a view from the margins: the aftermath of emotional & physical abuse

i know the coolest women.  seriously.  strong, brave, courageous women who are rebuilding their lives after the ravages of emotional and physical abuse threatened to ruin them.  i am crazily passionate about the subject of domestic violence because it is so prevalent, so underestimated, so misunderstood.  one of the reasons i am so intense about gender equality in the church is because of both subtle & direct ways women continue to be stripped of their dignity, value and voice.  this tearing down paves the way for men to overpower women with violence.  and violence isn’t always physical.  sometimes it’s words that harm and keep women stuck in more ways than one.  we need more understanding of the dynamics of abuse.  we need more men and women together in the conversation so we can learn from each other.  and we need to keep hearing stories that remind us it’s real and how we, as brothers & sisters on the journey, can learn to listen & respond.

meet my dear friend “hallie.”  i met her right before the proverbial sh*t hit the fan and have seen what can happen when a woman finds the courage and support to leave, rebuild, and heal from the ravages of living in an abusive relationship.  listen to her heart. (ps: she happens to write like me with no capital letters, so sorry to those who have been enjoying a few caps in these interviews!)

share a little of your background, what kind of family you came from, when you got married, maybe what your life was first like with him.

i come from a southern baptist family.  we were in church every time the doors were open.  my dad was in ministry and everyone was always watching my dad to make sure he was worthy to keep his “honorable” position.  needless to say, the pressure our family was under was extreme.  it was all about how we looked on the outside and my mother did a wonderful job of making sure we understood that.  my mom was a very good southern baptist wife who’s identity was solely that of being my dad’s wife.  sadly, she had some brilliant talents that went unnurtured and eventually just fell by the wayside.  she never felt worthy enough to cultivate her own talents and desires.  she never had a voice.  my dad was not an outwardly abusive man.  however, he was clearly the king of our family jungle and whatever he decided was the law of our land…period.  although my dad was never blatantly mean, he was extremely emotionally cold to us, except for my mom.  he never showed any kind of emotion to us kids, but lavished my mom with kisses and hugs regularly in front of us.  it was very confusing.  my parents would leave us often to go to various church functions out of town, revivals, etc.  my older sister would take care of us; this crazy and confusing life affected our family in many destructive ways.  for me, i was extremely promiscuous at a very early age, seeking love and affection i so desperately needed.

 

i met my husband when i was 29.  by that time, i had finished college, been involved in a string of messy relationships with men, and was fresh from a divorce after 5 months of marriage. he was so convincingly charming–everyone loved him; he had such an amazing way of being able to talk to anyone and put them at ease. the first couple of months were good.  we were partying a lot at that time and just enjoying life.  although we were having fun, we were at the point where we decided we should go our separate ways.  but then i found out i was pregnant.  it was then we decided we would try and make a life together since we were having a baby.  after my son was born, we were hit with a lot of financial pressure, as well as the demands of having a new baby.  although he was always emotionally cold, he was not initially abusive.  however, he did start out in the relationship showing selfish and neglectful behavior toward me.  he put his own needs and his friends needs above mine and my son’s. about 4 years into the relationship, he was spending less and less time at home, finding any and every reason to yell, which he was now doing on a daily occurance. after these incidents he always made  wonderful promises that he would change.

can you describe a little bit what your life was like with him?

almost 6 years into the relationship, we got married.  i had more hope for our relationship that we would finally be happy together if we got married, that somehow this chaotic way of living would magically disappear.  after the wedding, the next couple of months were really good.  i really thought he had changed.  it was during this time that we decided to to try and get pregnant again. after the wedding i got pregnant with my daughter, it seemed that overnight my husband became a man i had not yet known.  his anger became extremely unpredictable.  he refused to spend time at all with us, rarely coming home at this point.  as his anger and behavior turned more and more verbally and emotionally abusive, my self-worth subtly began diminishing, gradually annihilatingany shred of self-confidence  and assertiveness i may have still had at that point.  his verbal abuse turned into raging and his behavior became more and more physically threatening.

