Written by: MaryBeth, Survivor
I didn’t really fit the typical stereotype people imagine when they think of a victim of domestic abuse. I was a strong-willed, free-spirited, independent young college student when I met my abuser. And it wasn’t until a few months into our marriage that I can remember seeing any signs of abuse. At the time, I had no education, no understanding, and no awareness of what domestic abuse can entail. I thought we were figuring out marriage, learning to merge our lives, and going through “a phase.” Well, that phase turned into phase after phase of more verbal, emotional, spiritual, and psychological abuse over the next decade of my life.
After six months of being married, he took a job in another state as a youth pastor. We were thrilled he was going to be living his dream of being in full-time ministry! That was when the isolation began and shortly after moving- hours and miles away from all my friends and family- he started to show some very dark sides of his personality. He had already set a tone in our relationship where I was to support everything he was called to do so we could both be successful.
The first leg of our marriage was all about getting his ministry career established. I wanted to be a pillar of faith and support for him, so I readily jumped on board. But this was his show, and over time I became more or less a necessary bystander, there to validate, qualify, and encourage him as needed, no matter what. When I failed to accurately pick up on his mood or tone or what he needed, he would reem me- belittling, mocking, and screaming at me. The view I had regarding our marriage could easily be categorized as a “negative perspective,” but when domestic abuse is a consideration, this is known as gaslighting. Every conversation or decision involving me was used to twist, control, and manipulate me. But I blazed on, always striving to be the gentle, loving wife of the pastor.
Over the next few years, he would use scripture, my relationship with God, finances, affection, and any other any leverage he could find to keep me in a constant tailspin. I was always “working on being better so he would feel more loved” because I just wasn’t quite getting it right and he didn’t know how much more he could take if I didn’t figure this out with God. He would say things like, “Listen, I can’t tell you what the problem is, and I don’t know why it’s so hard for you to figure out how to honor and respect me, but as a man, and the God-appointed head of this house, I know that it is biblical for you, as my wife to honor me. So, let’s just take a few days of space, and you can get more time with God so He can help you find the root of this issue. Let’s talk again when you have an answer from him.”
So we lived in the same house, slept in the same bed, and remained silent while I went on a quest to beg God to give me answers quickly so I could talk to my husband again. This was very ineffective, of course. Each time this happened, I would turn into a mess of an absolutely maddening concoction of anxiety, panic, and fear. What he demanded was intangible and impossible. And the clock was working against me, the longer it took to “find an answer” from God, the further the gap grew between us. And fear swept into every corner of my mind because if I didn’t figure this out soon, he could leave me. But I would not give up! I was a loyal, dedicated wife!
And so it went for years.
Sometimes, when I would finally get so tired or broken from that trifecta of lethal emotions, I would hold him responsible: “I don’t think this is how it’s supposed to be. I feel so alone and isolated. Can’t we work together to figure out how I can love you in a way you need? Can you help me figure out what issues from my childhood that seem to be making it impossible for me to see what you and everyone else are apparently seeing? I love you; I just want to be close to you and this whole thing makes me feel far away. I feel like you don’t see me or love me anymore.”
His responses would range from a calm confession of innocence, “I just don’t know how I could possibly help. It’s frustrating for me because it’s so obvious that this is your issue and everyone else would say the same if they were sitting in my seat” to the irate, explosive screaming in my face, “THIS IS YOUR PROBLEM, NOT MINE! I don’t have anything to do with this! I’m so sick of you letting your brokenness ruin our marriage! I can’t take it anymore! You’re crazy, and there’s nothing I can do to help you anymore! I think I’ll just get my own place for a while because I think we need some time apart…”
He never said the word divorce because we were well-versed on the dangers of even speaking that word in our home. But he said it all the time… without saying it. I was a wreck during this part of the cycle. But every time I was ready to give in- feeling so hopeless and trapped I didn’t even know left from right- he would swoop in and take me to dinner and hold my hand and be silly and playful, and I would remember why I married him again. It still stung that he had just behaved so harshly just a few days before, but he said we would work it out and he loved me, so I took comfort in that. He always did the bare minimum to keep me in his shackles.
Many people wonder why I never talked to my friends and family or anyone about this at the time. Well, he made it extremely clear that not only would I get him fired if I told anyone, I would ruin his chances at fulfilling his calling to ministry and therefore ruin his life because this call to ministry was almost haunting him- if he couldn’t do it, he would have no purpose to live. So… I never whispered a word that could be interpreted as “dishonoring.” I was always uplifting and supportive of him. Because those times when I stood up to him, well, he never forgot those times. And they seemed futile on my part anyway. Each time they gave him a fresh source of ammunition against me. It hardly seemed worth it. I was fighting a losing battle. He was overtaking me, body and soul.
It’s important to note that I never seriously considered leaving him. I loved him. I was committed to my marriage. We were pastors, leaders, pillars in our community. I just needed to figure out how to come to peace with the way our marriage was behind closed doors; then it was all going to be fine. I couldn’t imagine my life without him. And I still wanted to have babies and raise a family together. I watched Jimmy Evans on Marriage Today compulsively, and I just prayed, oh, how I PRAYED that God would transform my husband’s heart and life like he did Jimmy’s. I knew I was right deep down, I knew he was the one who saw our marriage in a twisted way where everything was my fault, and literally nothing was his fault. I knew he had more issues than either of us really knew. I knew something was off, but I loved him, and love was supposed to conquer all. So I committed to just waiting for this phase to be over and we could be happy together finally.
That phase never came, though. Our lives changed over the years- kids, new jobs, school, houses, etc.- and his abuse increased accordingly with every milestone. Eventually, he resigned as a pastor because I refused to go to church with him anymore and pretend like he hadn’t just cussed me out right before he preached a sermon. After his resignation, I had a little hope that maybe without the pressure of having to perform for the church, he could get real and deal with his life. As always, that’s not what happened. Our kids were 5 and 3 when the veil lifted from my eyes. While our babies watched him scream in my face, pointing and blaming me for ruining his life, our kids’ lives, and all the other insults he could hurl my way, I saw it. For the first time- with NO DOUBT, I knew- this wasn’t about me. At all. And my babies are watching us, terrified, thinking this is NORMAL. It’s not. And this is not OK.
That last fight was in January of 2015. It has taken years to untangle the webs of lies he had wrapped around my mind, and even still his voice sounds like my voice sometimes, but I know now that all the confusion, turmoil, heartache and doubt I had were all classic side effects of domestic abuse. Everything he did was to gain control over me, and when I took it back, we didn’t have anything left between us.
Leaving him was full of the most terrifying nights and paranoia I had ever experienced. We cohabitated for months before the court finally ordered him to give me money so I could move out. He bought a gun a week before I served him divorce papers. He was vicious in texts and phone calls throughout the entire separation. I slept with a wrench under my pillow because I was sure he would lose it one of these days and break in while I was asleep to try to kill me. I lived like that every day until he took his own life six months after our divorce was final.
I thank God every day that my story didn’t end in a murder-suicide, but I also have a sober understanding that it very well could have. Domestic abuse is domestic violence. It’s a control game, and there’s one player and one pawn. When the pawn begins to speak, they cause the game to change to a two-player game. It’s risky, scary, and dangerous, and it’s always a matter of life and death.
Living under someone else’s control is not living, it’s imprisonment. I share my story, so other men and women will know they are not alone, and they are worth fighting for. There is life outside the walls of abuse, and the way to reach it is by speaking. Be brave, soldiers. Fight for yourself. Fight for your babies. Fight for the hope of finding yourself again and truly being free to live. We’re here to help you every step of the way. Be smart, be safe, but never stop fighting.
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