Domestic Abuse & Purity Culture
Warning: For adult audiences only. We advise listener and reader discretion.
Hello and welcome to the Safe to Hope podcast. My name is Ann Maree and I'm the Executive Director for HelpHer and the host of this podcast. On the Safe to Hope: Hope Renewed in Light of Eternity podcast, we help women tell their story with an eye for God's redemptive purposes. All suffering is loss, but God leaves nothing unused in His plans. We want to help women see His redemptive thread throughout their circumstances, and then look for opportunities to join with God in His transformational work.
Thanks for being with us again on the Safe to Hope podcast. In our last season, I spoke with Michelle and I heard her story of domestic abuse and the impact of her husband's sexual issues on her heart, mind and body. One of the things Michelle talked about which she felt contributed to her inability to see what was happening and define it as wrong was a lack of competence in her own emotions. Her understanding from a young age was that emotions are not to be trusted, and that as women, we are overly emotional.
Coming out of the abuse, Michelle learned to trust those emotions as God-given gifts meant to point her to recognizing things that may be and in her case were dangerously wrong.
Today, I want to introduce you to Anna and help her share her experience in a dangerously similar situation. Anna also learned early in life, how devastating it is, or it can be to be harmed physically, spiritually, emotionally by someone who simultaneously claims to love you. And like Michelle, Anna also learned early in life not to trust her own emotions. Coupled with a purity culture, the results were a desecration to the image of God and Anna in her own marriage. Yet, Anna will also share her journey as someone who experienced God in her story. Every time a survivor speaks of the horror they encountered, they are at risk of reliving it. So again, I am in awe of the strength I see in women retelling their story. And I am again thankful for Anna's willingness to join us, Anna, welcome.
Hi, Anne Marie. Thank you. Yeah, thank you. As always, it's been a pleasure to meet you and work with you through the story that we're going to present here starting today. And I know our audience will benefit from hearing how God has or even is still redeeming your story in his story.
Our goal throughout the 12-week series will be to hear from you, your circumstances and experience, but also to hear how God's redemptive thread flows throughout. By way of reminder on the Safe to Hope podcast names have been changed in order to protect those associated with these stories. The HelpHer ministry exists to help people in crisis and to train people helpers. So integrity is one of our concerns. To the best of our ability, we have sought to honor the privacy and dignity of those who share their precious stories with us. Before we begin, I'd like to share with our audience that there may be some things discussed that can be triggering. If you're a victim or survivor, we want to just let you know, Anna’s story may be hard to hear. Maybe find a trusted friend to sit with, or someone you can talk to and process after you've heard her experience. Also, some of what we talk about in Anna's story might be considered more appropriate for an adult audience. We advise listener and reader discretion.
Anna, you've said the best way to share your story with us would be to first set the stage for how you think you ended up in a marriage with intimate partner abuse. Perhaps maybe we could start there.
Sure. Overall, my childhood was filled with love, and it was also filled with faith. There was never a time when talking about God and the Bible was not central in my life. I grew up in the late 90s and early 2000s and during this time in the church, there was a seemingly hyper-focus on girls and their bodies, their clothing and countenance, and this had a tremendous impact on me. I want to clarify here that this impact had more to do with the big voices in the broader church culture at the time, and not specifically any of the loving relationships in my home. I know my family and church were just doing what they thought was best. I mostly stayed compliant and quiet. And I was praised for it. For the entirety of my childhood, the circles I ran in didn't reach outside conservative evangelical ones. I went to a private Christian school. I went to church every Sunday with my family, and all of my friends were from evangelical families who lived the way we did, and believed similar things. And in many ways, I really loved growing up this way. I particularly love the ways my mom and grandparents pointed me to the love Jesus had for me, and modeled that love and how they made me feel known and cherished. But there was also a lot of restrictions in Christian culture at this time, and a lot of focus on fear of outside influence. I concluded that if I never question my male and spiritual authority, if I always questioned my own, quote, female emotions, and if I remained in Christian circles, that I would be remaining in the will of God, and I would be safe. I believed and was taught, it was actually sinful to cultivate godly confidence, or speak up for myself when I felt uncomfortable. My God-given ability to make decisions, some call this agency was a concept completely foreign to me. I lived fearfully, always wondering if I was stepping outside of God's favor, especially when I felt or was told that I was overly emotional or sensitive. These messages seem to be reinforced in my home, in my school, and in the churches that I attended.