 

when did the lights go on and you realized that this was an abusive relationship?

i was in denial for so long about being in an abusive relationship even though some very dear people tried to tell me throughout the years.  i just couldn’t accept the fact that someone like me could be in that type of situation.  after all, i was educated and intelligent, how could i allow someone to treat me in that way?  i had such a sense of false pride, but deep down, i knew for a very long time.  the lights went on for me when i realized i was incredibly afraid of my husband.  that was the wake up call for me.  that being said, i still stayed in the relationship, hoping and praying we could somehow still work it out, desperately looking for any kind of hope to salvage our completely broken family.  ten years into the relationship, he admitted to having an affair.  at that point, i was done.  i no longer wanted anything from him except freedom from the emotionally abusive hell i had been living in for so long.  the night i told him i wanted a divorce is the night he physically attacked me.  unfortunately, my son witnessed this.  that was the last night he has ever been in my home.  what followed this incident was a year of absolute agony dealing with the criminal court for domestic violence, as well as the divorce hearings.  

 

 

why was it so hard to leave, what were some of the barriers that kept you there, the words that kept ringing in your head?

i always wanted so badly to believe him when he would make those wonderful promises that he would change; he was so convincing.  i also desperately hoped we could remain an intact family.  that was so important to me.  as crazy as it sounds now, despite the abuse, i truly didn’t know what the best thing was for my children.  i wrestled with the idea of my children growing up without their father in their home with them.  i really didn’t know if i could do it all on my own and was especially concerned about the finances.  i also felt so alone.  i had isolated to the point of not having anyone close to me anymore.  the most pervasive words that kept ringing in my head were “i’m not strong enough!”

 

 

where was God in all of this, what were some of the things you would cry out to him?

i would cry out “why!?!” and “how long!?!” i would beg God to change his heart and show him what a beautiful family he had been blessed with.  i would cry out in desparation to ease the pain and stop my suffering.  in those moments, God was there.  i’d beg him to wrap himself around me and cover me.  it’s painful to recall those darkest moments when i felt the pain would literally kill me and i wouldn’t make it through the night.  i asked God for the first year after the divorce, “why did you allow him to lie and get away with abusing me? why did you allow the truth to be hidden?” he’s never answered those questions, but i have decided to trust that he knows what he’s doing.

 

 

where did “church” fit in for you?  were you going to church, did people know what was going on, what was that experience like for you when you were still married?

 

remember, i was raised to consider appearances above everything else.  this defintely contributed to my covering up and denial of the abuse.  my dearest friend at the time was aware of the abuse.  being completely submerged in the church’s fundamentalist culture, she would also make excuses for him. within the last year of the relationship, months before the physical attack, we were attending a very large church.  as a last attempt to reach out, he agreed to go to counseling with me.  we called the church and eventually met with the pastor in charge of such things.  at that one and only meeting, we layed out our main issues.  although the word “abuse” was not used, what we were describing was clearly that.  I’ll never forget this pastor’s response.  he said it wasn’t my husband’s fault that he basically acted like a jerk and he totally let him off the hook.  his big schpiel was that he needed to go to a particular group counseling program the church supported on a weekly basis.  needless to say, he never attended the group.  in fact, when we left the “counseling” session that day, i felt even lower than when i went in, and my husband felt vindicated.  that was a really harmful situation and really bad advice that came from “the church.”

 

 

 

what were some of the things being in this relationship made you believe about yourself?

 

i really felt powerless, completely alone, isolated, weak, stupid, defeated, ugly, hopeless, afraid, indifferent.

 

 

 

you left, you got out, you got a divorce & are now in the throws of single parenting.  what is the hardest part about your life now?

