Healing takes time.
8 years later, I still find myself discovering new patterns to the abuse I endured for 15 years. I often go back and reread some of the blog posts I’ve written here. Sometimes I can improve on them, update them or just revisit my thoughts while I was writing them. I was doing just that recently with 2 posts regarding isolation. (10 Lies You Might Believe and Are You Telling Me God is Abusive? Part 2; Isolation)
A memory, and then a pattern, presented itself in my mind. I’ve spent the last few weeks mulling over the pattern I found. I find myself still sorting through the chaos and discovering new truths about my experience. This is one such discovery; I think I’m ready to share it with you.
I was very young when I got married and I married a man who was my senior by quite a few years. I was raised in an intact and relatively healthy family. I remember deciding before my wedding day that ‘divorce was not an option.’ I remember saying that over and over to myself as I descended into the pits of abuse and not realizing that I was being abused. This was my mantra to keep me engaged and trying to fix our marriage. I was determined not to be a statistic. I was not going to give up on my marriage and I was NOT going get a divorce. We would work out our issues or die unhappy.
This self-agreement was such a mistake! I remember the reasoning behind this determination was altruistic, I had been taught and chose to believe that divorce was: 1) because people weren’t willing to work on their issues; 2) because of selfish and frivolous reasons, and 3) statistic members of the church should not participate in. I’m sure that surrounding these core beliefs I embraced gender roles and believed that marrying a Christian had protected me. I also didn’t think much about abuse outside of physical abuse and he never hit me or physically hurt me for the first several years.
I made this agreement to myself out of the goodness and naiveté of my heart, truly believing I had married a good man, and divorce for frivolous reasons would never be an issue. I made this agreement because I wanted to be like my parents, married over 50 years, and still intimately happy. I made it because I believed that sheer determination would save my marriage if we ever ran into problems. I made it because I thought it would protect the integrity of my relationship.
Little did I realize that this agreement, along with my lack of ability to recognize abuse, would be a huge factor in the reasons I stayed in an abusive marriage for so long. Deciding that divorce was not an option in our marriage, although said altruistically, was not realistic and it was not safe. It became a huge part of my denial, minimization, and acceptance of the blame in the abusive relationship. Believing that I was responsible for saving our marriage at all cost became a mental barrier to me saving myself and my children.
The first year of our marriage was hell. I did not recognize it as abusive. I blamed our difficulties on me. I was adjusting to a new country, as well as entering a subculture of living in the military. He constantly reminded me that I could never make it on my own, having gone from my parent’s house to his house. He was more mature, more able to handle the family responsibilities simply because he’d been living on his own for so long. He gave me $5 a week allowance and he looked after everything else.
My husband was so kind to take it upon himself to correct me when I messed up. It was up to me to accept that correction in order to improve myself and our marriage. He had life figured out; I was still learning, primarily from him. I needed to ‘cleave’ to him, rely on him, trust him and for heaven’s sake, cut the apron strings to my parents! I remember the overwhelming feeling of those first few years was that I was ‘ totally alone’.
I also bought into the message that I was to support my husband; he was the leader and I was the submissive wife. I erroneously thought this was how successful marriages work. When my husband decided that the best church for us to attend in the first 3 years of our marriage was an hour away, I happily agreed. His reasons were sound and made sense and as long as we were going to church, it was okay.
The problem, looking back, was that we already belonged to a denomination that was ‘exclusive’ in its doctrine and going to a church that was so far away increased my loneliness. I wasn’t able to participate in midweek meetings, outings, or any of the ‘fun’ things that happen in church communities. Anything we did with our church had to include both of us and he determined what activities those would be since we had only 1 car and he drove it.
This became a pattern throughout our marriage. Everywhere we lived, and there were a lot of places the military sent us, we attended churches that were far away. He always disliked the church that I liked, and he always had reasonable excuses why he didn’t like them. I wouldn’t want him to go to a church where he felt uncomfortable, where he didn’t agree with the way it was run or any of the other myriad of excuses he came up with. He always chose the church and I always dutifully attended with him. I never felt connected with anyone. I would find 1 or 2 women who I connected with, but our ability to maintain a friendship outside of weekend services was impossible. I had surface friendships but never deep relationships with anyone. Looking back, I can see it, but when I was living through it, I thought something was wrong with me.
There were a few places where we lived that were small towns and only had 1 church choice in our denomination. I have had to really think about how he isolated me in those instances; I can see two tactics he used to keep me isolated and reliant on him. He either became involved in everything I did so I had no life away from him, or he made being involved completely impossible.
