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Doug & Cindy

 

Sleeping With An Abuser

I don't trust you anymore“So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church…”  Ephesians 5:28-29

I recently received an e-mail from one of my contacts requesting feedback regarding intimacy with an abuser.  I tend to shy away from such sensitive matters, but in light of the pertinence of her question, I am certain that others may similarly avoid discussing these things.  I also know that it is in the darkness that fears and injuries fester, and there is an appropriate time to draw them into the light.

So, the question is this:  How can we expect to feel and respond toward our abuser sexually?  This is a multi-faceted question, and I have decided to offer my two cents based on three distinct but inseparable factors:  the draw, the danger, and the dance. 

The Draw

 Every healthy sexual relationship begins with attraction, not only of a physical nature, but also at an emotional and spiritual level.  True enough, sex can be little more than a physical act, but no one will ever convince me that it was intended to be so.  No, God created us as beings with a mind, body and spirit, and healthy sexual relationships encompass each and every aspect aligned in glorious, mutual fulfillment.

A woman who decides she is willing to receive a man wants to know that the one to whom she is giving her mind, heart – and body – is not only attracted to her physically, but appreciates, adores and cares for and about her.  The joy of intimacy can in some ways be measured by the closeness a woman enjoys with her partner long before their bodies ever touch.  A woman is free to love and be loved when she is convinced down to the core of her being that her lover is inherently safe and committed not only to her physical satisfaction but to her emotional and practical well-being.  It is that confident certainty and security that draws her to him and frees her to abandon herself to him in every way.  I am convinced that this is the way it should be.

The Danger

Within the abusive relationship, there is a shift in the dynamic, because the emphasis on mutuality has been perverted.  The abuser wants to enjoy the pleasures of his victim’s body, while caring not a jot whether her heart and mind are healthily involved in the act.  As in every other aspect of the relationship, the abuser adopts an entitlement mentality, and he perceives his physical satisfaction as sufficient.  She can pretend for all he cares.  In fact, in all too many cases, an abuser will demand sex regardless of the emotional connection and may demonstrate little if any empathy in instances when his partner is uncomfortable or in pain.  In fact, many abusers enjoy the sense of dominance that comes from forcing his bride to accommodate him even if their sex life includes acts she finds shameful or immoral.

In instances where the abuser’s wife enjoys intimacy with her mate on a physical level, her heart does not trust him and her mind waffles between guilt for not wanting to be intimate with him and fear because of the emotional damage he has already done  – and what he may still do.  She knows that her needs are a not even on his radar, and his expectation that she remain vulnerable to him leaves her in a precarious situation.  She longs to feel loved but instead feels used, particularly when his temper flares before his feet touch the floor the morning after.

The Dance

As the abuse victim begins to feel increasingly unsafe, she begins to do the avoidance dance.  She will look for ways to evade him – staying out late, remaining up past bedtime to read or watch television, complaining of being unusually tired or excusing herself for monthly female issues.  The abuser will soon express his displeasure with her unavailability.  He may remind her of the pleasure he gives her, but she does not dare confess the whole truth: any physical satisfaction she derives from their intimacy cannot begin to compensate for the fear, grief and loneliness she carries.  She feels violated in bed, because he violates her in a hundred different ways in their everyday lives.  The dance becomes a constant emotional burden – a weight of guilt derived from her unmet longing for genuine intimacy coupled with the shame of sharing her bed with a man who despises her.

Her other option is to refuse to sleep with him unless and until he demonstrates kindness toward her.  And he might figure out ways to win her over when the need arises.  But he will resent her for it, and she will need to accept that his occasional niceness does not equate to legitimate, heartfelt change.  For him it’s a buy-off, the small price he is willing to pay to get what he wants.  Knowing that his efforts are insincere, she may still have regrets when she gives in to him.  And other times, he will simply not take ‘no’ for an answer.

