In honor of Domestic Violence Awareness month, we felt that it was extremely important to share a survivor’s story. This story was originally told on Kat Armstrong’s blog as a part of her #METOO series & is being re-shared here with permission from the author.
I met him when I was in my early 20s. He was in his early 30s and it didn't take long for us to go from acquaintances to dating to marriage. A few months in to the relationship, he started pointing out to me that I struggled with communication. He said I tended to be selfish and interrupted him. I was embarrassed and tried really hard to pay attention to this and change. But it seemed like the harder I tried, the more frustrated he was at my poor communication or something else. He started needing me to be readily accessible. The more frequently he needed me to answer his phone call or respond to a text message, the more opportunity there was for me to miss a message from him. When that happened, I would be scolded and criticized, so when I wasn't with him, if possible, I tried to keep my ringer on and have my phone in front of me. However, I would still miss his communication at times and the scolding grew to screaming, the criticism to cursing. I continued to be a poor communicator in his eyes and in addition to being told I was a poor communicator, I started being told I was a poor decision maker. Every day, sometimes multiple times a day, he called me an idiot. With tears, I asked him to stop, but he just told me that he wouldn't call me an idiot if I would stop acting idiotically.
I remember the first time things got physical. He was mad at me about something (I don't remember what), so he decided to ignore me. I felt lost and scared by his stonewalling, so I begged him over and over to talk to me and forgive me. He wanted me to leave him alone, so he swiftly turned around and shoved me to the ground to get me away from him. I fell backward and hit my head on the floor. It startled me, but didn't leave a bruise or anything and he apologized right away, said he didn't mean it, and started talking to me again. I was just relieved we were communicating.
Shortly after this, things escalated to sexual abuse. One day, I rejected his advance, so he told me I was selfish, boring in bed, and never did what he wanted. He got out of bed angrily and left our bedroom slamming the door on his way out. About 30 minutes later after I had fallen asleep, he slammed open the door and yelled my name over and over again until I woke up. He couldn't believe I was sleeping at a time like this when he was so upset. This same coming and going, yelling and crying lasted for hours throughout the middle of the night. There’s a lot more to the story but there’s no PG rating for it. But I learned that night that it would not be good for me to say no to anything sexual again if I could tolerate it.
I thought we probably needed some help as a couple. I decided to separate from him and I went to a church for help. I didn't know then I was being abused. I felt responsible for everything going on and I loved him. I was scheduled to meet with a lay counselor at the church offices. I told her what was happening and she told me how much God valued marriage and emphasized the permanence of the choice I had made to be married to him. She encouraged me to make a list of all my husband's positive qualities and all the blessings in my life and focus on those things. She also counseled me to think of how I could change and behave better to deescalate things at home, so I tried all of that. My husband said he was very sorry and he wanted to follow Jesus and that things would get better.
But things didn't get better. Things only got worse. He yelled at me every day. He controlled me every day. He criticized me every day. He asked me to pay attention to him and keep my eyes on him when we were in public, so that I would know when I was embarrassing him and could learn better social skills, since I acted so idiotically. He told me regularly that I was a bad communicator, selfish, idiotic, and lacking good judgement. I felt like I was constantly letting him and our family down. If he didn't like what I was saying or doing, he would yell, curse, or criticize me. He backhanded me in the arm when I wasn't paying attention to him and he kicked me under the table and told me to shut the [profanity] up when we were out to eat if he thought I was talking too much or saying the wrong thing.
I laid in bed one night and thought about the story of the frog and the pot of boiling water. If you put a frog in a pot of water and very slowly start to turn up the heat, the frog will build up his tolerance for the heat until it's too late, and then it will burn to death. But if you drop a frog into a pot of boiling hot water, it will jump right out and save itself. I felt like the frog. I felt like I was burning in the slow simmering water and didn't know how to get out.
I wanted help, so I went back to a church where I knew some of the people and had been before and I asked them to help me. They advised me to invite him to a ministry at the church for people who were struggling. I was terrified to see him again, but I wanted to listen to the church. I wanted their help and covering, so I invited him, which meant seeing him again. The church advised us to go to different meetings and helped us put up some boundaries around communication and seeing each other only once a week. After some time attending this program, he told me he would never willingly divorce me. And eventually, I thought that I just needed to have more faith to trust God in a difficult marriage, even if I started being abused again. Over the next few months, I resolved myself to restoring the marriage.
But it didn't take long after the marriage was restored for him to start abusing again. This time, he had Christian language to put around it, but I also had a support system at church around me. When things escalated again to him keeping me up all night and yelling at me to "touch him" and "prove to him that I loved him," I separated again.
This time, God led me to a Godly family to live with and care for me. They were advocates for me. I struggled with despair and the though of restoring my marriage or having to live with the shame of divorce. I thought about ending my life, but God mercifully intervened and reminded me of his love and nearness.
I asked for the church's help, and I trusted their covering again. But I also told them how afraid I was and I was adamant that I didn't want to see or talk to him. The more time that passed with us not seeing or talking to each other and the more space I had away from him, the more clearly I was able to see everything that had been going on. I finally actually started to experience healing.