 

several things are really difficult.  of course, the financial burden is sometimes absolutely impossible to carry.  probably the hardest part of being a single parent is having to do everything on your own.  my family is all out of state, so i truly don’t have the benefit of having family to help me.  also, at the end of the day, i’m exhausted and am still helping with homework, making sure showers are taken, and clean clothes are set out for the next day.  then there are also the emotional issues the children have, especially the first year after the separation and divorce.  since then, i constantly have to work extra hard at making sure they know both of their parents love them, despite our differences.  lastly, it is extremely challenging to co-parent with my ex-husband.  with the rule of joint decision making, he and i are equal in deciding major decisions regarding the children.  in theory, that sounds like a good and fair idea.  the reality is much more difficult to do.  this theory does not take into consideration abusive and extremely controlling personalities.  for those of us who have been in abusive relationships, it feels like his reign of terror will never end.

 

 

can you describe what it feels like to be a single mom with two kids and never enough money to pay the bills?

i am consistently a month behind with any given bill.  for example, sometimes i don’t pay the electric bill or phone bill for two months so i can pay the rent.  this leaves me constantly behind and often with a threat of a shut off notice.  it’s very stressful and scary.  there is a constant struggle between getting a higher paying job and never seeing my kids, or taking the lesser paying job and being able to spend more time with them.  i’ve done it both ways, and no matter which i choose, there’s always a price to pay.  i’m fortunate enough to receive child support, as i am aware that many single parents do not.  still, it is simply not enough, not nearly enough, as i am solely responsible for the children’s healthcare and dental work, as well as daycare costs, and their many other needs.  another issue some don’t normally think about is that i have two children, a boy and a girl.  i can only afford a two bedroom, so one of us doesn’t have a bedroom.  this is a difficult way to live.

 

 

 

are there any really stupid things christians have said to you along the way that made you want to scream?

yes!  after describing an extremely abusive act on my ex-husband’s part, a woman said to me that sometimes “the wife just has to accept what the husband brings to her, including the bad things.” are you kidding me???  i’ve also been reminded several times that if i “just pray more, God would change his heart.”  the other thing said that stands out is what i said earlier about the counselor/pastor telling him his behavior was not his fault and completely letting him off the hook for his abusive behavior.  this was so destructive, as it not only made me feel like total crap, but also empowered him to continue his behavior–only this time with the stamp of approval by the church.

 

 

 

 

 

 

what have you learned about yourself, about God as you have struggled and scraped to rebuild?

 

i have learned he will help me make it through the next day. i have learned that i am so worth being loved. i have learned that i am his precious daughter and that no matter what, his love for me never changes.  i have learned that i am a treasure and i am beautiful.  i have learned that i am strong.

 

 

what has a tangible, safe, loving communty meant to you on this journey of healing & standing on your own two feet?

my beautiful community has meant everything to me (and still does).  i don’t know where i’d be without my loving sisters and brothers.  they have a supernatural way of balancing giving, receiving, and loving in an extremely safe environment that has allowed me to walk honestly through this very tough journey.  they allow my questions, my anger, my love, my acceptance.  they love me unconditionally, so there is no fear of being too “difficult.”  they have filled in the gaps (and there are many), whether helping with paying bills, helping me move, or with babysitting.  they have shown me love in a very tangible way.   it’s truly been a matter of life and death for me.

 

 

what words do you have for a woman who is just beginning to wake up to the reality that the relationship she is in is abusive and she might have to leave?

 

what you are about to do is one of the most difficult things you have ever done or will do in your whole life.  i know it is scary and there is so much uncertainty.  this is going to be hard, but so worth it on the other side.  you are a beautiful, strong, and capable woman.  you are going to make a better life for yourself and you do deserve it, even though you may not believe it right now.  you are God’s precious daughter. you are valuable, a treasure, who deserves to be loved unconditionally.  i know it is scary, but find at least one person you can reach out to and tell your story.  keep telling it until someone hears you.  find a support group.  i know it’s hard, but once you take that first step, you’ll find that you are not alone.  you will find compassion, understanding, and strength.

 

 

 

what words do you have for “the church” when it comes to journeying alongside women who have been abused in their relationships, what would you like them to know?

