Listening to Abused Women
June 30, 2016
In my last article, I pleaded that complementarian men should respond to women with a listening ear and a resolve to better teach what headship actually means and what it does not mean. They should be reaching out to abused women, whose husbands and churches hide under the banner of headship and complementarianism, and call out the abuse and false teaching loud and clear. They should be working to help church leaders to recognize abuse and provide godly counsel and resources for those abused.
Perhaps if we hear from some of the women who have been through such abuse, we can improve in this area. This is a guest post from an anonymous author that I am sharing to hopefully raise awareness leading to positive change.
Please understand that I am not saying that the distinctive view of male-female relations which CBMW promotes inevitably leads to abuse. And I’ve said before that they have also published helpful teaching. My point is that when you make authority/submission of Father to Son the distinction between the two in eternity (ex., Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 251) and make that the paradigm for male-female relations you risk developing a position where the Christological/crucicentric pattern of the husband-wife relationship is relativized or even sidelined. And you may well end up with a monochrome understanding of marriage which misses the need for the husband to sacrifice for the wife, as well as all of those beautiful, playful dimensions of biblical love and marriage as we find, for example, in the Song of Songs. All of these things must be part of anything claiming the name of biblical complementarianism. The current reductionism, by way of contrast, may not cause but certainly enables the kind of abuse described here. It is a pity that, in the rush to defend the barricades, so many seem to have lost sight of the human side of this Trinitarian problem.
Listening to Abused Women
When I first met my husband-to-be, it was like a dream come true. We met on a missions trip. He was kind, considerate, actively serving in the church, spiritually mature, and handsome, too. Our friendship grew quickly and within months we were meeting with the elders to get their blessing on our engagement, which they gladly gave. My parents even consulted with mutual friends as to his character as a Christian, and he passed with flying colors. But to top that, he confided to me that he received a prophetic word from God promising him a special blessing on this marriage. Who could resist that? I was in a different place theologically at the time, so I did not see extra-scriptural revelation as a problem. Rather I felt humbled and honored to be the person whom God choose to fulfill His promise to my future husband. This all but guaranteed to my mind that we would have a happy marriage.
I would not characterize the marriage as being difficult initially. Just the normal friction that happens between two normal people. I was not perfect, but I believed that everything would always work out because God brought us together. I wanted to be a good wife, so I was determined not to usurp my husband's authority. I deferred to him in just about everything. I trusted that if he was wrong, God would correct him in His time. My job was to be obedient. I never teased him or joked about him. That behavior was too disrespectful. But over time, it became clear that I would never live up to his expectations. I think only perfection would have only satisfied him, not a normal, fallible human being. Even when the children disappointed or embarrassed him, it was my fault because I was not doing enough to raise them properly.
After more than a decade of marriage, my husband began slowly to withdraw emotionally. First it was little things like deliberately not holding my hand and failing to open doors for me. As he grew colder, I asked what was wrong. He said it was his problem and not mine. Then one evening, he told me he no longer loved me. He never really loved me and had obviously misinterpreted the prophecy. It was more than my needing to improve. I was wrong. He said that he had tried all these years to make things work. He even said he believed that he loved me as Christ loved the church to which I blindly agreed. I asked if we could go to counseling, but he said most counselors would encourage us to divorce. I was relieved that he wasn't talking about divorce, but it shut the door on any help I could possibly get.
The family continued to function normally at least on the outside. Not even the children suspected because we hid it from them. We hid it from our friends. I hid it from my family. I did not ask for prayer because it would be a sign of disrespect towards him, and the Bible told me that he could be won without a word. I was also afraid of what he would he do if people found out. Would it drive him further away or to divorce? So I suffered in silence and prayed with all my might that God would save the marriage. But things got even worse.
He barely showed me any physical affection but was quick to hug the wives and daughters of our friends. He praised others. I got back-handed compliments. I tried to say, as gently as I could, that it wounded me when I saw him show affection to our friends. His response was to tell me to stop trying to control him. From then on I just kept silent as the contempt grew. He would work late, stay up late, and sleep on the couch. I retreated to the bedroom in the evenings because conversation stopped between us unless necessary. I still begged God for help and cried myself to sleep night after night. I lost weight and could hardly eat. There were brief moments when I would get a rare smile or even a kiss on the cheek. This gave me hope, but these signs were becoming fewer and fewer to the point of being nonexistent. I felt like a mistreated family dog who did not know whether it was going to get a kick or a pat on the head. But like the loyal dog, I was so starved for affection that I would endure the “kicks” in the hope that my husband would finally love me. The word “abuse” never even crossed my mind at that time, but this was what was going on all along – emotional abuse.
