Gaslighting, isolation, and assault: my story of narcissistic abuse.

Content warnings: sexual assualt, rape, isolation abuse, financial abuse

I was married for six years to a man I had been with for two years prior to our wedding. That marriage had a ton of issues, created a ton of trauma, and involved a lot of damage. For reasons that I will save for another post, my ex-husband and I were basically set up for failure, and while leaving that relationship was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do, it was also one of the most necessary.

But the next man to walk into my life following my divorce would manage to do more damage in one year than my previous relationship had done in eight.

This is the story, not of my broken marriage, but of the devastating relationship that immediately followed it.

Serial abusers have a pattern to how they acquire their new victims. Each new relationship is generally preceded by a dramatic life overhaul on the part of the abuser, which involves burning any bridges of people who know them “too well,” isolating the new victim, and conditioning them to 1. never interact with anyone who could give them an unflattering perspective on the abuser, and 2. feed them enough lies about those people that if the current victim and the previous one ever had the option to interact, the current victim would truly believe the previous victim to be crazy, evil, or some combination of the two.

The setup was textbook. My abuser built our relationship upon a number of factors: the number of years we have been out of contact and out of each other’s lives following our initial meeting a decade before, and the loyalty that came from our newly reestablished friendship, the fact that both of our marriages imploded at roughly the same time, the reality that I was a brand-new mother, sleep deprived and overwhelmed, and the financial and physical dependence I had on him and members of his family. I was fragile from new motherhood (my daughter was only three weeks old when we left my ex-husband), broken from my divorce, and isolated from friends and family. The only support I had I met through him – again, specifically chosen people he knew would only speak positively about him.

He told me what I would later discover to be outlandish lies about his ex-wife, and, at the same time, lied to her about me, to be sure we were thoroughly pitted against each other and kept apart. Even now, as I have had the privilege of reconnecting with her and sorting through our mutual manipulation, it is devastating to realize the extent to which he deceived us in order to preserve his facade. 

I struggled during that time to determine what I wanted from my faith, and engaged with the church community that he had been a part of for many years. The people there welcomed me, offered me love, financial support, and relationship, but they neglected to warn me about the ugly facts of this man’s past. Mark (a name I have deliberately chosen to avoid giving him any notoriety or future ammunition against me), had committed multiple acts of sexual violence in his previous marriage, and thoroughly manipulated, controlled, and abused his wife until she had no choice but to flee. The handful of the new friends I had in this church community knew the reality of the situation. They had heard confessions of this abuse directly from Mark’s own mouth. 

But the Christian teachings of unconditional acceptance and forgiveness were manipulated by this man, who knew exactly what to say and how to present himself in order to seem remorseful and changed. In the spirit of forgiveness, they welcomed him with open arms, offering him shelter under their roofs and places among their families. They trusted him, and I felt that if they trusted him, there was no reason for me not to.

There were people who might have been willing to tell the truth about what they knew of him, but Mark went well out of his way to be sure that I thought so little of those people that I would never take them seriously should their opinions find their way to me. In the time that we were together, he turned me into a weapon against his ex, selling me his version of an evil, manipulative woman who would do anything to hurt him, and then using my loyalty as a tool to hurt her. She was the enemy, and since she had fled to the opposite end of the state, unable to share her story, I had little reason to believe otherwise. I took up arms on his behalf, and he had no need to personally defame her while he had such a willing foot soldier who would do that dirty work for him. It makes me sick to think about the dishonest gossip I spread about a woman who has not only been gracious to me in our reconciliation, but did in fact try to warn me ahead of time about what he was capable of doing.

The first time he assaulted me, we were in the middle of an intimate encounter when he decided to ask me for something specific. I told him no – that act made me emotionally uncomfortable and caused me physical pain. He used the dramatic difference in our sizes to his advantage and forced me to perform it anyway.

The second time, we began an evening of hanging out with me stating clearly to him that I did not want to be physically intimate. Within an hour he had manipulated and coerced me into “changing my mind” by using his own sadness and needs to make me feel guilty for saying no.

Following both of these encounters, he apologized, putting on a very convincing show of remorse and shame, admitting that what he had done was wrong and disgusting, and asking for my forgiveness.

But in between the acts of physical violence, there was a much more subtle abuse taking place.

