Recently I connected with a Christian woman (let’s call her Jane) who recently realised her husband was abusive. She was able to leave him and get herself and her children to safety with the support of her family. As she has learned more about abuse, Jane began realising one of her church leaders’ behaviour towards his wife seemed to be abusive. She wrote the following letter (that has been anonymised) to this woman. She is not yet sure whether she is going to send it, but I suggested it would be a really helpful blogpost to help people learn about abuse and particularly how an abuser operates in Christian communities. She was happy for it to be published on my blog. I hope it helps you learn more…
I’m writing this because I care about what you’ve gone through and are going through. It’s been hard to know how or whether to contact you. If you’re reading this it’s because I have decided that I simply can’t say or do nothing, and because you’ve recognised that something isn’t quite right, and it might not be your fault. I’m sure there’s a part of you that is confused about what I’m going to say and what this is all about. I also think that there’s another part of you that knows exactly what this is about, exactly what I’ve seen and exactly what I’m going to say. It is a strange truth, that you can, in the same moment, be certain of your own pain and grief, but also deny its existence and source. That was my reality for 8 difficult years.
There is of course the chance that I’m wrong about what I think I’ve seen and what I think is happening. You are the only one who really knows and all I can do is share my own personal experience and pray that if anything resonates with you, that you would feel able to pursue a greater understanding for yourself, with an offer from me of support and love in any form you need. Absolutely anything. I have come to understand the many resources available to women and how right it is to respond with all the practical and emotional support it is humanly possible to give. There are also a great number of agencies and professionals who understand and want to help, even ones specifically for women who are married to church leaders and pastors.
In my marriage I prayed for, supported, loved and cherished my husband. I adored him and genuinely found great delight in the good times. In the beginning he was particularly attentive and loving. Everything I did was impressive and wonderful in his eyes, it felt like I could do nothing wrong and I was completely swept off my feet by a man who I thought was amazing – a Christian, musical, talented, funny, successful, charming…
I have since learnt that the cycle of good times and bad times is one of the many strategies of the abuser. It engenders a deep love and longing for your partner, a belief in their ‘good heart’ even with the sharp edges, a belief that compels you to work harder, be better, try more. But the more you try, the less you are appreciated, respected, listened to and truly loved. The more secure he feels in his possession and control of you, the more tactics of abuse and control he uses to keep you there, living under fear and threat. In the last few years I lived every day not knowing what mood my husband would be in, but being certain that the next assault was never far away – and I’m not talking about physical violence. Walking on eggshells in your own home is exhausting. It is also the strongest indicator that your partner is an abuser.
For some time I knew that I was unhappy in my life, I knew things weren’t great, but I didn’t fully understand that my marriage was the source of that unhappiness. I kept up a pretence of happiness, love and unity because I wanted that to be my truth. It was also a way of managing the stress of not being able to talk to anyone about anything I was feeling. He had convinced me that any outside involvement in our personal stresses and strains was disloyal and showed a lack of integrity and commitment to each other. I could not see the truth that such secrecy and isolation is in fact damaging and not God’s design for human relationship. It is merely another tool for the abuser to control and manipulate, but my mind, my emotions, my deepest self was so afflicted by the psychological and emotional abuse that I didn’t know what was real or true anymore.
He made me believe that my own mental issues were to blame for any dissatisfaction I experienced. My unhappiness was my fault. Our arguments were due to my inability to communicate well. Any tears I cried were a demonstration of how manipulative and controlling I was. My attempts to discipline our children were my anger issues making them cry. He minimised and deflected any suggestion that there might be something wrong with him or with our marriage. There were times that I thought I was going mad, such was the heartfelt denial and convincing rhetoric from him over things that I just felt weren’t right. Somehow I always ended up apologising for hurting him, for not listening to him or not trusting him and never the other way round.
Ironically, admitting to my ‘anger issues’ (genuinely believing this was a problem for me) gave me a reason to pursue counselling. He reluctantly let me attend these sessions, but I was compelled to share everything I had discussed in them, which he often criticised and belittled. However, my counsellor saw more than I could see and our conversations explored the deeper truths of the anger I was experiencing. I started to regain clarity in a mind that had long since lost the ability to find it. Even now I know I am only beginning the journey of healing in terms of the damage to my mind, but these counselling sessions were a vital start. I honestly don’t know how long I would have been imprisoned and trapped otherwise.
When I got married I made my vows for life; I knew how much God hated divorce and how much I hated being the child of divorced parents. Divorce was not going to be in my future, nor did I think I would even have to consider it. I was happy and excited to embark on this new adventure with the love of my life. I trusted him in every way. I have since learnt that abusers target the most trusting, empathetic of people; we are the easiest to manipulate and control and to accept abuse as our fault. I fit the bill. I had always been very empathetic, wanting to help, support and understand the suffering of others, but I was also very naïve and trusting too. No-one had ever taught me about healthy boundaries in relationships or warning signs of abuse. I had no idea to even look for them or that such people in this world even existed.
After getting married the change in our relationship was gradual and insidious. Over time, criticisms about my clothes, appearance, friends, family and interests prompted me to give up more and more of the things that made me me. I became the wife that he wanted me to be because if I tried to exert my independence then I was attacked for being disloyal, for not understanding his needs, for disrespecting him. I desperately wanted to be a good wife, to make my husband happy and to love him as a good Christian woman should, so I began to bend and compromise and serve. What I didn’t realise was that he did not return that love and respect for me. He never bent or compromised or served, unless it met his needs, his interests, his desires. Still somehow I was the one who ended up feeling bad when I challenged him on this.
