I thought my dreams were about to come true when I [finally] got married.
I left my family, friends, and my job as a pastor in Canada to move to the U.S. for love. I had waited a long time to meet a guy I could partner with in ministry. My American husband had wooed me with his discourse of our shared theological studies, passion for church work, and a vision of us as a happily married couple in ministry together. Babies would complete the picture of our Christian nuclear family.
After our vows, I was shocked to immediately find myself in a different kind of nuclear situation: domestic violence.
My new husband quickly became emotionally abusive after having displayed only charm, attentiveness, and romance in our whirlwind courtship. As the weeks and months went by, I was yelled at for paying a bill a couple days in advance, for disagreeing with him about what gym I should work out at, or for the temperature I cooked with on the stove. If I left the sponge in the sink—instead of the counter—harsh words came my way.
When I questioned the values and theology of his church (which he had claimed was open to women in leadership, but was explicitly complementarian) he told me that nobody liked me and I wasn’t called to be a pastor. Over time his behavior escalated from trying to control my choices, to blaming me for his anger, to yelling. He shamed me with critical words and verbal assaults, and threatened to cheat on me or have me deported.
My husband also closely monitored my spending. I am a serious saver by nature so the only things I bought were groceries, household supplies, gas, and an occasional Starbucks. He, however, bought thousands of dollars of sound equipment and endless gadgets for his car. I wasn’t allowed to work until I received my Green Card, but my husband quit his job at the church to start a business in the midst of an economic downturn. He spent thousands of our savings on this failed venture. There was never a time when we calmly discussed our financial situation or work opportunities. He made all the decisions and I was powerless to stop him.
My awakening came through the wisdom of a female pastor (at another church) who named my experience as domestic abuse.
I’m a pretty smart woman who has traveled and worked around the world with some of the poorest and most oppressed women. Yet I hadn’t recognized that my husband’s behavior was abusive. I’ve never heard a sermon on domestic abuse—besides the ones I’ve preached since my experience. I had never had relationship violence explained to me in our pre-marital counseling, in youth group, in bible studies, or at seminary. As far as I could tell from the media, domestic violence was defined as bruises or broken bones.
What I did know was that something was seriously wrong in my marriage.
Wanting to be a good Christian, and a good wife, I did everything I could to fix ‘our’ problems. I went to counseling, had spiritual direction, prayed endlessly, spoke in softer tones, attempted to have collaborative discussions. I read every book I could find about Christian marriage and ‘wifehood.’ I asked numerous pastors at his church for help. One pastor literally closed the door in my face when, terrified of my husband, I begged for his help. Another simply threw his hands up in the air after numerous times of hearing my experience of being yelled at, controlled, and financially trapped in a loveless marriage. I even tried some well-meaning woman’s advice to put on a dress, make dinner, and light some candles. Nothing stopped the abuse.
It takes two to tango. It takes ONE person to abuse another.
I soon learned that domestic violence is solely the fault of the abusive partner, and the only one who can stop it is the perpetrator. Thanks to the female pastor who first identified that I was being abused, I learned about the five forms of abuse: emotional, physical, sexual, financial, and spiritual.
The basic definition of domestic abuse is a pattern of abusive behaviors used by one person in an intimate relationship to control another. It is characterized by abusers attempting or gaining power and control over their partner through intentional choices that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, injure, or otherwise wound the other individual.
One day I chose to be free to heal from domestic violence.
Just five months after we married, my husband sat me down in our living room and told me that he had drained our shared bank account of over $20,000. He cut up my credit and debit cards, leaving me alone in a foreign country, unemployed, and soon to be homeless. As he told me of his secret stealing from our account, his face remained calm and deadpan.
Speaking eerily in a cold, unwavering tone he told me that he was sure I was bipolar (I’m not, you can ask my therapist). He said he was going to use this to get our marriage ‘biblically’ annulled and have me deported back to Canada. I was so terrified at his crazy actions and threats that I ran out of the house without putting my shoes on. And friends, I love my shoes.
Healing from the trauma of abuse is a long, complicated journey and the church often isn’t a safe place to recover.
After leaving my abusive husband I connected with Christian friends in Canada who helped me recover. Throughout this ‘dark night of the soul’ I discovered that 1 in 3 women—of all ages, and of every ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and geographic location—experience domestic abuse in their lifetime. Yet the Christian church is largely silent on this topic. I struggled to find resources that integrated robust theology with clinical psychology, to understand the trauma of abuse and to learn how to heal.
I wanted to be faithful to God and to my theological training. But I also wanted to discover what evidence-based research had to say about recovery for survivors. Simple Christian platitudes weren’t going to stop the terror I felt, knowing that my ex could find and kill me. (Not an uncommon situation for female survivors of domestic abuse.) And secular therapy wasn’t going to help me address my quest to understand where God was in my trauma.
I found a couple of books that incorporated good Christian theology with proven trauma-insights, but mostly I had to piece together my own domestic violence recovery program. With the help of friends, counselors, spiritual mentors, domestic violence shelters, spiritual practices, and tons of reading, I slowly found myself free to heal in the presence of God’s transformative compassion.
Along the way, I discovered a new calling: to help other women heal from relationship abuse.
I am a firm believer that the church can—and should be—a safe place for women to get practical, spiritually-integrated, trauma-informed information and resources on domestic abuse So, naturally, I decided to do a Ph.D. to make this happen! (Because who doesn’t want to sit endlessly reading books and writing papers for a few years?)