Abuse is an issue within the Christian church whether we talk about it or not. Abuse within “Christian” marriages is a reality for many. From my research, statistically 1 in 3 women experience abuse. That is not just outside the church. That is in America. It is likely a low statistic as many cases go unreported daily.
I was in a “Christian” marriage for 5 years. I had the church wedding. Met him at Bible college. I have attended church all my life and grew up in a Christian home. I believe in Jesus Christ and I have labeled myself a Christian since I was 14 years old.
During my separation and process of divorce I was tempted to leave the church. I went to several different churches. I even stopped attending for a couple months. I didn’t stop my relationship with God. He and I talk many times a day. I just wanted to end my relationship with “Christians” because of the judgment I faced.
I felt put on trial. People assumed they had the right to decide my past and current decisions. “How could Bri marry an abuser?”
“Why did Bri get married without her family’s approval?”
“Bri can’t get divorced. It’s the worse sin a Christian can commit.”
“Bri can’t live by herself. She needs to be under someone’s authority until her husband comes back to her.”
And my personal favorite, “Bri has to stay exactly as she is until he comes back. No matter how long that takes.”
Among many, many, many more.
I don’t understand how a “Christian” saved by grace from their own sin can judge me for my choices. Or how they have a right to tell me what my decision should be. Frankly, it doesn’t feel any different from what I lived with. Until you have been in a relationship where you had no choices, options, opinions, relationships or rights – you may never understand.
My family has struggled with this and asked me the same question dozens of times. “Why did you marry him if you didn’t want to?”
My answer is always the same. “I didn’t think I had a choice.”
I got divorced to protect myself from an abusive “Christian” husband. I struggled with this decision for months. Praying, fasting and listening to counsel. It was not a choice that I made lightly. The entire time, I prayed for him. That he would surrender his life to God’s leadership so that the marriage could start and be reconciled. I waited until a clear pattern of abuse during the separation was apparent by others. This made the violence real and provided accountability and helped keep me safe.
After that, I still waited. I prayed, studied the Bible and continued in counseling and reading helpful resources like The Emotionally Destructive Marriage by Leslie Vernick and Boundaries by Dr Henry Cloud. I finally came to peace with my two choices.
I could either stay exactly as I was, separated and in danger indefinitely, or be divorced and take that shame from Christians.
The daily reality that I lived in is unspeakable. You really don’t want to know the details of what happened or how many times I patched walls, cleaned up broken glass and debated about going to the hospital or figured out how to cover up bruises. I will never understand the question, “Was it bad enough to get divorced?” Abuse is always bad and wrong in any form. I pray for it to end.
I struggled with the shame. It’s not my fault these things happened to me. I was not the perfect wife. I made mistakes. I also admitted my sin and asked his forgiveness on the days they occurred. Sometimes forgiveness was offered. Most of the time, it was refused. Still, what I suffered should never have taken place.
I walked a tightrope that some Christian spouses are still in today. Tell someone and risk not being believed? If the controller finds out things will get even worse at home. Or, not say anything at all and pray someone will save me and end this.
It’s an impossible situation. And it is a daily reality that does not go away. The shame is made worse with messages from Christians that divorce is the worst thing that can happen to a “Christian” marriage. That a wife should be submissive to her husband no matter how he mistreats her.
I do not advocate divorce being a solution for everyone. I believe it is possible for someone to change. Statistically, 1% of abusers get help and successfully change. If that does happen and reconciliation is restored, please give it a long time for changes to take place with open accountability before moving back in. An abuser with history of lying and violence will take a LOT of time to see evidence of repentance without relapse. The best resource I’ve found to explain this process in detail is Leslie Vernick’s, The Emotionally Destructive Relationship.
For me, being divorced feels like I’m saved all over again! I’ve been set free from bondage of someone else’s sin over me and from my shame so I can live in freedom.
Some cannot face the reality of what I’ve survived. I know the truth and so does God. That is enough for me.
The truth of relationships is no one is perfect. No marriage is perfect. We are human. We sin against each other. That is also the beauty of marriage! God’s intention is for the husband and wife relationship to look like his relationship with us. This was not my experience. I’d like to have that one day. But if not, I’m content by myself. I’d rather be just as I am. Encouraging others, running my business and learning to be more like Jesus while being a little lonely. Than be silenced, scared and desperately lonely in an unhealthy marriage.
If I haven’t been honest enough with you already, prepare yourself. Especially, if you are single and never married. I was your age only a few years ago. I’m 29 right now at this writing. I had red flags in my dating relationship but I ignored them. I refused to let them in my mind. I definitely didn’t tell anyone about them. By the time I let myself see and hear about these persistent concerns I was already deep into the verbal and emotional abuse. I didn’t believe I had the choice to stop the engagement from happening or end the relationship.
My sister and I have discussed something that happened about a month before I got engaged. We had called her. A couple days before, I had been to a friend’s wedding and realized I wouldn’t have the happy wedding she did. My family was not supportive of the relationship and I didn’t want to be married without their involvement. I broke off the relationship. Or, I tried to.
He would not accept it was over. I was not strong enough to stand my ground. I had him call my sister so she’d convince him my family wasn’t going to change their minds (crazy right?).
It didn’t work.
He yelled at my sister on the phone and told her she was wrong. My family was going to be happy about our upcoming engagement. They didn’t have a choice. And he didn’t care what they thought.
Please hear me! I do not want my experience for you.
I was in the midst emotional and verbal abuse while still dating. It starts softly like a cool breeze on a warm day. It becomes the worst tornado that never ends.
