[ TRIGGER WARNING: Descriptions of Verbal + Emotional Abuse ]
“Don’t buy the ice cream,” he said.
“But they’ll ask for ice cream,” I answered, glancing at the grocery list.
He shot me a chilly stare, and I knew better than to buy the ice cream.
After church the next day, our guests gathered in our charming New England home. The dining room table looked lovely set with winter white china. I had roasted a turkey to serve with dressing, green beans, and a much-loved recipe that my grandmother, and mother, always served during the holidays. The group chatted pleasantly. I cleared the plates, handed out cups of steaming coffee, and waited until the time was right to offer dessert.
“May I have some ice cream?” A guest asked, politely, as I handed him a dish of apple pie.
A swirl of emotions welled in my stomach—humiliation, pain, anger, and fear. The pie looked naked on the dish.
“I’m sorry, “ I answered, flustered. “We don’t have any.” Grasping for what else to say, I lied: “I forgot to buy the ice cream.”
My then-husband watched apathetically, lifted a fork, and ate the pie as if nothing had happened.
It took nine years for me to piece together that something was seriously wrong with our marriage. The realization hit while walking one winter afternoon. Plowing my boots through deep snow, it occurred to me that I no longer painted, read books, wrote stories, or danced. Up to that point, our relationship had revolved primarily around what my husband wanted. I had worked hard to support him through a prestigious Boston area business school. I had moved 13 times to advance his career. After taking a corporate job, he had lived largely in a separate sphere, and shared little with me.
Somewhere along the way, my passionate interests—for travel, history, theology, and writing—had fallen by the wayside.
Behind the scenes, my husband severely criticized my mistakes—some real, some imagined—and his responses were increasingly cruel. Nothing that I did was right—Up was down. Down was up. Sideways was straight. And upside down became my new normal. He glared. He cut me down with words. He spent weeks in chilly silence without explaining why, even when I asked. It felt as if I must read his mind, and know the future, to avoid ticking him off. If I stood up for myself, he backed me into corners, pushed me against walls, or onto the bed, until I apologized. I tried to admit my mistakes, and own real ways that I had hurt him. The more I apologized, the more he seemed to resent me.
It made little sense—like Alice strolling through a pleasant forest, one moment, then tumbling into Wonderland, in the next. I imagined the girl falling through a dark hole, brushing off her skirt, and tilting her head to make sense of the suddenly topsy-turvy surroundings. “You are everything I want in a wife,” he had proclaimed before popping the question that little girls wait to hear at the end of fairy tales: “Will you marry me?”
His admiration had flattered me. But I was tilting my head to make sense of how I could be everything he wanted when everything that I did was wrong. I believed that I was flawed, sinful, in need of God’s pardon and continuing grace like everyone else. But I kept wondering if I was worse than everyone else who seemed to have good marriages. I also wondered why my husband didn’t take responsibility for any of our problems.
Desperate, I turned to my Bible. My soul was drawn to the book of Isaiah—the ups and downs of God’s people through long, painful suffering. For the first time, I became hopeful that people and circumstances do change. It struck me that God is powerful enough to move mountains when human shovels can barely move dirt. Rather than begging my husband to go to counseling (since he refused), I stopped asking, and prayed. That made sense in light of a popular Christian book about the unique power of a praying wife.
I believed that if I prayed for my husband, our marriage would turn around; instead it grew worse.
Ever since I had supported my husband through business school, he had promised that I could have a turn at graduate studies. But as time passed, he dragged his feet about it. A breaking point came when I confronted the disregard that I felt in our marriage: “I am hurting. I feel that my needs, preferences, and goals mean nothing to you.” (A counselor, whom I saw alone, had encouraged me to speak according to my feelings, and not tick him off.)