Mark had dramatic financial issues, often running himself into a huge amount of debt over frivolous purchases. He was the classic cautionary tale of retail therapy gone wrong. But even in instances of generosity, he had convinced me that gifts were the only language his heart understood.

During this time I was in job training, and had no regular income of my own. I could not reciprocate the lavish gifts he would bestow upon me after he had done something that hurt me. One evening, he made a terribly cutting remark and left me in tears, and I was so terrified of losing him by “reacting badly” to verbal abuse he had committed against me that I actually spent a ridiculous amount of money from my tax return on a gift for him as an apology.

Apologizing and feeling guilty for things that were done to me became a regular occurrence. If I stood up for myself, he would compare me to his ex-wife, who he claimed was “vindictive and emotionally manipulative.” I would apologize. If I called him out on abusive behavior, he would tell me that I was being “unforgiving and unchristian.” I would apologize. If I expressed fear that he was harming me or using me in any way, he would act betrayed by the insinuation, and blame my previous marriage for trauma that he claimed I was “projecting onto him.” I would apologize.

We quickly and easily fell into a pattern that was dramatically one-sided: me running to keep up and anticipate his every whim, making him food, bringing him coffee at work, doing his laundry, bending over backwards to make him happy and walking on eggshells to prevent him from being unsatisfied with me. Him using every fear I had against me in order to keep me in line and trotting along at his heels.

And all the while, we lied.

My church community knew that I had some major issues with the Bible and its rules, and that certain things commonly accepted in Christianity – like extramarital sex being a sin, for example – were not moral hangups for me. They knew we disagreed on those topics, but they loved and accepted me anyway.

Mark, on the other hand, went to great pains to hide where his opinions differed from those of his church. He reframed this dishonesty in terms of “privacy.” I would try to communicate how uncomfortable it made me that I felt like I was being hidden. Privately, beyond closed doors he would tell me that he loved me, that he intended to marry me and be with me forever, that he hoped one day to adopt my daughter. Publicly, he asserted that we were “just friends” and, I would later discover, that I was unstable and attention-seeking, and his friendship with me was one of pity.

For six months we carried out this ruse, him hiding the reality of his life from his church, me dutifully and loyally protecting his reputation and his privacy. It would ruin his life, he said to me, if people in the church knew that we had been sleeping together. He claimed his ex-wife would maliciously use it against him and find ways to punish him if she knew the truth. He claimed his church would tell him he could no longer lead worship or participate in the small groups if they thought he was sinning. His entire life, he insisted, hung on me keeping his privacy intact.

And so I did. Of course I did.

I wouldn’t see until much, much later how this disguise of our “friendship” actually enabled him to play the field behind my back. He once made the mistake of allowing me to see his phone being messaged over and over by a girl from his gym who he had never mentioned to me. When I pressed him, he insisted that they were only friends, but upon further questioning he admitted that they had gone on a date the week before and he had intentionally hidden that fact from me. Months later I would discover they had been sleeping together behind my back. To this day I honestly don’t even know if she realized he was in a relationship.

Around the six month mark, a dramatic shift occurred in our relationship. He pulled away suddenly, distancing himself from me emotionally, refusing to talk to me, and ignoring my pleas for any sort of communication. The only time we would interact was late at night when he would text to ask if he could come over. I would beg him for some sort of explanation, or at the very least, an ultimatum or definition of our relationship. He flat-out refused to give me either. Finally, I asked him for one thing: that when he decided he was done with me, he should say so. “Don’t just let me hang here,” I begged. “Just be direct with me when you have decided that this relationship is over. Have enough respect for me to at least break up with me.” He said he could promise that much. He couldn’t, and in the months that followed I finally grew so devastated and hurt by his neglect of me that, eventually, I was the one to break things off.

My daughter and I, since leaving my ex-husband, had been graciously and generously sheltered by Mark’s mother. She could tell a dramatic change had happened, although she didn’t at the time know the full extent of our relationship. He insisted we keep her in the dark as well, threatening that if she discovered he and I had a romantic relationship, she might evict me and my infant. This sweet woman who had become like a second mother to me and a grandmother to my daughter found me crying in the bathroom one evening. I finally confessed to her, leaving out particular details that Mark had been adamant she should never learn, that not long ago he had been making promises about forever, and now he had abandoned me with no explaination. That night she confessed to me that she knew he was a monster, and sometimes wished that he had never been born. 

