I think most people think of abused women as mousy, as cowards, with black eyes hidden under thick make-up, as – as harsh as this sounds – fools or, worse yet, just plain idiots.
Because who would willingly stay in an abusive marriage? What kind of woman wouldn’t be strong enough to do what she’d need to do to get herself out of something like that? You just leave. How hard can it be??
There are so many things wrong with those perceptions, I almost don’t know where to begin.
But I’ll start with this: abuse is not just a black eye. Trust me, it’s so much more than that.
In fact, take a look at this. It’s called the Abuse Wheel of Power & Control.
It’s stunning, isn’t it? Not as in beautiful but as in, you should be stunned by what is really considered abuse. It is words and actions and mindgames and sickness incarnate. Abuse is anytime another person tries to exert his or her power over you. We all abuse each other from time to time, but what I am talking about here is a consistent pattern of abuse between one spouse over another.
So, abuse is more than just physical, bottom line. All of you who have never been abused who think you know what an abused wife looks like, you don’t. She could be your quirky neighbor, your kid’s ultra-competent teacher, your serving-all-the-time pastor’s wife, your strong-willed women’s ministry director. So, get that mousy, weak image out of your head.
But then switching to the actual woman in a hard marriage who just thinks her marriage is hard and she needs to keep sucking it up and trying harder.
Let me be clear, sweet one: you can be in an abusive marriage and never once been hit.
When I posted the abuse wheel image in my private Facebook group earlier this week, here is what one gal said:
“Wow. My husband has done most of these things to me. Funny thing is as I have read other postings here I have thought, ‘oh, my marriage isn’t that bad’. But this really opened my eyes and broke my heart.”
Some of us think – and have thought for years – that we are just bad wives. That if we were better wives – or better humans – we wouldn’t have to be told what to do, how to load the dishwasher, how to pay the bills, what groceries to buy and where, when to take the kids to the doctor. That if we were better wives – or better humans – we wouldn’t be called names, threatened through clenched teeth, been intimidated, frightened, told we were worthless.
But, honey, this isn’t about you.
This is about your husband.
And if he speaks to you like this on a regular basis, if he hurts you physically, if he forces you to have sex, if he uses the kids as leverage, if he makes you feel like you’re nothing, if he hides things from you, if he lies to you, if he makes you think you’re crazy because he says he’s not drinking while holding a drink in his hands, he needs help.
You do too. You need to set up boundaries or get away or get into counseling, or all of the above.
But you are the victim. He is the perpetrator.
And the real masters in this game of abuse are so good at what they do that they leave their victims not even realizing they are being abused, sometimes for years and years and years.
You absolutely can be in an abusive marriage and have no idea that you are.
And if you think this might be you…if you are looking at that wheel and at that list and you are blown away like my friend was, there is help.
Here’s what you need to do:
If it’s physical or sexual abuse, towards you or your children, you need to set up a safety plan and you need to find a place to stay until you can all get help. Yes, I am suggesting you leave your husband to get safe. (Not divorce…not yet…first things first.)
If it’s any of the other kinds of abuse, you need to get into counseling and you need to tell someone in church leadership who you trust.
And regardless of the kind of abuse, you need to show yourself grace. Because you’re going to be reeling for a little while as this all sinks in, and you might start emotionally beating yourself up for not recognizing it sooner or getting help earlier or what-have-you, but just stop. Right now, just stop.
Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. This isn’t about you or how good or bad of a person you are. This is about your husband not being well and needing to get help. You are precious in the sight of God. You are none of the bad things your husband has said you are. It will take a while to come to terms with that…healing from years of abuse – especially when you didn’t realize abuse was what you’ve been taking in – takes time. Lots and lots of time. And gentleness. And outside help.
But you can and will get stronger. You can and will begin to see more clearly. You can and will know what your next step is. You can and will get to a place of not needing as much outside counsel to figure out your next steps. You can and will heal.
You’re going to be okay. You may not feel like it right now, but it is all going to be okay.
Whoever lives under the shelter of the Most High will remain in the shadow of the Almighty. -Psalm 91:1
You can find more of my resources for those in difficult marriages here, including the National Abuse Hotline: 1-800-799-7233.