Dear Ask A Feminist,
My husband and I were married in the temple over eight years ago. I hold a calling teaching Relief Society. My testimony is strong, but painfully damaged. To make a long story short. My husband is addicted to pornography and has been physically, verbally, financially and emotionally abusive. Not to mention treats me like an object. My efforts with six bishops in eight years has been disappointing. My husband has even admitted some things to these bishops and yet he still has not ever been even put on church probation. One bishop gave him a calling and a temple recommend, but them the stake president refused to sign it. Especially the last three bishops are disappointing as they know he has now been arrested for domestic violence and yet they have continued to do nothing. My husband consistently intimidates me and the children with scary anger and threats. My husband is a full tithe payer and goes to church every week, but does nothing at all to change. Does the money protect his position and lack of action? He sleeps through church and if awake says prayers and makes intellectual scriptural based comments. These comments make me cringe considering the way he treated me that day and nearly every day. Talk about feeling unequal. Even our Heavenly Father punishes us and we as parents punish our children. Not because we want to see them miserable, but because we are trying to facilitate or motivate a change. I have been blamed by his parents and by bishops. I have been asked if I am “taking care of his needs” when discussing his pornography usage. There are so many more details. I feel beaten down and want to leave him, but I haven’t worked in six years. I have an accounting degree, but I am afraid that I might lose my children if I can’t get a job and provide for them. I have gone to weekly counseling for two years now to get stronger. I’m assured, by my counselor, that I am not even depressed, just dealing with a lot. So why does this treatment of me not make sense? Why are the bishops leaving all the consequences up to me. Like if I don’t like it then leave him mentality. I feel neglected and unsupported. Is there something in the bishop’s handbook about allowing this behavior?
This story breaks my heart and I want to give you the best support possible. As such, I am passing along this question to one of the WAVE board members that specializes in abuse cases. Thank you for being brave enough to come forward and I hope you realize that your words will help countless women to know that they are not alone and (some) bishops to do a better job of helping them.
With all sincerity and love, Ask a Feminist
Let me begin by expressing my heartache for what you have suffered and are currently suffering at the hands of your husband. No woman should have to experience this. And I am saddened that you have been failed by our religious institution, even though it purports to comfort the weary and heavy laden. That being said, I am so impressed by your assertiveness and bravery in writing us about this issue. Domestic violence maintains its power through the silence and shame of its victims; you have taken several steps to break that power.
To introduce myself briefly, I have worked as a domestic violence advocate for five years, three of those years at a shelter counseling victims. I am currently pursuing a Masters of Public Administration with a concentration in domestic violence policy as well as staying at home with my three young children.
I’m going to break my response to you into two sections: I’ll address the logistical issues that you face as a victim of domestic violence first and then discuss some of the questions you asked concerning the way you have been treated by our church.
For any victim of intimate partner abuse, it is extremely difficult to react appropriately to the abuse that has been perpetrated. These choices can be overwhelming but they can also be empowering in that it allows you to re-take control over your life. I assume that since you wrote to us you do not want to perpetuate the status quo any longer. This leaves you with three general options:
1) Leave your marriage immediately.
In your first email you mention that your husband has been physically, emotionally, verbally, financially and spiritually abusive. You are well within your rights to leave this marriage. I recognize, however, that leaving an abusive relationship is complicated, especially if there are children involved. I do not presume to know what is best for anybody in this situation—that is a very personal decision that only you can make—but my first concern is always safety. Are you physically safe remaining in this relationship? If you are not, it may be in your best interest to leave your husband and go to a safe place. Again, leaving is complicated and you should be aware that the most dangerous time for a victim of domestic violence is after she leaves the relationship. It would be beneficial to talk with a domestic violence advocate and develop a safety plan for this time.
