I have never publicly shared my own story of abuse as an adult, but I’ve seen how much the sharing by other women in the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movement has exposed extensive abuse by religious leaders and how they have been enabled and/or protected by religious institutions. There are many different types of abuse, but mine was a result of a narcissist wielding teachings of Evangelicalism and perpetuated by the Evangelical patriarchy. Albeit scary, here goes.
Since I was a little girl, I have had a visceral draw to justice. I have wanted to share about the abuse that I and many of my friends endured at the hands of New Tribes Mission (NTM) missionaries, growing up in Panama on a fenced compound with our boarding school and dormitories. I had always compartmentalized my childhood in NTM and considered those experiences as entirely separate from my adult life in the US.
As I reflected on my over 30 years born and raised, educated, and employed in an almost exclusively Evangelical world, I had been abused, over and over. Many of the teachings I had believed so passionately were lived out by very few people. I could have rationalized it as just a problem with one agency or a few individuals. Yet, I finally started connecting the dots and realized that abuse, poor treatment of women and children, and judgementalism were an integral part and practice within Evangelicalism. Maybe I did not HAVE to live in this narrowly defined box. I was a survivor of a cult-like agency after all, and maybe my past had led me right into similarly judgmental, misogynist, and authoritarian environments…because I did not know anything different?
In June 2004, I met my husband at a small group from the Evangelical Free Church we both attended near BIOLA University. To my sheltered mind and experience, my husband was everything for which an Evangelical girl could hope. His family attended John MacArthur’s, Grace Community Church. He was passionate about evangelism, Bible study, and well-employed as a banker. There were a few times when he was not thoughtful such as a refusal to stop evangelizing at a Mormon temple on my birthday despite agreeing to celebrate. It took an older missionary telling him he had screwed up and needed to do SOMETHING. The three of us went to In- N -Out for dinner and miniature golfing. It was not special, and I did not like miniature golfing. He would not acknowledge lying to me about having planned something for my birthday and then totally ignoring my birthday to do “ministry.”
I was married on October 15 of 2005. My in-laws were wealthy and paid for the catering, flowers, and other items. My husband and I paid for everything else. Most girls take their Mom and sister shopping for their wedding dress. I took a girlfriend shopping and did not have any input from family members, following my sister’s lead when she planned her own wedding. My husband’s father gave the toast as the wedding was hosted at his house and I did not ask my parents to have a role aside from a dance with my Dad. I did nott feel that my parents wanted to be involved with the wedding and just wanted to be spectators. During the dating and period of engagement, I came to believe that my husband’s family would become the family we spent more time with as they were far more engaged with us as a couple. Little did I know that it was just a precursor to years of efforts to exert control over me.
On the honeymoon, I quickly discovered my husband was not the person I thought I was marrying. Within days he started denigrating me for being a sexual disappointment. He would not respect my communication to him about how his treatment of me in the bedroom was painful and left me feeling violated. I communicated these issues to him repeatedly, but he simply did not care. The verbal and emotional abuse started on our honeymoon as well. It felt like a switch had been flipped, and the man I thought to be kind and loving (albeit completely disconnected on those few occasions such as my birthday) no longer needed to hold up his façade. After years of reflection, I am sure there were many more warning signs that I missed due to my upbringing and grooming as a young Evangelical woman. A combination of wanting to be married, and thinking I needed that stability and love drove me into a relationship with someone whom I later realized was a narcissist. Our marriage lasted 8 ½ years. In my Evangelical worldview, I was married for life and had no alternatives. I was deeply disappointed and somewhat depressed but did not know what to do. I did not tell anyone but tried to be a good Evangelical wife and hide the abuse and make excuses for him. In my worldview, divorce was not an option except in exceedingly rare circumstances, none of which matched my situation. Not wanting to commit a grave sin and condemn myself to a life of being single (as many Christians believe you cannot remarry after an unwarranted divorce), I just plugged along.
My husband talked about going to graduate school, even seminary, but never committed or moved forward with plans. So, I decided to get an MA in Political Science. I had so little to enjoy or look forward to, so it made sense to focus on the one thing I had more control of in my life and I knew it would be good for my career.
Our home life was tightly regulated by my husband who often determined that we would exercise together on long bike rides, what and when we should eat, what and when we could watch on TV or Netflix, and when we would go to bed, unless he wanted to stay up late by himself. I often went to bed early out of boredom and depression. We could not get cable tv and we did not have smart phones at this time. I could only read so much, or handle being in a cold marriage where I did not feel loved or heard.