His treatment of me became more obviously abusive as the years went by, but you don’t see it that way when you’re in it. He convinced me every time that it was just more evidence of how much I antagonised him and didn’t understand him, of how I needed to change, be different, be better, try harder. When I was pregnant with our first child, we had an argument about going to the cinema; he threw a vase, smashing it on the floor. He had chased me into the corner of our spare bedroom and I raised my arms in fear of where he was going to throw this vase, but I was the one who ended up apologising for being selfish and causing him to get so angry. I became accustomed to his anger. I remember watching how he talked to the girls so nicely sometimes, wishing he would be that nice to me, then I’d tell myself I was being stupid and dismiss the familiar feeling that something wasn’t right. It was somehow easier to accept his assertions that I was to blame for him being late for work, for the children not liking their dinner, for buying the ‘wrong’ toothpaste or toilet roll. He never took responsibility for anything himself, which is another sure sign of abuse.
In the back of my mind I excused it all because he seemed such a great Daddy and I couldn’t deny his relationship with his children. However, having some distance and professional support, I’ve been able to see the abuse they suffered too, not least in witnessing the abuse I was subjected to, where my oldest would often try to defend me. My youngest once commented “Daddy doesn’t like Mummy very much.” A mother is not protecting her children by accepting abusive behaviour from their father. In many ways the opposite is true.
If any of this feels familiar, then another aspect for you would be the ministry of your husband. How can you be responsible for the demise of his ministry, where he is doing so much good for so many people? Such responsibility is not in fact yours, it’s his, but this must be so hard for pastors’ wives who go through this. I have read the testimonies of a few and it seems that this is the very argument their husbands use in order to heap guilt on them for even contemplating that there’s something wrong in their marriage. However, the thing these women seem to say is that they knew deep down that their husband’s ministry was not the fruitful, Godly ministry that many professed it to be. In fact, these wives had repeatedly seen hurt and discord as a result of their husband’s behaviour.
I’m sorry to say that your husband has been directly responsible for a great deal of my own personal hurt – suggesting I might be pursuing a new relationship in the immediate aftermath of my decision to divorce, and that I would lie to the girls about their father and countless other insensitive and inappropriate comments and actions. I felt like I was being treated with suspicion, not love, judgement, not grace. My last communication was an email I wrote to your husband, my pastor, that was challenging, but respectful and honest. I wrote it with great care, out of a desperate concern for three things – 1) my own healing; 2) providing every opportunity for my husband to come to true repentance and change and 3) ensuring that the church I loved was a safe place for abused women to come forward. To date I have had no reply from a man who was employed to be my pastor. I am living outside of any church fellowship at the moment because I don’t know who to trust and what to tell people. This is surely the time I needed the pastoral support and resources of the church I’ve called home all these years. Instead I feel abandoned by the church at large and supported only by a handful of friends from my fellowship who have chosen to remain in touch.
You are very dear to me, and I can only imagine how hard it may be to read this and how difficult it may be to process even a fraction of what I’ve said. I suppose I decided that this was still the right course of action because I wish that someone had done this for me. I wish that someone had said “Hey, I’ve seen how your husband treats you and it’s wrong. You don’t have to put up with it. He has broken your wedding vows by choosing to abuse you instead of loving, cherishing and respecting you. That is not your fault. God doesn’t like divorce, but he hates abuse even more.”
You are beautiful, loved and cherished, made by God to fulfil His purposes for your life, not the purposes of your husband. I have not liked how I’ve seen him treat you, I recognised so much of the subtle behaviours and dynamics that were true in my marriage. I saw him ignore and belittle your health concerns over drinking wine that night, I saw him disrespect you by giving you barely any acknowledgement or attention when you explained how he likes to be on time for things, with no mention at all of your preferences and needs; I saw a complete lack of interest in praising and acknowledging you when you heaped praise on him. You do not deserve to be treated like that. If you are being abused, you have a right to divorce and a right to know true freedom.
I am currently reading scriptures that explore our identity in Christ. It is so affirming and life-changing after allowing even my relationship with God to be weakened and diminished by my marriage. There is so much more I could say and so much more I am happy to tell you if you want to speak, but in the meantime, seek after God and His truth, trust Him, follow Him. He is our only constant, a bright light in the darkness. If you want an informal, anonymous chat with people who know what abuse is and how to recognise the red flags, then there is also the national domestic abuse helpline – 0808 2000 247
I will continue to pray. Get in touch any time, when you feel it is safe to do so. I am very familiar with the fear instilled by an abusive partner. I know how they promote that fear in you so that you offer complete submission to them, always telling them everything to show that you’re loyal and supportive, constantly reiterating your love for and commitment to them, as I saw you do that time when you patted his leg and praised what a great husband you had. He was so tellingly cold and unresponsive to this, I couldn’t help but feel desperately sad. I know that if I had received a letter like this during my marriage I would have felt both relief and intense fear. Relief that my experience finally had a name – abuse – and that it was not my fault, but fear over what would happen next if I began to try and regain the control and independence that was rightfully mine.
I would not advise that you speak to your husband about this, unless you are absolutely certain that this is not at all your experience. I do not care about my reputation here. If I’m wrong, that’s wonderful! However, if there is any part of you that has read this and is feeling even a little disturbed or disrupted then get help and advice. You are not alone and you are worth fighting for. Living under someone else’s control is not living – it’s imprisonment and you need to get out, but it is your decision and such a choice is risky, scary and dangerous without the right support and help.
Of course, if I have misread things please forgive me and know that you always have my utmost respect. Either way, feel free to get in touch any time.
A loving friend who has been there
If any of this seems relevant to your life or the life of someone you care about, you can find your local domestic abuse service here: https://www.womensaid.org.uk/domestic-abuse-directory/.