“God Just Brought Me Through It”: Spiritual Coping Strategies for Resilience Among Intimate Partner Violence Survivors
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This study highlights the spiritual coping processes for surviving and healing used by Christian women in a conservative faith community who experienced intimate partner violence (IPV). Using data from 42 in-depth qualitative interviews of survivors of IPV, the findings reveal a pattern of spiritually-based survival and resilience strategies women used while coping with and eventually escaping their traumatic lives. The analysis notes the central role of spirituality as a means women used to move from coping for survival to resilient self-efficacy and healing. These findings assist clinical social workers with identifying and accessing spiritual strengths as a springboard to wellbeing.
KeywordsIntimate partner violence Spirituality Coping Resilience
Intimate partner violence (IPV) is a social problem of global proportions (Johnson and Zlotnick 2009; Kazdin 2011; Rasanathan and Bhushan 2011). Lifetime victimization rates range from 10 to 50 % depending on the population studied. These significant prevalence rates of IPV come with a high cost to individuals and to society at large that is well-documented in the research literature (Cavanaugh et al. 2012; Johnson and Zlotnick 2009). As the social and individual costs of IPV escalate, it becomes increasingly important for clinical social workers to address this social problem in a more comprehensive way through early intervention efforts.
IPV produces trauma throughout the lifecycle. IPV trauma occurs through dating violence in late adolescence and young adulthood (Lehrer et al. 2006; Smith et al. 2003), and through IPV in adulthood and into old age (Flannery 2003; Mouton et al. 2004). IPV’s indirect effects extend to children, either through IPV escalation during pregnancy (McMahon and Armstrong 2012; Jeanjot et al. 2008) or through the witnessing of abuse by children and adolescents (Cavanaugh et al. 2012). Social workers have long been engaged in alleviating the social problems associated with IPV at these various stages of life (Danis 2003; Danis and Lockhart 2003; Goodman and Smyth 2011; Mears and Visher 2004; Pyles and Postmus 2004). From a traditional social work ecological perspective, intervening in any given stage of life will lessen the intergenerational nature of this type of trauma. With this in mind, clinical social workers have been particularly interested in developing programs for victims and offenders, as well as therapeutic interventions designed to heal trauma following IPV (Johnson and Zlotnick 2009; McNamara et al. 2008). While these approaches are important and helpful in the aftermath of trauma, a more proactive approach calls for earlier intervention in the cycle of trauma.
One avenue of intervention that offers potential for reducing subsequent traumatization lies in understanding the factors contributing to resilience and coping for abuse survivors. By increasing our understanding of these coping mechanisms, clinical social workers can be more intentional in strengthening existing positive coping attempts, thereby increasing client resilience even in the midst of the traumatic relationship. Research literature identifies and documents the various ways in which victims of IPV cope with abuse and eventually move towards safety (Dorfman 2004; Goodman et al. 2009; Hodges and Cabanilla 2011; Jacinto et al. 2010). Yet, while identifying help-seeking activities that focus on using formal or informal resources to meet physical and mental/emotional needs (Ansara and Hindin 2010; Fanslow and Robinson 2010; Morrison et al. 2006), current research is rather scarce when it comes to spiritual coping and healing mechanisms utilized by victim/survivors to ameliorate or heal from abusive relationships.
Understanding the spiritual developmental process in a general way as proposed by Pargament (2007) may be helpful in contextualizing spiritual coping among survivors of IPV and other types of trauma. Once a person’s individual spirituality is established through internal and external factors (Discovery), it becomes an important part of their existence, acting as an organizing force as well as a resource. The individual, by nature, wants to hold on to and enhance their sense of the spiritual (Conservation) and finds pathways to aid this process. When significant life stresses come (Violation, Threat, and Loss), the established spirituality becomes a resource for coping in a variety of ways (Conservational Spiritual Coping). However, difficult experiences may lead to spiritual questions and disorientation (Spiritual Struggle), resulting in a need to redefine and transform spiritual understandings (Transformational Spiritual Coping). This transformation is a normal and natural part of the process of maintaining one’s spirituality, even though it can at times lead to a detachment or distance from spirituality (Spiritual Disengagement). Nevertheless, the natural striving for meaning, purpose, and significance may well lead the individual to rediscover spirituality, perhaps in new and different ways. This model for the presence and role of individual spirituality allows for repetitive cycles of movement through the various components of spiritual experience. It is also important to note that the processes described in the model may work for good or harm in the individual, depending on the presence of either positive or negative spiritual concepts and coping methods (Pargament 2007).