My husband and his family were firm believers in natural health. After his parents started going to some natural healthcare practitioners, we started going as well. I recall the one lady we went to who would examine a drop of our blood under a microscope and tell us all the issues with our diet and what health issues from which we were suffering. She would then prescribe many natural supplements. We spent so much money that we really could not afford on this quackery, all pushed by my husband and his family. I was in my mid- twenties at this point, was a size 0, ate really healthily, and exercised often. BUT the exhaustion never left. This lady claimed I was extremely stressed and at one point even gave us a “prophecy” that we would work together at some point in the future. Despite adhering to even stricter diets, I still had IBS and exhaustion. My husband’s solution was always that I needed to exercise more, eat healthier, and take my supplements.
I finished grad school in December 2009. I was happy to have completed my degree while working full-time and traveling often for work. I had traveled to China, North Korea, and Egypt, and many times to DC throughout this period My husband downplayed the achievement because it was not at a more prestigious university. I had the grades to attend a more prestigious school, but they were far more expensive and located further from our house. I chose the practical option so that we could pay for school out of pocket each semester and so I could keep working as we had a large mortgage payment each month. I remember wishing my husband and in-laws would be proud of me, but there was no celebration…not even a dinner. My neighbor’s husband threw her a graduation party when she finished graduate school and we attended. It was really fun and subconsciously I must have wished for even some small acknowledgement of the years of hard work and achievement like my friend had. Afterall, her husband was proud of her and wanted to celebrate her. But those things did not happen for me.
During my second year of grad school, we moved from Placentia to Redlands CA to live with my in-laws to save money due to the high cost of living and financial difficulties after the market crash in 2008. We had a huge mortgage payment, so rented out our townhome to save money and determine our next steps. My mother-in-law was adamant that I confirm if I really wanted to live with them. I think she knew it could be really hard. My husband promised that if did not go well, we could move so I agreed. It did not go well. I told him we needed to move, and he refused. Yet another of his bait and switch moves.
My in-laws dictated how life would be down to the smallest details. We took turns making dinner, and if I did not cook the way my Mother-in-law thought was best, with the right pot or utensil, or wash the dishes the way she wanted, I would be corrected. They also commented on the groceries I purchased, much like my husband. I literally could not be in the kitchen or do anything in the house without being told what I was doing incorrectly and how I SHOULD be doing it. The situation was unbearable. My only escape was graduate school and sometimes hanging out with a few friends I made there before or after class…for which I felt extremely guilty because I had lots of fun and far preferred their company to my husband and his family.
One of the major issues was that my husband regressed shortly after moving in with his parents. He would ask his parents to do things like take his car to get an oil change and to do basic adulting for him…and they would do it! I pointed out how this was not healthy to expect older parents to do his basic chores, but he persisted to revert to more childlike behavior. Since we were renting out our home, I did not know where else to go or what to do. I could have moved to my parent’s house in San Diego, but then I would have a really long commute for work and graduate school. I also knew that would be an act of escalation in our marriage to call my husband out on his false promise. So, I did nothing and remained miserable, and increasingly depressed.
When the market crashed in 2008, we knew things were less stable for us financially since my husband was a banker. He was eventually laid off while we were living at his parent’s house. I had wanted to leave CA for years since as it was so expensive, crowded, and hard to get into nature without long drives. I wanted to move to MT, CO, or Washington, DC as that last option would be good for my career and the others were my ideal of nature. My husband wanted to move to UT to convert Mormons to Christianity. (Please don’t hold this against me as I my faith views have completely changed, and thankfully I did not convert any Mormons to Evangelical Christianity!) As the head of the family and with a “ministry” motive, I could not say no. So, we settled on UT and I tried to be excited about “evangelizing the Mormons” although mostly I just wanted to get out of CA and at this point out of my in-law’s home.
We planned to move to UT in January 2010 after I had finished grad school. My husband was laid off a few months before the planned move, so he started looking for jobs in UT. About a week later I found out we were pregnant. He was in UT supposedly looking for work, so I told him over the phone about our pregnancy. He was excited and in a rare gesture sent me flowers with a teddy bear. I told his parents our exciting news over dinner and they were completely silent at first. Why would you want to have a child during these times they finally asked? They thought the world was such a dark place, they could not imagine wanting to have a child, much less celebrate with me. It was evident they were not pleased. It was crushing to be there alone with them, telling them I was pregnant with their grandchild, and they could express no joy. My husband spoke with them about their response and my mother-in-law apologized for hurting my feelings, but not that she was disappointed that we were having a baby. Living with in-laws who were upset that I was pregnant was devastating. Moreover, I had morning sickness during this time and could not keep down many of the healthy supplements and food like salad that I was supposed to eat. Everything I ate was monitored and my husband was constantly telling me what I needed to eat and not eat, “for the health of the baby.”