Mark’s mother knew – and knows – the truth about him. Unbeknownst to me at the beginning of our relationship, she had sat across from Mark’s ex-wife and heard all the abuses that had been inflicted upon her. Like the other members of our church community, she knew that he had a history of abuse, and she knew that he and I had a close intimate friendship, but she chose to use the excuse of forgiveness not to warn me. My heart breaks when I think of how trapped and controlled she is by him.

At the end of the summer, after my daughter and I left his mother’s house and found our own apartment, I confided to a mutual friend of ours that if Mark were to knock on my door and asked to date me properly – openly, honestly, and without fascade – that I would tell him no. I had finally seen him for the sort of person he was, and I didn’t want to be with him anymore. I felt very free.

Several months later, I began to date Jordan and experience my first truly healthy relationship. All the while, Mark remained on the edges of my social circle, and we ran into each other more than once. We still engaged in the same church community, and I still kept his secrets. Periodically he would text me to “chat” about his new life, his new girlfriends, his promotion, etc. I kept a careful distance, knowing that this behavior was intended to elicit jealous or insecure reactions from me. Then in January, a little more than a year since we first got together, he texted me to ask if we could meet for coffee. Hesitantly, I agreed.

He led the conversation, as he usually does, and unsurprisingly the topic revolved around his romantic life. He wanted me to know how many women he had been with since me, how many relationships he had started and ended since we broke ties six months before. But he made a crucial error in telling his story, and accidentally admitted to me that had been with a number of these women long before our break up. All of the hurt and anger came flooding back as I realized that he had cheated on me.

After a year of suffering in silence and isolation, I finally made the decision to come clean to the leaders of our church. These dear friends, who had shown me so much love, made time in their day to allow me to tell my story and bring the deceit, manipulation, and double life Mark had led to the surface. When he was finally confronted by our pastor about his lies, he chose to abandon the community entirely, yet again burning bridges and severing ties with anyone who knew the truth about him.

The wheel turned. Nothing changed.

I carefully separated myself from him, changing my phone number, and blocking him on social media. I created a safe buffer between us, so that if he or his new significant other wanted to interact with me they would struggle to find a medium through which to do so. I created new space in my life, went back to therapy, and began to heal.

Since his departure from that community and most of the people who now know the extent of his deceit, he has created a brand-new social group. It has been more than a year since the last time I had to speak to him. He has surrounded himself with people who have little or no knowledge of his past, found a new significant other, and weaponized her against me in the exact same way he weaponized me against his previous ex. She fights his battles for him, and recently did hunt me down online to attack me for sharing (what he has undoubtedly told her are) lies about him. To my knowledge, she has no one to tell her the truth. In reality, I can’t even be angry at her. I did much the same to his ex, and if their relationship one day ends, his next victim will do the same to her.

This past Easter, nearly a year ago, he went to his mother and “told her the facts of our relationship.” To this day I have no idea what he could have said to her, but immediately following that conversation she pulled the chute, blocking me on social media, blocking my phone number, and refusing to answer any of my emails. He severed my relationship with a woman who held such an important place in my heart, and I will likely never get the opportunity to tell her my side of the story.

The devastating reality of this story is that it is not an original one, and while the signs are clear and textbook, it is almost impossible to see them while you are in the maelstrom. My hope is that by sharing this tale, I will shed light on the common abusive practices of isolation, forced silence, casual assault, and dramatically lopsided relationship that defines abuse. I know Mark would rather this story never be told. I know his significant other has been conditioned to disbelieve it, and I know the people who are still loyal to him have a desire to discredit it. But I will not be bullied into hiding my story. After a year of psychological, physical, and emotional abuse, he does not have the power to control me anymore.

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Three ways being a single mother made me a badass and a pain in the ass all at the same time


Being a single mom has made me kind of a badass, as it has done for almost every single mother I’ve ever met. But in a lot of ways, being a single parent messes with your mind and causes you to be more than a little bit of a pain to the next person who steps into partnership with you. Here are three ways I’m learning that my badassery is also kind of a thorn in the side of the people I love.