Sleeping with an abuser is a multiplied tragedy.  I don’t care what any church tells us; sex is not a right, it is a privilege, and it should be a God-honoring reflection of mutual care, respect and love.  There are those who will even ridicule a victim’s quandary.  “It’s only sex,” some will muse.  Others will quote Scripture telling a woman that her body is not her own.  (I Corinthians 7:4)  However, I will gladly protest that flippant interpretation, citing the Apostle Paul’s words only four verses earlier where he states, “For you were bought with a price: therefore, glorify God in your body.”  (I Corinthians 6:20)  God is to be glorified in our bodies, created in the image of God, the temporary housing of our souls.  Our bodies should be honored as the temple they are, particularly by those to whom we should be able to entrust them.

We should never be expected to compartmentalize sex as an act that has no effect on our hearts and minds.  I stand in the certainty that all aspects of our being are inextricably interwoven and cannot be separated – at least not without harm.  We should be able to expect that each and every aspect of our person will be cherished and protected by the one who stood beside us at a sacred altar and vowed to do exactly that.

So, how does one safely sleep with an abuser?

It is a hypothetical question, an oxymoron.  You cannot.  There is no way to keep yourself safe when you are making yourself completely vulnerable to someone who is unequivocally dangerous.  When you agreed to marry or live with that man, it was presumably based on an understanding that he would take care of your mind, heart and body.  If he’s abusing your mind and your heart, why in the world would you give him your body?

The only way to ensure that you won’t be expected to give yourself to him is to get away from him.

And you should.

 

Cindy Burrell

Copyright 2014

All Rights Reserved

Why The Abuse Victim Doesn’t Leave (In Six Words)

better-days-aheadThose who have never experienced abuse tend to be bewildered by the victim’s mindset. It does seem utterly ridiculous that anyone subject to physical or emotional harm would deliberately choose to remain one more minute with the jerk who is inflicting it. The outsider will reason, “Well, if she is so determined to stay, the situation must not be that bad.”

If things are so terrible, then why doesn’t she leave?

The shortest possible answer: She believes tomorrow will be different.

From everything I have witnessed and experienced, the abuse victim remains because of an undying hope that her magical moment is imminent – when her relationship and her life will be restored – and if not today, then tomorrow. She sincerely believes that she is only one small step from redemption, not realizing that there is, in fact, a chasm of extraordinary proportions that separates her from her imagined destination. Surely, the slightest change in her manner, his nature, or their circumstances will bring an end to this season, and these dark days will be remembered no more. It is only a matter of time. The promising future seems so real she can almost touch it.

If only it was so simple. But abusive relationships are insidious, a powerful concoction of mixed messages and twisted truth designed to confuse and control. There are a great many tender-hearted, well-meaning people married to those who put on a good show in public but thrive on oppression when others aren’t looking. Healthy people who have never been exposed to abuse cannot begin to imagine people they know and love living under the cold shadow of moral depravity where invisible wounds fester, and apologies and promises are offered easily, but glimpses of change quickly fade away.

She doesn’t believe it could happen to her.

Many abuse victims live for years in an abusive relationship and never mentally acknowledge their experiences as abusive. Abuse is often intermittent and minimal, particularly at first, which makes it difficult to identify. His unpredictability causes her to doubt her own senses. She accepts that every hostile episode is a singular circumstance or an unfortunate misunderstanding that can be remedied and forgiven.

She believes she may be responsible.

Oftentimes, the shock-and-awe component to the abuser’s tactics leads the victim to believe that either she unintentionally triggered his outburst or his actions are incompatible with his true nature. The victim might attribute the abuser’s actions to his history or stress, and for a while his excuses, apologies and promises seem genuine enough. But as the days, weeks, months and even years pass, the abuser begins to place the blame for his actions squarely on his victim. The victim believes that if she is causing the problem, she can work to fix herself and find a way to meet his impossible expectations. If she cannot, she will see herself as a failure – even deserving of his poor treatment.

When the abuser fails to embrace change, then his victim decides that his life circumstances might be the underlying issue. After all, he complains that he is unhappy at work, or he may have relational problems with family members, friends and co-workers who don’t seem to understand and appreciate him. So his victim comes alongside and strives to soften the blows that stir up his troubled spirit.