My husband looked for work in UT but failed to secure a job prior to our daughter’s birth, despite having 8-9 months. His Dad was an executive at the bank where he first worked, so he had never really had to apply and go through the hiring process. He was stubborn, so would do things like send letters with his resume in the mail to banks that were not even hiring. Times had changed, and everything was done online now. He did not want to accept a job “below” his previous station, nor would he consider applying for jobs outside of UT. He passed on some opportunities, volunteered for an Evangelical missionary with whom he was good friends, watched tv, and did everything but become employed…all the while claiming he was trying hard. It was so discouraging to me as I was struggling through the pregnancy, working, and becoming more and more concerned about giving birth with an unemployed spouse.
My husband considered being a stay -at-home Dad instead of working. I was obviously not in agreement with this. Once our daughter was born and he discovered the amount of work a newborn requires, he tried to start a company despite our desperate financial situation. We paid nearly as much as he “made” during this period for a nanny to come to our home to watch our daughter. Nothing changed. I was still the only one providing for us.
My husband and his sister convinced me that the only good option for childbirth was a natural birth with a mid-wife. The belief was so strong, that I knew before the birth that I would be a complete FAILURE if I could not have the baby naturally without medical intervention. This resulted in over 50 hours ACTIVE labor, not to mention the many hours prior. By the time I was transferred to the University of Utah hospital, I had an infection, and my white blood cell count was through the roof. I had been throwing up for two days, was extremely hungry, weak, and dehydrated. I had a few hours of reprieve before the pushing. I just wanted to die, literally. I had nothing left and no real emotional support. I remember thinking about how my husband did not love me or the baby because he we still bumming off me and not getting a job. It was depressing, but I kept shoving those thoughts away to get through the birth as apparently death was not coming.
By the time my daughter was born, I could not even hold her or process that I had given birth. What should have been a wondrous moment was one of stupid exhaustion. My husband went with our daughter who was urgently cared for due to my infection. He was to make sure no unnecessary medical intervention occurred.
Our daughter had to stay at the NICU for a week and I felt horribly guilty for every moment going home to eat, shower, and rest before I could hold her again. I had an unnecessarily traumatic birth. If I had just planned a birth at the hospital, accepted an epidural and medical “intervention” I probably would have been fine. Instead, I was like a walking corpse. I saved all my vacation and sick time to get just under 6 weeks off work after her birth. Since my husband STILL was not employed, there was no option but get back to work to pay our bills.
I started manifesting symptoms of post-partum anxiety as this time, primarily through OCD behavior. I would check locks on doors multiple times, make sure the stove was turned off, and check nearly everything in the house that could be plugged into an outlet to ensure our apartment did not burn down. The worst was fear that my daughter would die of SIDS. I would check her breathing obsessively and was scared to death that I would somehow be responsible if she died. Now I realize that I was having post-partum depression and anxiety, but it went undiagnosed because we were into natural health and most mental health issues were the person’s fault and they should be able to fix them on their own.
I continued to work, perform nearly all the housework and childcare, and was berated by my husband, every time I traveled for work because I was trying to “get out of taking care of my baby.” Wanting desperately to be a stay-at-home Mom, I was constantly stressed and completely lacking emotional support in my marriage. He continued to be sexually aggressive and angry that my traumatic birth necessitated a longer healing time than he had been told was required. It is hard to imagine how I survived those years with so little sleep, so much stress, and the ongoing abuse. Trying not to lose my milk, I took my daughter on a business trip to DC and my Mom flew from CA to care for her while I worked. I think this was a big factor in improving our relationship. My Mom became the one who showed up to help me when I had nothing left, no hope, and did not know how to juggle everything. She may not have been as present when I needed her as a child in the NTM boarding school, but she definitely came to the rescue in this stage of my life.
My daughter became the light of my life and everything I did was for her, to be the very best Mom possible. I wanted my daughter to always feel loved, cared for, and to have her Mom’s attention. Like most parents, I tried to fix everything that I perceived as lacking in my own childhood.
Having OCD behavior frustrated my husband to no end. It was a huge burden for me because I felt trapped by my need to perform a routine of behaviors that became longer and longer. While I knew rationally it made no sense, I suppose it was a coping mechanism to have control over an area of my life when so much else felt like it was spinning out of control. For the first time in my life, I went to counseling for a few months to address the OCD issues but was not at a place where I could recognize that the behavior was my way of creating safety for myself because I had none with my husband and did not trust him. So, I worked on the external OCD behaviors without addressing or understanding the underlying issues.