The first church that was in the same town and close to us, we became very involved. Everything I did included him. Everything. He was always there and most of the time he was upset. I did a lot of caretaking of his feelings because that was my responsibility. I wanted him to be happy, but I also knew if he wasn’t happy, neither was I. He had trained me well during that first couple of years, so I took my role very seriously. I remember thinking how blessed I was that we could be involved in everything as a couple. Looking back, I realize that he watched me very closely. I didn’t develop any close friendships and was lulled into thinking I was social, not realizing I had no autonomy. When I became pregnant with our first child, all of that stopped. I had to quit all ministry (and work) to stay home and raise our baby.
The second place where we had to attend church nearby was years later. We had 3 children at this point, and his MMO changed. This time, he made participating in anything very difficult. I had already left him and returned, so I was a bit stronger during this period in our lives. I was very isolated, living on base, not allowed to have anyone over to our house. I had very few friends, his rank put a wedge between me and potential relationships on base even more. I homeschooled, but there weren’t any great homeschooling coops to belong to. Church, he hated. It was the only option and we attended regularly. Everybody there was stupid, uneducated and ‘hicks’. He hated being around them. He worked all week and wanted the weekend to see his children. He didn’t want to share time with other people who didn’t care about him.
I longed for relationships and connection. I began insisting we stay for potlucks or after church events. He’d throw a fit. I’m not sure if anyone else noticed his moodiness or looks of death he’d send my way, but I knew exactly what I was in store for if I continued to insist. The times we did stay for a potluck, he’d refuse to eat. He’d literally sit there and eat nothing, sending me the message that he was starving because I was selfish. He insisted there was nothing he could eat. He was either allergic to everything or it was all horrid food. He’d refuse to talk to anyone. He’d stare at someone blankly when they did try to interact with him. Every time, I’d be either lectured all the way home or receive the silent treatment for days. He’d refuse to attend any parties, special occasions, or be part of a ministry. Sometimes, he’d tell me he was planning to attend an event only to change his mind at the last second, requiring us to not attend as well. Other times, he’d come up with his own plan and make a fuss that we would want to go to a church event instead of the fun thing he’d planned, therefore making us choose between him and the church.
His attitude toward others in the church was very judgmental. If I had a conversation with someone, I’d later hear about all the things that were wrong with them. Other times he’d lecture me on how a particular person didn’t really care about me. They were just using me. No matter what I did or how hard I tried, he was an expert at putting a wedge into my ability to make friends. Later, after our marriage was over, he went back and attended one of the horrible churches he refused to be a member of while we were married. He even became an elder there.
I remember, after 10 years, I had my ‘AH HA’ moment of clarity and realized I was being abused, I called my pastor for help. I was desperate for answers. He came with his wife. They sat on my couch. They listened to my story and my plea for help. They were very sympathetic and prayed with me. He encouraged me to stay and support my husband better. He told me to “Pray. Pray like your marriage depends on it. Pray for the stress your husband is under. Pray that you can support him better. Keep yourself in check and don’t do anything that will upset him. Show him your unconditional love by praying and submitting to his leadership. Make sure all your chores are done and taken care of every day. Clean the house and be ready to greet him when he comes home with a warm dinner, a smiling countenance, and a listening ear.”
This pattern of spiritual isolation was so insidious that I didn’t see it until just recently. Hindsight is 20/20 right? The emotional leftovers from this time in my life are still with me. I find myself doubting my friendships, questioning my ministry and feeling inadequate within myself. I have recently discovered that I still feel ‘young’ and incapable. I look at others who appear to have everything together, and they function without fear of failure or doubt about their abilities. I feel afraid to reach my goals or conquer my dreams, and all of these feelings can be linked directly back to living in an abusive relationship for so many years.
The negative effects, the constant fear, chaos, and abuse, have had a soul-deep impact on my psyche. I have to choose to peel them back layer by layer and uncover the insidious messages I came to believe as truth. I have to choose to allow my God to dig deep and heal the places that have been hurt. I repeatedly choose to replace the lies with the truth of who I am in God so I do not live out of a place of fear, but a place of victory.
It’s hard! It’s difficult to make the choice to dig into those hurt places. It’s scary to allow myself to go into the feelings of despair and confusion and loneliness. When I choose to go there, with Jesus, I am learning that he is so gentle. He always goes with me and He always holds me.
Friends, Jesus makes the difficult work worth it, every single time!