The understanding of spiritual coping is particularly important to clinical social workers for several reasons. First, clinical social workers engage in practice with high numbers of faith-adherent individuals. Although research findings vary on exact population demographics, approximately 76 % of Americans identify as Christians (25 % Catholic, 51 % Protestant) while only 15 % classify themselves as having no religious affiliation (Kosmin and Keysar 2009). Besides the sheer numbers of individuals bringing a religious orientation to the help-seeking situation, clinical social workers need information on spiritual coping mechanisms because of the pervasive influence that religious practices bring to individual and family contexts. Research notes that religious beliefs influence nearly every aspect of human behavior, such as making economic decisions (Lehrer 2004), engaging in sexual risk behaviors (Hatzenbuehler et al. 2012), taking care of one’s physical health (Acevedo 2010), or deciding which candidate to vote for (Jansen et al. 2012), just to name a few. Looking specifically at how religion may influence IPV response behaviors, early researchers noted that religiously affiliated individuals stay longer in an unhealthy relationship, even one riddled with abuse (Horton and Williamson 1988). Subsequent research suggests that, for Christian spouse abuse victims, a conservative belief system may create specific barriers to changing abusive circumstances (Knickmeyer et al. 2010; Popescu et al. 2009) and very often when working with professional helpers, such as clinical social workers, women of faith feel forced to choose between their faith and their freedom from an abusive relationship (Nason-Clark 2004). This, in turn, may keep women of faith in abusive relationships longer because their closely held beliefs are not heard or understood by professional helpers. Finally, Pargament’s empirical work reveals that, when facing a crisis or a traumatic event, people will often seek support from their faith. In fact, 50–85 % of various groups find their spirituality beneficial as a coping mechanism (Pargament 1997). Thus, in order to work from a strengths and resilience perspective, it is important to understand and be able to enhance the spiritual coping mechanisms people of faith bring to the helping relationship.
The scant existing research literature on spiritual coping among women of faith offers a complex picture of the positive ways in which religion and spirituality address IPV, as well as the challenges experienced by women of faith (Fraser et al. 2002; Giesbrecht and Sevcik 2000; Nason-Clark 2000; Popescu et al. 2010; Pyles 2007). These researchers note general ways in which religion or spirituality impact coping and survival or community response; however, the individual coping mechanisms which clinicians may use to intervene from a strengths perspective appear lacking. One exception in the literature comes from a study of ethnic differences in help-seeking behaviors that found the use of spiritual coping mechanisms, such as prayer, to be helpful in the healing process among African American IPV survivors (El-Khoury et al. 2004).
It is within this context that this article fills an important gap in the existing research literature by identifying the specific spiritual coping mechanisms used by women IPV survivors as they experienced and sought healing from an abusive intimate relationship. Recognizing these individual spiritual coping strategies will assist clinical social workers in providing positive tools that their spiritually-oriented clients may use as they seek healing from their relationship trauma.
The purpose of this analysis is to understand mechanisms that women relied on to cope with an intimate relationship in which abuse or violence was present. The analysis also examines resilience strategies women discovered as they engaged in healing from the trauma experienced in their abusive relationships. The research question for this analysis is: What are the coping and resilience mechanisms that women use as they move from surviving to thriving during and following an abusive relationship?
The sample population was comprised of women survivors of IPV within a conservative Christian denomination. Because little is known about this particular subculture in terms of coping and resilience, the methodology of choice was an inductive, qualitative approach.
Child abuse history
No history of child abuse reported
Experienced one of the following: physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
Experienced more than one of the following: physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
Length of marriage
Over 20 years
Children present at time of abuse
Type of IPV experienced
More than one type
Current relationship status
Still in IPV relationship
Separated or divorced
Data Collection and Analysis
Researchers developed an open-ended interview guide to assist in getting similar information from all participants. The eight interviewers (all members of the research team) were trained in the use of the interview guide prior to conducting the interviews. The interview guide inquired about participants’ victimization experience, their attempts at help-seeking, the effects of abuse, and avenues for prevention and intervention. Researchers conducted face-to-face interviews with participants who were offered $75 to honor their participation in the study. The interview times ranged from approximately one and a half to four hours in length.
