Going down the stairs on that last day, I intentionally kept my hand on the rail, trying to burn the memory of its feel in my mind. This would be the last time I would ever go down these stairs — the last time I would touch this railing. Beginning the weeks and days before, the weight of what I would be losing grew and I wanted to hold on to whatever memory I could.
After watching my seven-year-old son shake uncontrollably in his father’s casual presence, I knew there could be no more denial and no more fantasy about the necessary change. Spending years trying to navigate us through the chaotic relational minefield of an emotionally and psychologically abusive marriage, I now realized our health and peace of mind were far more important than the scripts imagined for our lives, and we had to leave. As I arranged and packed our things, my only other thought was of being somewhere safe, somewhere where we could heal.
Everything from here on out was unknown. My excuse for staying this long was that at least the pain was familiar; I knew it and could predict it. But leaving involved change. It meant being strong enough to face the unfamiliar, unpredictable pain of low income, inconsistent housing, the dilemma of time spent between working and parenting, and an incited, vengeful husband.
Leaving meant planning. Planning meant thinking, which eventually meant acting. Both expended energy — energy that was scarce, rationed for the enormous self-comforting wattage needed to get through each day. The strength that it took to finally leave didn’t come from the usual sources, but rather from realizing I had a false, contrived assumption about marriage.
As those around me became aware of our circumstances and saw the full ramifications of our situation, many backed away, scattering into the realms of sympathetic acquaintance or judge. My Christian friends lectured me on wifely submission and the leadership of husbands. They made a correlation between Christ’s longsuffering on the cross and the longsuffering of wives in “difficult” marriages and said it was against God’s will for me to leave. Years before, while worn down and desperate for a marriage make-over, I believed this view. Now I knew better.
While thumbing through books at a local Christian bookstore, I came across an organization called Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE). With a phone call and a little research, I learned CBE addresses domestic abuse in the church as well as identifies and biblically challenges church teachings which enable and foster abuse.
I learned when churches teach the husband is to be the leader and final decision maker and the wife is to submit to this leadership and decision making, too often this marriage pattern is accompanied by a sense of the husband’s advantage and entitlement. Too many times when this advantage and entitlement are threatened or challenged, abuse is the tool used to recover it.
I also learned that incidents of physical abuse among church members are equal to those outside the church, but the most common accounts of abuse are emotional, verbal, and psychological. These include stories of controlling spouses who restrict access to money, transportation, social interaction, food, and medical treatment. They also involve spouses who are hyper-critical, demand perfection, and keep family members off-balance through constant chaos.
From ignoring known emotional needs and giving the silent treatment, to a pattern of yelling, name-calling, and throwing things, emotional and psychological abuse can be just as debilitating and deadly as physical abuse.
The hyper-vigilant stress created from living in abusive environments long term is often severe enough to alter hormone levels and brain chemistry, eventually leading to health problems from depression and anxiety to hypertension, asthma, and heart disease.
The good news is that more and more churches are acknowledging and addressing domestic abuse. Along with organizations like CBE, Peace and Safety in the Christian Home (PASCH), and Willow Creek Association, a growing number of evangelicals see that just as the church was mistaken in its interpretations concerning slavery and segregation, many churches are mistaken in their interpretations concerning men and women. Bible scholars are increasingly concluding that when the Bible is properly interpreted it points to mutual submission, mutual responsibility, mutual dependence, and gift-based roles in marriage.
Seven years later and hundreds of miles away from our last house, my son and I are healing. The unfamiliar, unpredictable pain did come rolling in and to a large extent, still churns around us. But the burden gender hierarchy once placed on us is released, and because of that we live. We have hope we never would have had while clinging to the familiar, predictable, and imagined security of the precious structure we once called “home.”