Meanwhile, I was badgered by my husband that my OCD symptoms were not resolved, and it was “a waste of money” to go to counseling. As a result, I stopped going to counseling, never reaching the point where I could admit or discuss that my marriage was a major underlying problem. I felt like a failure for not being able to get a handle on the OCD enough so that he would see I was trying to get better. I felt hopeless with the burden of a huge nighttime OCD routine and not being able to live without the constant fear and guilt that my daughter would die, and it would be my fault. My husband FINALLY got an entry level job for a short period during which we got pregnant with our son. I wanted my daughter to have a sibling. At this point, my focus was being a Mom and creating the best world I could for those children. The marriage relationship was such a disaster and façade, but I was an expert at acting by now.
During this time, I approached my pastor, Tim Barton, for help. We had attended Jordan Presbyterian Church (Presbyterian Church of America – PCA) since moving to Utah in 2010. My pastor was sympathetic, but not skilled in dealing with this type of situation. My husband was teaching adult Sunday School, taking away hours of job searching each week, while he was unemployed all these years. Tim decided to have him stop teaching for a time, recognizing that my husband put his efforts into things that interested him, or made him look good, but not on the important things like finding a job to contribute financially. He followed-up with me once without my husband, and again with him present. My husband was extremely angry with me for asking for help and for the consequence of not being allowed to teach Sunday School anymore so he took it out on me.
My husband did not like the entry-level job he had finally agreed to work and had numerous complaints. I urged him repeatedly to raise his concerns with the Human Resources department. Instead, he started leaving work early and blaming it on me saying he wanted to see me, even though I was pregnant, and he would arrive home about the time I was going to bed. After the employer confronted him for leaving work early, he wrote an angry letter and quit. Our son was born two days later. Once again, I was giving birth with an unemployed husband, working on a non-profit salary. While passionate about my work, I never imagined it would be sufficient to raise a family. I remember again, those many hours of labor knowing that my husband did not care about me or our children nearly as much as he cared about himself. What kind of father quits a job after years of unemployment the month their second child is to be born?!
I tried for a natural birth yet again and gave birth to my son at a birthing center in July 2012. It was another exceptionally long labor. Near the end, the mid-wife told me I had to get this baby out as the situation was becoming dangerous. No pressure! I was again depleted from constant vomiting and an extended labor. The pushing started and of course I did not have an epidural. They had me hold on to some sort of bar attached to a rope they were pulling. Again, I just wanted to die. I know childbirth is a nightmare for many. But I think there is something different about giving birth without a partner’s support. No matter how excited I was to meet my baby boy, no matter how happy my family and friends were for his birth, there is something soul crushing about “being with” the child’s father who clearly did not value his role in providing for the child.
Our son was born, with swelling on one side of his head. Fortunately, it was not serious and went down in a couple of hours. The birth center staff took my order of coffee and crepes and brought me food while all the newborn checks were being done. I showered and dressed both my son and I in our going home outfits and was on my way within a few hours of giving birth. This birth was less traumatic than the first, but now, we had our daughter to care for along with the baby. My few weeks of vacation and sick time flew by and I was back to work before I knew it.
My husband continued in his state of unemployment, embarking on yet a new idea that did not involve making an income. This time, he was going to become a physician’s assistant, and started taking classes. Despite not having to work in college, having tuition paid by his parents and having a credit card with spending money, he had been lazy (by his own admission). His undergraduate grades were poor. He had to take some undergraduate courses just to start taking the graduate level classes for the highly competitive program at the University of Utah.
For comparison sake, I worked full-time and traveled a lot for work while in graduate school, taking 2 classes a semester. My husband was taking 2 undergraduate classes and insisted it was too much to work while taking these classes. He also needed to do some volunteer work for the program and spent so much time on his homework that he did not help with childcare. Our daughter spent the workdays with his Mom while I worked from home with our son. My husband studied and did a couple volunteer projects. I was starting to crack, and his family noticed. His parents came over some evenings to hold our son so I could have a short time to play with our daughter and put her to bed.
About 7 months after my son was born, I experienced a panic attack at my desk while working. The kids were born two years apart. I had saved all my vacation and sick time to have some weeks off after both of their births, but I did not have access to any paid maternity leave. With an unemployed husband after both births, I had to return to work within 5-6 weeks. The few vacation days I had taken were to go camping with our one-year-old daughter who was barely learning to walk. If you have ever camped with a child this age, trying to keep them away from the fire, from falling over every other rock, and not putting everything they find into their mouth, it’s a TON of work. It really was more work to meal plan, pack, and care for a 1-year-old camping than to be at home. Clearly, this was not my idea of a vacation, but my husband insisted.