Yeah, and I hear that it seems to be a pattern, right. Anna I've heard that in multiple women's stories, and now we're hearing it in some media as well. And I don't want to suggest that it's malicious. And I know you aren't either. I just think folks generally believed what amounted to a prosperity gospel. And the woman's responsibility in achieving that. I wish isolation from quote to the outside world resulted in keeping us as women safe or any of the vulnerable, safe, but it doesn't. And so emphasizing the danger out there leads us to wrongly conclude that the culture inside our Christian circles is actually safe. And sadly, we know that's not true. Anna, you mentioned your home was generally a loving environment, yet, there were some things that weren't quite right. Can you share a little bit about that part of your story?
Yeah, despite living in a loving home overall, there were also countless painful moments intermingled with the good ones. My older brother was an oppressive presence in my life for as long as I can remember. The worst of it was while I was in the tender preteen years, he would say cruel things to me like that I was not wanted or loved within our family. He would mock my appearance or intelligence or control me by saying that I could not leave my room. Or say I had to stay outside all day. Two summer summers in a row I spent every day either alone in my room or outside and was fearful to come inside, even to use the bathroom. My parents didn't realize this dynamic was happening, and I was too afraid to tell them. At times, he physically harmed me as well. There was one incident of harm from him that was so violent, dangerous and disturbing that it's difficult for me to talk about to this day. Unfortunately, I had no framework for what to do if harm doesn't come from the outside world, but comes from inside a Christian home from someone who's supposed to love you. I had no idea that when someone experiences abuse, family members or intimate partners are statistically more often the abusers rather than strangers. I never shared with my parents or anyone that I was experiencing this abuse. This further conditioned me to accept and normalize abusive behavior and rage and emotional immaturity from boys and men.
Yeah, unchecked behaviors in our growing up environment do that, don't they? They, they cause it to become our normal. Tell us how you and Alex met, and maybe some of the early experiences and even perhaps red flags that you had right from the beginning.
When I was 15, I sang in a choir group through my Christian high school. This group functions like a youth group in that it was not only our choir class, but we spent most weekends together and had various trips and events throughout the year. I met Alex when I was a sophomore, and he was a senior. He stood next to me in the choir. And as the school year went on, I noticed him constantly staring at me, his lingering gaze would be frankly, creepy and objectifying to me today. But at the time, I was not only deeply insecure, I was also craving attention and affection from a young man. I think it's important to highlight how much my low self-esteem contributed to my vulnerability. I believe that Alex recognized my insecurity and saw it, saw me as an opportunity. The way I carried myself was to make myself as small as possible. As I reflect on it now, he must have thought I was an easy target for oppression. Alex confessed that he liked me towards the end of the school year and expressed that he wanted me to be his girlfriend. This came with a stipulation, however, that dating him had to mean that we would eventually get married. I remember as he said this, I had a knot in my stomach there was knowing inside of me that this was too much, too intense, too much control. But I shoved all that down, deep inside. A couple of weeks later, he asked me to be his girlfriend, I quickly learned that everything we did had to be on his terms and timeline. I also learned how engrossed he was within his family, to the point of having to begin going to church with he and his parents, having to take multiple phone calls from his mom, every time we were together. And I noticed how much his parents affirmed him in all things, even in his troubling behavior. I also began to notice and justify in my own thoughts how much he would exaggerate and lie, and how, when he would get angry, he was terrifying. He would quite literally scream and pound his fists on his legs when he when something upset him. And in these moments, I began to try and soothe his anger by speaking softly to him, attempting to comfort him, despite the feeling in my gut that something was so off.