1. If I’m not running myself into the ground I feel like a failure

To be fair, this little bit of my neuroses started decades before I had my child, but being a single mother certainly didn’t improve upon the situation. 

Single moms intimately understand the reality of being overworked, overbooked, and overwrought 99% of the time. We are the breadwinners and the homemakers. The stay at home parent and the working parent. The disciplinarian and the friend. The good cop and the bad cop. 

So on the occasions when I find rest and margin in my life, it’s pretty easy for me to feel like I’m dropping the ball. Remember when finals week ended and school went on break and for the next 48 hours you had random panic moments wondering what you were supposed to be doing? That’s my life every time I get a chance to take a breath.

This is not always a bad thing. My stamina is pretty high. I’m pretty productive most of the time. But at least three or four times a week my boyfriend asks me to turn off my phone, close my planner, and just relax with him, and shutting it all down for an hour feels like an impossibility. I’ll get there.

2. I have zero patience for people who can’t get the job done

“Failure is not an option” never feels so real as when you become a single parent. There are a number of plates that have to keep spinning, no matter what. Your kid has to eat, has to make it to doctors appointments, has to wear clothes that (mostly) fit. There are a handful of things that can be put on the back burner, but not many. Single moms know how to get shit done, because we don’t have any other option.

So when I encounter someone who thinks that working part time is a lot, or who complains about how exhausted they are as a mom, despite having free grandma daycare on a regular basis, my hackles automatically go up. 

That’s not cool. It’s not fair to other parents for me to judge them based on my own standards of productivity. It’s not fair for me to compare my life to someone else’s, because I truly don’t know what their life looks like from the inside. It sucks, and it’s something I’m working on killing in myself.

3. Transitioning out of being a single mother sometimes feels horrible

I was a single parent of my daughter for the first two years of her life. Even long after I started seriously dating my boyfriend, it took a while for me to make the transition from dating-single-mother to being someone’s partner again. Nowadays, I don’t identify as a single mother anymore, because I know my boyfriend is here to stay, and he does a great job of coparenting my daughter with me.

Our home dynamic has changed with the addition of my boyfriend. He is truly an equal partner with me in our home. He plays with Molly, keeps the house, cooks, does the grocery runs, and makes sure Molly is well socialized. All of this “should” make me feel really good and happy. But it doesn’t always.

When we bought a new car seat, he made the case that it should go in his car, because with me in school and working two jobs, she was more likely to be driven around in his car than in mine. The realization stopped me in my tracks. Relinquishing tight control of my daughter (and my status as her only full-time parent) was a much harder transition then I expected. 

I had built my identity so much on being independent and single that stepping back into a partnership almost felt wrong. Hilariously, I started to feel like less of a person for no longer being a single parent. 

There are a lot of things about my stint as a single parent that I am grateful for. It forced me to grow in areas like asking for help, speaking truthfully, and prioritizing my health. But it also instilled some not-so-great tendencies in me that I will continue to work through as my life evolves. It’s all a process. 

So here’s to patient partners and understanding children who put up with the badass pains-in-the-ass that are formerly single mothers. Cheers.

Stop Picking At It: On Abandonment and Self-Wounding

I have experienced a lot of abandonment. 

Some of it has been tangible, like the woman who was practically a mother to me one day just ghosting. Blocking my number, blocking me on social media, never speaking to me again without explanation or warning. 

Some of it has been a gradual, like exes who decided they didn’t want to be with me anymore and were too cowardly to say so.

Some of it has been abrupt, like friends who ended one interaction with a promise that they would always be there and began the next with an explanation of why they no longer wanted to have a relationship with me.

Some of it has been ironic, like the therapist I started seeing for my abandonment issues, who sat me down six weeks into our sessions to break the news that her husband had been transferred and she was moving to another state.

I have so many things to say to these people. I have so many things I wish they would know. I have so much pain and so many questions. And the reality is that if things remain consistant, I will never get a chance to say any of it.

That doesn’t stop me from trying.

It doesn’t stop me from talking to them under my breath as I work, or crying to them in the shower, or replaying my thoughts over and over in my head as I try to fall asleep at night.