I was finally diagnosed with post-partum anxiety and prescribed some medications that enabled me to cope with my situation and to sleep. I had not slept properly due to the OCD that was impacting everyday functions. My husband and his family were not at all supportive of me taking medication to deal with my situation. Taking medications did not fit in their world view. This was just another way in which his family tried to control me and constantly badgered me into being “healthier” and more “spiritually mature.” They did not believe in the necessity and efficacy of these types of medications, so viewed them as a crutch. If I got myself together and had a good relationship with God, I should not need them.
Both my Siter-in-law and Mother-in-law had a lot to say about my difficulties breastfeeding. Despite having infections, high levels of stress, loss of milk, and travel for work, I was made to feel like a failure for not being able to breast feed for longer and not having enough milk when I did. In true fashion, my husband and his family would not just use formula. No, we had to go to the farm to get fresh goat milk which was in their minds the closest thing to breast milk. I even packed cooler bags of goat milk on business trips and did not really understand that I could feed my daughter store bought formula and she would be fine. It was not even a consideration in this natural health worldview. My Mother-in-law also started highly pressuring me to homeschool the kids despite the fact that I was working full-time and struggling to keep up with the household work, not to mention school was still years away.
Shortly after I experienced a panic attack during work, my employer decided to end the advocacy program of which I was the director. I had given my whole career to this point to build the program, establish relationships, and increase the effectiveness of this NGO. Having an unemployed husband and post-partum amplified the difficult situation. I quickly realized ending my time with the Christian NGO was providential and being freed from the Evangelical workplace was incredibly beneficial although I had a whole new story of trauma in my life due to working there. But that is a story for another time.
Knowing things were rocky at my place of employment and being unhappy with the treatment I experienced there, I had been working towards founding an NGO that would work on behalf of religious freedom for people of all faiths or none. I immediately threw myself into this work. I had incredible board members and support from my friends and family for this effort. Ultimately, I could not raise enough funds to make the organization a success. But the process of launching a 501(c) 3 and 501 (c) 4, writing a business plan, creating a website, and serving as the executive director for a time was one of my best professional learning experiences. I have often read about how failures are critical to teaching a person how to improve and succeed. I see this as a key time of learning independence, strength, and how to believe in my abilities as a professional woman. Thanks to a long time international religious freedom advocate, I was simultaneously referred to Coptic Solidarity who was looking for an advocacy professional.
I started working part-time for Coptic Solidarity doing advocacy and communications while I was fundraising for my non-profit start-up and trying to launch the NGO. My husband now claimed that we were co-founding the NGO and that he would run it with me…instead of finding a job. I gladly accepted his “free” help in building the website and with things I could not do. But I was also truly clear that the NGO wasn’t making money for even one salary, much less two of us. While I appreciated his efforts, he still needed to find a job to contribute to our income. At this time, I was again supporting the family on my severance and had immediately started working part-time for another NGO. His parents helped with childcare which was one of the few saving graces in my life at this point, although I was given constant parenting lectures and made to feel guilty for the way I parented.
My in-laws had extremely strict rules about how the kids had to behave at their house, which is exceptionally fine with expensive furniture and decorations. They understandably wanted to keep it nice, but it was not a comfortable environment for two little energetic people. Then one day my in-laws wanted to have a meeting with me and my husband to discuss his lack of employment. This situation had persisted from late 2009 to this time, in 2013 with a few stints of employment. The discussion ended with my Mother-in-Law suggesting I get yet another job, to help my husband continue his schooling. Every year seemed to bring more pressure, more work, fewer resources, and more desperation.
In this Evangelical world view, the man is the head of the home. My husband wanted the respect and power in the marriage relationship without contributing in a meaningful way, all the while maintaining his narcissistic and abusive behavior towards me. There are many types of abusers, but he was primarily interested in controlling me (what I thought, said, and did) and doing and saying things to intentionally hurt and denigrate me. He was clever and saved most of this behavior for behind closed doors at home. In public, and especially at church and with church friends, he pretended to be amiable, loving, humble, and every other spiritual attribute one would expect. The best resource I have read that describes the different types of abusers and how they sneakily get away with their behavior is a book written by Lundy Bancroft named, Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. Bancroft has many years of experience running a rehabilitation program for abusive men and is the first I have encountered who so accurately describes what I experienced and did not dismiss it as the victim’s fault.
