julie Roys reports that in 2002, John MacArthur named and shamed a woman as being in sin and therefore excluded from communion at Grace Community Church, Sun Valley.  The reason she was considered to be in sin was that she was seeking to separate from her husband.  The woman, Eileen Gray, had, according to MacArthur failed to show grace to her husband. MacArthur suggested that this meant she was not following the advice and counsel of the church elders.

 It later turned out that not only was her husband a physical abuser but that he was sexually abusing his children and he is now serving time for this.  Roys reports:

“But at the time of Eileen’s shaming, Eileen had not yet reported her husband’s physical and mental abuse to police. (She was not yet aware of his sexual abuse.) Instead, she had reported the abuse to elders and pastors at GCC.  Eileen also had not left her husband. In August 2002, Eileen was still living with her children in the Grays’ home about 1.5 miles from the church.  Eileen had, however, filed legal separation and restraining orders against David due to his repeated abuse of her and her children, as well as his alleged stalking and threats to kill them and himself. At the time of the shaming, Eileen had obtained a court order requiring that David’s visits with the children be monitored and restricting him from coming within 100 yards of Eileen.”

Now MacArthur has been at the centre of a lot of controversy in the context of US culture wars and his church’s response to COVID.  There are issues I have with MacArthur but I don’t want to get into them now. It has been suggested that some people have an agenda to present MacArthur and his church as abusive and cult-like.  I also don’t want to get into that at the moment. Suffice it to say, it is possible that a church although well intentioned can make the kind of mistake I believe was made here.  So, I want to focus our attention on that lesson.

You see, some people have picked up on the point that the woman concerned had not yet at that time gone to the police. They’ve argued that because of this, the elders had no reason to believe her story and were acting reasonably on the basis of what they knew when they counselled her to return and be reconciled to her husband.  The argument is then that they should not be expected to retrospectively apologise when they acted to the best of their ability based on the knowledge they had.

I think that this misunderstands much about the dynamic of abusive relationships and how they affect both victims and onlookers.  I’ve argued above that Putin exemplifies the ability of abusers to manipulate, deceive and control.  Onlookers are deceived, indeed the abuser may come to them requesting help and expressing deep concern for their victim.  The victim is manipulated.  This means that in fact, getting help, going to the authorities and getting away to safety are very difficult steps to take.  A victim may be deeply reluctant to go to the authorities for a number of reasons including:

  1. Fear of reprisals from their abuser. “If you tell then you will pay.”
  2. Transferred fear from the abuser to others that carry authority with force.  “What if they too turn out to be abusers.”
  3. Shame – it feels like they are airing their dirty line in public. It’s a sign of their failure.
  4. Ongoing love for their abuser.  This is after all the man she married and had children with.
  5. Love for their family/community and fear of bringing shame on others. They may be concerned that going to the authorities may lead to adverse publicity for their family and their church.
  6. Trauma. The victim is likely to be suffering from PTSD and that will affect their cognition and ability to make decisions.

This means that abuse cases are often complex and messy. Victims may not take the steps which we think would be best for them in the order or time that we might want them to.  Counsellors and friends may find this deeply frustrating.  Yet it’s important that our response is not driven by frustration and definitely not by judgement but rather by compassionate patience.

In the case described, my view is that the elders should have supported the victim in finding a place of safety and protection.  They should have helped her to find appropriate support for healing and recovery. They should have encouraged her to seek all legal recourse to ensure justice and therefore not only her own protection but that of other potential victims but they should have done so lovingly.  The use of church discipline in this context was deeply inappropriate and will have compounded the abuse.

At the moment, a siege mentality appears to be in place with people primarily focused on defending the reputation of the church and key people.  I hope that instead of this, they will move to a position where they can apologise for past failings and seek to learn from them.

I hope that these case studies have helped give us a bit of insight into the anatomy of a bullying and abusive relationship.  Sadly, we are going to come across these frequently in Gospel and pastoral ministry.  It is helpful to be alert to the ability of the abuser to deceive and manipulate others and themselves. It is important to see how this affects the victim.

When seeking to pastor people coming through and out of abusive relationships, we will need to draw on deep wells of compassion, patience, humility and grace. For this we need the Holy Spirit.

1 comment

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: