This is the transcript of an interview with JJ, a survivor of domestic violence, and Pastor M, a pastor, mentor, and friend who walked with JJ during her marriage and divorce. This is the first of a two part series.
JJ: My ex and I were in our early twenties when we got married, and we were involved in ministry. I can say that marriage definitely did not turn out like I expected. I was taught that if you work really hard, you will create a good marriage. But that wasn’t my experience.
Tabitha: At what point did you realize that the difficulties in your marriage were more than just “regular” struggles? How did the culture of your church/evangelicalism impact your ability to recognize abuse?
JJ: It’s complex, because there was so much emphasis on how the Bible calls us not to be selfish, but to be kind and caring. But the church, in my experience, tends to put most of that burden on women. It felt expected that I would cater to the needs (and whims) of my spouse. “He’s tired. He’s been working all day. He needs sex. He doesn’t have the capacity to help around the house or with the kids.”
Tabitha: Did you have an idea of what a “good woman” or a “good wife” was? Obviously this messaging comes from more than one place–your theology, your family of origin, and the culture at large.
JJ: The subliminal messaging is part of what makes it hard to recognize abuse. It’s an unconscious framework that makes you feel validated the more exhausted you feel, the harder you work, the less you ask for, the more you have sex when you don’t feel like it. To question that framework makes you selfish or ungodly.
Tabitha: Paster M, how do you feel hearing that?
Pastor M: Triggered. Uncomfortable. Those messages are being passed around. So much of what I and my peers were taught, as far as pastoral ministry goes, was behavioral modification. And we didn’t (and don’t) understand the far reaching impact of our words. For example, serving the “needs” of your spouse–or any other person–might be the last thing they need. Saying “No,” might be the most loving act. Giving a spouse sex whenever they demand it might be feeding the beast within them.
Tabitha: JJ, how do you think your marriage appeared to those on the outside vs. what was really happening on the inside?
JJ: I worked so hard to be the “good wife.” That meant always being at the church, volunteering, babysitting everyone’s kids, and protecting his reputation. But on the inside, I was stressed, exhausted, without purpose, and so, so, lonely. Sometimes everything would be too much and I would reach my boiling point and explode, which of course just worked against me and made me look crazy.
Tabitha: Your (understandable) reaction to abuse would then be used against you.
JJ: Exactly. Then I would think, “I am this terrible, horrible, angry, selfish person.” Pastor M, what were you seeing on the outside?
Pastor M: Obviously this changed overtime as more things came to light, but I saw you as someone who was very devoted to her husband. She adored him, respected him. They seemed fulfilled. I didn’t realize at first that she was unhappy. Later, there were whispers of struggle, but I was reassured by others that it was in the past. I had no idea at first what was going on behind the scenes.
JJ: From the inside, it’s just so hard to recognize abuse because you are taught from the time you are a child, “Forgive 70 times 7, love as you love yourself,” so when abusive behavior happens it’s easy to blame yourself, or to think, “I just have to try harder.”
Paster M: What ends up happening is we create a narrative with a “front stage” and a “back stage,” and behind the curtain is where we keep all the ugliness. We just don’t let anybody see it. Something Donald Miller says that has really stuck with me is, “Everyone has a story, it’s just not the one they are telling.” And I can see how that played out with JJ and her ex, and many other couples I’ve worked with throughout my ministry.
JJ: Behind our curtain was this unsolvable mess, and I didn’t even realize it. What I needed was a demolition crew, but I was just trying to push it all around with a broom, telling myself, “Okay, I just have to love more. I just have to forgive more.”
Tabitha: And those messages, such as, “We’re all sinners, everybody struggles, nobody’s perfect;” those messages get twisted when you are a survivor. You ignore warning signs because you think it must be normal.
JJ: Yes, and that’s why my favorite verse is “The truth will set you free.” Because it does, even though it’s extremely difficult. Sometimes telling the truth, for a survivor of abuse, makes it worse before it makes it better.
Pastor M: Yes, and that is so scary. If you think it’s hard to deal with the pain quietly, what happens when it’s out in the open? But we really do need a demolition before we can rebuild.
Tabitha: That brings us back to a pivotal point in this story. Pastor M, when did you begin to realize that the issues JJ and her spouse had were more than regular “marriage stuff.” What made you realize that this was actually an abusive situation?