If the abuser plays the game well, he will occasionally toss out a compliment, a gift, or an unexpected privilege, a hint of promise to his tormented bride. The victim is certain that she has caught a glimpse of the man she fell in love with and reasons that the ups and downs must be consistent with a normal marital relationship.

She is wrong.

She fears that things might get worse.

When an abuse victim finally gets to a place where she can mentally acknowledge that the relationship is inherently dangerous, the lies and confusion inflicted by an abuser run so deep that his victim either doubts her ability to live without him or fears what will happen to her if she even attempts to break free. In many cases, veiled or direct threats are also part of the abuser’s mantra. “If you ever even think of leaving me, you will wish you had never been born.” “You have no idea what I might do.” “You don’t want anything to happen to your family [or the kids], would you?”  While staying is scary, leaving can be an even more frightening proposition.

She lacks validation and permission.

Because she carries no bruises or open wounds, her friends, family members and pastoral authorities almost always tell her that there is no reason her abuser cannot be won over through prayer, a godly life and generous measures of compassion and understanding (which she has already tried). She is told that her faith has the power to incur change in him. So the pressure is on her to fix the problem – and she stays.  She commits to a life of continual suffering with the belief that her faith will bring about repentance in her abuser.

In this, the church community unwittingly becomes one of the abuser’s most powerful allies. Should she be shamed into remaining with her abuser, he wins. And should she leave, he still wins – because the abuser and her church family will no doubt identify her as the one who “gave up on the marriage.”

Tragically, she has been lied to by her abuser, her heart, her friends, and her church. It is only her dwindling hope for a better tomorrow that sustains her.

But tomorrow never comes.

The abuse victim will finally leave when her stores of excuses, energy and optimism have been spent. Regrettably, it is when she has no strength left that she needs it most. It will be a sorrowful certainty of conviction and a desperate determination that finally drives her out the door.

She will leave when she realizes that tomorrow is nothing but a phantom, a dream, a wish – and all she really has is today.

“Carrying a log across your shoulders while you’re hefting a boulder with your arms is nothing compared to the burden of putting up with a fool.”
Proverbs 27:3 (The Message)

Cindy Burrell

Copyright 2014

All rights reserved.

Life on the Other Side

leap of faithJournal Entry:

March 11, 2003

 I now look at life differently.  My children are more precious to me than ever.  I love to hear them laugh and to daily tell them I love them and kiss them good-night.  Colors seem more vivid.  The breeze on my skin is fresh and invigorating.  I find myself smiling for no good or apparent reason.  It is as though I have peeled off my old life, and a brand new one is emerging.  At 43, can life really begin again?  If so, I pray that I am living proof of it.

 My emotions are all so intense — whether joy or sadness, peace or turmoil.  Everything I am feeling seems to have been impassioned by some unseen force.  What is going on?  What has happened to me?  Is this a natural phenomenon that all people experience when they have gone through a tragic divorce, or a short-term phase in life which leads only back to mediocrity?  God forbid.  Is it because my depression and fear had held me in bondage for so long that now I am finally experiencing the true range of emotions which were trapped beneath the surface?  That is exactly how it feels.  And, I fear the possibility of going back into that dreadful prison.  Even feeling the pain in its fullness far surpasses the numbness which came from locking it inside, running from it, believing I could somehow override it. 

 So, this is what life is like.  What angels long to peer into.  I’ll take it.

 It was a month before my divorce was finalized when I wrote that journal entry, and my abusive husband had been out of our home for over a year.  It was altogether strange and liberating when the haze of confusion to which I was accustomed gave way to reveal that I hadn’t been imagining things.  It wasn’t my fault and I wasn’t crazy.  Nor was I overly sensitive, demanding or selfish or stupid or unforgiving.

I have no idea how long it took for the emotions I had locked away to begin to rise to the surface.  Having the freedom to feel and express emotions at all seemed foreign.  The grief was overwhelming, yet it felt so good to really feel anything, to cast aside the robotic, perfectionist persona I had adopted for my survival.  I was free to reclaim my person-hood, free to be real and imperfect and transparent.  My kids and I dared to imagine ​and create ​the life we wanted but could never have.

