thank you all for your thoughts and love from my last out of the darkness post. i am always thankful to hear that somehow my story can offer hope to others in some small way. it is more redeeming than you know. i have appreciated this series and the wonderful stories of God-at-work-through-the-Body-of-Christ-when-it-becomes-safe-enough-for-what-is-in-the-darkness-to-come-into-the-light.
this week’s story is one that is very special to me because it is so typically untold. you hear me all the time talk about marginalized and abused women. i of course am so passionate about that issue. at the same time, there is often another angle on abuse—emotional, physical, and sexual—that is often untold. and whether we are aware of it or not, there are many men who are abuse victims. they are in abusive relationships and the perpetrators are women. it can look different for everyone. some of these relationships involve sexual abuse. others have emotional abuse, over-controlling, rage, and constant be-littling at their core. and others can involve physical abuse, women who cause physical harm to their partners. regardless of the type, the results of abuse tend to always be the same—dignity gets stripped, voices are silenced, shame & self-loathing is magnified. and often when i am with my male friends who struggle with healing from past and present abuse, i share with them the similarities. one huge difference that exists between them, though, is how typically “unacceptable” it is for men to be considered as “abused” and not really being able to share their stories in these terms. the gender stereotypes of men as abuser and woman as victim that we so often embrace are more engrained into our cultural—and spiritual—fabric than we might know. so abused men are often faced with a double-whammy.
so listen in on my dear friend “greg’s” powerful story as he has been journeying out of the darkness and into the glorious light of hope & healing from the shame and pain of being in abusive relationships. greg’s not the only one. i know more and more men who struggle with this same pain & have often found the church to be less-than-helpful in understanding. i hope that changes over time as we hear more stories and stop our stereotypical assumptions about men & women and the dynamics of abuse.
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- share a little bit about your family dynamics & your early spiritual journey.
My mother was dominant and extremely co-dependent in both sexual and emotional ways towards me. My dad was a dry drunk expressing himself with rage and negativity followed by withdrawal. I protected myself by withdrawing from my family as much as I could; for example, I never wanted to be touched by either of my parents. We lived on a farm with my maternal grandparents, and they felt safer to me and I spent as much of my time as I could with them.
I grew up in church, I call it “the flannel-board jungle.” My sister and I would walk through the fields to Sunday School every Sunday. (I have strings of medals to prove perfect attendance). My parents never attended as both had stories of damage by church in their youth. When I was old enough I was sent off to church camp. This was a destructive experience. We were forced to hear from missionaries, who worked in Africa and were bigots. The only game we were forced to play involved two kids straddling a suspended log and hitting each other with pillows until one fell to the hard ground in shame and derision. While I continued to have a very active spiritual life I had nothing to do with Christian church for over thirty years.
- usually those of us who end up in abusive relationships have been victims of some form of abuse, either emotional, physical, or sexual. can you share a little bit about where your story intersects with any of these?
I think I can cover all three types of abuse. When I was small, say pre-ten years old, I remember this board. It was varnished and had large reinforced holes, I guess to avoid wind resistance; that was used for corporal punishment. When I was about ten I became my mother’s confidante on all matters of my father’s short-comings as a husband, including intimate details of their sex life. Around this time a family “friend” took me camping a couple of times and abused me sexually. After the final time I must have been so traumatized that the “family friend” just disappeared. This was never mentioned in the family. My father was a rage-a-holic and was constantly negative toward me. After the life I have described above I had a complete mental breakdown at 19. When I was finally able to leave home I never slept under that roof again.
- how did you end up in the marriage you ended up in? can you describe what was going on for you during that time?
I think this is a story of lack of personhood. My mother raised me as a co-dependent responsible for her emotional well-being. She did this with guilt and shame. As I tried to run from her to new relationships I brought along that guilt and shame. I did not come to new relationships as a real person but as an economic and emotional utility. I don’t think there was a real alive person there at all.
- what did life look like in your relationship at home? what were some of the dynamics of your relationship?
I was responsible for all the personal needs of my spouse be they emotional, economic, or care-giving of any sort. I could not have any thoughts or feelings of my own, in fact I was told what feelings and thoughts I was allowed to have. I remember that late in this relationship she would sent letters to my personal therapist explaining what should be discussed and what the outcome should be. I was told what I wanted for my birthday, where I wanted to go on vacation, and even what I wanted for dinner. If I could not meet any of my spouses needs be they openly demanded or unknown to me, this would illicit hours of rage and screaming anger. Sometimes she would apologize the next day. I was guarded and in fear literally all the time. One thing I learned the hard way was that nothing of me was ever allowed to be present at home.
- when did you realize “oh no, this is an extremely abusive relationship?”
This is a hard place to be honest. I stayed in fear, depression, and anxiety for well over a decade telling myself this is where I should be, that this is somehow all I was worth. With the help of my therapist I did something I had never done before: I stood up for myself. It was a very minor issue that neither my therapist nor I can remember, but my ex, in full abusive rage, kicked me out of the house. Even after all this and a number of nasty letters from her it still took about four months before I could even say that I might not deserve this kind of treatment. Remember from my mother to my ex I had been told this is what I deserve. Therefore I did not start to think of my relationship as abusive until months after it was over.
- we hear a lot about abused women, but very little about abused men. share a little bit about “extra shame” from being a man caught in the cycle of abuse.
I would like to bring up two common expressions, “Boy, is he whipped” and “You know who wears the pants in that family”. These things mostly are said derisively behind the back of the subject. Men who are abusers can go to Promise Keepers and get a social ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card. Women who are abused have a plethora of ‘safe houses’ and support groups. Men who are abused have addiction, shame, and guilt to turn to. The anger I feel now, as I’m coming out of abuse, could be turned into destructive hate and I could assume the role of abuser. I am choosing not to. Basically shame is about all our culture offers an abused male. I think it’s completely misunderstood and overlooked.