Pastor M: It was a slow realization as I got to know them more. I realized that her spouse needed a lot of support to confront his own issues, and we offered a lot of mentoring opportunities. But he was very good at manipulating people, making himself into a victim, and blaming others. However, it wasn’t until I sat JJ down in my office and asked her to tell me the real story that I realized how bad it actually was. She “pulled back the curtain,” like we said earlier, and that was when I took action and tried to set up the support that she needed.
Letting me see what was going on was such a brave thing for JJ to do. It took so much courage. And I want to mention that while it can be helpful and essential to let people know what is really happening, not everyone is safe to do that with. Just because someone is a pastor (and I say this as a former pastor), doesn’t mean that they will be safe. There were a lot of well intentioned people in JJ’s life and it was still really messy.
Tabitha: JJ, is it fair to say that things got harder after you spoke up?
JJ: Absolutely. When I kept silent, I could still plaster over the cracks in our relationship most of the time. But once I cracked it open, everyone could see our mess and comment on it.
To this day, I can’t even remember what I told Pastor M in his office. I didn’t have the vocabulary to call it abuse, I thought it was just “marital difficulties.”
Pastor M: When she was talking, I could sense that there was abuse, even though I didn’t really know how to define it.
Tabitha: Right. Nowadays, most people in our society hopefully understand that physically assaulting someone is unacceptable. It’s a lot easier to label that as abuse or violence. But what many don’t realize is that emotional, spiritual, verbal, and psychological abuse often precede physical abuse, and can be just as destructive and controlling.
JJ: It’s hard to recognize that you are experiencing it, let alone for others on the outside to understand how that type of abuse can devastate someone.
Tabitha: Often when domestic violence and the church are discussed, you hear two different experiences. Either the church was life saving and supportive–which is great; or, the church compounded the abuse by not believing victims, blaming them, or telling them to remain in unsafe relationships. Something that’s impactful to me about your story is that it’s really in the messy middle. There were people who knew that something wasn’t right and wanted to help, but JJ still got hurt. What went wrong?
JJ: In the beginning, my goal was to try and save his reputation. I wanted him to have as much dignity and respect as possible, because he was in ministry. I had a small group of people who tried to support me. They tried to be everything I needed, and I am and was grateful for their efforts. I didn’t have a family to support me, and I didn’t really have friends or community outside the church. I needed people that I could call and cry with. But within that support group, their goal was to save the marriage.
What I wish they understood is that, in an abusive relationship, if preserving a marriage is the highest priority, then the entity of marriage becomes a god and the oppressor is constantly given the benefit of the doubt.
It creates a permissive attitude towards the abuser, and undermines any support offered to the victim.
Pastor M: Something that I used to say (but definitely wouldn’t now) is, “I’m not on either person’s side, I’m on the side of the marriage.” But now I know, some marriages should not be preserved. Some are dangerous. When there is violence, manipulation, or abuse, I can’t tell someone that their marriage is worth more than their life.
But in JJ’s situation, I don’t think the people in her support team believed that. The church doesn’t like failure. We say we believe in the redemptive power of God, we say we believe in hope, but what happens when redemption and hope don’t look like what we thought they would?
JJ: Sometimes the church’s best efforts are actually the tower of Babel. We want something glorious and grand when it actually never should have been built.
Pastor M: When we make an idol out of marriage, something that is holy and intended for good becomes a beast that can destroy us.
Tabitha. Yes. Something you said earlier, JJ, reminded me of a quote by C.S. Lewis: “Anything that becomes a god becomes a demon.” I think the church has turned the sacrament of marriage into a god. We’ve made it a qualifier for ministry and have therefore neglected the much higher goal of human flourishing. When we talk about there always being hope, what does that mean? Does hope die when people divorce? Or does hope transcend the dissolution of a violent relationship and rise up when survivors rebuild their lives?
JJ: One of my favorite songs is by Nicole Nordmann, it’s called The Unmaking. It’s about how there can be total destruction in our lives–and sometimes there needs to be–but God can still work. I went through this terrible situation, I divorced the man who was hurting me, but now I’ve found a calling that I’m truly passionate about.