We finally had room to breathe.  We could sleep in on Saturday mornings and eat pancakes and watch cartoons without someone marching downstairs and barking orders at us.   On Friday nights the five of us could eat pizza and popcorn and watch Disney movies and laugh out loud at our favorite parts and be ourselves without being criticized.  What wonderful, simple pleasures.

It wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine.  All of the kids struggled with the divorce for their own reasons.  The idea of not having a dad at the house (even an abusive one) was an adjustment, and ​the fact that he was gone​ was a​n admission that our family was broken, when we had all hoped and prayed that it was fix-able.

Weeknights could be exhausting, as I worked full-time capped with an hour commute each way.  So, by the time I got home ​in the evenings ​and put dinner on the table, helped with homework, made sure kids were bathed and we had some family time, I was plum-tuckered-out. Fortunately, I had a few dear friends and the kids’ grandparents nearby who graciously helped the kids get to church, basketball practice or swim meets when I was unavailable.  What a blessing those people were in all of our lives.

Although I ​had no idea what our future held and struggled to make ends meet, all the same, I found myself smiling or singing just because and fell asleep most nights thanking God for the solitude and peace.  We were happier, and that was all that mattered.

There was constant reinforcement that we were on the right track.  For our first “just us” Christmas, I was financially challenged but had enough to get a tree, fill the kids’ stockings, and buy them a few simple presents.  The ceremonies were brief but calm and pleasant.  That afternoon, as I was in the living room picking up what remained of the Christmas wrappings, I heard my 9-year-old son upstairs in the loft telling the others, “Wasn’t this just the best Christmas ever!?”  It touched my heart to know they felt the difference.  No drama, no yelling, no tears.  After so many years of hell, I just wanted them to be content and, in that moment, they were.

I wish I could say that life was peaceful and our abuser respected our boundaries, but he didn’t.  He continued to try to churn up chaos with his lies and manipulations and crazy-making -until I remarried three years after the divorce was final.  I fell in love with a man with his own wounds to mend, and the connection between us was almost immediate.  Although Doug lived and worked 350 miles away, after “dating” me long distance for two months he transferred to be near me – this broken woman with four similarly broken children.  We married eight months to the day after we met, and together all of us have worked through our juju and made a new family where we could find healing and acceptance and redemption.  And it was Doug who made it a point to put our abuser in his place once and for all.

It was so worth it – to make the sacrifices that had to be made and pay whatever price that had to be paid to discover that life and freedom and joy (and even love) were waiting for us – on the other side.

“For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”  Jeremiah 29:11

© Cindy Burrell, 2014

All rights reserved.

Can the Relationship Be Saved?

hurting heartFrom time to time, an abuse victim will ask me, “Do you believe our relationship can be saved?”  Instantly, I feel the weight of it, for the question is filled with untold emotion and self-doubt.

I have a pretty good idea where she is coming from.  If she is anything like I was, the abuse victim has staked her future on a hope that she can somehow hold things together while helping the abuser to work through his issues, believing she might possess some intangible quality that will ultimately move him to address not only his unhealthy behaviors, but his very nature.  So for the victim, it is the investment of herself she seeks to redeem, as surely it would be a terrible waste to forfeit that which has consumed so much of her life’s energy if, by some miracle, a favorable outcome may be imminent. 

But, what if it becomes apparent that all of her efforts have amounted to nothing?  Submitting to such a hard truth will inflict pain enough.  The admission will add another layer of uncertainty to her already stressful life, and she will face the judgment of many who will hastily conclude that it was she who failed. 

In most instances, the abuse victim is weighing the price her heart, mind and soul have paid to accommodate her abuser’s moods and demands up until now.  She realizes that her ongoing efforts to survive and even help her abuser amid the chaos he churns up have borne little fruit. 