 

i would just say “love on her!”  she is so wounded by the time anyone knows about the abuse.  speak positivity into her life.  love on her.  help her to realize her worth.  step in when she can’t, whether it is financial, emotional, or spiritual.  love her unconditionally and treat her as the precious treasure that she truly is.

thank you, hallie. you are amazing and courageous, and i know over the course of time you will continue to remind many women they are worth more than they’ve been told. i hope that we, the church, can get better at understanding this issue.  i know this–we need more men in the conversation.  my husband, jose, is working at a legal aid clinic and is really focusing in on domestic violence victims. he was recently at a conference here in denver for people who advocate for abused women in some shape or form.  there were over 30 people there, and he came home and told me he was the only man there.  that, my friends, needs to change.

God, help us boldly & lovingly stand on behalf of the abused.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

10 Comments

  • Hi Kathy,

    Wondering if you know about the website: theRaveProject.org? RAVE seeks to shatter the silence surrounding abuse, particularly in families of faith. They use stained glass as a constant reminder that beauty can be borne out of brokenness.
    There have online resources that might be helpful to many. Talk to you later.

    Reply
  • oh Hallie, I was soooo enraged when I read your story, on so many levels. I know that we can’t necessarily qualify pain, but I am not sure what felt worse for you at times, the abuse, or the church response? Oy.

    I literally felt sick to my stomach about the pastoral counseling session & it made me ache for females everywhere in that situation. Seriously, what year are we in, where we STILL have so little education about not only abuse, but our response to hurting people?!

    You are clearly one tough woman, and maybe even stronger than you have given yourself credit for. So excited to meet you, learn from you, and to stand beside you. 🙂

    Reply
  • “Hallie”. You have a very powerful story, and I commend you for surviving, leaving, and journeying onward, especially with so much against you.

    I’m not a big fan of in-church counseling…except at The Refuge (because kathy is a good counselor:). I’m not sure what makes a pastor think that he can counsel too people effectively with so little training. Even The Refuge knows its limits and refers people to great counselors when they know the person needs more help. I am SOOO sorry that you had to sit there and hear such obvious bull sh*t, and that your husband was let off the hook.

    I too grew up in a Southern Baptist Church. Thankfully, my parents weren’t totally bought in.

    I remember those nights filled with extreme anxiety just after the separation. Your story rang so true for me.

    I have no experience with Physical Abuse, but Emotional Abuse has been a factor in past relationships. It is so subtle and difficult to recognize. I kept waiting for someone to say “he’s not treating you right”. But we put up a pretty strong facade and I was in complete and total denial.

    This is a really great series Kathy. Thanks for bringing us these interviews. And Rock On Jose for being an advocate for women!

    Reply
  • Kathy and “Halle,”
    First, again I want to thank you, Kathy, for posting Halle’s interview.

    Halle, thank you for sharing your story. I actually know of several women who have gone through similar stories/experiences as you. Each time I heard their stories (some of whom were still attached to their abusive husbands), my heart broke.

    I am so glad you took the stand, and divorced him. May Father bless you financially and provide for all yours and your kid’s needs.

    Blessings,
    ~Amy 🙂
    Walking In The Spirit
    http://amyiswalkinginthespirit.blogspot.com

    Reply
  • Thank you for having the courage and wisdom to share this.

    As a pastor’s wife and foster mom, I encounter the devastation of this more often than I wish.

    The good news is that the sun does shine again; God sweeps healing over our shredded lives; and he can bring us to a better tomorrow.

    This morning, I was reading from Isaiah 43:19 – “Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new. It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it? There it is! I’m making a road through the desert, rivers in the badlands.”

    I claim that promise for you.

