It’s Complicated: Why It Wasn’t as Obvious as It Seems Like It Should Have Been

by Journey

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One thing I struggle with, as I painfully write some of the facts of my QF Patriarchal Marriage, is that the abuse wasn’t as obvious as you might think. I’d venture to say that 99.9% of the people we were around had no clue. I always get a kick out of how most patriarchy supporters speak up so quickly about how they are “opposed to abuse.” Are they really? Abuse always seems so stark, so obviously abusive, when you *read* about it, but in real life? Generally, not so much. For example, Mark’s abusive and strange behaviors are crystal clear, the way I’ve written the story for NLQ, but in real life, it wasn’t as easy as all that. I think that, in real life, it’s never like that.

In the story version, you get the play by play of abusive or flat-out weird behaviors, divorced from the people involved, divorced from all the nice moments, the normal-seeming times, the kind gestures and relational dynamics. In the real life version, the abusive behaviors are often experienced as tiny (usually completely private) bits of what seems to be an otherwise fairly normal life.

Are they small or tiny? No, not at all. They are earth-shattering, cataclysmic events that shape who you are in the relationship, and yet part of what makes them so confusing, part of what makes it so difficult to see them for what they are, is that they happen in the midst of many good things, and the earth-shattering parts happen in the deepest places of who you are, the kind of metaphorical bruises and broken bones that you can’t see, that you don’t even realize are there.

The woman who gets punched every 29th day of the month is treated kindly for most of the other days. We hear that she is punched once a month, and so we tell her to get out, to run, to get help. To us, standing on the outside, it’s crystal clear that there is a problem! But in her actual experience, it is not clear at all. She is punched once a month, sure, but there are thirty other days in the month. One day was really bad, but there were fifteen days of great sex, three days when he brought her flowers, fourteen tender moments, eight times where the couple giggled over something funny, nineteen backrubs, twenty-seven phone calls…

The punch is a small anomoly in what seems like an otherwise healthy relationship—-to the person who is inside of it. Because it’s confusing in there. It’s terribly confusing. Especially when you add God to the mix and get your faith and the abuse dynamics all twisted up together. There’s nothing clear at all, other than your tenacious desire to somehow find a way to make it work out okay, your desire to bring God glory and to have faith that everything will be okay.

My husband, contrary to what you may be thinking after reading some of the details I’ve given, was not seen as the town psycho. Actually, it was the opposite.

When word got out in our new town that he’d been to Bible College, he was asked to come on staff for a medium-sized congregation that was looking for some pastoral help. His warm and friendly demeanor, his strong knowledge of Bible and theology, his loving fatherly affection towards his children, all said, “Here’s a great guy.” Most people thought he was, and the truth is, in many ways, he really was.

The thing about abusers is that they very rarely fit the stereotype. Most of us have this idea in our heads about abusive men. You know, they ride into town on a Harley, their bulging arms covered in tats, a snarl permanently etched on their hardened faces. But the truth is, most abusers go completely unnoticed, because the abusive behaviors are only shown to the people in their power that they are most intimate with. This is why many Catholic church parishoners were shocked when the news hit that their priest had been molesting children. Someone else, sure, maybe, but their priest? Not their priest! He was a good guy. He was so nice. He was so kind and caring…! The parishoners certainly didn’t want to aid an abuser—-it was just so hard to believe that the priest they knew and loved could ever do such a thing.

In the same way, husbands who abuse their wives are often incredibly good at being unnoticed, especially in church culture where it’s easy to hide under a superficial smile. Physical abusers often purposely strike their wives in places that will be covered by clothing, and then attend the Sunday Sermon with the nice smile on their face, handing out firm hand-shakes and making wise theological comments at the appropriate times. No one would ever guess that such a godly and kind man could ever be anything but a wonderful husband and father.

In the same way, psychological abusers are rarely going to do or say anything overtly that would cause anyone to suspect what goes on behind closed doors. If anything, the only raised eyebrows in such a situation will be directed towards the wife, who, after years of such a marriage have gone by, will probably begin developing a bitterness for her husband that she can’t hide, and so will be promptly taken to task (or just privately tsk-tsked behind her back) for not being as supportive and cheerful as she should be. No one will ever know or guess her private hell, possibly not even her. The abuser will look like a great guy, while she will look like a shrew.

My husband always played the role of dutiful and kind husband in front of others. He would always pause, when we were around church people, to loudly say that he couldn’t do anything unless he’d talked with me first, and then would ask whether or not I wanted to participate in such-n-such event, or if it was okay with me if he went and helped out so-n-so.

Behind closed doors, that was not how things went, of course. He might ask my opinion, though ONLY if he wanted it, or he would simply tell me what was going to happen and when. Since he was in charge, it was up to him to decide whether or not I got to be a part of the decision-making process, and that usually just depended on his mood at the time and/or whether or not he knew what he wanted to do already or not.

But in front of others? Always, always, a kind sweet man, careful to think of how his wife might feel, eager to hear her opinion, sharing decision making.

During the last couple years at our church, when I was (slowly) beginning to get a clue about what was going on, I actually got so that I hated it when church people would come up and ask if it was okay if my husband went to such-n-such an event after church with them. They would ask me for my husband, since he was busy with some pastoral duty or another but made it clear to them, when they asked to see if he could go with them, that he couldn’t say yes until he’d first checked to see if it was okay with his wife. I had to work not to snarl at the innocent person asking if I would grant Mark permission to go.

