Recognizing abuse for what it is

Recognizing abuse for what it is: A personal story

Domestic violence is a crime that occurs far more often than most people realize. As hard as it may be to believe, it's probably happening in your church.

Natalie Joy is a pseudonym.

I’m not the only one who thinks so, Natalie. Professionals have evaluated your condition, and I think they’d all agree with me.

You’re having another psychotic break from reality. Nobody will believe you. I never touched you. You started it by striking me!” My husband’s words stunned me into submission.

Domestic violence is a crime that occurs far more often than most people realize. As hard as it may be to believe, it’s probably happening in your church.

I was a victim of spousal abuse. My husband’s violence was sporadic, and I learned soon enough that submission was the quickest way to end the physical pain. But the emotional torture never stopped, even after the marriage ended, cutting deep into my psyche, eroding my very identity.

I was counseled, diagnosed, pitied, ostracized, prayed for, and gossiped about—especially at church. Friends and family hardly recognized me. I had always been a happy, optimistic person, but after I was diagnosed with clinical depression, I grew to accept that there must be something wrong with me. Surely my own husband and all the professionals couldn’t be mistaken!

You may ask, “If it was so bad, why didn’t you tell someone?” Quite simply, I was ashamed. I thought if I spoke up about what happened in our home, it would establish that I was a miserable failure as a Christian wife. I held out the hope that if I could just “get it right,” he would be pleased with me. When I did confide in someone, their horror frightened me. They wanted to take action to protect me, but I was terrified of the repercussions from my husband on myself and my daughter. My husband drilled it into me that my stories were mere fantasy, unbelievable. So to tone down others’ concerns, I minimized his mistreatment, justifying it to them and to myself.

What I didn’t know was that men who abuse their wives are not what we may generally think they are—unpolished, uneducated, or unlikable. In fact, they may even appear outwardly “spiritual,” devoted, friendly, and affectionate— the very essence of what Jesus called whited sepulchres. This can make it almost impossible for an abuse victim to speak up and be heard. Everyone outside the family likes him. Maybe even her own family likes him. People at church respect him. He has a reputation that she must protect. I constantly cajoled myself that if I could just be like the other women he compared me to, just keep a tidier home, just be more creative with the grocery budget, just keep my opinions to myself, just make tastier meals, just . . .

A woman who lives in an emotionally abusive relationship develops coping mechanisms to deal with the contradictions between the reality she experiences and the “reality” her partner portrays to her. She learns to distrust her own perceptions, to block painful events from memory. The victim may be upset, knowing something is wrong with her partner’s version of events, yet is unable to put it into words. As a friend of mine says, “He never hit me, but his words were a choke chain around my throat.”

Absolute control

My husband gained absolute control over my life. He answered questions directed at me. He guarded my time on the telephone. He chose which of my family members and friends were acceptable. He chose how my paychecks were spent. He hid my car keys so that I could only drive when it was acceptable to him. He made me completely dependent on him.

Whenever I gathered the courage to speak to a pastor, the response was always similar: a polite referral to a marriage counselor. Because my husband was active in the church, and I was being treated for depression, it was “obvious” to the casual observer that I must be the one unable to carry on a healthy relationship.

Professionals, even pastors, not trained specifically in recognizing emotional abuse may believe the abuser’s version of events because it is more coherent, less emotional. The victim can seem scattered, hesitant, contradictory, and even angry. My husband used this anger to prove his case, that I was the perpetrator of the violence.

I find it excruciatingly difficult to admit, even now, that I was abused. It became a point of personal humiliation, and I often feel certain that no one will believe me, even though I have come out on the other side. By the time a woman tells her story to a pastor or a church member, the abuse has probably become chronic. If they dismiss or ignore her, she may not find the courage or have the opportunity to speak up again. Most women don’t make up abuse stories just to be petty. We were designed to be a helpmeet, a partner to our husbands, and our first instinct is to nurture and sustain the marriage relationship. Just the act of telling the story means reliving the torture.

The final decision

Ultimately, I had to make the decision on my own to seek refuge from my abusive marriage. No other person could choose that for me. I left and returned many times because of the deep, natural, and cultivated instinct to trust my husband. But I couldn’t have made the decision and stuck to it in the end without the incredible support of those around me, whose insight pierced his glossy exterior and affirmed that my perceptions were valid. They showed me that whether or not I would eventually divorce my husband, I had a right to remove myself from the situation and that I had the strength to establish boundaries with him.

Sadly, none of those people were in my local church. Nor did that help come from my pastor. When I called my pastor for help, he was often too busy with church business to return my calls. He took the safe stance of “not taking sides,” but in so doing, he was truly “acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent” (Prov. 17:15, NLT). When I realized there was no comfort for me among the church members and that many of the leaders were siding with the abuser, I found strength among other friends.

I wish my church family had been given tools to support my growth. I wish my pastor’s good intentions had been better educated to recognize the gravity of my situation. I wish I had been taught, even before marriage, what to be wary of. But it’s not a perfect world. We’re all still clumsy with each other’s heartstrings.

I’m not writing this to judge those who didn’t see the truth in my situation; for a long time, I couldn’t see the truth of it myself. I’m not seeking vindication. I’m writing because I know there are other women like me whose husbands keep them on a short leash so they won’t confide in friends or family. Women who teach their children’s Sabbath School, lead song service, but maybe can’t meet your eye in a candid conversation; women who sit quietly with their children in the pew while their husband is on the platform; women who can’t quite seem to connect with the other mothers in the church.

I’m writing because I hope that my story can help pastors realize the detrimental consequences when they forget to return that call or decide an investigation is unnecessary because the husband is persuasive or is seemingly committed to his marriage.

Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised” (Luke 4:18, KJV).

Jesus is gradually accomplishing this work in my life. It’s a deeply personal journey from captivity of spirit to liberty. I constantly have to examine my own heart and learn to forgive when no forgiveness is asked, no wrongdoing admitted. But God has given me joy. That is my strength.

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Natalie Joy is a pseudonym.

November 2008

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