Twenty two years ago domestic violence drove my children and me out of our home. We got out with only the clothes on our backs and bounced from one friend’s house to another, as my husband went on the warpath threatening everyone who tried to help. When I called the police, they reluctantly went over to the house and “tried to calm him down,” but told me there was nothing they could do to stop him from destroying the antiques and other precious items I had inherited from my grandmother. They explained that once I married, my property became his, and he could do whatever he wanted with it.
Since he could not find us, my husband’s rage increased. He began chopping up and burning all the wooden antique furniture in the house. He also bagged up all my personal belongings and carried them to the town dump, making sure to ruin my most expensive clothes by pouring ink all over them. Several hours each day he was on the phone relaying threats against me to friends and family members. He also went to great lengths to convince them I was to blame for everything that was happening. After his own father called to tell me he was afraid for my life, I called the police again. I believed if he found us, I would be killed. The police asked me if he owned weapons, and when I told them he did, they became reluctant to respond and basically told me there was nothing they could do about the threats. In the weeks that followed, I called them several times. Once or twice they went over to try to calm him down. One of those times he told them I was going to “end up in a body bag,” but apparently that was not enough to warrant an arrest.
A friend of mine was married to a deputy, so I called and asked him for advice. He suggested I go take out a warrant against him, and get a protective order. I did it the very same day, and laid low praying that they would get him before he got us. After two days, when I still hadn’t heard anything, I called to find out what happened. They told me he had been served, but they weren’t sure he’d seen it yet. While I was actually naive enough to think they might put him in jail, I soon found that serving him only meant that a pink piece of paper was taped the the door of his house ordering him to court in 30 days . When he got home from a long shift as a staff physician, that piece of paper merely served to enrage him more. The threats through friends and family intensified.
I reached out to my pastor, and he went by to see my husband. Although he had only been a nominal member of the church, while I served faithfully, my pastor seemed to believe my husband’s story over mine. He seemed to think that I had done something to set him off, because nobody would go that crazy without reason. I tried to explain that I’d spent our entire marriage trying to avoid setting him off, but I never knew what might do it. One time, he tore the house up because he was mad at the cat. Another time, he became furious and started breaking things, because our daughter used his hairbrush and forgot to put it back. My solution to that was to go out and buy 17 brushes so that would never happen again. I always tried to smooth the way for him, but nothing was ever enough. We never knew what might set him off. The most stressful time of the day was when he walked in the door from work. Would he be in a good mood or a bad mood? If it was good, nothing would bother him, but if it was bad everything would anger him and all we could do was try to avoid him.
I explained all of this to my pastor, and he suggested we come in for a counseling session. As afraid as I was, I wanted our marriage to work so I went. I arrived 20 minutes early to avoid meeting my husband in the parking lot. When he arrived, he seemed calm and cool. We sat and listened as our pastor told us how he thought we could repair our marriage, but inside I knew none of it would work. In our 13 years of marriage, we had seen at least a dozen counselors or pastors, and nothing anyone had suggested had worked. Somehow they all put the burden for his behavior on me. I was told to boost his self-esteem, to keep a cleaner house, to pray more and ask God to show me my contribution to the problem. Most of the time, I was way ahead of the counselors and already doing what they prescribed. We had learned to tip toe around my husband quite well, except on those rare occasions when something unexpected came up. It didn’t seem anything we did could help us in those situations.
Even though he had been prone to fits of rage over the years, he had only been physically abusive towards me about 4 or 5 times in the entire length of our marriage, so I didn’t really consider myself abused. I just thought he lost control because of his troubled upbringing and long hours at work. I never thought he was intentionally trying to hurt me, so I made every effort to bring healing to our marriage. For a year and a half after that initial separation I reached out to anyone I thought might be able to help. After all, I didn’t believe in divorce! Yet, nobody had the answers I longed to find. Every earthly resource failed us– from the legal system to law enforcement, from counselors to the church. The violence simply became more frequent and more deadly.
One day my twelve-year-old daughter asked me why I didn’t just leave and give up the idea of reconciliation. My response was that God hates divorce. Immediately she said, “God hates divorce, but he’s going to hate it a lot more when my mom is dead.” Even after hearing that, I refused to give up. It took nearly losing my life to decide I needed to leave, and it was the hardest thing I’d ever done, because everything in me wanted to save that marriage. Even after I left, I waited on God hoping he would change my husband’s heart. Not until he remarried five years later did I feel released from that marriage.
During that five year separation I struggled and grieved over the loss of the marriage. I was also overwhelmed with guilt and condemnation because I couldn’t make it work. Still, I knew I had no other choice. Even though I couldn’t find the right help, I felt I had failed somehow. One day as I was reading 1 Corinthians 7 regarding separation from an unbeliever, God gave me peace about leaving. Since my husband claimed to be a Believer, and since he kept saying he wanted to stay in the marriage, I didn’t think the passage applied to us. However, that day I saw that the reason Paul released believing spouses from such marriages was that “God has called us to peace” (7:15). That passage leapt off the page into my heart as I realized I had not had peace in the entire 23 years I had been with my husband (8 years of dating and 15 of marriage). Suddenly I saw God’s kind intention towards me. He wasn’t condemning me for getting out, I was condemning myself and many in the church did too.
In the years since I left my marriage I have reached back to help others in similar situations, and have seen plenty of victims face condemnation from the very people they approached for help. Like me, most have been made to feel responsible for their abusers’ actions. I’ve seen them struggle with the same unbelievable lack of resources I faced. It wasn’t that people didn’t try to help– they didn’t know how! People perish for a lack of knowledge (Hos. 4:6), and when helpers don’t understand the dynamics of abuse, they very often make things worse. They minimize or deny the problem and fail to believe victims who finally get up the courage to come forward. They elevate marriages over lives, and fail to recognize the deadly nature of domestic violence.
Recently a woman I know fled to the local domestic violence shelter for help. When they did a lethality index, it indicated she has a very high chance of becoming a victim of domestic homicide. Yet, a month later, her pastor was encouraging her to come in for couples counseling. I wish I could say it’s an exception to see domestic violence mishandled by the church, but sadly my experience with hundreds of women has shown me it is the rule. Every time I hear a story like this, I become more determined to make a difference.
The bottom line is that abusers continue to abuse, because we close our eyes to it. We try to pretend it’s not all that common– even though the American Medical Association says one in three American women will experience it– even though statistics are no better in the church– and even though it “is widely accepted by abuse experts (and validated by numerous studies) that evangelical men who sporadically attend church are more likely than men of any other religious group (and more likely than secular men) to assault their wives.”
Not only do we ignore the problem, we actually make it easier for abusers when none of the systems in place are able to effectively protect victims, including the church. When I look at scripture, I see God’s heart for the oppressed and his mandate for us to “loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and.. break every yoke” (Is. 58:6). That is our calling as his people, and we need many voices if we are ever to overcome this awful plight.