Dallas Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy returned to the field Sunday for the first time after his suspension for assaulting and threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend. Especially after the notorious Ray Rice footage last year, we’ve come to view domestic violence as a troubling shadow side to pro football.

Seven players have been arrested for domestic violence incidents since Rice’s scandal a year ago, despite the league’s efforts to improve policies. There are enough cases of domestic violence, assault, drunk driving, drug possession, and more that it was remarkable for recent news to proclaim September the first calendar month in six years without an NFL player arrest. (Then, they discovered a rookie player got caught speeding on the last day of the month.)

Most official cases of domestic abuse involving famous athletes make the news and get posted in public databases for all to see. But that’s far from the norm in this country. The vast majority of abuse incidents remain behind closed doors, secrets that victims are afraid to confess, discuss, or bring to authorities. Those who suffer at the hands of their partners have stories just as harrowing, but even their close friends might not know it.

One woman shrank away as she told me how her seminary-attending husband badgered, harmed, and threatened her. “He would never hurt the kids,” she said. But one night, she feared for them and herself, and she escaped.

Another spoke of the time her husband yanked the phone from the wall and chased her with a loaded gun. She fled, but didn’t know where to run. She found shelter in a nearby field, eventually securing rescue through a coworker.

Domestic abuse occurs when a person tries to dominate and control their partner. When the abuse gets physical, it’s called domestic violence. The statistics are staggering: Acording to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, approximately 7 million women a year are abused by an intimate partner. More women are injured through domestic violence each year than rape, mugging, and car accidents together. And close to 10 million children witness an incident of domestic violence in their home.

Most people in the throes of domestic violence don’t realize it right away. They can rationalize their partner’s need to keep tabs on them by saying they feel irresponsible and that they need to be controlled. Abuse builds over time, making an “aha” moment elusive as things escalate.

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Dorothy Newton considered leaving her husband due to ongoing abuse in their marriage, but she worried about her safety and wondered who would take care of her children if she died. She was married to three-time Super Bowl champion Nate Newton, who played for the Dallas Cowboys in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

“One night I told Nate I was leaving him. I just couldn’t live through this again. Whatever change he had made was totally erased, and I didn’t have the strength to live with him anymore,” she wrote in her recently released book, Silent Cry: The True Story of Abuse and Betrayal of an NFL Wife. “This made him furious. He told me if I tried to leave him, he would kill me.”

Dorothy seemed to have the perfect life, but to keep appearances, she kept silent, even in church. “I played my role as a devoted, faithful wife so well in public that no one ever suspected a thing. No one knew I was miserable, broken, and bruised, crying out for deliverance and desperate to escape.” Nate did not deny Dorothy's account of the abuse and shared his side of the story during the process of writing the book, including how he apologized to her and to God.

Growing up in Louisiana, Dorothy’s mom stayed in an abusive situation for economic reasons. “Here I was, repeating history,” she said. Perhaps part of the solution for the domestic violence pandemic is helping people work through their own prior exposure to abuse. The emotionally healthier they become, the more apt they may be to choose people who won’t mimic past abusers, or to readily identify warning signs in abusive relationships.

In such a relationship, a partner may constantly call or text their victim to know everything they’re up to. The control spreads to finances. Often, victims are given a tiny allowance, keeping them dependent on their abuser for all basic needs. They use threats, coercion, and humiliation to keep victims in line, including death threats or economic abandonment. Abusers also isolate their victims, removing support systems and forbidding them from seeking outside help. Perhaps the most demeaning aspect of domestic abuse is victim-blaming. It’s not the perpetrator’s fault if they harm; the victim caused (and deserved) it.

What can a person caught in the cycle of abuse do to get free? And how can the church become a safe place to shelter and protect those people?

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Get Educated

On a practical level, it helps to know what to do in case you encounter someone in an abusive situation. Research information about the cycle of abuse, ways to support them, and local options for protection. But deeper than that, we can examine the underlying causes of abuse, and move from blaming the victim for “staying too long” to empathy, compassion, and action.

Become a Safe Place

When my husband and I sheltered a woman and her children as she fled her abuser, we didn’t know much about safe houses. Before we moved her to a safer place for her to stay longer-term, we had to be a safe place right then. We listened to her, let her share her story, and empathized with her. We were the first step in a long progression of her getting safety, support, and eventually freedom. But we also discovered the pliable nature of these kinds of decisions. The wife did return to her husband, which is common. But ultimately, as violence escalated, she found new help and moved to safety.

Listen to Abuse Stories

Those who abuse can be narcissistic or sociopathic. They tend to be charming in public, so much so that people tend to believe their accounts of what happened over the story of their victims. As a church, we need to investigate well, understand human nature, and do our best not to dismiss victims' cries and pleas. Because domestic violence involves so much fear and shame, when a victim dares to come forward, it demonstrates an enormous risk to them. Jesus reminds us, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16).

Although it’s not easy to discern truth in the midst of a violent situation, for the sake of protecting the innocent, we must get involved, hear the stories, and intervene.

Mary DeMuth is the author of over 30 books, including The Day I Met Jesus: The Revealing Diaries of Five Women from the Gospels. She’s spoken around the world about living a freedom-infused, uncaged life despite the past. Find out more at MaryDeMuth.com.