(originally written in 2014)

Picture a closet, bursting at the seams. Now picture a girl, back to the door, doing everything she can to brace herself against it to keep the contents from tumbling out all over the place, because what a mess that would be.

Hi, I’m that girl.  And I’m going to tell you about the dirty little secret that was in my closet.

I’m a Christian. And I don’t say the word Christian lightly. I don’t say it to mean like I’m a Protestant. Or I try to be good. I mean that I’m a born-again, asked-Jesus-into-my-heart, weekly-church-attending, used-to-be-on-staff-at-a-church, quiet-time-having, worship-music-in-my-car kind of Christian.  I was that kind of Christian bracing myself against the world finding out what I was hiding.

And that was this…I was in a very difficult Christian marriage.

And I don’t say very difficult lightly either. I don’t say it like I mean he didn’t bring me flowers anymore. Or the toothpaste cap was always off. I mean it as in there was more fighting than peace, more crying than laughter, more hiding than truth, sobbing-on-my-bathroom-floor-asking-Jesus-to-kill-me-because-divorce-wasn’t-an-option-in-my-Christian-mind kind of very difficult.

And I didn’t want anyone to know.  And yet, I was just praying and hoping deep down that someone would figure it out and rescue me.

Between the time I truly stopped hiding once and for all and now has been five years.  During that time, I went through a fifteen-month church-led reconciliation attempt.  I was released by my church elder board to legally separate.  I was then served divorce papers three months later.  My kids and I moved out.  Our divorce was final.  And my marriage has been in my rearview mirror for two-and-a-half years now. (As of 2022, my divorce was final 10 years ago.)

And in the past few years, I’ve been writing about all of this — difficult Christian marriages, domestic abuse, addiction, divorce in Christian culture, and the Church’s response — in part as therapy but much more so as advocacy.  Because though I thought I was all alone…the only little girl in a hard Christian marriage in the whole wide world with no hope of help or rescue out there…I have since come to find out that difficult Christian marriages is one of the Church’s darkest, dirtiest secrets.

I was not alone.  We are everywhere.  We are sitting in the pews.  We are sitting in Bible studies.  We are sitting in the front row as our husbands – the pastors – preach about biblical marriage to the congregation while we die inside.  Case in point: I moderate a private group on Facebook for Christian women in difficult marriages.  I started it two years ago and it is up to – by word of mouth alone – almost four hundred women and I know we’re just scratching the surface. (Think of the implications of four hundred dying Christian marriages that are being portrayed as okay.)

Women who love Jesus are dying in their marriages.  This is heart-breaking and it should not be.  I have a theory as to why.  Though there are many pastors and church leaders who get this, there are still so many more who simply don’t understand.  I have heard more stories than I want to count that go like this: “I went to my pastor for help. I told him that my husband (drinks excessively, lies to me, has a porn addiction, calls me names, won’t let me access the checking account, et cetera, et cetera) and he told me that I need to (submit, work on my anger, get into a women’s Bible study, pray more, serve him more, have sex more, respect him more, stay put, cannot get divorced without it being a sin, fill in the blank). So I went back home, did what he told me to do, nothing changed, and I felt even more hopeless than before I asked for help.”  I literally hear this all the time, over and over again.

So, if you are a person of authority, a pastor or women’s ministry director or small group leader, and a woman comes to you with marriage tales that don’t fall into the black and white standard reasons for divorce (adultery and literal abandonment by an unbeliever), I have some thoughts for you.

Believe her when she says her marriage is harder than the average hard.  If she has come to you, she has come close to her bottom as she’s finally admitted to herself that things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be, and she has more than likely exhausted other avenues of help.  She has probably been to counseling or a recovery group, and she’s coming to you as her last chance. Which means, she’s vulnerable and splaying herself out there in front of you. She would only do this if she were dead serious about how bad things are.

Ask her to do only what you’re willing to also ask her husband to do.  If you ask her to try a new counselor, you must also require this of the husband as well.  In most cases I have seen, the wife has been single-handedly trying to keep her marriage together for years.  She has potentially already done everything you’re about to suggest.  But odds are, she’ll be much more willing and open to trying again, one more time, if she sees she is believed and her husband is being held accountable as well.

Find someone to walk alongside her. She will need a female mentor to walk her through this, specifically one who understands the intricacies of a marriage filled with abuse or addiction.  Being in this kind of marriage pain tends to lead to isolation, and she will need someone to draw her out.

Follow through. I know pastors are busy. But one or two meetings with a couple on the brink of divorce will not be enough.  If you cannot commit to follow through with a lengthy, time-intensive process with them, seeing this through to either a healing and reconciliation or a grace-filled ending, then you should be prepared and humble enough to pass them along to another staff member who can.

Christian marriage symbolizes the relationship between Christ and the Church, and this thought terrifies me: that the world might think that Jesus controls, manipulates, lies to, metaphorically beats or rapes, or name-calls his followers. Because he doesn’t. He wouldn’t dream of it. He guides, protects and utterly cherishes us. And that’s what a faith-based marriage should do as well.  That’s what we should be shedding light on and exposing.  That’s what we should all be fighting for in our churches.

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