When women choose to leave their abusers, I generally recommend that they get an Order of Protection first. I say generally because sometimes getting a protection order is not in your best interest, only you can know that. An Order of Protection is just a piece of paper but it does provide some protection in that it lets the criminal justice system know that something is going on in your relationship that is not right. If you choose to get a protection order I highly recommend utilizing a lawyer or legal advocate; they understand the intricacies of the system and will be able to provide you with the most comprehensive Order of Protection possible. Most superior courts have legal advocates on staff and can help victims navigate the complicated legal system for free. If not, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline and they can provide you resources to find legal help.
Let me talk about domestic violence shelters briefly. I worked at a shelter and know intimately the good that they do for women trying to get out of abusive situations. However, shelter life is hard and may be especially overwhelming if you’re used to the privacy of your own home. Also, the recession has hit non-profit organizations hard so programs like domestic violence shelters have fewer resources to offer you. If you have family that you can go to, this might be a preferable situation for you and your children. If this is not possible then DV shelters are a safe, supportive place to go and they offer wonderful services. Domestic violence shelters will provide food and shelter, support groups and domestic violence education, resources for your children as well as targeted case management to help you get back on your feet. You can get referrals to local domestic violence shelters through the National DV Hotline linked to above.
2) Wait to leave
You may make the decision to leave your husband but know that the time isn’t right for whatever reason. In that case, I would encourage you to get prepared now. Gather all of your important documents and basic necessities and have them ready in case you have to leave quickly. During this waiting time you may even want to build up a little “nest egg” fund in preparation. You said your husband was financially abusive but even if you could save the change from your grocery money it could really help.
You mentioned that you are already in counseling but it might also be beneficial to attend an outpatient domestic violence support group. There you will receive more domestic violence education and connect with other women in similar situations. Many social service agencies have these kinds of support groups. Once again, you can call the hotline for referrals for groups in your area. You may even want to utilize case management services from a domestic violence advocate who can help you plan for your eventual escape. Hopefully, an advocate can provide you with resources to help you get back into the workforce so that you can financially support your family. Ask the advocate about transitional housing programs in your area as this is a useful stepping stone in the process of getting self sufficient.
3) Remain in the relationship
Sometimes it is in the best interest of the woman and her family to remain in the relationship. Only you can know what is best for you and your children and it is never the place of an advocate, family member, friend or religious leader to make that decision for you. However, staying in an abusive marriage must be considered carefully: What are the potential ramifications to your physical and emotional health? What effect will this have on your children both now and in the future? You are in the unenviable position of having to weigh these realities
If you do chose to stay I would encourage you once again to join a domestic violence support group and continue seeing your therapist as you will need the emotional support. I would also recommend finding something outside of your home that makes you feel good about yourself. This could be anything from getting a part-time job, going to the gym, or taking a class for something you’re interested in—anything that will build your self-esteem.
I would also encourage you to practice as much assertiveness as is safe with your husband. You state in your email that your husband treats you like an object, this is a common characteristic of abusive personalities because they fail to recognize the humanity of the people around them. So when your husband says something hurtful to you, call him on it. Using assertive, “I”-focused language say something like: “I feel hurt and disrespected when you talk to me like that.” One of two things will happen, he won’t ever get it and will continue to be abusive or he will begin to understand over time that you do have feelings that he is negatively impacting. If he does catch on, great! If he doesn’t, at least you’ve reaffirmed to yourself that you have feelings and they are valid.
I would also be honest about what it will take from him for you to continue to stay in the marriage. From everything you’ve described about your husband, he needs treatment for his abusive personality. There are programs for abusers that seek to change abusive behavior through a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy, education and group responsibility. Find out what programs exist in your community and if it is safe to do so, inform your husband that he must participate in one of these programs if he wants to keep the family together. I must tell you that Batterer Intervention Programs have a high recidivism rate but it is my opinion that some treatment is better than no treatment. I would try to find a program that lasts at least six months, if not longer since those have better success rates. I generally don’t recommend anger management for abusers since anger management is not the root of the problem. And under no circumstances would I recommend seeking marriage counseling with your husband. The problem is not yours, it is his and many abusers use marriage counseling as a sanctioned time to emotionally abuse their partner. Please let me know if you would like more information about treatment options or help finding a decent provider in your community. If you chose to stay with your husband hopefully the trust can be rebuilt and you can go on to have a mutually fulfilling relationship.