The first step in organizing the raw data was to create verbatim transcriptions of the recorded interviews. The research team members (the authors along with additional research faculty) then reviewed the transcripts for completeness and accuracy. Researchers initiated analysis by coding participants’ themes throughout the data. Provalis Qualitative Data Miner software was used to facilitate the coding process. The analysis used the constant-comparative method, which assists in developing a grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss 1967).
As coding continued in the analysis process, researchers examined specific instances of the codes to clarify similarities and differences between the researchers’ use of these codes, improving inter-coder reliability. Researchers addressed the issues of credibility and trustworthiness of the data by using peer debriefing and conducting negative case analysis (Lincoln and Guba 1985). Negative case analysis is a process whereby researchers examine the data for incidents that do not support or may contradict the emerging analysis. Inter-rater reliability was assured by using the process suggested by Marques and McCall (2005). This method involves giving various members of the research team the entirety of raw transcribed data to discover similarities in coding. The research team met immediately following the initial attainment of themes, yet before formulating conclusions. This approach provided a way to verify that the study’s findings represented a constructive measure in consistency of interpretation rather than an evaluative measure occurring after the analysis. Thus, the research team met regularly to reach consensus on the emerging categories, themes, and types in the data.
This analysis offers insights into resilience mechanisms and strategies for survival and healing among IPV survivors. It is important to note that the women in this study demonstrated resilience while still entrenched in the abusive relationships. The analysis of all resilience themes found in the transcribed participant interviews revealed a number of categories of strengths used by the women for coping with their abusive circumstances and that eventually strengthened their ability to take steps away from the abuse. While these sets of resilience data offered insights into the lived experiences of the study participants, the researchers noted an emergent, overarching theme that permeated the strengths findings: the role of personal faith for resilience in the interviewed women. At all levels of their experience, whether simply surviving the abuse, moving through the process of leaving their abusive partner, or seeking healing, spirituality was an important and primary resilience resource for this group of interviewees. Because this theme of faith was so pervasive in the overall resilience data, this analysis focuses exclusively on these identified types of spiritual experiences that served as a strong resource for the abuse survivors.
For the Christian women participating in this study, the starting point for spirituality or individual faith was expressed in terms of a personal relationship with God. Even before finding themselves needing to cope with abuse, having some type of connection to God provided a common lens of spiritual experience for the participants. The eventual actions and cognitive patterns used to cope with the reality of abuse are grounded in and develop out of their established relationship with God, serving as a primary source for surviving the ongoing abuse in their lives, as well as a motivational element that shaped the direction of both their resilience and life trajectory, from static survival to empowerment and healing.
The survival and healing process influenced by the women’s faith was not a linear set of dynamics and movement toward healing from abuse, nor did it involve discrete steps or stages identified by the survivors. However, these themes of spiritual coping are, without question, strongly present throughout the experiences of these women of faith, intertwining and recurring in ways that were unique to each participant.
Within the broad category of spiritual coping, the resilience strategies that emerged as themes from the analysis include: (1) experiencing God as a lifeline for survival, (2) utilizing Bible reading and prayer as spiritual coping practices, (3) attribution of resilience resources to God, (4) the role of spirituality versus religion in coping, and (5) spirituality leading to self-efficacy.
