A car passing through the intersection brought me back to the present. How long had I been waiting for the red arrow to turn green? The glowing numbers on the dashboard clock read 12:53 a.m. He should be asleep by now. It’s probably safe to go home.
Late night drives were becoming more routine than I wanted to admit. After I put the kids to bed, he would start in on me—snarling with disdain over some minor issue, he bombarded me with accusations. No amount of explaining, soothing, and pleading my case made a difference. I even apologized for things I hadn’t done in attempts to keep his anger from escalating and scaring the kids. Cautiously I told him that I needed time to go pray alone.
When my efforts failed, I escaped to the car before he began shoving me, throwing things at me, or pinning me against the wall with a strangle hold around my neck.
I thought about my 14-year-old daughter recently admitting that her worst fear about growing up was to be in a marriage like mine. Her eyes had brimmed with confusion. “So . . . didn’t you pray about it before marrying Dad?”
Her question haunted me. Of course I had prayed about my decision to marry R. I had asked God to intervene if the relationship wasn’t meant to be.
R. had been convinced that marriage was God’s plan for us. He believed that God was calling him to fulltime ministry, probably something important involving my help. I didn’t want to doubt God. Now I wondered if I had listened more to God or R.
The red arrow glared at me. I wondered if I’d missed some sensors when entering the turning lane. Might I have also missed some warning sensors in my early relationship with R.?
Both my best friend, and college roommate, had expressed reservations about how R. treated me: He possessively isolated me from friends and family. He acted sulky, self-centered and easily offended. I spent much time trying to understand him, comforting or cajoling him out of extreme moodiness. R. proposed after dating only a couple months; despite my reservations, he insisted on a short engagement. R. pressured me sexually; after he violated my boundaries, I felt obligated to marry him.
Throughout our marriage, R. assumed a position of authority over me. He manipulated me with pity or anger, and used spiritual authority to bully me into seeing things his way. The fights he stirred up made me feel crazy (I couldn’t understand the point). He showed no mercy, compassion, or any desire to understand my perspectives. The burdens of understanding him, and keeping the peace, fell on my shoulders. I had no voice and felt utterly powerless.
I made excuses for his abusive treatment. Partly I felt ashamed. Partly I felt responsible for helping him heal. Who had hurt him so much? I wanted to love him unconditionally so he had nothing to fear. I hoped to win his trust so he would no longer treat me poorly.
My self-image changed from that of a level-headed woman—with opinions and clear vision—to that of a weak, fearful woman, unsure of her perspectives and sanity!
The spiritual leaders in my church told me that God never supports divorce except in cases of infidelity. “M., if we allow you to get divorced, what message would that give the other women in our church?” They said it would be against God’s law for a woman to give her husband ultimatums. They advised me that: “Leaving him might cause him to fall into sin!”
I wanted to do the right thing in my marriage. I wanted to please God and the church. But there were no options; I was stuck.
A gentle nudge came from God—Maybe it was time for separation. Maybe strong, healthy boundaries could help R. stop his control and abuse.
Eventually, I had to make a decision about the light. I proceeded with caution and more than a little guilt. I knew that a human judge would probably respond harshly. But I sensed the True Judge leading me on a new road of peace, safety, and healing.
Perspective from the Rearview Mirror
More than a decade has passed since I sat in my car waiting for the light to change. That night prompted some difficult steps toward healing of my heart, mind, body and soul. When I reached for help, God led me to an amazing counselor and recovery group. In a supportive community, I learned how to recognize abuse and to establish boundaries. I also stopped carrying responsibility for my husband’s abusive behavior.
It took several years before I found the courage to get out.
When I broke down and told my church community the degree of the abuse, they thought I was exaggerating. Even then I minimized the severity of it because I didn’t want to appear weak, or unwilling to suffer for the sake of Christ. I cringe when I think of the guidance that I received from church leaders who had no training to recognize abusive situations or personalities. I did not feel that they cared for my individual needs. Their concerns centered on keeping the legal marriage together at any cost, even continuing abuse.
In the end, my church judged me harshly for pursuing legal separation and divorce. And my two best friends “excommunicated” me.
Experiencing abuse significantly distorted my views of God and myself. It took over ten years to repair my relationship with God and to have a healthy self-image. I have come to see that God’s Word offers protection for victims of abuse.
Today my work centers on helping others get “un-stuck” as they know who they are in light of the unconditional love of God.
This story is 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 abuse? Please visit our resource page for more information on what it is.
Image credit: cefeida
[ Names and identifying details have been changed. ]