This photo was taken when I was an abused Christian wife. Mine is one of many faces of the “church-to-abusive-marriage pipeline”.
From the outside I was polite, submissive, soft-spoken and obedient – the ideal Christian woman. On the inside, I was dying.
Unfortunately my story is not at all unusual – an abusive marriage is a common fate for many Christian women as it was for me by age 25. So common, in fact, that I feel confident referring to this pattern as a pipeline.
How does this happen? Why is this true for a religion that espouses loving others as you love yourself?
The short answer is by emboldening men and subjugating women, but the longer answer is more complex. Here I will highlight the factors from my own Christian upbringing that directly led to my abusive marriage and kept me with him for almost a decade.
Marrying very young is one of the big reasons Christian women end up in abusive relationships. The pressure in fundamentalist circles is enormous to marry before we are old enough to even know who we are, and certainly before we get the chance to explore our perspectives, experience the world and decide what kind of life we want for ourselves. This is intentional – by marrying young, adolescent development is frozen in time – the beliefs one holds at 18, 19 or 21 aren’t free to develop and change with age because venturing too far would jeopardize the marriage.
Christian girls are taught our entire God-given purpose is to become a wife and mother. While it isn’t always said out loud, the culture of the community implies that apart from those roles we are worthless. So of course, the sooner a young woman can fulfill her purpose and find her worth – the sooner she can finally feel happy, right? This emotional manipulation targets women and traps them in the church to serve men and populate the congregation.
As an unmarried college student, I once met up with a couple of women from my parents’ church to talk to them about the ministry work I was doing. Their response? Not interest in my accomplishments or my passions, but instead asking only about my marital status! They pitied me for not having found a husband yet – I was only 24! But then again, my little sister had been married since she was a teenager so by those standards I was an old maid.
Chaotic and overbearing rules around dating in fundamentalist communities makes it nearly impossible to explore a healthy development of sexuality. Marriage as a life-long commitment is the only allowable context for this, leading many teens and young adults – desperate to feel at peace with themselves and their changing bodies and needs – to quickly choose the first person they feel attraction for and put a ring on it. To say this often leads to disaster is an understatement.
Constraints disallowing males and females alone time together makes it so that often couples marry without EVER having spent time together just the two of them – never truly getting to know each other. They are marrying a practical stranger! Young people are ‘prepared’ for this reality by learning there will be many surprises after marriage such as … your husband not picking up his dirty socks, and other important matters. Christian couples are promised happiness if they follow all the rules, which leaves many blindsided when honeymoon bliss devolves into a living hell a few months post “I do”.
Young people raised in fundamentalism receive conflicting messages – on one hand there is the promise of a joyous marriage and exciting sex life if you follow “God’s Plan” and on the other hand one of the most common messages received is that marriage is incredibly difficult – a long, hard, laborious journey focused not on happiness but holiness. These messages come from older married Christians who seem unhappy and have convinced themselves this is how it has to be. It is quite normal to hear these church members frequently complain about their spouses. It is common – but never acknowledged – to see giddy, wide-eyed brides morph to dull and lifeless within a year of their weddings.
When almost everything a Christian adolescent hears about marriage focuses on how hard it is – incredibly difficult dating relationship such as mine, don’t raise red flags – so you get married anyway.
Christian young people are often taught long before their first date that breaking off a dating relationship is practicing for divorce. So even if or when a dating relationship raises concerns, we are often too terrified to end it, as it would mean we might not have a lasting marriage someday – and marriage is championed as every Christian’s highest purpose.
Following this trajectory, on the other side of the wedding day when extremely painful hardships arise in the marriage it’s less likely you will seek help after being set up for this your entire life – echoes of “marriage is the hardest thing you will ever do, but so worth it!” and “marriage is designed not for your happiness but your holiness” reverberate in your mind. Haunted by these fundamentalist teachings, misery doesn’t alert you to danger. Divorce is never an option, and “suffering for Christ” refines you and pleases God.
Women raised in fundamentalism are taught from infancy to submit to and obey the authority of men, especially our husbands. Whether or not it is said directly, in conservative Christian circles the husband connects directly with God and the wife learns about God through the authority and guidance of her husband and male church leadership. The wife has been created as a helper for her husband and accepts all of his decisions with humility. This makes it nearly impossible for a woman in that environment to stand up to her husband or speak out against him. Talking to someone other than your spouse about marital difficulties can be seen as disrespect against your husband – which is a very serious matter.
Women are trained to be ultra-feminine to please God and keep their husbands attracted to them – this looks like remaining soft-spoken, selfless, subservient, well-mannered, turning the other cheek and faithfully forgiving offenses. When these traits are ingrained into women’s nervous systems from childhood, we usually don’t know how to set boundaries or how to recognize when enough is enough. Women especially are taught to “give until it hurts”, so when we do get hurt our neural pathways have been wired to believe it’s a natural consequence of pleasing God.
With an all-male church leadership team and women barred from teaching in the presence of a man, all mainstream ideas about marriage come from only a male perspective. This makes it easier to silence voices who would otherwise bring a fuller picture of the actual outcomes of these Christian marriage teachings.