Right? Yeah, certainly sounds that way. But interestingly, that is where our mind goes in those types of frightening circumstances, that we try to calm someone else's fury. It's like we believe our actions can actually change someone else's behavior, when in reality, their behavior is their decision. And I hear you, I hear you saying that. Each of us, though, is responsible for our own actions, and I know you know that Anna. But it wasn't just you who is convinced that this was a good relationship with a solid guy, right? I mean, tell us about some of the other relationships in your life and what were they thinking or saying?
Alex always insisted on picking me up for dates and had a routine of dropping me off at 8:15 on the dot and chatting with my parents until about nine o'clock. He had a way of knowing just what to do and how to talk with them. Over time he gained their trust through those conversations. For my parents and me, he checked all the boxes. Attending Christian high school, going to church and his dad being a worship pastor. If those types of things were taking place in the life of someone I was dating, then reflecting on his character, the way he treated me or the way he made me feel was not something that was necessary to discuss with my parents, or for me to reflect on with God. I truly believed that this kind of guy was God's best for me. Over the years of dating, I noticed that despite always getting home at a decent time, after our dates, Alex was always exhausted and looked as if he had barely slept. I later would learn that he would either play video games nearly all night or view pornography. Another thing that, as I reflect now felt very off is that we would spend every Sunday at his parent's house, and they would allow us to spend time in his bedroom. Most of the time we would make out on his bed, and often he would suddenly without warning begin to strangle me while we kissed. For months, this occurred, and I was too afraid to say how uncomfortable I was with this. When I finally did, granted, I could barely get the words out of my mouth. Because I was so uncomfortable with standing up for myself, he began to sob and I went into that role of soothing and comforting yet again. This was the case anytime I attempted to set a boundary or say what I wanted or needed, and never shared with anyone about Alex's behavior, because I was too ashamed to confess that I had been making out with him in his bedroom. Honestly, I felt like a fraud. I wore a purity ring I had bought with my mom when I was 13, where I had vowed that I would remain both sexually pure until marriage, otherwise, I would be losing something I could never get back. And the purity culture messages that I was steeped in, at the time said that boys and men had very little to no ability to have self-control sexually. This caused me to feel like I was seductive in some way, and that it was my fault.
So hard to hear you having endured that and I just want to take a moment out and draw back, I tell the audience that if somebody puts their hands on your neck, we call strangling right? And it is one of the most dangerous times for you. Take precaution, do what you need to do to get away. But going forward, I am thinking like in our in our very last episode together, I want to kind of circle back to some of these circumstances and hear from you now, from this vantage point. What would have been helpful to you at that time, both what you could have known more about as well as what resources at church might have provided young people who are potentially embarking on these lifelong relationships? So we'll be talking about some of that in the last episode of your story. But so now okay, you're, you're moving towards engagement. That was the goal of your dating apparently, and marriage and now you graduate high school. So what happens in your relationship next.
After high school, I moved to an apartment in the town Alex grew up in about 45 minutes from my parent's home. Despite becoming more enmeshed in my relationship with Alex, I think the process of moving out and providing for myself began to empower me to a degree to be more vocal about my needs and desires. I was becoming less and less compliant. But I would ebb and flow between wanting to stand up for myself and then being flooded with shame for speaking up. We also began attending a new church together in town and he wanted to jump into serving in any capacity he could. And I joined him in this. This involvement in church was celebrated as faithfulness by the leadership and fellow members. But all the while Alex's abuse was getting worse behind closed doors. I think the exposure to married couples within our church that treated each other with love and honor began to impact the glaring contrast of how Alex treated me and I began to vocalize this. I began trying to confront things like why he exaggerated and lied so often, to me and to others, and why he barely slept. He would deny anything he was confronted with and consistently told me that I was making things up. When I continued to try and make my point, he would yell in a rage at me or sob, and accuse me of being cruel to him. Whether or not I expressed my emotions respectfully, it didn't really matter, the reaction was the same. As time went on, my patience toward his irrational reactions was waning, and I comforted him in those moments less