The red flags, a check in my spirit, my hesitation that something isn’t quite right…they aren’t loud like a tornado warning in the beginning. By the time they are roaring winds with concerned family and friends, it may be dangerous to end the unhealthy relationship. Professional counsel needs to be sought on how to do this safely.
I had that small quiet voice warn me. I didn’t listen. I liked being in a relationship. It was exciting. He told me I was beautiful and that I completed him. He bragged about me to anyone who would listen. And back then I wouldn’t admit to anyone that I just wanted to get married. I would rather be in a frustrating relationship where I was known than be single and face the unknown.
I didn’t do single very well before. Now, I’m getting great at it! I have come to enjoy living by myself. Watching relationships with family and friends be healed. I’m learning to harness that quiet warning voice while installing my boundaries.
I actually thought that being married would fix everything. It didn’t. Time proved my family’s and my friend’s’ concerns to be correct and accurate.
Back then, I told myself they didn’t know him like I did. There was no way someone who claimed to be a Christian and wanted to go to the mission field with me would hurt me. Or be lying. Or not be able to hold a job. Or would do the unspeakable physical damage that has been done. I could not imagine the reality of what my daily life became. I lived my worst nightmare. I survived it by God’s grace and am on the other side happy and healing.
I pray that my experiences will be a warning to anyone who is ignoring their own red flags. Let yourself be content in who you are in Christ Jesus first before you are married. Know yourself. Be confident in your dreams, opinions and character first. It is when you are confident that you will be most attractive to a man. Don’t be married because you are scared to alone. Or you think this is the best love story to tell. Or because you want to be married more than anything. Don’t do it because you’re lonely or want a husband and kids like your friends. Only God can be all you need all the time every time. No man will be that for you. If you are thinking right now that I don’t know what I’m talking about then YOU are the reason I’m writing this. Find someone who doesn’t know your or your boyfriend/fiancé. Be honest, let yourself talk about the good AND the bad. Listen to your own heart and spirit.
I went to a “Christian” counselor while engaged. I went to appease my parents’ concerns. I went to the person my ex told me to see. It was not a safe place for me. I look back and no one in my life now on a weekly basis was in my life back then except my family.
I wonder if I’d postponed the wedding if it would have happened at all. If that’s your fear, you might be in the wrong relationship.
Marriage is tough. Listen to those who are in happy ones. They’ll be the first to tell you it isn’t easy. Men are human. At times they can be sweet, thoughtful and romantic. They will eventually make mistakes and frustrate you beyond your wildest dreams. Be sure to have a godly man that will continually humble himself before Christ and submit to God’s direction each and every time.
Otherwise, ever after will be a very long never ending exasperating life.
I didn’t have the experience of waking up to the horror of being married to an abusive spouse. I couldn’t fall asleep that first night with the reality looming before me.
To keep yourself safe from the same experience while you are dating and getting to know someone as a potential husband, here’s 6 tips (this is not intended to be comprehensive it’s only to help you process):
- Know yourself. Your hopes, dreams, boundaries, career goals, what you like to do for fun etc. Be content and confident even happy in who are you are. Don’t change for anyone.
- Involve family and friends. Stay close with your community. Does this person fit into your life? A common tactic is to pull you away from people who know you. I had barely anyone at my wedding. I wasn’t allowed to talk to my family or friends without explaining every word of the conversation to him. This happened during dating and only got worse with time.
- Ask the difficult questions. Do your values, faith, priorities, money habits, family dynamics, opinions how to raise children, career goals, active or sedentary lifestyles match? How does he spend his time when he’s by himself? Listen to him talk. Is he answering your questions with honesty and integrity? Or hesitating and telling you what he thinks you want to hear? Do his actions demonstrate his answers?
- Be objective. I know how hard this is when our hearts are involved! We just want the happy ever after. But if that’s your intent, slow down. Take the time now. You won’t regret it.
- Consistency and time. What is he characterized by? How does he seek forgiveness and reconciliation? Do you seem to have the same conversations over and over? Or are you both growing individually and together?
- Purity in boundaries. Think of a boundary as a fence. What are your fences with your body, heart and mind? Does he push those? Or respect those? Be accountable.
Abuse is active around us. It’s in our churches. Be safe. Don’t let anyone make you question your sanity or treat you with less value than God does.
I’ve been asked the question many times in the past few months, “What can I say to my _______(fill in the blank friend/family member)? I’m scared for her. I think she’s in a relationship that might be abusive.”
All I can say is, “I’m sorry.” I feel for you watching this happen and I can understand my own family’s concerns in a new way. I feel for this individual you are worried about. Ultimately there is not a magic word you can say to convince them if they are in an unhealthy relationship. Denial and fear can have a strong grip and it can seem worse to leave than stay.
I recommended you to take this person you love out to an activity. Go window shopping, see a movie, go ice skating or try a new restaurant. When I was in the unhealthy relationship I wasn’t allowed to talk about specific subjects to anyone. “Our relationship is no one else’s business.” That was the phrase I heard. I was questioned at length after each conversation of the exact words I’d said, how I’d said them and even the tone I had used. If they are in an unhealthy relationship and can admit it to themselves they might be able to talk about the activity not your conversation without lying.
Other than that I don’t have any magic advice except, love them quietly. Be involved in their lives without criticism or judgement. Don’t let them disappear or be “busy” for weeks at a time. In an unhealthy relationship, hours seem like weeks and weeks can stretch into years.
Pray for them. Pray that their hearts and minds will be open to their dangerous reality and that God will give them the strength to be set free if they are in an abusive relationship.
Pray also for my continual safety and healing. Am I scared to put this out there? Absolutely! But I cannot let my fear of him coming back keep me from living my life.