Behind Closed Doors
By Karolyn Dekker*
How is it possible for someone to be abused for years, even decades, and not realize what is happening? At one point in my life I thought that abuse would always be obvious; the above scenario seemed unlikely—until it became my story.
Early in our marriage I hesitated to share our problems with others. My conscience told me there was something different about our issues. Some of Juan’s* idiosyncrasies seemed a little irrational, but I was not about to make a mountain out of a molehill. Keeping peace was my priority. Yet there was a growing uneasiness gnawing away at my soul.
We went through Bible school, three children, deputation, and finally becoming missionaries in Mexico. Afraid it might interfere with our goals; I never admitted anything was wrong. Plus, all through that journey I reasoned that “things would get better when...” Surely he will be kinder when he doesn’t have the stress of school. It’s likely he will be more empathetic when we are done with deputation. He will definitely remember his family values once we get settled on the field. It gave me hope—change was just around the corner; I could endure sure that God would give me the love, patience and forgiveness I needed to save our marriage.
However, reality did not follow my optimism. Juan gave me only words of criticism and correction, never encouragement. He accused me of being controlling. Could he really see into my inner self and discern my motives? I was doubting myself. I must have been a terrible person. But did that justify his actions and his ignoring my emotional needs?
Ironically, most of the things Juan accused me of controlling were responsibilities he had assigned me. He requested I manage the checkbook, but resented me for it. He refused to help when the children were ill, so I took them to the doctor and solely tended to their needs. Later, he said I taught them to always go to me when they needed something, another example of my control. In desperation, I asked him to take over certain responsibilities thinking it would help. His response? “It is important that you learn independence. After all, what would you do if I died? I was dumbfounded and did not know how to respond.
His accusations would drive me to the Word, looking for guidelines on how to be a better wife, but over time I realized there was a dangerous pattern evolving. Whenever I mentioned my pain, it became a conversation about his. He argued that my pain was my fault. If his words were hurtful, they were merely a response to my own inappropriate actions. He avoided culpability, and I wrongly accepted the responsibility for his behavior.
What was wrong exactly? He never hit me. He never got drunk or had affairs like many men in town. I decided to continue working on myself in hopes it might help. Unknowingly, I kept the cycle in motion.
Back in the states for a second furlough, we were unable to raise support to return to Mexico. I was relieved. We had no resources on the field. We needed counseling and someone to mentor us. In addition, I was emotionally, physically, and spiritually burnt out.
Juan wanted to blame me for our marital issues. Driven by despair I found a counselor for myself and pleaded, “Please teach me how to love and forgive my husband!” I was obviously failing him.
Then I read Angry Men and the Women Who Love Them by Paul Hegstrom. The book describes different types of abuse: emotional, power, control, religious, etc. It felt like someone had recorded the events and conversations of my own marriage. I started to contemplate that my husband had been emotionally abusing me all these years. I also realized that I had not been the controlling one; instead, Juan was controlling me with fear. Fear was the ingredient I had felt throughout our marriage, but had been unable to identify. I was constantly walking on eggshells being controlled with fear and working to keep everything just right so I would not incur my husband’s wrath, which was demonstrated with degrading, hurtful words, or simply a withdrawing, or denying of attention.
I finally got brave and started to share my story with my sister and close friends. Their reactions affirmed my concerns. I was accepting the fact that our problems were very serious.
And they got worse. Juan started to falsely accuse me of infidelity. I could no longer stay at home with him during the day because I never knew when a normal conversation would turn into a verbal attack. I would catch him in a lie, but when confronted he was angry rather than repentant. Fortunately, he did not act that way in front of our children, so there was relative safety when they were home. However, it was taking its toll on me physically. I struggled with neurological symptoms and was falling deeper into depression, losing my vitality, creativity, motivation, and energy for life.
Few people saw the abusive side of Juan. In public he was well-respected. He taught at a local seminary; church leaders called him for advice. Most people could never imagine the Juan I knew behind closed doors. I had a hard time myself trying to reconcile his sermons — always on target and doctrinally sound — with his behavior at home.
What were my options? Up to this point, I avoided the thought of separation; I wanted to protect my children. And what about the fact that we were still with our mission organization? I felt like a hypocrite. We were accepting support for ministry that we were no longer qualified to do. On the advice of my counselor, I saw another therapist for a single session that specializes in trauma and abuse. After telling him my story he gently asked, “Why are you still with your husband?”
“For the kids, of course,” I replied. The counselor explained that children often end up upset with the parent who was abused. They are angry because the parent never took action to get away from the abuse. It hit me — am I working so hard to save a failing marriage only to lose my children as well? My head was spinning.
By now I had learned that my husband’s childhood abuse was the impetus for his present behavior, but he refused to accept that possibility and wanted marriage counseling, not personal counseling. In all my research and counseling I had also learned that marriage counseling is not effective in abusive situations. I realized that separation was the only option. By this time, Juan had become irrational in his responses. There was no way to reason with him. The hope was that if he realized he could actually lose his family, he might wake up to the seriousness of his problem.
Juan agreed to the separation, but also instantly became the self-proclaimed victim and to this day, more than two years later, does not take any responsibility. To him, my asking for a separation was just another example of my controlling methods.
I still believe that God hates divorce, but I also know He despises lies, hypocrisy, and all kinds of deception. We as believers often idolize marriage, somehow thinking that because we avoid divorce we are pleasing God, yet never asking if God is pleased with the relationship. I look back and see years of betrayal. Juan betrayed his marital vows and we betrayed all the people who financially supported us, who trusted we had a healthy marriage. We betrayed our children by setting a bad example; now they have to unlearn habits that made our family so dysfunctional. Worse, we betrayed God. What was He thinking all those years? Are we really more esteemed because we remain married? Do we get more “points,” in spite of the internal abuse that occurs behind closed doors?
I finally realized that more than anything else in this world, I needed only God. I needed to know He was at my side, always. I needed to be able to live my life waking up each morning, yearning to meet Him in good conscience. I needed to be honest with Him, myself, and the world around me, not compromising “for the sake of the ministry.” Not everyone has supported my decision, but I have found peace and freedom in a way that I never experienced before. My health has improved and my energy and zest for life have returned. If God wills, He can soften Juan’s heart and restore him to our family. But if Juan refuses, I know that God is sufficient. There is no more safety in life than what is found in being under His wing. “He will be the stability of [my] times, abundance of salvation, wisdom, and knowledge; the fear of the Lord is [my] treasure” (Isa. 33:6).
*Karolyn Dekker is the author’s pen name. Her husband’s name has been changed to protect his privacy.
Stopping Verbal Abuse in Marriage
- One of the most damaging behaviors in marriage is verbal abuse.
- It is the deliberate use of words to inflict pain, intimidation or humiliation on a spouse.
- Wounded spouses are often at a loss for how to stop the abuse.
- The first step is to realize it has no place in a marriage.
- Next you must decide never to tolerate it again.
- The next time it occurs say, “Please stop. I will not accept this any longer.”
- If they continue the abuse, walk out and go to another room.
- If they follow you, leave the house or apartment.
- If they persist beyond that call the police, but not usually in front of the other person.
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Eph. 4:29).
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