Resilience Through Utilizing God as a Lifeline
No, I don’t have the physical arm around me to hold me when I cry, but I can go back to my bed and lay on it and cry and talk to God…. God has never failed me. (Brittany)
I think the thing that has helped me to get through it all and during those times, especially when I couldn’t talk to anybody else, I was talking to God. (Judy)
[God’s] the one that carried me through and that’s one thing I know—that if I cannot depend on anything or anybody else in this world there’s one person I can depend on. (Amy)
Well, after the suicide [attempt] I realized He was the only way out. God was my only way out of this…. He was the only thing I could hang on to at that point; I was so desperate. (Karla)
Spiritual Coping Practices: Bible Reading and Prayer
God just brought me through it…. That was what got me through, just my relationship with God and prayer. And really, truly, each day was just a matter of prayer. (Regina)
In order to cope with my first husband, I spent a lot of time in prayer on my knees. (Mary)
I would go to sleep and then about 2:30 or 3:00 in the morning I would wake up and I would go to another room and I would read my Bible and I would pray and I would get strength for the day. I wasn’t sleeping a lot but somehow God would give me strength for the day. (Judy)
When I would get to the point where I had no hope—didn’t even have a knot in the end of the rope to hang onto—I would say, “O Lord, please show me something that will help me right now,” and I would just open the Bible and start reading the whole page, and you would not believe all the verses in the Bible that talk about children being returned. And that really gave me some hope. (Sandy)
Interviewer: How did your spiritual life help you cope with the difficulties?
Participant: Um, that holding on. And claiming some [Bible] promises. And, especially the one—my favorite one at the time… “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” And I was wanting to hold on to my sound mind. Not lose it. (Lana)
Initial Resilience Attribution
I can see how God led me and how He put people in my path that I needed to have there for comfort and courage. (Pamela)
I was in a house that I couldn’t pay the rent on and since we quit paying the rent, we got an eviction notice, and it was only because of God’s goodness that He found us another house, not an apartment. He [God] paid the deposit on it through somebody else. (Amy)
He has always been there for me no matter what I’ve been through and no matter what has happened and how things have gone on. There have been so many miracles just in the last year and a half. There were times when I didn’t know how I was going to get gas in my tank… I got out of my car and then got back in and it was up higher about a quarter of a tank. I didn’t have any money for gas. And it was just little things, but I know that He is there and He’s watching out for me, no matter what. (Lisa)
Role of Spirituality Versus Religion in Coping and Resilience
I withdrew from organized religion… [but] every bad thing in my life has made me more spiritual, not less. It has definitely driven me to the source, because you know you can go to people but then you stand the chance of being judged, condemned, made to feel like you could have done it differently or it was your fault, or even just privacy you know…. And God is there for all of it, and He won’t tell anybody and He forgives you, and you move on. (Beth)
I think that my faith in God is probably stronger than it has ever been…. I learned in counseling about spirituality. I have learned that there is a difference between the two things [religion and spirituality]…. Spirituality involves knowing that Jesus was a safe person…. The most important thing is that we worship Jesus. And I think that the healing comes from that perspective, rather than the [church] denomination. (Alma)
I’ve done a lot of searching in my own mind to try and work out what I truly believe and what I can accept from the things I was taught as a child and what parts of those things I can’t accept. I probably have a view of God that’s much different from the traditional Adventist view…. [Before, I was] looking at God through other people’s eyes and I’ve just had to come to terms in my own mind with what I believe about who God is and what He needs from us and what my purpose is in life. And in a way it’s made me stronger… because I do, probably for the first time, feel that I have a strong sense of purpose in life. (Diane)
Resilience and Spiritual Coping Leading to Self-Efficacy
The more I prayed, the more God would reveal the type of person I was married to…. Christ showed me through my relationship with Him that that wasn’t His will for me. That I deserve better. (Nora)
I started praying, uh, for God to help me… and I guess I had a realization that it wasn’t God’s will that I submit to that [abuse]. (Kay)
I thought God was emulated by my earthly father. I thought that I had just messed up and I thought that He wouldn’t want me either…. Then I learned to know God, who He was, and He accepted me…. Then I learned about a caring God. (Cassie)
I read that book and I’m like, “Wow, I don’t have to hate God anymore. He doesn’t really want me to live like this.” And that gave me the courage to leave. (Diane)
This analysis focuses on the ways in which spirituality served as a primary coping mechanism and avenue to resilience in this sample of abuse survivors. Women within this faith group demonstrated resilience in surviving and healing from the trauma of IPV through their relationship with God and using that frame of reference to eventually move away from their abusive relationships.
