Friday, April 13, 2012

Marriage Help for Christian Wives?

Recently it came to my attention that  I have a distant relative who is currently dealing with an abusive marriage.  With the hard turn toward the extreme patriarchal right that the evangelical church has taken recently, I am surprised that only *one* distant relative is dealing with this issue.  The doctrine of wifely submission creates an abusive scenario, even when husbands are determined to be loving partners.  See this blog post: Poison for my Marriage for my thoughts on that subject.

I was wondering where I would suggest this relative turn for help.  The ministry I once lauded, Joel and Kathy Davisson's Marriage Intensive has backed down off of their groundbreaking focus that abusive husbands are much more common in the Christian world than anyone dare mention out loud, and that emotional abuse unchecked never goes away or gets better on its own.  The have replaced the Life Skills movie (see next paragraph) with the propaganda piece Fireproof, just another "get saved and all your problems are solved" story that offers no help at all for the biggest problem-born again Christian men who are emotionally, verbally, economically, and in some cases physically abusive.

Joel Davisson was actually set straight himself by Paul Hegstrom of  Life Skills International.  I guess I would first recommend that a person in an abusive marriage order the video Unforgiveable from Life Skills International.  Unforgiveable is a made for television movie chronicling the story of how Paul Hegstrom came to finally admit he was an abusive man, and it tells the beginning of the story of the long (seven years long) process of healing and recovery it took to win back his wife Judy's hand in marriage again.  What is missing from the movie that is most significant, in my opinion, is that Paul Hegstrom was a Christian.  In fact, he was a preacher before taking up the position as car salesman that is portrayed in the movie.

Getting "saved" can't possibly change a man who is already "saved" before he gets married, and subsequently begins abusing his wife in any of the myriad ways a husband can abuse a wife.  Nope, he needs all kinds of help, starting most importantly with recognizing that he is an abuser of women.  I used to recommend Joel and Kathy's seminar as a great place to get that process started (people coming out of denial tend to retreat back into denial any chance they get, so it's a process!), because they were very adamant about holding the husband responsible when I was there in 2008.  I just don't know if this is true anymore.

Coming out of denial is an imperative first step, but it is only the first step.  The next  step is of course getting an abuser the help he needs to change.  Counselors can be good, but they can also become mere enablers.  I would never trust a "Christian" counselor to offer any real help in a marriage with an abusive husband.  The doctrine known as "complementarianism" or "wifely submission" is used by abusive men as justification for their feelings of entitlement that allow them to belittle their wives inwardly.  These inner thoughts about the wife as inferior, incompetent, unrealistic, a lesser being in the eyes of God, etc. occur first, and later are manifested through words (or silence) or behaviors that are intended to wound the wife- either emotionally or sometimes actually physically.  So most "Christian" counseling will be worthless.  Suffering in silence, submitting and merely relying on prayer to turn the situation around is useless at best, deadly in a worst case scenario.

I contacted Life Skills by email, and they were able to put me in touch with local help for my husband.  I was lucky enough to live in a large city with help nearby.  Most of the United States does not have Life Skills workshops going on nearby.  If you or someone you know needs help, get in touch with Life Skills.  If there is nothing close, pay the money to go to Colorado for whatever help they can offer.  It is imperative that the counselor you seek help from be well-trained in dealing with domestic abuse.  If they counselor is looking for a 50-50 split of responsibility for the marriage problems, stop going.  Such counsel will make the problem worse, as the abusive spouse will use it to excuse their behavior.

While my husband was completing this twenty-some odd group learning experience sponsored by Life Skills at a local church, I was reading everything I could get my hands on.  I purchased an expensive but very helpful book, /Passive-Aggression: A Guide for Therapist, Patient and Victim.  This helped me to understand how I was willingly being a part of the sado-masochistic emotional turmoil my husband was instigating at times.  I began to look for my own therapist.  I put it off for so long, because I knew that if I started my own personal counseling, I might conclude that the best choice for me was to leave the marriage.  When I was finally okay with that possibility, I was ready to start my own therapy.

I looked into EMDR (at ) to help me deal with the PTSD caused by my husband's aggression.  That therapist (rightly) ascertained that my husband also probably had PTSD from his parents' abandoning him for their careers when he was so young, as well as from their authoritarian parenting style and avoidant (non-)communication style.  We started out seeing the same therapist, but that didn't work out.  So, he got custody of the original therapist, and I found another.

It's been two years now.  I will see my therapist for the last regular visit next week.  He will likely continue in therapy longer, as he still has more traumatic events to deprogram.  We both have left fundagelical thinking behind and are opening our hearts and lives to healthier, more authentic Christianity.  He doesn't got to church anymore; I'm still looking for one.  We have decided to love our children as they are, even though they are not living in all aspects the ideals who strenuously taught them when they were younger.  They love God and they love people.  I am proud of  them, and happy to have them in my life.

My opinions on so many things have not changed, and yet my allegiances certainly have changed.  On this journey to health and wholeness, I have learned so many things.  A woman who allows herself to be mistreated WILL be mistreated, but a women who demands RESPECT will be respected.  Marriage doesn't supercede any command of Christ.  The apostle Paul may have lived at a crucial time in history and written a lot of letters to the early church which they treasured enough to preserve, but he is not infallible and he is not the Son of God.  That honor belongs to Jesus alone.

I have a friend who suffers from a passive-aggressive abusive husband.  She relied entirely on Joel and Kathy's teachings, which failed her.  She was unwilling to seek secular counseling, or even to understand that her husband's arrested development could not be overcome by sheer will power.  She refused to start on the path to independence; refused to turn her back on the doctrines that have created a largely dysfunctional family dynamic; refused to understand that while she is not responsible for her husband's abuse, she IS responsible for allowing herself to remain vulnerable to his abuse.  She is in the middle of a divorce she initiated (but only as a manipulative measure which back-fired), her children have all been forced to take sides, she has no way to provide for herself but government assistance and reliance on her abusive husband. It's pretty easy to see that this will not turn out well for her, at least it is plain to everyone BUT her.

The main difference between our stories is that I sought counseling from all kinds of sources till I found what actually worked for us.  I did not buy in to religious ideology as the key to a successful marriage.  I was willing to admit that after twenty years of following the religious advice devotedly, it was a bust. I was also more than willing to leave my husband if he found himself unable or unwilling to live the life of love I believe marriage should encompass.  I also accepted responsibility for the reality that I had *let* things get this bad by my "submission", so it wasn't all my husband's fault.  I recognized that my own PTSD issues were making healing the marriage difficult, so I got my own help for that too.  All the while, I never stopped insisting that I loved my husband, wanted the best for us both, and was willing to give him time (five years in fact) to get it together.  We are now in the fourth year, and things are steadily improving.

That's our journey, but I don't know how to help a young couple  steeped in fundamentalism to get out of the abuse trap, other than to recommend a visit to Life Skills International's web site. Does anyone else know of any truly useful resources for Christian marriages affected by abuse?