Sometimes you realize that a behavior that may have been healthy for you in the past no longer serves you. For me, that behavior is an insistence on closure. Somewhere along the line I got it into my head but if I could just sit down with these people and have a conversation with them it would feel better. I started believing that if I could say the things I needed to say, everything would be fine. That if I could just ask all the questions that I have, or explain myself, or tell my side of the story, or even just say goodbye properly, that everything would be manageable again.

I’m starting to believe that this need for closure is no longer serving me. I’m starting to believe that talking to people who cannot hear me is not healthy.

I don’t want to keep dragging ghosts back into my vision again. I don’t want to keep reopening the wounds anymore. I want to let people who wish to leave me, leave me. I want to free them, inasmuch as I have that ability, to make their decision and live with their choices.

Maybe they will take a false version of me with them. Maybe they will never ever look back or think of me again. I’ll never know, and frankly, it isn’t my responsibility to know.

I want to stop picking at my hurt. Wounds only heal if you learn to stop touching them.

The Cruel and Covert Warfare of “Crazy”

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Close your eyes. No, don’t. That’s a ridiculous idea. But mentally close your eyes and imagine with me that your friend is describing their ex. Your friend is telling you all the gritty details of how their ex was “overemotional,” “irrational,” “too sensitive,” and “crazy.” Are you picturing the ex as a man or a woman? I’m not going to make assumptions about how you think, but personally, I’ve never heard those descriptors used for a man.

There is a subtle and absolutely vicious finesse to employing the word “crazy” when describing another person. It’s a powerful word, because so much is implied in that one simple idea. With the one little label, doubt is cast on every future interaction. I’ve seen it happen over and over – a person (usually a woman) is cast as crazy, and suddenly nothing they say or do looks rational anymore.

“Crazy” people are probably exaggerating their claims of abuse. “Crazy” people are too quick to hyperbolize an event. “Crazy” people just want to see their exes suffer. “Crazy” people are probably liars, manipulators, chronic victims, and – in extreme situations – dangerous. We’d probably never think these things intentionally, but the idea creeps into our subconscious minds like a venom. Suddenly every interaction with the “crazy” person is colored by this idea that they are unstable and their viewpoint unreliable.

And the sickest part is that “crazy” people can’t even defend themselves. There is almost nothing that looks crazier than a person trying to convince others of their own sanity.

So how can you communicate to your friends how psychotic your ex is? It’s simple. Don’t.

The line between sharing your own experiences and brazenly discrediting someone who is not there to defend themselves is a fine one, but it exists. You can say “I experienced a lot of anger/overwhelm/hurt/confusion/abandonment/abuse in our relationship” without making a call on the other person’s mental state. You can say “these are the facts of my experience” without playing psychologist. You can even use clinical terms in sentences like “a lot of what they did to me feels like the definition of narcissism/sociopathic abuse/pathological dishonesty” without tainting people’s future interactions with that person.

Calling someone “crazy” in an attempt to discredit their point of view is flat-out abusive. It’s controlling and manipulative. It reinforces the idea that emotional expression in the face of trauma is a negative trait. It is a tool used to steamroll women. It’s wrong.

So let’s just not, shall we?

 

Why We Need to Address Sexual Violations Every Single Time They Happen

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Author’s note:

For clarity, I’m using the term “sexual violation” to include any action or language that contributes to rape culture, as well as all forms of sexual violence and sexual assault as outlined in this super helpful guide. (Link opens a new tab, so please check it out.)

I’d also like to take the opportunity to assure those of you who know me personally that none of the personal examples in this article refer to my boyfriend, Jordan, whose passion for this topic rivals my own.

Read on, good people of the internet.

I almost didn’t write this article, for the exact reason that it needs to be written.

Sexual violations happen to most of us on a daily basis. We’re bombarded with “jokes” that justify, or even glorify, domestic violence and rape. We walk to our cars at night with our keys between our knuckles like claws. We know not to leave our drinks unattended in public places. We encounter sexual harassment at work, and get catcalled on the way home. It’s such a common thing that it’s almost amazing how many people I know who let these occurrences slide without comment.

There are a lot of reasons why people (particularly women) don’t speak up in the face of sexual violation. (You can read about some of those reasons here.) I’m not here to rehash them, but rather to offer 3 reasons why we need to start addressing violation every. single. time.

It normalizes the experience in a good way.

