I haven’t talked a whole lot about my own story publicly, but today I’m going to share a little bit of what I wish I had done differently when I left my emotionally abusive marriage. Hind sight IS 20-20, and while I can’t go back in my own life and change anything (nor do I want to since God has written a crazy beautiful story, and why mess it up?) I do hope someone reading this might learn from my mistakes and avoid a few of the traps I fell into.
Getting out of an emotionally abusive relationship is a bit like navigating a minefield. And the mines have this uncanny ability to increase in number when you stick your neck out and start running. You know why?
Because when you start seeing the truth and making choices that will lead to escape, your abusive partner gathers up friends, family, and religious leaders to HELP HIM PLANT MORE MINES.
RABBIT TRAIL: (These same people, ironically, will try to convince you that you’re not being abused. “Abuse?” They’ll cluck. “Isn’t that a strong word to be using of a man whose just doing his best and not measuring up to your impossible standard?”
To which you must think (and sometimes assert out loud): “My impossible standard of being treated like a normal human being with basic human rights, you mean?”
To which they will squawk defensively, “You HAVE no human rights! Be like Jesus! DIE!”
To which you must think (and sometimes assert out loud): “Jesus didn’t just die. He ROSE. And the story God is writing in my life is not just one of death – but of RESURRECTION POWER. Now, step aside, because by the grace of God – I RISE.”
And then you rise, baby. You rise up and be the ezer warrior God make you to be. THAT is the story He is writing in your life. And just like mine, it’s crazy beautiful.
So now—the three things I’d do differently.
1. I’d Stop Giving Feedback
We keep thinking that if we explain it in just the right way, at just the right time, with just the right tone of voice, there will be a meeting of the minds. Our voice will be heard and acknowledged as valuable and worth something. But when has that ever happened?
This is one of the key indicators of emotional abuse—one partner chronically neglects to hear or value the input of the other partner. How can conflicts be resolved? They can’t. Who holds the power when only one partner’s voice counts for anything? This is not a mutually honoring, caring, compassionate, adult relationship. This is the heart of emotional abuse. Not sure if your relationship is abusive or not? Sign up at the top of this website to get the first three chapters of my book free. Those three chapters will help you identify whether or not your relationship is just a challenge or abusive.
I can count on one hand the number of times my ex and I resolved a problem together over the course of 25 years. How many issues come up in any couple’s relationship in the course of a week? Probably a few. Some are minor—not worth making an issue of. Easily resolved by just moving on. But some require a bit of conversation. Some require a lot of conversation. Some require a little space and then some conversation.
But in a normal relationship, both partners are eager to find a resolution that is mutually satisfying so they can move forward in greater intimacy. This is what I’ve experienced in my second marriage. We’ve had a few conflicts, but every single one has been discussed respectfully and FULLY RESOLVED. Afterwards, there is increased understanding, increased empathy, and increased intimacy. Every. Single. Time. It’s a beautiful thing!
Conflicts are not bad. But when the only way to resolve them is to sweep them under the rug for fear of making the other person angry—that’s indicative of an abusive relationship.
My point? When your partner refuses to hear your voice and give it the weight it deserves as a fellow human on planet earth (let alone as his WIFE), and when this has been going on for years. And years. And more years. And when it never changes. Ever and ever and ever…
Why keep trying to give them feedback? Why? Why do we do this? Why do we think that THIS time, it will be different?
It won’t be.
I just couldn’t get this through my thick skull. I thought I had the communication skills to figure this out. To make an inroad, eventually.
You can’t do that with an emotional abuser. It doesn’t matter what your background is, how well you communicate with the rest of the world, what your talents, education, or skill set is.
THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU.
It’s about him. This is his problem, and even God can’t fix him if he doesn’t think he needs fixing!
Eventually I surrendered this insatiable desire to be heard and understood and valued—and I stopped giving him feedback. I stopped believing he could change. (He couldn’t.) I stopped believing he cared. (He didn’t.)
I stopped looping about this over and over in my head, trying to solve an impossible problem. I let go of my spouse, took responsibility for my own life, and moved forward without him.
How would I do this differently if I had chance to go back?
I’d have stopped giving feedback a few years earlier. In fact, if I knew then what I now now, after one year of that kind of emotional abuse—I’d say, “We’re done, babe. Better luck with your next victim.”
How about you? Are you ready to stop giving feedback to someone who clearly doesn’t want it?