Adding to the conflict within her, I can almost hear the voice of her abuser in the background – the man who, finally facing some painful consequences, suddenly declares that he has seen the light.  Together with his allies’ endorsement of his impressive transformation, the victim feels the pressure.  She has probably heard the guilt-laden words from more than one friend or family member:

Don’t you want to save your marriage?”

The words sting like salt in a wound.  The victim is utterly exhausted, but should she refuse to trust in her abuser’s dramatic change and instead decline his overtures, blame for the relationship’s failure will surely fall on her.  She is at a crossroads, desperate to know whether she is obligated to fan the withering flame of hope she used to have for the relationship, or whether someone like me might provide a dousing of hard truth that might at last extinguish it. 

So, in an effort to help the enabler-victim find her footing, I will tell her that she needn’t concern herself with saving the relationship, but rather she should commit to taking care of herself.  She is powerless to save her abuser or the relationship, and I will emphasize that it is not her responsibility to do so.  If the abuser had fulfilled his marital responsibilities from the beginning, there would be nothing to debate. 

In the end, whether the abuser decides to seek whatever help he needs to address his issues is his business alone.  And let him figure it out over whatever period of time is necessary while living elsewhere – away from the people who have served as his ready targets.  Although virtually every victim feels an obligation to ease the abuser’s discomfort, he deserves no explanation and no apology for any inconvenience to which he might be subject.  Even pity gives him power. 

I will also remind the victim that abusers are really good at making promises, but lousy at keeping them.  I will urge her to keep a safe emotional distance from him for a good, long while, learn to say ‘no’ to his self-serving propositions, and see whether his goodwill quickly evaporates when he does not get the response he expects, adding,  “Then you will know that he has not really changed.”  A genuinely repentant man would fully comprehend that trust must be re-earned over time.

I don’t give a rip about the abuser or whether a separation or divorce is hard on him.  No, my concern is reserved for his primary victim and any children who have been held hostage to his unpredictable tirades and shaming games.  What needs to be restored is the sense of safety and security that have been sacrificed to the abuser’s unreasonable demands. 

There is no time like the present to reclaim sound priorities, begin the work of bringing healing to the hearts and minds of victims and their children, and weave love, respect, affection and truth in and through a recovering family structure.  The victims need to know that their home will now be a place where they can now live in safety. 

I will not encourage an abuse victim to waste another breath attempting to “save” a harmful, dysfunctional union.  Most assuredly, the ultimate objective is not to save the relationship, but to save those who have been harmed by it.

So, as to whether or not the relationship can be saved, perhaps it would be more appropriate to ask:  Should it be saved?  At the end of the day, that is a question only the victim can answer.

Cindy Burrell

Copyright 2014

All Rights Reserved

The Church That Kept Me There

3699-sad woman.220w.tnMy eldest daughter, Charla, recently wrote a paper for her college psychology class about depression and decided to share it with me.  The subject of her paper was her younger brother, Brett, and what he suffered as a young boy in an abusive home.  (You can read Charla’s account of her class presentation here.) 

 I feared that reading my daughter’s words about her brother would reach deep and unveil wounds in me that simply refuse to heal – and they did.  As I read, I was once again compelled to revisit those dark days, and I began to weep to the point that I could scarcely make out the words on the page.  Although her conclusion was positive and encouraging, I had a hard time receiving it.  A decade after our escape, the guilt of remaining with that abusive man as long as I did haunts me still.

 Seeing me in engulfed in my regret, my husband wrapped a loving arm around my shoulders and said to me, “Don’t do this to yourself.  Despise the man.”  In a response grounded in unbridled honesty, I lifted my head and half whispered, “And the church that kept me there.”

For it was not my abusive husband that held me captive in that poisonous, treacherous home.  No, it was the church doctrine that I was determined to faithfully honor and follow to the letter.  Knowledgeable people whom I respected assured me that if I was a godly wife, if I spent enough time on my knees and humbled myself and loved well that my husband would turn from his wicked ways, and our home and marriage would be healed.  Yet, my faith and conviction empowered the man, for he knew I had been compelled to stay.  The years passed, and my husband’s abuses became ever more atrocious.