It was in a therapist’s office that I first told someone that my ex-boyfriend had “consent issues.” My doctor listened as I explained the situation, and then told me point-blank that what I was describing was, in fact, rape, and that I needed to start calling it that.

I knew what he had done to me was sexual assault. It was textbook. But the culture of shame and fear (and, let’s be honest, pity) that surrounds the r word kept me from using it. I didn’t want the big ugly badge of “rape victim.” But when I started to use the word, I discovered that it became less of a dirty smear on my personhood, and more of a bridge that connected me to other people with similar experiences. I stopped feeling less alone, and I healed faster in community than I did in isolation.

It communicates that you are a safe person for others to come to.

Along those same lines, being overt and unapologetic about addressing sexual violations is like a beacon to people who may need an ear. When you call out your coworker for making sexist jokes, you let others in your office know that you take the fight against rape culture very seriously.

Having a community of people who speak openly about sexual assault and all that contributes to it is a powerful and even vital thing. At the onset of loving relationships, when the glasses are particularly rosy, it can be hard to recognize and acknowledge violations from within the relationship. Having someone you can tell may make all the difference when the potential is to remain in a toxic situation until the damage is done.

(As a side note, if you’re new to being a support for a friend who has confessed an encounter with sexual assault to you, these are some good follow-up questions to ask: “Is this the first time they’ve done this?” “Were you able address the situation as soon as it happened?” “What was their attitude when you confronted their behavior?”)

It helps distinguish between slip-ups and habitual offenses.

Before I go further on this one, I want to state for the record that there is never any excuse or justification for willing sexual assault. Ever. But within the realm of personal boundaries, couples can sometimes find themselves encountering issues they didn’t know to watch out for.

Examples of addressing violations that occurred as a result of ignorance of carelessness may sound like: “I’m a lightweight, and I’m not comfortable having sex when I’m intoxicated. In the future, please don’t proposition me when you know I have been drinking,” or “I said no, and you came back ten minutes later and pressured me to change my mind. That felt like coercion, and it’s not okay. In the future, I need you to respect my no as open-ended, and wait for me to come to you when I’ve changed my mind.”

Having these initial confrontations can be a great experience for people who are just getting to know each other. They can provide an opportunity for education, shed light on behaviors people may not realize they have, and (maybe most importantly) show how a person reacts to being confronted when they commit a violation.

Having these conversations more than once, however, is a big red flag. When you address violations every single time they happen, it’s easier to see where ignorance stops, and willing abuse begins. If you find yourself saying “that’s the fourth time you’ve ignored my safe word,” you may be more likely to see the behavior as the abusive habit it actually is.

Honest and open communication is a hallmark of healthy interactions. This blogger is done letting things slide, making excuses for abuse, and downplaying willing violations. It’s time to make speaking up about sexual violations a commonplace thing.

The church is losing divorced women, and here are a few reasons why

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Not every divorce is the result of abuse, but mine certainly fits this category. Leaving my husband of six years was the right choice for me, but the “Bible-believing” church does not necessarily see it that way, and I’m not the only one. Many women I know who have left toxic marriages found themselves fleeing the church around the same time. This isn’t a coincidence. As I meet more and more women with stories eerily similar to mine, I’ve begun to uncover some themes. There are reasons why women like me are walking away from Evangelical Christianity in the wake of crumbled marriages, and here are a few big ones:

We’re becoming aware that the way we were taught to be wives contributed to our abuse

As John Shore eloquently explains in this article, you cannot teach a women that she is inferior to men AND teach her healthy self-esteem at the same time. The two are mutually exclusive.  As the explosion settles and we blink away the dust, women like myself are starting to see the startling connections between the way the Bible taught us to be wives, and the damage we suffered.

The Bible has a handful of examples of what a woman should NOT be. Jezebel the queen is one. She is depicted as strong, opinionated, and determined. She was executed, and her story remains in the Bible as a cautionary tale. Keeping wives’ self-esteem in check is vital in a relationship where the husband is the aggressor. To that end, young women are taught that wives are to be submissive, cheerfully obedient, and completely loyal to their husband’s “spiritual headship.”

Despite this teaching, people are still shocked when a story of long-term abuse is brought to light. The implication is that even the most submissive woman should know to leave if she is being harmed. “But if things were that bad, why did she stay?” is a question that most of us have encountered in these scenarios, and there’s a very obvious reason.