    Reply
  • Being father of four daughters and husband of a very special wife who has been wounded and often diminished by “the church”, hearing stories like this really makes me angry. I know there are guys out there like this, I’ve met several of them myself. You often see how they rule their home, leave their family in the dust whenever possible, but still put on a “we’re a christian family and I’m the head of the home” front. I’m sorry, but I don’t buy the man is the head of the home (and everything he says goes) that we seem to be handed by the church. I hope to raise my daughters knowing they don’t have to put up with that crap. And, I hope for their sake, my future son-in-laws get that too. If a man wants to be the head of his home and in charge, he should do it like Jesus did and lay down his life.

    Reply
  • barb – thanks for sharing. i will definitely check it out. it was nice meeting you at convergence!

    stacy – yeah, that’s the part that was extra painful to me, too. the reaching out on hallie’s part, the taking the step to try to get help, and then to end up getting silenced. this is what i seriously hope changes as people in ministry become more educated about the sensitive dynamics around this issue. it is also why we need more voices in the room, too, instead of just relying on one counselor, one pastor, one person.

    dan – i so agree. this is why we need each other so desperately. we have so much to learn from each other. and there is such an opportunity for healing through true community. at the refuge last month there was a panel about hope in community; one of my friends shared how he had abused his wife physically and emotionally before their divorce. i was so proud of him to speak so clearly, so truthfully, so honestly. a woman stood up who was visiting and shared how healing it was for her to hear a man be so honest and humble, that she had never thought it was possible, and that she was trying to get out of an abusive relationship. oh, what healing could take place if more men and women could be in the room together living more honestly & giving and receiving God’s truth and life.

    lisa – i really agree with you that emotional abuse is very subtle and sometimes difficult to recognize. i believe sometimes the damage of emotional abuse is far worse because it doesn’t leave a noticeable mark but slowly and silently steals and robs and tries to destroy a woman’s soul.

    amy – always love the encouragement and heart you pass on here!

    jim – yeah, i think more damage has been and continues to be done through this interpretation of scripture than we want to admit. and we have a huge responsibility to teach our daughters who they really are and what God’s heart is for them. it is a big job, but i think with dads modeling humility and equality like you and jose, they’ve got a much better chance.

    Reply
  • Men wake up and smell the… and no it aint roses. Open you minds and hearts to the reality that sisters, children, neighbors are being a bused and it is not acceptable.

    Male Pastor grow a pair and stand up and tell men it is not acceptable! Report abuse! Seek justice for the oppressed! Love and protect women and children!

    Tom Wilson

    Reply
  • Thanks for telling Hallie’s story. I’m in a place of recovery from similar circumstances myself. It’s very empowering to learn from others experiences. My circumstance is one where after years of abuse, I finally left (with another man, I’m embarrassed to admit…it was the only time that I felt there was a tangible way out, a support, a solution… however wrong).
    But my husband completely realized his wrong, went public with his problem, and has taken definite, serious steps toward recovery at his own initative. Our story isn’t pretty but we are trying to make it work now, and I believe we will make it (I wouldn’t be hanging around anymore if things weren’t changed).

    But it’s true, people certainly downplay it. In church counseling, bad advice is often given because the situation is highly under-estimated…it’s tough to grasp how such “nice people”, such “good Christians,” such “educated, normal people” can be found in such horrible marital relations.

    It’s very wrong to assume only “creeps” are abusive. The problem with abuse is that very nice, very sincere, great men allow themselves to be abusive. The world-wide question is, “Why do women stay?” The answer is, “Because the chances are very likely that their man is a really nice, even loving guy.” To categorize all men into the “evil” department who are abusive is quite misleading! Abusers are often just regular men with serious problems. They’re brothers, sons, men who love God even, with a serious, serious problem.

    I think the church is probably full of abusive relationships but no one ever talks about it or realizes it…Have you ever heard a sermon on abuse? I’ve been in church all my life and I have never heard one!

    And too often all people say is, “I’m here if you need me.” Mere words and abstract availability are never good enough. Accountability and a very specific plan of intervention/recovery needs to be promoted.

    It caused me leaving under really shameful circumstances for our issue to finally get dealt with. I’m just glad it did. It’s requiring work, but God is bringing beauty out of ashes in my circumstance.

    Reply

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