and less. I began also having panic attacks as a response to this nearly daily routine, and in an attempt to try and get some space and calm down, I would go into my bedroom or bathroom. He would get so angry with me when I left the room, and he would stand in the doorway and refuse to let me leave. He was physically a very large person, and he used his body to control me. When this would happen, I would cry and beg him to stop. And when he didn't relent, which was every time, the feeling of being trapped would be too overwhelming, and I would have panic attacks. Many times while I was having a panic attack, he would grab at my shoulders or face and scream at me to calm down or literally lay on top of me with his full body weight while I cried on the bed. He would also often throw chairs and other items around my apartment, and punch holes in the walls. There was one instance that I locked my bedroom door to get away from him, and later, when I finally decided to leave the room, he slammed the door over and over until it broke the mechanics of the door and removed the ability to lock it. While we were dating and engaged, Alex was evicted from an apartment he was living in a few minutes away from where my apartment was located. And without telling me he found and signed a lease for an apartment that was just behind mine. I remember the feeling of panic wash over me, when he told me he had done this. And this created a dynamic where I had no space from him, and he could always monitor what I was doing. During this time, we were engaging in forms of sexual activity. And the shame of this was consuming me, especially as someone who was involved in church and also had believed much of my worth was in keeping my virginity. On multiple occasions, Alex attempted to physically force me to perform a sexual act on him. And this is when I began to physically defend myself. There was one occasion in particular that he kept pressing my head down toward his groin despite my saying, ‘Stop’ repeatedly. I then reached up and hit his face, and he screamed at me with rage, and I ran out of the apartment. Our church taught a lot about sin and repentance. And Alex used the terminology he learned in church, and from his dad, on this occasion, and countless others to formulate a text message of apology, that hit all the theological marks that would reel me back in again.
So hard to hear, and the audience doesn't know you, but I know you're a young woman and so difficult to think about such young woman having to endure such violent behavior. And just on that note, too often, I am helping churches and church leaders respond well to abuse I hear them ask in, especially domestic abuse, if the abuse is physical. And if we're from any of the reformed traditions, the short answer is always yes. Our own reformed distinctives prevent us from a strict separation of the inner and outer man. But you also bring up another interesting perspective to think about, I mean, is it physical when man uses his body to restrict your movement, like laying his full weight on your considerably smaller body, I can say. What if he pushes your head down or physically throws heavy objects or breaks things in your presence? What if these actions don't actually cause any bruising? Or cuts? Are they still physical abuse? I think what we're talking about here brings up the point that we need a deeper vocabulary when it comes to abuse. And your descriptions here, though incredibly difficult to share and relive I'm sure. But really important for us to hear. And even, you know, imagine, think about it, you know, think about what that actually means, what you've described here. So I thank you for putting this all out there for our audience to hear. And I know, You're reliving it as you speak it as you wrote your story. I hope you know our love and support for you and our thankfulness that others are going to be learning from what you've shared.
That's all we're going to discuss for today. And I recognize it's been a heavy episode. So please remember Anna, you and everyone else to care for yourself well today. Next time on the Safe to Hope podcast, I will be talking to Sheila Gregoire and she and I will interact on the impact of purity culture, and those ‘dangerous female emotions’, as in the circumstances such as Anna's and so many others. Sheila’s expertise on these matters is significant.
You can check out her resources on her website, Sheila Wray Gregoire.com. And we'll put that in our show notes. And also baremarriage.com for her blog and her podcast.
If you would like to know more about the dynamics of domestic abuse if you have questions go to Called to Peace.org
Darby Strickland's book Is It Abuse? is excellent for both victims and church leaders for identifying the patterns of abuse.
And in addition, Dr. Jeremy Pierre and Dr. Greg Wilson's book When Home Hurts is particularly hopeful, helpful and hopeful for church leaders.
Thanks Anna. Thank you once again and I'll be looking forward to speaking to on our next episode of your story.
Safe to Hope is a production of HelpHer. Our Executive Producer is Ann Maree Goudzwaard. Safe to Hope is written and mixed by Ann Maree and edited by Ann Maree and Helen Weigt. Music is Waterfall and is licensed by Pixabay. We hope you enjoyed this episode in the Safe To Hope podcast series.
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