Marriage is a long-term commitment and a life time of promise and hope of being together. The contract and the commitment anchor us to get through the storms of life. In a healthy marriage, that’s a beautiful and good thing as it shores us up and provides stability and cohesion for generations.
But in an abusive marriage, the contract and the commitment anchor us and drags us down to the bottom of an ocean, damaging us in every way you can imagine.
But my main problem wasn’t my abusive marriage, it was me. Let me explain.
Somewhere along the way, early on in my life, I stopped listening to my inner voice to guide me in my life. You know that instinctual inner voice that guides you? I think we’re born with that, and if we have decent (not even great) parenting, that voice is nurtured and we grow into adults who listen to that inner voice that tells us when something is good or bad. The volume of my voice had been turned down so low it was inaudible to me. So when my abusive husband said or did something cruel, I knew something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t hear the voice that said “get out!” so I made up a new narrative. I said to myself things like “I must have really messed up this time” or “he had a terrible day at work and is so tired.” I made excuses for his abusive behavior to try and make up for the conflict I was feeling inside. I told myself that I had to make this horrible marriage work.
External concerns such as housing and finances continue to keep women in abusive marriages, but research is also showing that women stay because of psychological elements like cognitive dissonance, commitment, and consistency. (The Importance of Cognitive Dissonance in Understanding and Treating Victims of Intimate Partner Violence: Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment and Trauma, Shannon D. Nicholson and David J. Lutz, Volume 26, 2017, Issue 5, Three Reasons Why Women Stay with a Controlling Partner by Clare Murphy, PhD., “Commitment: The Key to Women staying in Abusive Relationships” by Rosanna Guadagno, Academia.edu, Journal of Interpersonal Relations, Intergroup Relations and Identity, Volume 6, Hiver/Winter 2013)
It’s an example of cognitive dissonance when I made excuses for my husband (“he’s so tired”) when he threw a plate of food across the room or went to bed without saying goodnight to anyone. Consistency means that once we make a decision, we want to appear to make all our other decisions in support of that one decision. And commitment is similar; once we make a commitment, we’re all in; we don’t want to be perceived as non-committal.
So, imagine with me a young woman, perhaps with low self-esteem, raised in an overly religious home, accustomed to pleasing others, not herself, and she’s engaged to be married. Marriage, in her mind, is the pinnacle of social position, and being a wife and mother has always been her goal. Her fiancé continues to be his charming self, but there are a few subtle warning signs. She’s so used to ignoring these signals that they barely show up on her radar. Plus, she’s committed to marrying him, so she’s in for the long haul, for the long-term, a life-time! She’s going to prove to her family, her friends, to herself that she can make this marriage work. She can make him happy! She’s committed and she’s consistent; there’s no wavering with her. She’s a good Christian woman! Sure there are tiny moments of doubt that wash over her, but nothing can stop her from proving to everyone, even God that she is a faithful, good wife. She feels like it’s her duty.
Then they get married, and the abuse starts. Now she’s all in. She’s put all her eggs in this basket and bet the farm and everything on this. Now there’s a baby on the way. Now another. She made promises before God and her church and her family! Everyone will know it was all a sham. She can’t tell anyone what’s really going on behind closed doors. Plus, she thinks she’s not all that great of a wife. She’s not a great cook or a maid. She forgets things. Oh how does he put up with her?
See how sick this becomes in her mind? And this is the mind of some of the sweetest most committed Christian girls I’ve known. It’s just wrong. So, what’s the answer?
First, I think we need to raise our children, especially our girls, to listen to their inner guide, their inner voice, that tells them when something is good or not. Does this make you happy or sad? Does it make you feel comfortable or uncomfortable? If you don’t want to hug someone, you don’t have to. Listen to your feelings and let them be your guide. And it’s ok to change your mind. If you make a decision, and you find that it’s not right for you, it’s OK to change your mind. And if others give you a hard time for it, so what? Do what you know to be right for you. I know this is not popular advice in the church, but it is good advice. I think it’s dangerous to raise little girls or boys to ignore their feelings. That’s the thing that sets them up for abuse.
And for the church, let people be who they are, for God’s and goodness’s sake. He created us as individuals, uniquely designed to create and be free and full of joy. We can’t do that if we’re busy making people into cookie cutter perfect princesses. Or princes. It’s just gross.
If you’ve been raised in a religious home, you may fear being perceived as selfish. Trust me, you’re not being selfish if you’re setting healthy boundaries and learning to say “no” and taking care of yourself. It’s ironic because the people that may accuse you of being selfish, are actually being the selfish ones. They want YOU to think of THEM. How interesting. No, you are to think of your interests first and take care of you before you can begin to take care of anyone else. Haven’t you ever met someone who was completely burned out from taking care of everyone else and ignoring their own needs? It’s not pretty and it’s not healthy. And I maintain it’s not the example Jesus set for us to follow. He took care of himself.
To get out of my abusive marriage, I had to deal with some very real and difficult external factors, but eventually I also had to face some psychological truths that were going on inside me. If I didn’t, they’d follow me everywhere I went and I didn’t want to end up in another marriage like that. Ever.
Feel free to tell me if this article is helpful to you or if you, too, have a story of your own to share. I think we’re in this together, sisters, and we need to start telling our stories. It’s hard, I know, but there is freedom on the other side and you’ll get there. I hope you feel the love coming your way from me to you!