Communication failures, lack of empathy, and domestic violence

“What is communication?”

That was the question our professor posed to us, the honor students of Communication 101. Our assignment was to draw a diagram of how communication works. There’s the sender and the receiver and the message, to be sure, but beyond that, what happens?

  • Have people communicated if the message is misunderstood?
  • What about nonverbal actions? (Silence can be a powerful message. So can laughing, flipping the bird, and scowling.)
  • What if the message is conflicting? (Like when someone says no when she’s signaling yes (or he thinks she’s signaling yes. Or vice versa on gender or message.)
  • What if the words operate on more than one level? (Literal versus figurative.)
  • What if the other person cannot understand the message because of personal limitations?

Has communication still happened? Or is it a failure?

A huge issue for communicators is the inability to see and hear how their message is perceived by others. Most of us know only our own personal viewpoint. We also tend to surround ourselves with people who are like us in significant ways: similar socio-economic class, similar racial and ethnic profiles, similar political views or spiritual inclinations.

(In my experience, those who do not and who deliberately seek out people different from themselves, have a higher level of tolerance and respect for differences. They often wind up finding those equally tolerant people from the pool of “different” people available. Good intentions, though, and the conversations are far more likely to be productive than, for example, the inevitable explosions between a militant, intolerant atheist and an equally militant, equally intolerant Christian who breathe the same air.)

A communicator sends a message.

What happens?

The message is received by others, but it is not understood in the same way by everyone.

Those from a similar viewpoint hear the words and the intention.

Those from a different viewpoint don’t hear the intention behind the words. Nor do they interpret the words in the same way.

For example, when my first boyfriend broke up with me, he said, “I don’t love you anymore, but you’re still the person at college I care most about.”

Here’s what I heard: I don’t love you, but I’m still the person who cares about you the most.

Twisted? You bet.

In my opinion, the best communicators are aware that not everyone will receive their message in the same way. They step into other people’s worlds. Then they turn their message around, examining it from different viewpoints. While they may not change their message, they may change how the message is conveyed. Words, phrases, actions: these are modified to clearly communicate with others.

Contrast the ideal communicator to what happens in this video. It’s an older one, but it illustrates my point.

One issue with these men, I think, is that they cannot put themselves in another’s position and hear how the words sound to someone not from their background. The joke about domestic violence—Divorce, never. Murder, often!–might possibly be humorous to someone in a loving marriage where violence is not, and never has been, an option. (Possibly, not certainly.)

But the joke sounds horrible to a domestic violence victim whose spouse has attempted to murder her. Threatening, even. Many of us would agree: this joke isn’t funny. But because these men never been in that position, they can’t imagine that the joke might be interpreted any other way.

Last Sunday, I ran headlong into this issue at church. We were discussing the theology of total depravity. As several men talked about how we’re without the ability to do good, deserving of God’s just wrath, and worthless, I had that tumbling feeling inside, telling me that I need to say something.

I heard their words on two levels.

1. The theological level, the level all these men were operating on. I know how we can’t save ourselves and why we need Jesus. I get that. I’ve read the Bible. I get it.
2. The real world level. I was aware that this type of theology has been used to oppress others. I know that if I were being abused or had been abused, the words “we’re worthless” would twist in my mind to become justification for that abuse: I deserve to be beaten. I deserve to be raped. Or molested. Or beaten. I deserve every horrible, unjust thing that has happened or is still happening to me. None of that is true, but that doesn’t prevent these lies from being heard.

I know this because I’ve listened to victims’ stories.

I know this from being discriminated against by certain males at my Christian college.

I know this, simply by being the “other,” an outsider who observes.

When I got a chance to speak—I had to interrupt—my words came out wrong, which happens a lot in my verbal communication, especially when I don’t know the listeners well. (I become nervous and flustered, intimidated and fearful lest others pounce on my words and interrogate me, cross-examination style.) I don’t think that the men understood what I was saying.

Communication failure. How frustrating.

It was equally frustrating that I sensed these particular men couldn’t understand. They could not see how words can be both theologically correct and result in literal death. 

They couldn’t understand that no matter how well-intentioned the message was, or what other truths were conveyed, or how beautifully articulated, if the messenger did not have empathy for the hearer’s condition, the hearer would only hear a lie: I’m worthless.

Communication failure, ignoring word connotations.

Empathy failure, ignoring other people’s perspectives.

Church failure, ignoring the practical consequences of theology, and as a result, perpetuating sin. 

It’s unintentional, at least at this church. Don’t worry, I won’t keep my mouth shut at church. I may have failed to communicate this time, but I’ll keep trying.