Playing into the problem even further, men in fundamentalist churches are taught from boyhood to become rulers and conquerors and to not be swayed by emotion. This sets up even the most well-intentioned men for the risk of abusive tendencies and a hardening toward empathy for their wives.
Additionally, abusers tend to choose victims who are endlessly merciful, accommodating, polite and insecure – people who don’t stand up for themselves. And that’s exactly what the conservative church designs women to be! The institutional church is a factory mechanizing potential victims in pretty little packages for their narcissistic and abusive customers.
Many Christian young people including myself, grow up so sheltered that we never encounter alternatives for what romantic relationships and marriage could look like. Young fundamentalist women don’t have a way to get to know men who aren’t like those in their church. For me personally, when I met a “progressive” Christian man, I was blown away! At 18 years old, I had never before encountered an expression of Christianity that wasn’t full of fear, hate and restriction. I had no way of knowing he wasn’t incredibly rare and special, so I of course was going to do my best to hold onto him. He seemed like a much safer option to me than any of the traditional Christian men I had grown up around, and in regard to religion, he was. When emotional abuse, manipulation and narcissistic behaviors came along later, my brain had already been conditioned to believe this was normal.
In fundamentalist communities, making a decisions that isn’t fully endorsed by the church means losing everything – your relationships, your status, your sense of belonging, your support system, often your livelihood. You are excommunicated. This keeps many women in their dangerous marriages permanently or long-term because they have no one to support them and no where to go if they leave. Additionally, because women in these churches are discouraged or even prohibited from working outside the home, it is uncommon to have the skills or life experience to support yourself if you leave your marriage, and fundamentalists know this.
To make matters more complex in my own situation, my family’s church hated my boyfriend for all the wrong reasons – because he was liberal, not because he was abusive. Their concerns about the dangers of his liberal faith, of course, proved invalid over and over again, but the many actually-problematic issues were not even brought up. My church excommunicated me for visiting him at his family’s house – even though we wouldn’t be alone. This was incredibly traumatic and I lost all my friends and community. He was all I had left. This pushed me closer to him and made a breakup very unlikely. Besides, I figured if they were wrong about all the reasons they hated him, why would they be right about the relationship being unsafe?
When my relationship got progressively harder a few years in, by that timeline most everyone I knew had already married their partners and we were taught to work through any and every difficulty, never giving up no matter what. As a person of commitment, I wanted to work through it too. I pondered – “What if we had already said our vows too, what then?” Walking away wouldn’t be an option. Marriage is supposed to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done – I had better get used to sticking it out. So I stayed.
Growing up I was never given the chance to experience other cultures and different ways of living, so when my husband’s emotional manipulation and verbal abuse was excused by “cultural differences” due to his being from the other side of the country, I had no way of knowing that wasn’t the case. I had always heard that missionaries experienced “culture shock” and told it was very difficult to adjust to other cultures, so his reasoning made sense to me.
My old journals are full of prayers pleading to God to “empty me of myself” and make me more compassionate and sympathetic toward my abuser. I assumed my suffering came from my sin nature resisting forgiveness and humility. The more I suffered the more I tried to submit and “die to myself” and become “more like Christ”.
Years later, I would find the problem wasn’t my hard-heartedness at all, but by then catastrophic damage had already been done to my mental health and nervous system. While narcissistic tendencies are common in fundamentalism, my abusive husband turned out to have full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder. He had often told me he knew what was best for me and that I needed to trust him and do what he said. He told me I couldn’t trust my intuition and that I was lucky to have him guiding me. He said my suffering was my own fault because I was selfish, jealous and controlling. He said he had to train me to be a good person. All this caused enormous damage to my psyche, but because his behavior nearly mirrored the church’s, I was used to it and it took me 8 years to leave.
It’s not that victims are completely oblivious to abuse, rather we’ve been conditioned to accept it as unavoidable.
Someone close to me, a fellow child of evangelicalism, told me after escaping their abusive relationship that deep down they knew their partner was abusive … and they felt like an idiot for staying so long. I knew it too… Kind of. I knew the ways he treated me didn’t feel good and I was smart enough to know that love probably shouldn’t hurt this much.
But when your developmental childhood years are spent needing to ignore the gnawing gut feeling that something isn’t right, it’s unlikely that as an adult you’ll act to protect yourself at the right time.
I saw some red flags in my partner, but when you’ve been immersed in a community that is one giant red flag, after a while the entire world is colored scarlet. Often victims know that something isn’t good, isn’t right, but what they might not know is that there is another option.
At a certain point, when chronic pain is almost all you feel, your nervous system becomes a little bit desensitized to it. This is a natural survival mechanism – constantly focusing on it would drive you completely crazy. Sure, you technically know it hurts, but you learn to live with it. Besides, a stubbed toe doesn’t seem so bad when you are bleeding out. By the time it becomes so unbearable it’s impossible to ignore in the sea of pre-existing pain, your entire foot is falling off.
Why should it surprise anyone that the conservative church mass-produces abusive marriages (and abusive friendships, work relationships, family dynamics, etc) when the church itself is abusive? Why wouldn’t people who are the products of an abusive system find it difficult to react to red flags with an abusive partner… when our relationship with the church looks the same?