2. I’d Be My Own Best Advocate
“Loving ourselves through the process of owning our story is the bravest thing we’ll ever do.” Brene Brown
I threw myself under the bus over and over in my marriage. Being the good Christian girl that I was, I believed it was my responsibility to manage the emotional climate of the marriage. To “be at peace with everyone” meant that when my husband was unhappy or irritated, I wasn’t doing my job.
And I’d crack the whip on my own butt.
Guilt was my daily companion, and failure was my ever-present friend.
I had nine kids, homeschooled, clipped coupons, made meals from scratch, kept the house clean, volunteered at church, hosted Bible studies, hosted small group gatherings, hosted picnics with friends, packed and unpacked for a large family (while nursing or pregnant) numerous times every summer so we could visit my husband’s parents, made and kept all the medical appointments, started and grew a business to make ends meet and give us some breathing room financially, and (deep breath) said “no” to myself when I longed for a break. (DIE! Natalie. DIE LIKE JESUS! You selfish shrew for wanting a break!)
I was married to criticism. There was always something wrong. I was such a “silly” lady who didn’t know how to do it right. The kids were getting B pluses and A minuses in homeschool math instead of straight A’s. I needed to get cracking. The meal didn’t have meat in it. I needed to get cracking. The way I was running my business was SO dumb. I needed to get cracking. I bought some makeup with the money I brought in? What a waste of resources. I needed to get cracking.
His voice was in my head every minute of every day. I believed that voice. Everything was my fault. I kicked myself for not doing better. For not being better. For feeling things I wasn’t supposed to be feeling. For daring to confront my husband (what kind of good Christian wife would do THAT?) when I should just keep cracking on myself. After all, he wouldn’t have been mean if I had just been a better wife.
I worked very hard to make everyone happy. I thought working my tail off would endear me to my husband. Maybe then he would see me, appreciate me, and love me?
I managed everyone’s emotions. But I failed to manage my own. Talk about bad boundaries, huh?
I eventually read the BOOK Boundaries – and wondered where it had been my entire life! I had no boundaries, and I resented those who did. (Because, I figured, if they could cross over into my yard whenever they wanted to – why would they not let me cross over into theirs? Is that even FAIR?)
Now I only l let certain people in my yard—and I let others take care of their own yards. It’s such a nice, new, simple, peaceful way to live.
So here’s how I’d do it differently.
I would look in the mirror every day and say, “Hey Natalie! You’re doing the best you can! You’re working hard! You don’t have to be perfect! If you’re tired, take a break! If your husband gets mad, that’s not your problem! He’s a big boy – he can manage his own emotions or not – whichever he chooses, and that’s not your job. Tolerate his disapproval! His opinion is his, and he’s entitled to it, but it’s not the last word on WHO YOU ARE AS A VALUABLE HUMAN BEING! If he can’t see you, that doesn’t mean you aren’t SEEN. I’m going to take care of you, Natalie, even if nobody else does. I have YOUR back from now on!”
Then I would make a meal without any meat in it. Just for me.
Seriously, this is what I started doing. When several people around me started pointing fingers and defining me in their own terms through their own lenses, I felt completely alone. And it was the best thing that could’ve happened to me. Because I was forced to make a decision about God and myself.
I chose to trust God and show compassion on myself.
- I started seeing a chiropractor (my ex didn’t think I needed to see one – just he did – but he wasn’t calling the shots anymore, right?).
- For a few months I got a deep tissue massage once a month. Just to let myself know that I was taking care of me.
- I started listening to Audible books, a splurge that would have made me feel guilty before.
- I listened to music I LIKED, for once in my life.
- I hired an interior decorator who helped me finish a room in my basement in MY TASTE.
- I bought a repurposed kitchen table that I loved. To this day, whenever someone comes over and sees it – I get an overwhelming response of artistic appreciation. It has given me a tremendous amount of pleasure.
- I paid for a membership to a fitness center and started working out.
- I paid a consultant to come in and teach me how to shop for clothes that looked good on ME. (I was completely inept in this area prior to getting help. Best money spent. Ever.)
- I started making big girl decisions that kept my own emotional and spiritual safety and sanity in mind, and in spite of the kickback from my husband at the time, it was glorious.
I was a 50-year-old woman, and I finally grew up.
How about you? Do you take care of yourself? To the degree that you accept and love yourself just the way you are is the degree you will accept and love others just the way they are. (And just so that there is no misunderstanding here, to love others just the way they are does NOT MEAN that you love and nurture their dysfunctional behaviors. Enabling emotionally abusive behavior is a hateful thing to do to everyone involved, including the abuser.)