12 thoughts on “Communication failures, lack of empathy, and domestic violence

  1. At least you attempted to say something, Laura, good for you. Just overcoming the fear of being misunderstood and speaking your mind is a great victory in my thinking. Concerning this particular topic and being on the receiving end of this type of mindset, I could write pages. There are so many problems with way of thinking, including the fact that they appear to believe divorce is the only way that the image of Christ can be damaged. A so called Christian man that fails to care for his family or abuses his wife and/or children damages that image far more. I think the thing that bothers me the most is that these men are so eager to share their opinions, but where are they when it is time to roll up their sleeves and help a family that is in crises. Do they regularly get in the face of the man that is abusing? Do they notify the authorities? Or do they just pretend that it is not happening and expect the woman to get through it on her own. If you want a family to stay together then get involved and help the victims for crying out loud, don’t just sit with your buddies and talk about how you have stayed married for such a long time and give cheap advice. I’m not angry at all :). I have been thinking about seriously researching this issue and tackle what I see as a narrow minded theology. If for no other reason than to be able to address this when it comes up. You have some really good insights.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for commenting.

      As far as my current church goes, the male leaders aren’t the type to allow abuse to happen within the congregation. I’ve seen evidence recently that they do handle issues well and won’t tolerate blatant evil in their church, but will handle the issue and notify the proper authorities, etc. So in that regard, I think the discussion at church was simply not thinking about the issue from all sides (i.e., not realizing how the spiritual theology sounds from a real world perspective, or someone from a different demographic). I was encouraged this past week that the same teacher said we needed to be careful not to over-emphasize this doctrine and not to forget the hope available through the gospel, the hope that applies to all aspects of our lives.

      As far as Piper & company, the biggest takeaway from the video was obviously the joke, but less obviously, that they did have some good things to say about marriage and love. Marriage is more about the covenant than the “feeling” of being “in love”, and as marriage goes on, we have seasons of falling in and out of love. I agree. (But I like to point out to these men that those who are leaving because of abuse are not leaving because of a change of feeling, but because they are in danger. And abusing or abandoning the family, in my way of thinking, is breaking the covenant, just like adultery is.) Unfortunately, because these men laughed at a ridiculous joke, any valuable insights are completely lost.


  2. Sorry, I shouldn’t post when I’m angry. I honestly don’t know if these particular leaders step in and help or not, but from what I have seen in general, it seems to be more about protecting the churches image than helping victims of domestic abuse. I think you are on to something with the misapplication of original sin/total depravity. It can be used to dismiss complaints and marginalize groups that are viewed as inferior. I apologize again.


    1. Don’t worry, I realized that the post would prompt some heated responses. (I just hoped that they wouldn’t be directed at me!) I really don’t know if Keller, Carson, and Piper are actively involved in helping domestic abuse victims. I think it might do them some good to sit down with victims at a shelter and listen to their stories and–the most important thing–not say anything. Don’t think about theology or sermon illustrations or what she should or shouldn’t do. Just listen. Just think. Just imagine if that were them, sitting there, terrified, hurt in a million different ways, and put themselves in that place of desperation. It might do some good. It changes one’s perspective to live under another person’s skin for a while.


      1. I absolutely agree with you and you said it more graciously than I did. I have unfortunately experienced some of the treatment I mentioned so my view is colored by that experience. I also do not want to imply that there aren’t good pastors out there, I have had two really good pastors in my life (including the one I have now) that care about their congregations. Discussing this topic is really helping me to recognize my own biases so hopefully when I have a chance to share my opinion with others, I’ll be able to do it more objectively.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. You may have become flustered and felt you didn’t communicate your point well with the men in your group, but you nailed it here. I have an annoying, sanctimoneous relative who, strangely enough, doesn’t understand why my (nuclear) family and I don’t care to spend a lot of time at his home. He feels it’s his duty as some sort of family patriarch to make sure that we are schooled in the right ways theologically and often sends us books, articles and video clips (Keller is one of his favorites) from a very narrow perspective — in my opinion, one of an upper-class, highly educated, white male. My background is psychology and social work, so a big part of the way I communicate is by listening. This relative is a successful, trial lawyer and his idea of fun is to start a seemingly jovial discussion, but really, he’s out for blood. He wins in the courtroom, and he prefers to win around the dining room table. There are no jovial discussions — don’t be fooled. He always has an agenda, and he doesn’t listen. He views listening as not adequately defending one’s position; in short — weak.

