I upheld my wedding vow. I’m not someone who would ever leave a marriage or break a promise. I would never knowingly allow violence or abuse to break up my family. I would never knowingly let sin take root in my home. I wouldn’t put my children through the trauma.
So I had no choice but to leave my husband.
My husband was emotionally and verbally abusive for many years. He would belittle me when I didn’t do things his way, humiliate me in front of my friends, and criticise my skills, my opinions, my family and my dreams. He would yell at me, then when I asked him not to yell at me he’d criticise me for that too. I found myself living according to “what will he say, what will he do?” rather than “what does God say, what did Jesus do?” He even criticised my prayers, my bible reading, and my understanding of Jesus, all while claiming to be a believer himself.
My dreams weren’t safe with him, my sanity wasn’t protected by him, my health wasn’t prioritised by him, and my opinions weren’t valued by him. We had the quiet understanding that when he was in a mood it was undeniably my fault. When something went wrong, clearly that was my doing, and when we had a problem, sorry, I had a problem.
I just kept explaining things away: “Oh he didn’t mean it, I’ll try to talk to him again.” “Oh he’s just learned that from his parents, I’m sure he’ll be different with our kids.” And the old classic: “But he’s a Christian! Surely not…”
I had a gamet of professionals around me (thank the Lord) to reflect how bad things had gotten. My counselor, my friend who’s a counselor, my minister, my GP, and the police all told me that his behaviour was criminal, reportable, and its time to protect the kids. (Really? But he says he follows Jesus…OK…)
So, I finally get the message that his behaviour isn’t ok, and that I’m supposed to leave him now. But. One problem. What about those pesky wedding vows? You know, for better or worse? Till death do us part?
Here’s what I’ve learned.
While, yes, marriage is important and sacred, and is entered into for life, physical death isn’t the only thing that can end a marriage in God’s eyes. When emotional abuse takes hold, emotionally, the marriage is dead, and death has done you part. When sexual abuse takes hold, sexually, the marriage is dead, and death has done you part. Recent history tells us that one or two women are killed by their partner or former partner every week in Australia. So if you’re on the path towards the marriage ending in murder, best to recognize that the marriage has already died of abuse, and live.
When one spouse is repeatedly abusive, the covenant is already broken. That contract to love and cherish, it’s already been torn up.
And here’s the turning point.
Free to stay and pray for change, free to leave, free to decide. When abuse has held you captive, you are free.
Jesus came to break the chains of abuse, not bind you with them. Jesus came to set the captives free, not enslave them some more (Luke 4:18). Jesus came to lift you up and give you a new song, not to keep you from singing (Psalm 40:3). Those whom the Son has set free are free indeed (John 8:36).
But there’s something you’re not free to do. And that is to allow your children to be abused: emotionally, physically, verbally, psychologically, sexually. You have a responsibility to protect those who can’t protect themselves, and the younger they are, the more vulnerable they are. And if your husband is treating you badly, its likely he’s doing the same to the kids.
Because here’s something else we know. There is no fear in love (1 John 4:18). So if you or the kids are fearful of what he’s going to say, what he’s going to do, how he’s going to judge you, or how hard he’s going to make it for you, he’s not loving you very well.
Part of why I stayed for so long was the common ideal that kids should live with their father. But I learned that living with anyone who’s abusive is harmful, and sometimes separation is the healthiest thing for everyone, him included. And when my kids started showing that they were fearful of him, I knew that we couldn’t continue.
It’s a funny thing, to be taught to submit to one another. At first I did just that. I chose to submit to his opinions and preferences, choosing his desires over my own. I noticed that he rarely did the same for me, but I just handed it to God, thinking that God would change his heart, and in time he would also lay down his life for me, as I had tried to do for him.
But God didn’t change his heart. Not much anyway. A few little things changed, enough so that he could say he was making changes to accommodate his “problem-riddled wife.” I don’t know why God didn’t stop him treating me badly. But I do know that I don’t have to put up with it.
I still believe that husbands and wives, and Christians in general, need to submit to one another, but now I have more wisdom: “Submit to one another” (Ephesians 5:21). So if it turns out that submission is only a one way thing, my red flags start going up.
He never hit me, but that still seems to be the litmus test for some people. (Hint: you can discern someone who’s informed about DV from someone who’s not by whether they think DV is just physical.) DV isn’t about punching. It’s about power and control.
When the kids and I started our new life without him, I was a wreck for a little while. But then I felt well. I felt free. I knew it was better. I didn’t get sick so often. I had less on my mind. At the end of my now habituated inner monologue of “what’s he going to say, what’s he going to do?” I get to add an emphatic “I DON’T HAVE TO CARE ANYMORE!!” and I smile as I make my own decisions, and celebrate my freedom from his prison. I’m free to choose Jesus now. Free to live as Jesus calls, not as my husband does. I never thought I’d have to choose between my husband and Jesus, but I did. I suppose if someone puts you in the position of having to choose between them and Jesus, they’ve set themselves up to lose.
When friends listen to my opinion and are kind and welcoming, it always takes me a moment to readjust. I’m so used to being shouted down, shamed and belittled. I’m grateful to all the friends who are patient with me while I shake my head and thank them for their kindness. Most of them say its nothing, but it’s not nothing to me.
And I’m not anti-marriage, nor am I anti-men. I’m anti-abuse, anti-control, anti-oppression. I know now that once a marriage turns abusive, it’s no longer a marriage, no longer binding, no longer safe.
My kids and I are safe now, and I’m optimistic about the future, because we get to live in peace. Though I would never have chosen to be a single mother, it turns out to be easier than living with an abusive husband and father. I hope my kids know that I love them so much to remove and protect them. I pray they’ll learn that they don’t have to put up with being treated badly, that God has ordained their care and protection. And I trust that our loving heavenly Father will fill the space that this earthly husband and father has left, fill it to overflowing, fill it with abundance, fill it forever with unfailing love and mercy, with justice and care and grace and peace. Hallelujah to the King of Kings.
If you are experiencing Domestic Violence and are afraid for your safety, seek help from a trusted friend or counsellor, or call the National Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Counselling Service on 1800 RESPECT.
Visit our Resources page for further information.
If you are in danger in your home, please call 000 (if in Australia).
This piece has been published anonymously to protect the author. The author is known to the editor of Fixing Her Eyes.