Important to the understanding of these findings is the intentional use of “spiritual coping” rather than “religious coping.” This distinction is made to most accurately attribute the highlighted resilience dynamics to a personal, individual understanding of and inner connection to a transcendent higher power or God, or even more broadly to “a search for the sacred” (Pargament 1999), rather than to identification with or relationship to a religious system. Though spirituality and religiosity are, by nature, significantly interrelated, this set of findings focuses specifically on the spiritual experiences of the participants relative to resilience and, in fact, aspects of the findings themselves demonstrate the need for making this careful distinction.
While these data provide evidence of thematic spiritual occurrences common to most study participants, this analysis also serves to inform clinical social work through observations about the broader processes at work in the individuals studied and comparing that to what is known about the usefulness of addressing spirituality in the clinical setting. Researchers who have devoted their efforts to this area have observed that “perhaps the greatest challenge for mental health professionals is to become better acquainted with the multifaceted nature of spiritual life” (Pargament et al. 2008, p. 397). Because individuals overwhelmingly use their sense of the sacred in their lives (whether it is more or less connected to specific religious practice), and because spirituality seems to increase in importance as individuals face problems, an understanding of spirituality’s role as a clinical tool is critical. Indeed, the mental health community has long wrestled with the complex relationship between clients’ religion/spirituality and psychological processes, and how that impacts the clinical setting. Further, clinical practitioners often do not share the religious or spiritual views of their clients. It may be helpful for mental health professionals to view faith and spirituality as part of the cultural values structure of a client, and thus, a functional resource to potentially serve the client (Goldberg 1996). It is in this context that spirituality may pragmatically serve as a resilience strategy for victims of IPV.
Pargament’s model (2007) lends itself well to further interpretation of the findings of abuse survivors’ faith-related resilience experiences. While the participants’ experiences were not exactly the same, a consideration of the emergent themes regarding spirituality as a whole offers an illustrative model, based on their collective experience, that could potentially prove helpful in developing clinical responses to IPV. The women in this study did share many similarities in their initially established spiritual understanding and values, perhaps due to the sample being drawn from individuals with the same faith tradition (Seventh-day Adventist). It may be helpful to note that this particular denomination, like many evangelical Protestant Christian faith groups, places a strong emphasis on the development of a “personal relationship with God,” particularly through the use of corporate and individual practices of Bible study and prayer. The abuse the survivors faced motivated them to strengthen these already-familiar spiritual strategies or pathways, both to conserve their spirituality and to cope with the violence in their lives. These pathways led them to additional spiritual coping dynamics. They began to cling to an inner spiritual focus—relating to God as the only constant in their lives—and through dependency on this lifeline, they found ways to survive and they also attributed their resilience to God alone as a response to their dependency on Him. However, at some point, the juxtaposition of their abusive situation with the development of their spirituality through the use of faith-based coping at times created a need to re-evaluate their spiritual understandings, including their religious frameworks. Through a realization of the dichotomy between organized religion and their own individual spirituality, they became positioned to reshape aspects of their faith, finding themselves willing to part with previous negative religious coping, marked by normalization of abuse, self-blame, unhealthy concepts of God, and mind frames that could result in re-victimization. This spiritual transformation is characterized by development of self-efficacy, naming abuse for what it is, and ultimately claiming God as a direct contributor to empowerment and healing. The use of this model as a theoretical framework for the study data supports the evidence in this analysis that the spiritual coping dynamics experienced by the abuse survivors are part of a non-linear, ongoing process, through which women develop resilience as a result of a personal faith that enables them to find their inner voice as well as the power and strength to oppose and recover from abuse.