- in this moment, a lot of people go ‘hey, why didn’t you just leave?” can you flesh out why that is such a dumb question!
Dumb is right but it covers the real meaning, which is denial. I think that anyone who even thinks this should ask themselves where they fit within the spectrum of abuser/victim. Women my tell themselves that, ‘He really loves me’, ‘He was just upset at work’, or worse ‘It was my fault’. Men may think ‘It’s the only way she will listen’ or ‘Sorry, I won’t do that again’. Abused men live in a world of, ‘She really loves me and needs me’ and “This is all I deserve.” I think anyone who asks the question above is in denial about how pervasive abusive dynamics really can be.
- you got out of your relationship and are in the process of healing. what have you been learning about yourself through this process?
I have learned that I’m angry with God. I have learned that this is OK. In the past I lived in denial, I medicated the pain with alcohol, and the only behavior I was capable of was passive-aggressive. Now that I’m not living a lie I have found a growing sense of freedom, particularly from the need for negative behavior. I’m beginning to understand that while one is living in the abuser/victim dynamic there is no change, no chance for faith, hope, and love. As a victim of abuse my only response to the world was critical and negative. Now I feel a real need for a different way to negotiate life. I don’t think it is immediately intuitive, but somehow God has opened my heart to the need for humility. Humility is a narrow path that requires a courage and heart that I have never experienced before. Humility, for an abuse victim, is a transcendental act of letting go of fear; of trusting God for the faith, hope, and love that has never been a part of life before.
- what have you been learning about God?
That I’m His beloved child and he does have a special purpose for me and that I can trust Him. Right now I can trust God in all the anger I direct his way. I am beginning to learn that if I watch and listen God well lend me the strength to do things I have never been able to do for myself.
- how has being in a safe community helped you expose the shame into the light and begin to experience healing?
Being in a safe community hasn’t just helped it has been essential to my healing. Therapy and personal prayer have helped but a safe community has allowed me to experience what it means to be a beloved child of God. It has been a place where I have begun to see that there is a real person inside and, even more, a good person.
- what were some of the lies you used to believe about yourself?
I think that an abused person, of either sex, does not have a “self”. We allow someone else to tell us what and who we are. My messages were” useless, stupid, always wrong, worthless, fat, bastard” and on and on. I think the real lie here is that I don’t have a self other than what I’m told to be. The message of‘The abuser is god and allows no other god’ is more pervasive than one might think. The only religion allowed is the care and worship of the abuser. This co-dependent relationship is constructed with anger and shaming that controls the victim.
- what are some of the truths you are beginning to embrace?
True humility is not to be feared but embraced. When I lived as a victim of abuse humility was either a lie I had to live in relation to the abuser or a false face I tried to wear to cover all the inner anger that I never wanted anyone else to see. I remember trying to think about humility and feeling like a blind person contemplating a rainbow. Of course this flimsy construct often fell apart leaving more shame, fear, and guilt in the ruins. Now I’m starting to find that real humility is part of the path towards freedom, it’s a trust in God that I hadn’t experienced before.
- when you hear a lot of talk about “abused women” what do you want to make sure gets included in the conversation?
I hope that everyone would meditate about this idea: that all abusive men and women and all abused men and women share the same inner world of fear, hopelessness, and shame. And this dark messy world becomes all consuming. The way out is to be honest with God and safe people about this situation, no matter what it looks like.
- how do you balance the common tendency (and fear for many) to live as victim and at the same time embrace the truth of your story?
I think I had to come to a place where I had to admit that I am a victim and, as such, my life is out of control. But, when I wake up in the morning, I don’t have to be a victim today. In other words admit I’m addicted to being a victim but I have removed myself from the environment of victimization.
- what words of hope do you have for men out there who are crippled by previous emotional and physical and sexual abuse, either from childhood or from a toxic relationship
You are not defined by your fear, shame, and guilt. You are not a failure. God has a need for the gifts you have been given. I know you barely know what they are and you don’t really trust them. It’s time to let God and safe loving people take your hand and walk with you to a new life. I know it is scary, but you can wake up bit-by-bit and day-by-day with less fear, shame, and guilt.
- how can communities become more sensitive to the untold stories of abused men?
I think this goes back to what the prophets and Jesus had to say about really hearing and seeing. You know, the stuff about ears and eyes that cannot hear or see. I know, that as an abused man, I sounded horrible and looked ugly. That’s what bringing anger, shame, and guilt must look like. Communities need to see with eyes of grace and hear with ears of hope. An infant’s crying can be annoying or a clarion call to surround the child with love.
- anything else you’d like to add?
Please, dear reader, allow me some grace. This is a very difficult testimony. I hope that I’m now opening my heart to at least a small portion of forgiveness towards those that have abused me. While I cannot be in relationship with any of them, for various reasons, I am beginning to understand that we have all lived in the same dark and messy world of fear, shame and guilt that knew no boundaries. Please God forgive us, both abusers and victims, for we really don’t know what we’re doing to each other.
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greg, i am thankful you are my brother on the journey. thank you for your courage to put to words what has happened or is happening for a lot of men in churches & families & friendships yet is most often unexpressed and hidden. there are so many men who, like women, feel unworthy, undeserving of good things, who believe that any morsel of connection is better than nothing at all. as children of God, that damaging message needs to be destroyed. my hope is that we will participate in being people & places of hope, calling out the good and beautiful in the ugliest and most shame-filled of situations.