Control over my life took many forms, and not necessarily the ones that most people think of when considering abuse. My husband never behaved jealously until I asked for a separation and he eventually hacked into my email despite the separation and me changing passwords, at which point he accused me of being unfaithful. Throughout our marriage, I do not think it even occurred to him that others might find me attractive or interesting. He never hit me which is what most people think of as abuse. Rather, he exercised constant verbal and emotional abuse to the point that I did not feel able to make many decisions or choices that were good for me. My self-esteem plummeted even further because I was constantly subjected to criticism and denigration.
One major aspect was control over food and drink. I did most of our grocery shopping and cooking. My husband would review the label on nearly everything I purchased. If he thought the food was not healthy enough or contained “harmful ingredients” I was berated. Sometimes he would throw food away if it did not meet his standards. My consumption was closely monitored, and his rules ran the house. We almost never snacked after dinner, were rarely supposed to have dessert or candy, never drank soda, and most definitely were not supposed to eat fast food with the rare exception of In and Out or Rubio’s. When I was pregnant, on a rare occasion, I would get a $1 sundae at McDonalds, eat it, and throw away the cup before returning home so that I would not have to suffer his anger and disapproval. Several girlfriends who knew me during this period of our marriage and childbirth pointed out to me later that I used to defend and claim these decisions for natural health, clean eating, and natural childbirth as my OWN. Once I escaped his control, my behavior in all of these areas changed radically, which helps me see that I went along with it and defended it because I was being controlled, manipulated, and denigrated if I did not.
His control over the finances is typical in abusive relationships. Even though I was the one working and he was leaching off me, that did not change the financial roles in the house. My husband would criticize me if I spent money on things, he did not value. But, he would splurge on things that he wanted such as buying himself new skis and ski boots, buying organic food, or buying $200 causal shoes just because he liked them. His lack of employment did not alter his spending behavior.
Another aspect of control was over my socializing. My husband liked a moderate amount of socializing, primarily in the form of inviting people over for dinner, attending church, or church-sponsored events. These events were often incredibly stressful for me as I was the one to clean the house, grocery shop, cook, and entertain. It was common for my husband to agree to help with one small task and to still not have completed it a few minutes before company was to arrive. This was habitual.
One of the last times he pulled this on me was in preparation for our daughter’s 4th birthday. We lived in a small townhouse. I had severely sprained my ankle while playing soccer earlier in the week. I was responsible for every aspect of the party planning and execution. The only thing I asked of my husband was to mop our tiny main floor as it was really difficult for me with the sprained ankle. He readily agreed, only to renege the day of the event. It was not just the mopping, but that he would attack me for even wanting help or thinking he had a responsibility to follow through on his promise. I recall his response in this instance. He told me that I could never have survived as a stay-at-home Mom, (because he knew that’s what I had wanted to do after the kids were born but could not due to his lack of employment).It was the most hurtful insult he could hurl at me in this moment. It was never enough to be irresponsible, but he had to be verbally and emotionally abusive.
Ironically, it was at this birthday party that my friends started to see major issues such as my husband’s unwillingness to help me. When it was time to eat, his family who had sat on the couch and observed me struggling to do everything, were the first in line to serve themselves, before the children. Amidst the stress of doing everything on my own, I bumped the cake with my elbow, and it went crashing upside down to the floor. My girlfriends intervened to help serve the children and organize some games so I could deal with the cake situation. This behavior was my everyday life, but my friends started to see that things were not as they seemed in our home.
One of my friends told me several times after my husband and I separated that she always thought it odd that I would tell her to thank her husband for letting her come visit me. She started coming to visit about once a week when I was diagnosed with post-partum anxiety, to do a work-out and drink wine and chat afterwards. Her husband actually nicknamed this event, “winercize.” and she was instrumental in helping me get through post-partum while still being with my husband. Little did I know that other friends’ husbands didn’t bully them into not socializing or staying out “too late.” She also noticed how he would denigrate me in a “joking” way. I think due to her frequent visits, that the mask slipped, and she started to see his real behavior that was typically hidden from other friends.
I never felt free to socialize without my husband’s approval. He also did not like me to stay out late. Once we had kids, even an occasional social visit was an annoyance to him because he would actually have to care for the children in my absence. One night stands out in my memory because it was the final straw which led to me understanding that I was living in constant abuse.
I went to a women’s get-together, which was hosted by a friend from our church, and nearly all the attendees were also members of our church. We had a nice evening of playing games and chatting. I was drinking wine, and likely due to lowered inhibitions, broke down crying at the end of the night admitting that I did not want to go home. I did not want to face my husband being upset because I was “out late,” and because I had gone to socialize and have fun with my friends. I revealed a little about my husband’s controlling behavior. I thought that was the end of it. I wiped my tears, pulled myself together, and drove home. But my dear friend who had hosted the get-together was deeply disturbed by what I had shared. She spent the rest of that weekend googling some of the behaviors I described and approached me at church on Sunday to say that all of the things I was describing are types of abuse.