With a theoretical model in place for addressing abuse in the clinical setting, we can attempt to offer more specific practical suggestions for use of the lessons learned from this analysis. There has been an obvious shift with regard to the inclusion of spirituality in social work practice, moving from the prevalence of humanism in social work thought in the second half of the twentieth century (Gray 2008), to a wider recognition of the importance of spirituality in social work practice starting in the last decade of the twentieth century (Canda and Furman 1999; Kvarfordt and Sheridan 2009) and a strong mandate to respect spirituality and integrate it in clinical interventions, following ethical guidelines (Cheon and Canda 2010; Canda et al. 2004; Sheridan 2009). Further, the Council on Social Work Education’s updated standards (2001) mandated an understanding and consideration of spirituality in social work practice. However, despite this progression, social workers’ limited training on spiritual integration in the clinical setting still affects practice (Sheridan et al. 1992). Without a well-rounded understanding of the impact of spirituality on trauma, or the use and importance of spirituality as a coping mechanism, clinicians might mistakenly assign negative labels—such as engaging in magical thinking, being superstitious, or giving away one’s power—to people who engage in spiritual or religious coping behaviors. This analysis cautions against that mindset and encourages, instead, an approach to intervention that uses the client’s operating belief system as strength and an avenue of healing. Recently published research (Damisch et al. 2010) supports the idea that people who engage in what has been labeled as superstitious behaviors actually boost their confidence in preparing for an upcoming task. This increase in confidence improves performance and self-efficacy. This same mechanism may be at work in this sample of IPV survivors. As the women come to see God as their lifeline and attribute any good result to divine intervention, they become aware of ways in which God may be leading them away from the abusive relationship and then act on those beliefs to escape harm.
These findings can be used at each stage of the intervention process to improve clinical work with abuse survivors. For example, in the initial interview with survivors, clinicians should ask specifically and intentionally about the client’s belief system and how that has impacted their coping and survival. For example, asking, “Do you have a spiritual or religious tradition that has been helpful to you?” may open the door for such dialog. Then, if the client presents with strong belief patterns that could be interpreted as magical thinking or superstitious, instead of labeling it or attaching a pathological diagnosis, clinicians can attempt to identify the ways in which that belief system has encouraged survival and perseverance in the face of adversity.
As treatment continues beyond the initial assessment phase, clinicians can help their clients to articulate, recognize, and legitimize their spiritual coping mechanisms. Helping clients name and normalize their use of spiritual tools for coping and healing is empowering and potentially increases self-efficacy. For example, for clients who use spiritual coping strategies, asking the question, “How does God’s love and value for you enter into this relationship?” may help the client to move in the direction of increased self-valuing, leading to opening the door to ending the abusive relationship. Another possible question to pose to a client with spiritual coping mechanisms in place would be, “If God was telling you that it’s time for you to be safe, how would you know, what would you see, hear, or sense?” This line of questioning validates the coping strategy and invites the client to consider alternatives that are legitimate forms of self-efficacy from her own belief system.
At an early stage of treatment, some clients may not understand the difference between religious practices and individual spirituality. The clinician can take an active role in assisting the client to separate these concepts since engaging in spirituality practices, at least for many in this group of survivors, has demonstrated a greater positive impact in healing than corporate religious activities.
On a more macro level, these findings should lead clinical social workers to forge partnerships between clergy and IPV service providers. Researchers note a stark disconnect between IPV shelters and the religious community (Nason-Clark et al. 2010). Yet, based on existing data, particularly among African American survivors, fostering an active connection between IPV shelters and faith-based organizations may be important in facilitating a healing environment (Few 2005).
Limitations of the Study
In addition to limitations inherent in qualitative studies and snowball sampling, this study is limited by its focus on a single Christian denominational group of women. It would be beneficial to interview participants from many faith groups to further understand resilience strategies within those groups, to learn commonalities and differences among various faith traditions. The study is also limited by the nature of self-selected participants in the research process.
Clinical social workers have an opportunity to be at the forefront in an initiative to fight IPV by identifying and encouraging the use of spiritual coping mechanisms that lead survivors to a greater sense of self-worth and resilience. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ research reports that spirituality remains one of the important individual protective factors against mental health problems (2001). Yet, this valuable resource is often underutilized as a resilience strategy for IPV survivors. By becoming more proactive in helping clients identify and employ their spiritual coping strategies, clinical social workers will open previously untapped avenues of healing and increase their effectiveness when serving this vulnerable population. This practice approach calls for openness to and acceptance of clients’ varying faith perspectives, while encouraging positive spirituality that promotes the improved self-worth needed by victims of abuse. Finally, the understanding of spirituality as a resilience tool is a valuable resource throughout the continuum of care for IPV survivors. Whether in the clinical setting itself, or in partnership with agencies and faith organizations, recognizing the potential of individual spirituality can aid and possibly hasten victims’ movement from a position of surviving continuing abuse, to thriving, hope, and healing.
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