    Recently, he and I were talking on the phone and he told me he was disturbed by the fact that I was continuing to communicate with my uncle’s ex-wife (they recently divorced after 20 years of marriage). I have no intention of cutting off communication with her, and it’s none of his business anyway. I’m an adult. I asked why it bothered him so much, and he said, “She broke the covenant of marriage by divorcing M. He would have never left her.” The reality is that she felt threatened and after exhausting every option possible, for her safety and well-being, she left. M had multiple affairs, was verbally and occasionally physically abusive. The last straw was when their 16 yo son physically assaulted her in front of M and he did nothing but say afterward — “Well, maybe you should learn to keep your mouth shut.” After she filed for divorce, the minister at their church asked to speak with her to “offer his support.” She agreed to meet with him only to be vilified and told by him and two other ministers who she did not know would be in attendance, that she was a sinner in God’s eyes. This pastor went on to tell her that in his “darkest hours” he had cheated and used physical force with his wife, but she forgave him and they are still happily married. He ended the conversation by saying that if she continued with the divorce, that was her choice, but now it was between her and God.

    WHO does that? And HOW, as a minister, could he ever think that kind of conversation is helpful? It’s not.

    Back to the phone conversation with the said relative I initially mentioned. He repeated that he didn’t approve of the fact that I still communicate with this person who happened to be my aunt since I was eleven years old, but it was my choice. Now, furthermore, when I was in my early 20s, this relative was a loud and proud atheist. He was just as vocal about his non-beliefs as he now is about his fundamentalism and literal interpretation of the bible. He’s twice divorced and now re-married to his second wife. She divorced him for, you guessed it, verbal and physical abuse.

    Now, I believe in forgiveness and I believe in second chances, but I don’t believe that abusers change overnight. I do know that this relative went through extensive individual and marriage counseling, and I believe that his wife gave him an ultimatum — go through x amount of therapy and we’ll go from there. I commend him for working on himself and striving to be better. I also believe that his renewed faith has helped him through these dark times.

    But nothing lights a fire under me as much as a person like this relative using the Bible to keep women in dangerous domestic situations. Frankly, I find it blasphemous. I have worked with numerous domestic violence victims who’ve cited religious reasons for remaining in dangerous marriages. What’s even worse, in my opinion, is when a victim’s parents get involve and rather than protecting their child and offering her a safe place, they tell her that she is married and needs to pray about it. Very often these things happen in cycles — the daughter grows up with an abusive father and then leaves his home only to walk into an abusive marriage.

    I commend you for being able to sit in these groups and speaking up to men who hold such beliefs, because in my experience (and I am admittedly cynical), as you mentioned, men like the ones you discussed and men like my aunt’s FORMER paster are incapable of understanding. But why would they? They have the power, and in their minds, they’re right. And to prove it, they’re more than happy to cherry pick verses from the Bible that support their views.

    I think you summed it up quite well with this:

    “Church failure, ignoring the practical consequences of theology.”

    I’m too pragmatic for my own good, and often the language of the church as an institution is lost on me, but I believe it’s more accurate to say that ignoring the practical consequences of theology is dangerous and can be deadly.

    Long comment — sorry, it got me fired up. Thank you for writing it. I know my thoughts are strong and I think our biblical views are different, but I think there’s some common ground. Keep speaking up.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m not entirely certain that the men of my current church would condone domestic violence. Quite the opposite; I’ve seen recent evidence that they’ve handled a horrible situation well, and in conjunction with the proper authorities, and that they will not tolerate abuse in their midst. So I more think that they simply don’t realize that their theology, when misused, can lead to evil. They’re thinking spiritually but not coming down to the practical level and seeing how it sounds from the other side.

      (Probably they don’t realize that there is another side, as odd as that sounds. None of the leaders are ignorant men who ignore their wives. Gender inequality just isn’t on their radar screen (like it might be for other men). And probably if I brought up that the church is almost entirely white people, they’d be equally startled. They just haven’t trained their minds to think about what’s missing, as well as what’s present. Maybe that’s my spiritual role: to point out what’s missing. 🙂 I probably overstated the case when I said they “couldn’t understand.” After reflecting, I think they’re capable of understanding but they just don’t realize that there’s anything TO understand at this point.)

      I’m sorry about your relative’s inability to realize why you’d want to talk to the ex-wife. That’s a really sad and awful situation.

      Don’t worry about long comments. . . . I do those all the time!


  4. I’m glad you spoke up there, whether they got what you were saying or not. You never know if they’ll be in another conversation where what you said will come back to them and they’ll get it, and perhaps even be able to use it to help someone else understand.


    1. Well, I hope they think about it. I’m going to keep speaking up, whether or not they like it! And thank you for being one of those men who really “gets” how other people–women, minorities, other disenfranchised people–think about things, and for speaking up on behalf of others who don’t have a voice.


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