After what seemed like ages, the blow fell when my husband said we should separate, telling me to move out and leave the children with him. I was crushed. I refused his offer and finally broke my silence. Friends and family were stunned because we seemed like the perfect Christian family. They talked to him and encouraged us to fight for the marriage. I was more than willing to do this. But he said staying married to me would be a slow emotional death, and he needed to be free to be himself. If I would not go, he would move out even though several Christian men confronted him on multiple occasions. I still cry when I remember how devastated our children were when he broke the news that he was leaving. He lied and said he just needed time away to think and pray. They weren't fooled. Not one bit. At first, I thought their tears would move him to reconsider. But when the tears finally stopped, he suggested we all go out for pizza. Perhaps he wanted to celebrate having crossed that hurdle. We still held hands as a family while he thanked God for our food. He was all smiles. The rest of us were dying inside. What a travesty and total lack of empathy.
Eventually the truth came to light. He had found my replacement and felt completely justified in pursuing her. She was God's will. I was not. The remaining time until the divorce was finalized was no better even though he was gone. The intimidation was played out in the courts rather than in person. Even after the divorce, there were other avenues to get back at me through the children such as refusing to give permission for health care and trying to minimize child support.
There may be some readers who immediately recognize the warning signs that I completely missed. There may be other readers who are thinking, “He didn't hit her, so it really wasn't abuse.” or “Everyone has problems. She's over-dramatizing this to get sympathy.” or “It takes two to tango. Obviously this is just her side. Maybe she did something to provoke him.” For the skeptics, let me give you a brief lesson on emotional abuse.
Abuse is primarily about power and control. An abuser feels entitled to wield power over others. He is so special that the rules don't apply to him. He is so special that it is “normal” for others to be at his disposal. So he feels justified in using whatever is necessary to gain the control that feeds his sense of self-importance. This on-going pattern of behavior can include physical violence but not always. In my case, humiliation and intimidation were enough to keep me cowering. But prior to this overt behavior, I had also undergone years of “gas-lighting.” This term is taken from the old movie “Gas Light” where the heroine's husband attempts to drive her crazy. While my ex-husband did not attack my sanity, he subverted my sense of reality. He was an expert at manipulation. He was a like a chameleon who could turn into the character admired by the person he wanted to charm. I just assumed this was proof that we were meant to be together. He did the same for the other woman by changing his taste in music among other things to suit her. He won me over by telling me all the woes from his past. But now that he had me as his wife, I was the only person who could appreciate him for who he really was. When it came to any disagreement, he always managed to convince me that he was right and I was wrong. Even God thought he was special by promising him an extra blessing on his marriage. If I failed, then I must deserve his mistreatment for not only failing him but failing God, too. There were times when I would beg his forgiveness just in case I had offended him in some way. He told me he forgave, but they were just words. There was no grace, only a growing record of my faults that were held over my head. The reason why I agreed that he loved me as Christ loved the church, while he said he never really loved me in the same breath, was the result of being brainwashed to the point where he determined my reality. If you don't believe me, please read these two posts:
I could give you more examples from my story for every trait mentioned in these posts and not one of them requires raising even so much as a finger against the victim.
To put it another way, what I experienced was no different from the emotional bullying that is far too common today. The bully does not need to punch his victim. Threats, name-calling, and intimidation via social media are enough to drive victims to the point of suicide. Would any right-minded person go to grieving parents and tell them their child was not abused because the bully never hit her? Would you tell them that she should have had a little more courage and stood up for herself? Would you tell them that it takes two to tango and maybe she provoked the bullying? Absolutely not!
Yet I have heard stories of women who were told to go back and submit no matter what their husbands did, while still maintaining a reverential attitude toward their abusers. There may have been some exceptions if there was a pattern of violence, but never permanent freedom from the abuser. And what makes a pattern? Once? Twice? How much was too much? They were told to stop being so emotional and exaggerating their situations especially if there weren't any bruises as evidence. They were told that God was for their marriages so they needed to pray harder. And wasn't she as much of a sinner as her abusive husband? If she deserved Hell, wasn't she getting better than she deserved? I was told that I didn't tell my husband I loved him enough. This is telling me I needed to give a narcissist what he wanted, which is like trying to fill a bottomless pit. This was also like a punch in the stomach from someone I trusted, so I felt betrayed all over again.
I'm probably not the first abuse survivor to ask “Does anyone really care about abused Christian women? Then why won't you listen to us? Is it because you believe I am just as worthless as my husband thinks I am?” We're not asking the world. We are asking the church. And I think it's time we are given some answers.