It wasn’t their fault. They thought I had an amazing catch, so sensitive to his wife’s wants and needs, so careful to always ask. “What a servant-leader he is.” One woman who worked with my husband would always come up to me and almost cry, sharing with me that my husband had such a, “gentle heart, such a true servant.” I had to do my part and smile and nod. When the people came up asking me whether my husband could go attend such-n-such event, I had to smile, act graciously and “give permission.”

I hated that, helping him look good, but I was trapped. If I didn’t play along, what? I’d look horrid and he would still look amazing. When the woman came up, tears in her eyes, exclaiming over my husband’s kindness, what would happen if I said, “Yeah, well, your Mr. Gentle Servant, earlier this week, informed me authoritatively that if our daughter wanted go get married at fourteen, he would allow her to, because that was Biblical and there was nothing I could do about it.”

No matter what, whether I blurted out how I felt or smiled and nodded, he would still look the part of the amazing spiritual guy…so I smiled and nodded and went along with the whole act. But I knew the reality, which was that I had a guy who was great at *looking* like he was sensitive to his wife’s wants and needs, but behind closed doors would let me know exactly what I was allowed to do and what I was not.

I felt so dirty, playing along with the game, but I felt trapped. The conservative church culture, it felt to me, provided no way out but to smile and nod until the grave. I knew I couldn’t sustain the fake smile without going crazy, so I finally (scared out of my mind to be doing something so bold after years of doing the opposite) told Mark that he had a year to decide what he was going to do, but that at the end of that year, I was no longer going to attend that church. Once I realized it all was just a big game of putting on the, “aren’t I a great guy,” mask, I just couldn’t play it for him anymore.

I say that because I want to make it clear that, as I tell my story, it all seems so simple and so clear that my husband was really messed up, but in reality, it didn’t look as clear as it does on paper. In reality, for most wives married to abusers in the conservative Christian community, nothing is clear or simple at all. Apart from a few obvious lunatics who are unable to mask their abuse, most of the time it is almost impossible to tell that abuse is going on at all unless you are trained in such things.

As for why I never said anything for so long, how could I? For one thing, I was taught that you do NOT disrespect your husband. If there is a mortal sin, it would be to “uncover your authority,” to speak publically about the faults and problems of your man. Didn’t Miriam get leprosy when she complained about Moses marrying a heathen? Didn’t the ground open up and swallow Korah when he didn’t do exactly as God said? Didn’t Noah’s son get cursed for all generations when he didn’t keep his father’s sin hidden? No way was I going to say anything about my husband other than praise his good attributes.

So many of the “Biblical Womanhood” books make it very plain that a wife is NOT to speak to anyone about her husband’s faults, not even to her closest friends. As a woman striving to obey what I was taught was God’s vision of beautiful womanhood, I strove to always put the best face on things, the best slant on events, the best motives toward my husband’s actions. Besides, for most of my marriage, I believed my husband and thought our problems were all my fault. I was open about that part, how God had helped me learn how to be a better wife, and that generally was applauded.

I spoke about Mark’s good features, Mark’s accomplishments, Mark’s positive aspects, with pride and respect. I wasn’t lying, either. I honestly believed Mark was an amazing man of God for years. Denial is a powerful thing. It’s very easy to be in denial when you are taught that rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft—and not thinking the best of your husband, not obeying him without question, those are all rebellious behaviors. So I rooted rebelliousness right out of me, out of my desire to love and serve God, not realizing that the “rebelliousness” was actually my higher thinking skills and valid emotional responses to abuse, gifts God put in me for a reason.

And how could I have known it was abusive behavior, when the glories of marital hierarchy were lauded from both patriarchal sources and the more mainstream complementarian conservative church world? “Have a problem in your marriage? Make sure your marriage is in order (Christianese for hierarchical ordering, man in charge of woman). That will solve all your problems…” Mark was certainly “in authority,” and if I would only do a better job at joyfully obeying him, inside as well as outside, we wouldn’t have any problems, now would we? Most of the time, we didn’t have any problems—if you define problems as conflict. How could we have conflict, when I wasn’t allowed to have any will but his?

I will continue walking through the bits and pieces of my story. It all seems so stark, written down, so terribly obvious. I just wanted to point out that it was not obvious at all, in real life, because most everything was done in intimate settings, away from the eyes of people who would raise eyebrows. Mark’s family had no idea. Mark’s friends had no idea. Our church had no idea. Because there were two Marks.

One was the guy everybody else knew. He sometimes was also the guy with me. He was the Mark I loved. Whenever he was out, I was filled with hope. Things were going to be okay. We were going to not only do just fine—we were going to be amazing! What a lucky woman I am, to have such a wonderful husband! You would have probably thought so too, if you met the good Mark. He was one of those one-in-a-million kind of guys.

There was another Mark, though. He came out only with me, only when no one else was watching. That Mark was an evil thing. He hated me. It was palpable. As the years went by, and especially later on, when I started questioning the absolute obedience that he’d claimed was God’s will for wives, that the disdainful Mark came out more and more. Sometimes I was afraid to be in the same room with him, the hate poured off so strongly from him toward me. It took me a long time, and a quiverfull of children, to understand that maybe the good Mark wasn’t actually the real Mark.

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In order to give this explanation, I’ve gotten way ahead of myself. Last time I wrote, we had moved to Oregon. I only had one child then, and had just become a stay-at-home mom. Mark would soon be hired to be a minister at the church he’d chosen for us to attend, and I would soon become pregant again (no small surprise, given that we believed birth control was a lack of faith in God). Next time, I’ll pick up right there.

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A Tale of a Passionate Housewife Desperate for God by Journey:

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

The God Card by Journey:

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