One of the most dangerous teachings on marriage in Christianity is the comparison between the covenant of marriage and the covenant of Jesus. Christians are taught that marriage is meant to be a tangible metaphor for the sacrificial love Christ had when he offered himself up on the cross. At first blush this sounds beautiful, but in practice, it sounds like something out of a horror film. Women are told, directly and through context, that if Jesus sacrificed himself to the point of death to maintain his covenant, we should be willing to do the same to show the earthly representation of that love.

Vickie Garrison explains in her heart wrenching story  how abuse in Christianity is often repackaged as part of the “godly model” of marriage. She says that her first encounter with the wheel of abuse  forced her to confront this reality: “I began to realize that yes, of course, all of these elements [of abuse] were present in my marriage… it’s just that we had different names for these things… we had chapter and verse to teach us that power and control is actually good and godly. We called it ‘agape love’ – it’s the kind of love which God has for his creation… this was the relationship we were supposed to use as our model between husband and wife.”

I remember clearly when a relative of ours left her husband, how my husband and I (good, Bible-believing, churchgoers at the time) sent her a series of sermons on this very subject. We bemoaned her inability to see that marriage, according the the Bible, was not for her happiness, but “for the glory of God.” We condemned her decision to break her marital covenant, because Jesus never broke his promise to us, even unto death. When, years later, I was forced to confront my own decision to leave, these words hung in my heart like a rock.

We have to be our own lawyers when you judge our decision to leave

When I broke the news to my parents that I was leaving my husband, their first move was to contact their pastor. Even though I didn’t ask for it, dispensation on my divorce was important to my family. I remember a conversation in which I was asked to detail the sort of abuse I suffered, and it was weighed against the Bible to see if my divorce could be “justified.” At one point it was even suggested that I could be spared from the guilt of the “sin” of divorce if we could convince my husband to file first.

To this day, I find myself jumping to the most stark and horrible aspects of my marriage when asked about it by church people. I’m not only painfully aware that they are judging my choice based on the gory details, but in a way, I’m still grappling with it myself. It’s as though I’m in a constant game of “your trauma must be at least THIS bad to earn my sympathy.”

“Was my abuse BAD enough to justify divorce?” is a question no women should ever have to answer.

We see you focusing more on “redeeming” our abusers than validating what we experienced

This one is horrifyingly prevalent in Evangelical Christianity, and to my shame, I have taken this damaging stance myself in the past. The emphasis in the modern church on grace and welcome can be a beautiful thing, but often the aggressor becomes the focus when abuse comes to light. In the rush to redeem and “restore” the abuser, the victim tends to find themselves on the back burner, or worse, being pushed to forgive and reconcile with their abuser at the slightest sign of repentance.

I’ve seen it too many times to believe it’s coincidence: the victim (often the wife) is told she is in sin for refusing to accept her abuser’s apology and take him back. This subtle form of victim-blaming makes the decision to leave the church an easy one. In the quest to love unconditionally, the church tries to maintain a stance of neutrality, but neutrality doesn’t exist in situations of abuse. As the familiar quote by Desmond Tutu reminds us: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

We don’t want conditional love or acceptance

At the end of the day, no matter how “justifiable” the divorce, we feel the conditional acceptance of the church. We will spend the rest of our lives in the church listening to sermons about the sin of divorce. We’ll see the articles church members post on Facebook about the sanctity of marriage and the abomination of breaking one. We’ll feel the weight of what we did by leaving. And then we’ll see members of the church smile at us, hug us, tell us they “love us no matter what,” and those words will ring hollow.

Church, no amount of love or support feels quite real when the subtext is always “despite.” “Jesus loves you even though…” sounds to us like he’s willing to offer us second-hand compassion since the damage is already done anyway. We went into our divorces with open eyes. We have felt every bit of the pain and fear associated with the decision to leave. Love says “What you did was terrifying, and I’m proud of you for doing the right thing.” Love says “What you experienced was not your fault, and you deserved better.” Love doesn’t demand explanations, force a person to justify self-preservation, coddle abusers, or blame victims, and until the Bible-believing church can recognize that they are, in fact, doing these things, divorced and heartbroken women will continue to leave for the exact same reasons they left their marriages.