My husband looked at me as if I was a grasshopper that he wanted to smash with his toe. Fear struck me as he calmly crossed the room, wrapped his arms around my torso, dragged me across the kitchen, and pinned me to our bed. I shouted: “You are not allowed to treat me like this! This is not how Christ loves the church!” I pushed him away, and stood up. “Don’t you ever touch me again!” Thankfully he released me, and walked away.
Pulling up my sleeve, I noticed a welt in my arm. It was surreal. If a stranger had done it, I knew I wouldn’t hesitate to call the police. I didn’t want to believe it had happened. “Was I abused? “ I asked myself. “Of course not. That kind of stuff only happens to women in rough neighborhoods who refuse to leave alcoholic husbands. Surely he hadn’t meant it.”
I didn’t call the police that night. On a deep level—I could not yet admit—I was too scared that my husband would leave me if I reported the incident. Also, I still believed that prayer would turn things around, like stories in that popular Christian book.
The incident shook me. I bought a plane ticket and flew to the northwest to stay awhile with my parents. While separated from my husband, I sorted out what I needed in order to return home. We discussed this over the phone and he agreed for me to apply to graduate school so long as I paid for it on my own. To my amazement, he also agreed to go to counseling, the first time in over nine years. I praised God for such enormous answers to prayer.
Hopeful, I returned to New England. My husband followed through with counseling and I applied to a nearby graduate school. One sunny afternoon, I received a letter of acceptance and notice of winning a scholarship. It appeared that life was turning around. At the same time, I felt unsettled, and I couldn’t pinpoint why. My husband had been staying at the office later and later; he also had been traveling more than usual. My instincts told me something wasn’t right, but I talked myself out of it since he was going to counseling.
As long as I walked on eggshells, he did not physically hurt me. That seemed like an improvement even if I was miserable. My husband berated me for not being happy.
“Dear A., You are no longer my wife,” the typed page began. I stopped breathing. He had sealed the letter in a white envelope and left it on the kitchen table. The following pages hurled accusations, insults, and threats if I did not comply with his plans to divorce me. It shocked me to read: “Counseling has not fixed you.” Actual swings and punches would have taken less time for me to sort out in upcoming years.
It angered me to have no say in the marriage-shattering decision; and it occurred to me that I’d never had any actual say in the marriage after saying “I do.” My husband’s words, and actions, cut me smaller than a spore. I felt like Alice, wandering through Wonderland, trying to figure a way to return to her normal size. The worst had happened, and while I hoped I would wake up from a terrible dream, divorce was my reality.
I turned to the head elder of a church that my husband had begun attending (since leaving) for help. Over the phone I briefly explained the situation to him, and asked, “Please would you help?” The phone was silent. “Are you still there?”
“Yes,” the man answered, “but I don’t know why you are calling me, and I don’t know what you think I can do to help.”
“I’m sorry . . .” The words tumbled out. “I’m sorry for bothering you.” I later regretted apologizing to that man who would not help me.
Crushed and humiliated, I hung up the phone. After regaining my balance, I dialed the number of that church’s office, and scheduled an appointment with the associate pastor. I drove 45 minutes, in twenty-below conditions, to make the meeting. The man listened compassionately to my story, and reassured me that he would think and pray about how to help. A week passed, and I heard nothing. I emailed the pastor. Still nothing. Knowing that pastors are busy, I left a phone message. I never heard from that pastor again. It stunned me that such a high profile church, in the Boston area, did nothing.
Not too long after that, my husband moved in with another woman. He cancelled our health insurance and credit cards and drained the bank accounts. Thankfully, my parents helped me stay afloat financially. A pastor from another church offered outstanding support. She connected me with community resources, a professional counselor, and a group for victims and survivors of abuse.
It took eight years for me to recover—financially, emotionally, and spiritually.
This is our first story as part of our Stop the Silence, Start the Healing initiative. Each month we will feature the story of one person who has never had the chance to tell her story, without fear, in a safe space. We honor these women who are speaking up.
Do you think that you may be on the receiving end of verbal or emotional abuse? Please visit our resource page for more information on what it is.