When I reflect on this time, with years in the same church spending much time with the pastors and elders, I often wonder why none of them intervened to help me and the kids. At minimum, they knew my husband was chronically unemployed and mooching off me. But they did nothing
I was just surviving at this point. I was struggling with anxiety, maybe a little depression, and lack of hope for my future. I could not plan or dream. It is just not possible when you are constantly being berated emotionally and verbally, and do not have a secure financial situation.
I really wish I had contacted a government or non-profit institution that specialize in helping abused women. But in this worldview, you are supposed to keep these problems internal, and not harm the reputation of your church. Never having lived outside the Evangelical bubble, I did not realize that this would have been the most helpful thing to do.
I had started experiencing what I believed were PTSD symptoms (later confirmed when I started therapy) every time my husband wanted to have sex. I had no coping mechanisms, and the symptoms became more intense. My husband was finally employed again at this time with an entry-level job. I supposed he felt a tiny bit of shame after his Mom wanted me to get another job while he was still unemployed. I started experiencing anxiety around 5pm every day, and realized it was due to knowing he was coming home soon. My husband had always been extremely unpredictable. Some days he would come home in a good mood, and other times he would rip into me in front of the kids, accusing me of all sorts of faults and yelling. I believe the anxiety stemmed from the uncertainty of how we would be treated when he came home.
In addition to the verbal/emotional abuse, my husband was extremely inconsistent with parenting and consequences. He would ignore the kids and then suddenly blow up for a behavior that bothered him. I do not recall what my daughter did, but one evening when she was about 2 ½, my husband became enraged and laid her over his lap and began “spanking her bare feet” with what I think was a spatula. Having worked in international human rights for years and reading many abuse files, I knew that beating inmates’ feet was a common form of torture. I told my husband this behavior was abusive and unacceptable. I do not think he did it again, but he thought it was a perfectly acceptable form of discipline. After dinner, My husband would often ignore me and the kids who were 2 & 4 at this time and focus on whatever project or activity he wanted to do, leaving me to do the majority of parenting and chores. The children were starting to treat me as their father did, with disrespect and not listening to me.
I finally considered that my son would grow up thinking the way his Dad treated me was the correct way to treat women. And I realized my daughter would think the way I was treated was normal and accept that same type of treatment in her future. Neither prospect was healthy or acceptable to me. This was the final motivating decision for a separation and eventually a divorce.
I told Pastor Tim Barton that I wanted a separation. I had finally understood that all the forms of abuse I experienced daily were not acceptable and I did not have to live with them. I did not know how to get my husband to move out or accept my decision, so I arranged an intervention with my pastor and elders which was to happen after the church service on Sunday.
I was scared that my husband might snap if I confronted him alone. He was unpredictable, and I had heard enough stories of domestic violence when a partner becomes violent and harms his family. I covered all my bases. I disassembled my husband’s handgun and hid the parts, extra clip, and ammunition in different places around the house, in places he would never think to look.
When I told my parents about the intervention plan, they immediately expressed concern that my husband might turn violent. They had seen more of his true character and treatment of me and the kids than most. I felt comforted that they had the same thoughts about our safety, and that I was not just “imagining things.” They insisted on flying my Dad to Salt Lake City on the day of the intervention so that the kids and I would have and extra measure of physical and emotional support as we all knew it would be a tough time.
My husband was completely blindsided by my request for him to move out. He was not agreeing until Pastor Tim really encouraged him that he should respect my request. The church leaders recommend a plan for counseling sessions with the younger Pastor John, who was about our age. My husband was upset but consented and moved to his parents. In preparation, I had asked my employer to move from a consultant to a salaried employee as they originally wanted me to work full-time and they quickly agreed. I did not get benefits but was able to keep us afloat financially to make a separation/divorce possible. Because he did not make enough money to make the monthly mortgage payment, I was able to refinance it into my own name and have a home for me and the kids. Lack of financial independence is one of the biggest obstacles to many other women being able to escape abusive situations.
My husband and I were scheduled for four sessions of counseling with the younger Pastor John Stoddard, as Pastor Tim had been outed for kissing a single divorcee woman in our church. He was still serving as a pastor but took a lesser role during this period. I remember the Sunday in church when he made the announcement and apologized and talked about how much he loved his wife. I think deep down I knew this was an indicator of how my church would overlook issues of “sin” committed by male members, but I was personally attached to this pastor and did not want to face what this really meant. I do recall crying uncontrollably during the service because I knew it was a betrayal by the person I was counting on to help me.
