The Sympathy Bond

It is a strange thing to comprehend:  most of us as abuse victims actually feel sorry for the person abusing us.  Why is that?  How can it be that, after all he* has put us through, we choose to see this person who treats us contemptuously as a fragile, hapless creature worthy of our patience and understanding?

In my own experience and having had the opportunity to work directly with many victims, there are several things that may keep us feeling sorry for the guy – and subsequently bound to him.

First, sympathy compels us to see our abuser as a wounded man rather than a cruel man.  Sympathy redirects our focus from his actions to his wounds, whatever they may be, moving the abuse to a position of secondary importance and diminishing the truth that is right before our very eyes.  His wounds are deemed more important that the ones he inflicts upon others.  Where abuse is involved, sympathy serves as both a coping mechanism and a form of denial.

We choose to believe that, in spite of his guilt, he is innocent.

 But the truth is that, although he may have been a victim, now he is a perpetrator.

Second, sympathy protects the abuser from the consequences of his behavior.  As a sympathizer, the victim is troubled by the potential pains and inconveniences her abuser might suffer should she leave him.  Many a victim recognizes that few would tolerate the kind of treatment she receives from her abuser, which means that, without her, he could end up alone.  Looking at it from that perspective, the victim’s protective stance is profoundly ironic.  Because no else would put up with his horrific treatment, she feels an obligation to do so.

We are willing to cope with our abuser’s cruelties rather than be “cruel” to our abuser.  

 But the truth is that it is unhealthy to protect an abuser from the consequences of his behavior, because consequences serve to reflect the truth about who he is and what he has done.

Third, our sympathetic focus often finds us adopting a role as “the good one” in the relationship. This type of role-playing creates an opportunity for us to prove that we are worth loving.  It becomes our aim to be as perfect as possible, to show our abuser what love and respect look like, even with the historically unrealistic prospect of inspiring him to change.

Remaining with “a bad guy” becomes something of an identity for us as victims.  We become an overcompensating complement to his treachery.  Our preoccupation with holding things together gives us a purpose, a job to do, a role to play as we work to soften and diffuse the hostile environment he creates.

Our intent is to one day reach the heart of our abuser.  Should we succeed in doing so, our success will also serve to validate our self-worth and perhaps bring to fruition the kind of intimacy we long for – even if we are miserable in the meantime.

We believe our devotion will yield a positive outcome that will eclipse our pain.

But the truth is that our devotion tells him that whatever he is doing must not be that bad.  Why would he change?

Fourth, sympathy is laden with hope.  Our abuser has said a lot of cruel things, treated us badly and left us wondering how we have survived to this point.  Yet we don’t want to give up or let go, because to our way of thinking that would mean that we have failed, or that perhaps we aren’t worth loving.  After all we have been through, all we have invested, believed, hoped and prayed-for, can we really walk out with nothing – even less than nothing to show for our efforts?   To do so feels like an utter waste of every moment we have spent loving this man – a waste of love, a waste of life.

So we cling to that tiny thread of hope and believe that change must be imminent.  Maybe tomorrow…

But the truth is that if he wanted to change, he would.   The truth is that you are not obligated to continue investing in someone who continually fails to love, honor and cherish you.

So the bottom line is that your sympathy gives your abuser power, binds you to him and diminishes the truth about his motives, his actions and your pain.

To be blunt:  You need to stop feeling sorry for him.  Your sympathy accomplishes nothing.  The healthier and more appropriate response is to be angry, for day after day he has chosen to demean and neglect you.  Allow that righteous anger to fuel your determination to begin the process of reclaiming your value, to begin taking care of yourself, to never allow him to abuse you again, and to release him to reap the consequences of what he has so cruelly sown.

“Do not associate with a man given to anger; or go with a hot-tempered man, or you will learn his ways and find a snare for yourself…” Proverbs 22:24-25


*Although abusers can be of both genders, statistically the overwhelming majority of abusers are male; therefore, the abuser is referred to in the masculine.  The reader’s understanding is appreciated.

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2 thoughts on “The Sympathy Bond”

  1. Cindy,

    This is another very clear and powerful message that needs to be posted on what forums people feel safe doing so.

    I think the sympathy bond, as you put it, is one of the last ties to abusers that many people have to sever, particularly people who are very empathetic.

    And it is hard because not only does society send the message in both blatant and subtle ways that women should “stand by their (men)” and/or become the “beauty” that “transforms the beast,” many Christians, oddly, believe remaining with an abuser (especially the kind who doesn’t leave VISIBLE marks and where he is quite charming to everyone else) is somehow more godly than fleeing–and getting the children out of harm’s way, too.

    The only time Jesus tolerated abuse was when he purposefully allowed his enemies to torture and crucify Him, not because of human sympathy for them but because He was the Sacrificial Lamb of God–for them.

    This is something only God’s Son could do. At the right time. There are several occasions in the Gospels where he “disappeared” from the midst of those who were set on killing Him–before the prophetic scene was set, before His “appointed time”.

    In short, in the fullness of time Jesus died for abusers of all time.

    Their victims/targets don’t have to.

    Indeed, Jesus came to set captives free.

    And there are all kinds of “deaths” in abusive marriages: death of safety, security, peace, love, respect, dreams, hope, and more and there are all kinds of captives.

    For children, captive in another way to abusers, it is society at large that dies a little bit every time a another child, not knowing otherwise, is left to fend for himself or herself mentally and emotionally while having to duck and cover in his or her young world damaged by the choices of an abuser, choices that may influence the child to model the same behavior as an adult.

    And the cycle continues.

    Fortunately for a lot of children with one parent who scrounges up the undeniable courage to get herself and her children out of the abuser’s trap, though it is very hard, those same children have another model to emulate. A hero: their mother (and yes, some fathers, too, married to abusive women).

    Fortunately, many children will emulate the hero parent’s choices, as hard as those choices may be–particularly for empaths.

    Nevertheless, in the myriad stories of women (and some men) who flee abusers, the powerful message that good can still overcome evil is made clear.

    That’s what Jesus was all about, too.

    Your good work, Cindy, is one of the lifelines, I believe, for many women who have never heard this part of the Gospel, the part of the Good News that saves lives, not just for eternity but for the here and now, too; the Good News that saves, one freed captive at a time, who can then go out and influence others to do the same.


    1. Thank you, P, for your added insights, which are always appreciated.

      I wonder if you are recalling a piece I wrote a couple of years back entitled, “Suffering Love: A Redemptive Force or an Enabling One?” as your comments reference the same important – but rarely taught – truth…

      Thank you, as well, for your encouragement. There are times when I get discouraged, as many in the mainstream are unwilling to address abuse of every kind in the body of Christ. On occasions when my husband and I mention this ministry, most pastors’ eyes glaze over. They don’t know what to do with us, but it is clear they don’t want to get involved.

      Nevertheless, I press on and do what I can to minister to the hurting women who find Hurtbylove. And when the truth sets them free – what an amazing blessing that is!

      With gratitude for your unstinting support and participation in this ministry…


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