3. I Wouldn’t Try to Convince Anyone I Was Telling the Truth
I think this is one of the deepest, darkest reasons a woman doesn’t rise up and get help when she is being emotionally abused. She knows nobody will get it. When she first begins to tell someone about her experiences, even SHE doesn’t fully get it. Yet. She has a hard time explaining the patterns of abuse because he is still in her mind, controlling her thoughts, emotions, and reality—using all the intimate knowledge he has of her to brainwash her with the idea that his treatment of her is *normal* and also *her fault*.
For her to say something about the abuse is for her to be mean-hearted. Vindictive. Unforgiving. A gossip. Unfaithful. Disrespectful.
This is his voice in her head, keeping her from revealing his pathology.
And sadly, he is in the heads of religious people as well (by religious, I mean Pharisaical law-keepers, not Christ-like love-spreaders). He is a product of conservative, misogynistic theology, after all. Or if not a product, then an eager subscriber. Why? It plays right into his game.
So a Christian woman will stay quiet—or be burned at the proverbial stake.
But eventually, the pain of staying in the abusive relationship becomes greater than the potential pain of getting out. And she thinks if she could JUST GET SOMEONE TO BELIEVE AND SUPPORT HER, it would be doable. She’d make it out in one piece. And she’s actually right. It’s rare, but those women who are supported by their church community and family do much better, and their children fare much better as well.
More often, the woman is maligned, told she is rebellious, unsubmissive, not trusting God (her faith is actually a powerhouse by this time, and she’s been trusting Him in impossible circumstances, alone, for years by now), and bitter. She’s told she is destroying her family with her own hands.
So she tries to explain further. Surely they will understand if she can just explain it better? Once again, she takes on the responsibility for what others think and believe as well as what they feel about her. She is desperate to be loved. To be seen. To be worth someone’s time and understanding compassion.
And she is all those things. Just not to the religious elite. They prefer her wolf-husband. He’s more attractive, more supportive of their power-over agenda, and he’s so sweet. Such a nice guy, while she appears to be a madwoman!
The more desperate she is to make them believe the truth, the more she appears to be the crazy one. And the thirstier they get for her blood. And the more triumphant they are when they get to vote her out of the church. (With crocodile tears and “We LOVE you’s,” of course.)
So here’s what I’d do differently.
I’d tell them my plans once, because, you know. Polite. When they came back with their fangs and claws poised over my head, I’d say, “Oh, did you think you had the power over my life? This might come as a shocker to you then…” And I’d leave that church and never look back.
I did eventually do that, but not until I disrespected myself over and over with my begging and weeping. I just couldn’t wrap my brain around how hateful they actually were. The cognitive dissonance between what they preached and said with their mouths and how they lived it out in Christian relationship was absolutely mind-blowing. I didn’t think that way or approach life that way, so I couldn’t understand how others who called themselves Christians could do that to another human being and think they had God’s stamp of approval on their hateful behavior.
Do you see the abuse pattern in this kind of spiritual abuse? You have no voice. You are worth nothing to them. They are always right. Even though they didn’t live your life or even really know you at all – THEY KNOW. They get to decide your life for you. Because they are the elite. They, like your abusive spouse, have made themselves out to be as gods.
But they are not God. And anyone who doesn’t point you to Jesus (and points you to their law book instead)—is not of God. Period.
Who are they? They are just one tiny church body in a very big world. They can’t really burn you at the stake. So they can excommunicate you? Big deal. It’s not like it’s on your record with God or anything. (It’s actually on THEIR record with Him! Be glad you’re you!)
There are so many lovely Christians who truly know and serve Jesus. Find some of them and rebuild.
And speaking of rebuilding, I want to reassure you that YOU ARE NOT THE ONE TEARING DOWN YOUR FAMILY.
You are an ezer warrior – daughter of the Most High King. You are, in reality, a REBUILDER. But you can’t rebuild unless the old, dangerous, toxic structure is torn down. YOU didn’t build that structure. You were a slave doing slave labor, thinking you had no choice.
Now you know you DO have a choice, and you get to walk away from unwillingly being part of something horrifyingly destructive and turn instead toward building something incredibly healing. Something of truth and justice and mercy. Something that reflects the heart of your King. Something that reflects your own heart in Him.
So let people rage and gnash their teeth. You don’t have to convince anyone. If they have no regard for their sister, why try? Why not find people who DO believe in the value of women and children. Who DO believe in the value of truth and walking in reality and living by the Spirit of Love – not the death sentence of the law.
So these are just three examples of things I’d do differently, if I had a chance to go back, knowing what I know now about abuse and how the conservative, evangelical church typically addresses it.
What about you? What would you do differently?