By the 3rd “counseling” session, my husband finally admitted to lying about everything in our previous two sessions. He asked for another chance to start over, but I did not trust this as I had seen him lie over and over again. I wanted a divorce, and Pastor John actually expressed more outrage over my desire to divorce, than over the lies and behavior of my narcissistic and admittedly sexually abusive spouse. I filed for divorce and after 8 ½ years of an extremely painful marriage, started a new life.
I was asked repeatedly by the Church leadership and others, “why didn’t you say something earlier or ask for help?” I read an insightful book at this time called The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, which recounts the story of a narcissistic abuser who eventually lost his wife to divorce. A book written by the abuser who knew how to manipulate the Evangelical system and explained how easily it was done, was confirming in the sense that it matched my situation so closely. I realized in retrospect that one of the main issues was that I had no words to describe what I experienced. I thought my mental rejection of the abusive behavior was sinful. So, I certainly would never express it verbally.
It took over 7 years for me to even try to articulate what was happening to me. It took reading about a remarkably similar situation to be able to express the concepts in terminology somewhat understandable to those around me. A reason for this is that Evangelicals, in my experience, only talk about physical abuse such as a husband hitting his wife and kids. This carries over into many religious communities. The much more common forms of abuse and control, which in my experience are rampant in the Evangelical world, are not acknowledged, thus victims have no knowledge of them or help to recognize and escape the abuse. In my case, all the signs and indicators were readily available for our church leaders to see. They merely preferred to maintain the reputation of my husband and patriarchy over truth, kindness, and assistance. They convoluted their own misogyny and patriarchy for spiritual leadership and maturity. People who do escape abuse often note this to be a leading reason why they leave the church. With one of the largest mass exoduses from churches in history, church leaders often talk about why this could be happening. Most of the issues can be traced backed to a controlling, patriarchal, anti-science faith.
Although I started writing a book to expose the abuse within NTM, I have come to realize through all of my processing, meeting other survivors of abuse, and reading stories of those abused, that a common thread is victim blaming. This is a massive problem in the Evangelical world, and a real testament to their views on women. Despite claiming that women are equal to men, primarily white, Evangelical, male leadership regularly silence victims, hide abuse, attempt to preserve the reputation of the church and abusers, and deny help and justice to victims.
Pastor John remained at the church and has never realized the extent of damage he caused by siding with the abuser. I am not aware of any attempts to warn my ex’s new church of his abusive behavior. More recently when I asked Pastor John to share with a custody evaluator regarding my ex-husband’s admission of sexual abuse, he claimed that he had forgotten about it. I highly doubt this and suspect he feigned ignorance in yet another effort to shield my ex-husband from any consequences of his abuse toward me. My ex-husband remarried, has two new children, performs playing his saxophone in worship services, and continues pretending to be a model Christian husband and father.
I quite accidentally discovered a couple years ago that Pastor Tim had yet another incident of sexual misconduct at the church he had been moved to in Utah and resigned. He moved back to the East Coast. As I experienced with the PCA and have observed with countless other missionary agencies and countless other churches, shuffling abusive pastors and church personnel is one of the most common ways they hide abuse from parishioners and allow it to spread and be perpetrated on other innocents. To me, this is one of the most disgusting abuses of power, to shelter abusers, deny claims and justice to the abused, and perpetuate the cycle in new settings with new victims. “Nothing to see, folks… Move along.”
I found the world’s best therapist and was able to work through the childhood trauma I experienced within NTM (now renamed Ethnos 360 after numerous cases of child abuse were reported) as well as through the abusive marriage. Early on, my therapist presented the option to dive deeply into the trauma and work through it, or to utilize narrative therapy to take back the control and start writing my own narrative. It only took a minute to realize that I wanted to focus on moving forward, learning how to think through and deal with issues, how to make decisions, how to deal with relational, parenting, and employment challenges. I am grateful for that choice as I am now in the best place I have ever been. I am a single Mom, have a hell of good time with my kids, and do not feel like I need a partner to be a good parent. Realizing that I am enough for my kids has been one of the most empowering experiences of my life. And I can see how much they enjoy a life that is not dictated to us, but one in which I include them in age -appropriate decision-making, support their interests, and encourage independent thought on issues of faith.
I am pursing a personal project of writing a book and established a website www.exposingreligiousabuse.com. I never planned to do any of this, and sometimes I wonder why I embarked on a 2nd “job.” But becoming connected with a whole community of individuals who are passionate about these same issues has been incredibly motivating. Many have demonstrated such courage and commitment, that I hope to join their ranks as one more voice and advocate for those trapped or recovering from abuse.