As I read my daughter’s account, I was overwhelmed knowing that the brief summary of Brett’s history could never begin to capture the collective pain my four children and I endured over the course of so many years with the “blessing” of ignorant pastors and fellow believers.  I know now that tolerating and even enabling the kind of blatant, unrepentant sin that degrades His most sacred institution breaks the heart of our great God.  Yet, the ungodly dogma remains entrenched and is taught and pressed on the suffering.

How is it that I and others like me have been taught that divorce is a sin, but abuse is something to be borne?  Why is “’til death do us part,” held up as an absolute while “love, honor and cherish” is relegated to an afterthought?

I cannot help but wonder how many hearts remain broken and unprotected, abandoned to the tortuous whims of a family member whose actions are deemed negligible – by those who do not live it.  Those whose admonitions I accepted as truth are blissfully unaware of the painful aftermath their legalist doctrine sanctioned.  In truth, my faith did not fail.  It was simply misplaced.

Did the man strike me?   Did he backhand our children?  Yes, day after day after day, where the pain is gravest, but where the wounds were shielded from human eyes.  To the church that demanded visible evidence, our wounds were – and are – sadly inconsequential.

Thankfully, now I know that God does not condone abuse of any kind.  He loves righteousness.  It is He who commands divine deliverance and calls upon us to bestow honor and justice in defense of the sanctity of marriage and family.   That is why God provided divorce – to release those of us who have been utterly abandoned and betrayed.  Yet few in the contemporary church will openly profess it.

I walk and rest in the One who released me.  Nevertheless, I am viewed as the sinner, a second-class Christian in the eyes of a judging church, for it is I who formally severed the bonds of the marriage that had long before been torn asunder – from within.  Even so, I have forgiven them – those who commended me for living a destitute, shameful life and condemned me when I found the courage to leave it.  I know their words were spoken in ignorance, for who would dare to proclaim that my Savior is somehow powerless to save me?

So I will not remain silent while so many church leaders and lay-counselors continue to keep men, women and children living in homes where terror and heartache reign.  That is not of God.  If I find myself at odds with a church that obliges such cruelty, so be it.  I would not wish for any to live with the kind of regret that I carry – because I foolishly heeded the voices of those who did not represent the One who loves me and set me free.

The wicked spies upon the righteous and seeks to kill him. The Lord will not leave him in his hand or let him be condemned when he is judged.

  Psalm 37:32-33

copyright @ Cindy Burrell 2014

Charla’s Story About Brett

With her permission, I would like to share this story my eldest child, Charla, wrote for her college psychology class. It is about Brett, my youngest son. I shared an earlier piece about him that you can read here. 

Yesterday, I had a group presentation in my psychology class about depression, bipolar disorder, and suicide.  Each us had a different section and mine was depression.  We agreed to pick real-life examples of people who struggle(d) with each of these things.  At the beginning of our presentation, we had picture cards with a blurb of the person’s story on the back.  We picked several people to get up in front of the class to show the picture and read the blurb to everyone.

 My real-life example was about Brett.

 An older man, Tom, agreed to read Brett’s story to the class.  On the front of the card was this picture:

brett lil boy

And on the back, Tom read this blurb to the class:

My name is Brett.  I love superheroes, music, and my brother and sister.  I am only 7-years-old when I start going through depression.  My dad is a drug addict and an alcoholic, and he is verbally and emotionally abusive toward me.  My mom tries to protect me, but she has to be away from the house during the day because she works to support our family.  I am afraid to be alone in the house with my dad.  I can’t force myself to smile or laugh.  I spend most days hiding in my room, and eating to make myself feel better.  I don’t believe that anyone truly loves me.  I am not even sure that I am worth loving.

It was so touching because, during the middle, Tom got all choked up and he struggled to finish reading it.  As he went to sit down, my professor said, “Wow.  That must’ve been really hard to read.”

Later on in my presentation, I shared a bit more of Brett’s story with this slide: Continue reading

help from cindy burrell at www.hurtbylove.com

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