|Photo by Maena at morguefilecom
I have no short or easy answer for the dilemma of a Christian spouse who finds herself or himself married to an abuser. My own journey was long and difficult. As we drove away from our wedding reception, my brand-new husband exploded in rage as soon as the restaurant was out of sight--pounding the steering wheel, driving recklessly, calling his best friend names and calling one of the women at the wedding a horrible epithet. My first instinct was to return immediately to the church and say I’d made a horrible mistake marrying this man. I wondered if annulment was a possibility. Then I pulled myself together, and focused on believing this behavior was non-typical behavior for this man since I’d never seen him angry before. I wasn’t perfect either. I would unconditionally love my husband and keep my marriage ceremony promises for the rest of my life—no matter how many other unpleasant surprises might lay ahead.
Seven long years after our wedding, my spouses’ angry spells had become progressively more frequent and I knew our marriage was in trouble. He had progressed to threatening that if I ever tried to leave a room while he was talking to me, his fist would connect with my face, instead of merely denting the wall next to my head. My husband could and did give me bruises now and then on my arms and legs to encourage me to continue fearing him. He displayed so many radical mood shifts I felt like I had unknowingly married Dr. Jekyll and Hyde. I finally admitted to myself that my husband had a “serious anger issue.” I still loved him, although more than once I wished that I didn’t. I could see that our marriage was not honoring God, but I still felt trapped by my “till death do us part” marriage promise. I had experienced many unexpected “for worse” experiences with my husband but that too was covered by the wedding vows.
As the years had gone by, I too had changed for the worse. My insecurity, confusion, and lack of self-respect grew exponentially. I spent most of my energy on trying to keep my husband calm. I was exhausted and felt helpless. I desperately attempted to salvage our marriage by urging my husband to attend marriage counseling with me. To my surprise, my husband agreed to try counseling.
Over the next seven years, we “tried” marriage counseling three different times. Each time my husband’s agreement to counseling, led to me to give him credit for caring about our relationship and being willing to work on it—when in reality he only attended 2 to 4 sessions with each counselor. Each time marriage counseling sessions halted abruptly when my husband decided we were seeing a well-meaning but incompetent therapist. Thus, I learned the hard way that marital counseling doesn’t work with an abusive relationship.
Many psychologists and sociologists have noted the ineffectiveness of marriage counseling for an abusive marriage. The relationship isn’t a relationship of equal power in which both partners are humbly willing to work on improving their communication to strengthen their marriage. Instead, the abuser is hoping the counselor won’t figure out he/ she abuses his /her spouse (and wants to continue)—while at the same time the victim is hoping the counselor will see what is happening without having to be told.
I had been infertile for the first 7 years in our marriage, when I finally conceived my husband and I were happier and more peaceful during the pregnancy. I knew having children to save a marriage rarely succeeds, but since we’d tried to have children our whole marriage and then miraculously we were succeeding in such close proximity to my requesting marriage counseling—my hopes for a better marriage soared. Surely my husband would feel more motivated to untangle his anger problem with precious children under our joint care.
Again I was wrong. The only change in the following years was that I spoke up more against my husband’s abusive words and behavior, for the sake of the kids. My husband became increasingly angry and impatient with me and with our children. I tried to never leave any of our children alone with my husband for more than a few minutes, so that I could mitigate my husband’s harmful words and actions toward our children. I was prepared to be our children’s body guard should the occasion arise.
When our eldest child was five, my husband squeezed her arm as hard as he could, just as he had done to me many times. At first I was shocked, but then I leapt into the situation demanding that my husband let go of our daughter. For the first time ever, I told someone outside our relationship about my concerns about my husband’s angry behavior. The pastor prayed with my husband and urged me to see the church counselor. My daughter’s arm was bruised and she protected it over the next couple of weeks while I followed the pastor’s advice and began individual counseling. I thought the pastor and counselor didn’t seem too worried about our situation, and assumed it must not be that bad after all. In hindsight, I can see that I left out important information when I talked with the pastor and psychologist. I didn’t share with them the longstanding patterns and the slow-climbing escalation of a variety of abusive behaviors. Both professionals probably concluded the event with my daughter was a one-time loss of temper, instead of the one piece of an abuse puzzle.