It breaks my heart that you have had the experiences you have had with church leadership. I agree with you that bishops should be a source of support for individuals who are being abused by their marriage partner. The fact that you have had six bishops who have either looked the other way or blamed you for your husband’s sins is inexcusable in my book. That being said, it is not especially surprising to me that this has been your experience. The Mormon Church is certainly not alone in failing victims of domestic violence, many religions struggle with giving adequate support to women who are suffering from this evil. What makes your experience frustrating, however, is that the general authorities have been quite clear that there is no room for any form of abuse in a marriage relationship. For example, the Church Handbook of Instructions specifically states:
The Church’s position is that abuse cannot be tolerated in any form. Those who abuse or are cruel to their spouse, children, other family members, or anyone else violate the laws of God and man…Members who have abused others are subject to Church discipline.
I cannot tell you exactly why your leaders have failed to support you and act appropriately when Church policy is so clear. I do have some thoughts, however, that might help you in the future when you turn to a bishop for help.
Bishops face a complicated situation. Because of the importance we rightly put on eternal families, I can understand that no bishop wants to be responsible for the breakup of a family. Most bishops have no training in the dynamics of intimate partner abuse and so will often provide inappropriate counsel in an effort to keep a family together. From what you have described it seems that your current bishop wants to let you make the decision of whether to remain in the marriage without giving you outright permission to leave. According to church policy and the rhetoric of our general authorities, you are well within your rights to do so. My suggestion is to prayerfully decide which option is best for you and your children, whether it be leaving your husband, remaining in the marriage for the time being, or sticking it out for the long haul. When you have decided this, go to your bishop with your decision and see how he can support you in your plan. You may find that he is more supportive once he knows which direction you will take.
More likely than not your bishops have had absolutely no training in counseling, let alone the dynamics of intimate partner abuse. Because of this, they have not recognized how serious your complaint was. It is also possible that your bishops got caught on the pornography problem since that is what gets focused on so much by general authorities. Unfortunately, pornography abuse is so common in the church that some bishops may feel it does not warrant church discipline. In your case, however, your bishops have failed to see that your husband’s pornography use is only a symptom of a much larger problem.
This is where I think you could be a wonderful advocate and agent of change, not only for yourself but for other women who find themselves in a similar circumstance. Domestic violence experts have developed a wonderful tool to help identify abuse in a relationship called the Power and Control Wheel. Take this tool to your bishop and identify the ways in which your husband has abused you. Give him specific examples. Then I would show your bishop the Equality Wheel which visually represents what equal partnership in a relationship should look like. Your bishop should see that the qualities listed in the Equality Wheel are the same ones that general authorities tout when they speak of equal partnership in marriage.
I recognize how unfair it is that you must be the one to educate your bishop about abuse. The church should be doing a better job training their ecclesiastical leaders to recognize and respond to these situations appropriately. Statistically, one in three women will be a victim of intimate partner abuse; think of how many women are suffering in your ward and in the worldwide church. You can use your negative experience for good here and help your leaders do a better job ministering to women who have been victims of domestic violence. If you feel comfortable, maybe go to your stake president and share your experience with him. You could even write letters to your area authority, the general Relief Society Presidency and the First Presidency. The more women like you are willing to speak about the abuse they have suffered and the failure of church leaders to respond compassionately and appropriately, the greater likelihood that the general leadership will put structures in place that will address these needs. And as the statistics show us, the need is very real.
I commend you, dear Unsupported, for your bravery in writing to us and your desire to be an advocate for change. I know that you can make a big difference in the lives of many women. I hope and pray that you can find peace, justice and happiness in your own life. Please know that WAVE is one place, among many, where you are truly supported.
Meghan Raynes Matthews
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