With the blessing and covering of my church, I did get divorced. I felt more protected and loved and safe standing in that courtroom on the day of my divorce than I have over the last 10+ years. I hope and pray that my ex-husband comes to trust and treasure Christ. That the Holy Spirit does a mighty work of healing and transformation in his life, bearing lasting fruit. Anything is possible. I don't believe we'll ever restore our marriage. I forgive him, and I am willing to reconcile with him as my brother in Christ if the Lord leads us to do so.
I want to share just a few obstacles and some strengths that stand out to me that happened during the course of my relationship that I think are helpful to consider.
Church discipline was casually mentioned when I separated and asked about divorce early on. This was heartbreaking and very scary for me to think about. I don't think it's helpful to introduce church discipline into the conversation with anyone who is a victim of abuse.
On a couple of occasions when I reached out for help, I was asked to think about the ways I had sinned and my contribution to the deterioration of our marriage. I had already been told over and over by my husband that everything was my fault and when considering abuse, it was challenging to think about how my actions warranted him to abuse me. I think this can be considered down the road after the abuse has stopped to be acknowledged and dealt with, but asking about it early on in caring for a victim of abuse can be confounding and compound the shame they're likely already feeling.
I was asked to think about his strengths and all the good in my life. I heard about trying to absorb more wrongs and focus on the positive. These are probably great tips for someone not being abused, but they perpetuated abuse for me as I continued to just try to increase my tolerance of abuse as it grew worse.
In counseling with my husband, when I mentioned that I was afraid of him, I was told that my fear radar was heightened and that "what was probably happening to me as a 3, I was perceiving at a 7." This made me doubt my senses and also made me not want to share when I started to realize how afraid I was in my marriage. It also caused my husband to blame shift if I told him I was afraid of anything, he would get really angry or dismissive and say I was just sensationalizing the event. (Side note: When there is abuse happening in a marriage, I think it's really important to counsel separately and not together.)
I was asked to make an inventory of all the abuse that had occurred to me in my marriage; this was very re-traumatizing to make. I did it by myself and it took me to a very dark place. If a detailed inventory is needed, I suggest doing this with a counselor or a couple of very good friends, or a women's minister at your church.
Try to find allies/advocates! The Lord did this for me with incredible women stepping into my life to care and walk alongside me. I had the opportunity to sit and share my story with a group of these women and one of the lead pastors at my church. There was rich support and tears and reconciliation. My pastor prayed over me as his sister in Christ and I've never forgotten that meeting or his care and counsel.
Individual counseling has been a huge gift to my life. I've processed and prayed and healed and received very needed soul care.
TO THE WOMAN WHO THINKS (OR KNOWS) SHE'S BEING ABUSED:
If you are being abused emotionally, verbally, sexually (coercive or physically forced), or physically, YOU ARE NOT SAFE. It's easy to rationalize away the abuse if it's not physical or to wait for things to get worse, but even if he never hits you, YOU ARE NOT SAFE. Please, please seek help! Separate. Separation does not equal divorce. No one's asking you to decide that right now! But you need space to think and see things with greater clarity. You need to not be under the oppressive environment and circumstances you've been living in. Being in an abusive relationship is similar to brainwashing. The only way to undo this is to stay separated for a long time. Try to take a break from communicating or seeing each other until you can see things rationally and have a strong supportive crew of allies around you. There is no rush here! You have likely been abused for a long time and you can take as much time as you need to see and think and heal and be able to make healthy decisions about reengaging when YOU are ready.
If you are a mother and you are being abused, you likely need to report this to CPS. Texas is a mandatory reporting state and domestic violence, even when it's not happening to the children, still greatly affects them. CPS will protect you and your kids and they will give you resources to help your family, especially if you need legal or custody help. Please consider reaching out to them!
TO THE MINISTRY OR CHURCH LEADER:
Please stand up for your women. Please talk about this! Tell the women who come in to the doors of your church or ministry that all forms of abuse are never okay. That God cares deeply for the oppressed. That they are His daughters and your sisters.
You may need to be the person that tells the woman being abused that she is not safe. I didn't see it for myself. As the abuse increased in frequency and aggression, I tried to increase my tolerance of it. I would tell myself things like, "God hates divorce" or "We're all sinners and my sins are equal to his, so I just need to focus on my sinfulness" or "I need to learn to absorb his wrongs and focus on his good qualities." An abused woman may need you to tell them that they need to get out! Women need to know that you value their safety and dignity (as much as you value and elevate the marriage covenant).
Don't ever ask a woman (whom you suspect is being abused) about the abuse in the presence of her husband. She cannot talk about it with you without consequence. It's very helpful to have women who can counsel women or at least a man and woman counseling a woman.
If you’re suspicious that someone might be being abused, here are some helpful questions from Darby Strickland at CCEF. These are incredibly insightful. I wish someone had asked me these things earlier on in my marriage:
Do you have the freedom to give your input in decisions at home?
What happens when you say no to your intimate partner’s requests?
Do you ever feel fearful around your partner?
Have you ever been threatened or physically hurt in this relationship?
Have you ever participated in a sexual act against your will?
Does your intimate partner blame you for things that go wrong? How?
Does your intimate partner monitor your interactions with friends and family?
How can you tell when your intimate partner is unhappy with you?
Do you ever change your behavior because you are afraid of your intimate partner’s reaction?
Do you have a say in how your economic resources are used?