Warning: This season includes discussions regarding marital, emotional, spiritual, and sexual abuse. 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.
Last time on the Safe to Hope podcast, we spoke with Melissa Affolter about domestic abuse victims and survivors and the trauma they encounter. Melissa helped us better understand as caregivers how to help as they heal. As I mentioned in our first storyteller episode, I'm incredibly grateful for survivors who bravely share their experiences so that we can get better at caring for the victims of this devastating situation. Melissa and I interacted specifically with a story from the May 2nd, Safe to Hope episode told to us by Michelle, a survivor of domestic and specifically sexual abuse.
And I just want to say thank you again to Michelle, for joining us today.
Thank you. It's great to be back.
Great to have you back. I'm anxious to hear more about your story. And just a reminder for our audience. Our goal throughout this 12 week series continues to be to hear our STORY-TELLER - to hear Michelle her circumstances and experience but also to hear how God's redemptive thread flows throughout her story. On the Safe to Hope podcast names have been changed in order to protect those associated with the 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. And one more thing, 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 that some of Michelle'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, Michelle's story is for adult audiences only. Just as a heads up this season includes discussions regarding marital, emotional, spiritual, and sexual abuse. We advise listener and reader discretion.
Michelle, when we ended our last episode together, you shared that you and Mike had just moved back to your hometown. You had reengaged with another counselor, and you went back to school. But nothing really changed for Mike. And the devastation continued. Can you pick up from there and just kind of fill us in on the details of what happened next.
The next several years, following that really immediate crisis point where we had moved, we entered what I would kind of call a truce of sorts. I tried to follow the counsel that we were receiving regarding my role and our relationship, particularly sexually, and, you know, return to school and work as you mentioned. And so we kind of found somewhat of a new normal. But there was a real sense on my part that I needed to be very, very vigilant. I was very careful how often and in what circumstances I left my children with their dad. I did not feel comfortable with him being lived with them for long periods of time. And I tried to work the schedule so that when I did have to leave, multiple children were home together. I chose a direction in my career, where my hours would overlap closely with their school hours, so that I could often be home when they were home. And so this discomfort was not just, you know, my reaction to the situation. It was based on the fact that I had concerns after his arrest, that I wasn't really sure all that he had been involved in. I felt strongly that the whole story had not been brought to the surface. And this was primarily rooted in the fact that at each crisis point, more and more of his addiction would come to light. And there would be more and more experiences and things that he would talk about - but he never confessed, he never came to me or to anyone else and said, ‘You know, I'm really struggling again, I need help’ - every time he was caught. And then it was at these points that we would learn a little bit more of what had had transpired. So this state of hyper vigilance on my part was incredibly soul draining. And I think I knew that, but I didn't know how to manage his issues, some of which I wasn't even certain I really understood or knew about, without staying on high alert all the time. And so I just had no idea the depths of the damage that this was doing to my body and my brain. One particular day, I needed to run errands, an errand with one of my girls, and I wanted our youngest daughter Annie to tag along with she really wanted to stay home. And I hesitated because again, my mind was always in overdrive, like - Okay, what would this look like and about her older brother was also home? - so I let her stay. And I think my older daughter and I were gone for about an hour and a half. It wasn't an incredibly long time. But when we returned, the house was in chaos. And he was upstairs crying in a room. And my husband was very agitated. Very reminiscent, actually, of the night that he had been arrested. He said that I need to talk to you right away. So when we got upstairs, he told me that he had been in the family room watching TV, Annie was upstairs working on artwork, her brother had gone to the basement to play a video game, and I'm not sure of the circumstances that precipitated it - I seldom was - but he began masturbating partially disrobed and was masturbating in the family room. And Annie wandered down the stairs. She was in seventh grade, had no idea what was going on, and walked in on her dad - again, partially undressed and masturbating in the family room - and so even as a seventh grader, he obviously knew something was not right, immediately went back to her room would not come out. So he was very agitated and upset, kept trying to explain to me what had happened. And just a real sense of disbelief and anger really fell over me. And for one of the first time throughout the entire history that we had had with that, I, I lashed out a little bit verbally, I just, ‘how could you do this to her?’ I remember saying, ‘I gave up a long time ago on you considering me? But how could you do this to to your kids?’ And just the arrogance, and the harm that he was willing to expose them to, I was so angry. And so I went to try to help my daughter. By this time, she had told her older sister, they shared a bedroom, and they were very close. So they were both confused and angry, crying. And I just remember saying, you know, your dad has been problems. We've tried to address them. But there's still a lot of issues that this is not your fault, you have done nothing wrong. You should be free to walk down stairs and go into the family room of your home and be safe. And so I did feel like at that time, I needed to pursue a little bit with them. Whether they felt like they'd ever, you know, been in danger, or had you ever come in their room? Have you ever hurt them? Was there anything I didn't know? And just tried to reassure them that they could tell me anything at any time. So it was just a very difficult day. I should probably add it they did say that they felt like he had never done anything directly to them. And so I was relieved to hear that but I was still so angry and hurt. I felt trapped. I so much wanted to escape the constant stress and worry of what was coming next. The constant threat of danger to myself and my children, as well as just the pain of the rejection and the betrayal, but I did not know how. And now even to myself, I think that might sound like a little bit like a cop out but it was true. I had no tools to really describe what was happening in our home, and even how to begin to ask for help. So every time we had gone to counseling he had been declared, you know, healed or forgiven or both. But in the meantime, I felt like I was quite literally losing my mind. Then over the next few days, there was, I believe, a conversation by phone with his counselor, but that was about it. I continue to try to talk to the girls from time to time to assure them if they ever needed to talk, I was there. But we were given advice by the counselor not to make too big of a deal of it. And to this day, when I look back, that is probably some of the deepest regret and shame I carry from all those years of just not advocating for my children. And in this case, particularly for my girls, for not speaking up to defend them for being more afraid of making him angry or disappointing other people in my life rather than protecting them. And it's something that I think about almost every day. And something that I've asked both to forgive me for just not having that courage that I needed at that time. And they've been so gracious to do that. But I know that it impacted them deeply. And years later, the trauma, the fear, or the emotional exhaustion would catch up with all of my children in one way or another, but particularly my girls, so I was not the only one who paid a price for the deceit and the sexual deviance. And the abuses as he continued to place blame everywhere else but himself.
Thank you. I know that was hard to say. And also, it's hard still to think about, I want to tell you, you are not at fault. I think you know that. But I know you feel differently at times. And the toll that this kind of abuse, any kind of abuse, takes on the entire family, I think it's just important to highlight here. It wasn't just the spouse that's being devastated. That's right. It's the children. And I to see that same pattern, again, that we talked about, in your first episode of your of your story, when your husband's deviants he then blames on everyone else, but himself, and it's something they did wrong. And then now this also carrying over into your children's experience, and I think sometimes we think children are resilient, and they are in many ways. But you have to ask the question, ‘How can a child make sense of that? How can they make sense of what happened?’ You yourself as an adult, were having trouble making sense of what was happening. And I just want to say I hear your mother's heart. And I want to repeat again, that it wasn't you at fault for your children's lack of protection. If not for your husband's actions, they wouldn't have needed that protection, right.
And I do think that's something that I know in my head through counseling, but it's sometimes it's just still very difficult to get it to stick in my heart. And I think the confusion that you mentioned, was particularly acute in our situation, because as we continue to move forward, although these things are going on at home, we continue to work very hard to create the image of a good Christian family. And I do own a little bit of that. Just the unwillingness to admit that we were really in trouble and we needed help. We attended church regularly. And over time. You know, again, there's there's definitely patterns that that emerged, but he Mike wanted to be more directly involved in ministry again, although I think even he recognized vocational ministry was probably not an option. And he did want to become involved in the lay leadership at the church we were attending by leading a small group, which included teaching regularly on Sundays, and this was something that caused a lot of discomfort for me. I had no desire to be up front again, I had no desire to be in a position where something at home that happened would you know create ripple effects. But again, I remember the conversation we had around this and I apologize for my difficulty with forgiveness, wanting him to use gifts of teaching and communication that he had and that I felt, you know that I was in the wrong for not being able to more fully support that. And this was in direct conflict, to what my body and my spirit were telling me regarding the truth of our situation. I do know that he met with a pastor at the church before taking on this role to explain his issues with pornography. And, again, the norm and the pattern I wasn't present for the meeting. So I don't know exactly what was communicated. But I do know that several years later, that same pastor informed me that he had no idea the depth of the issues and that was not communicated during the meeting that they had before Mike was given the go ahead to take this lay leadership position. So I think this is important, because much of what propelled our harm forward was partial information. Mike was familiar enough with the church and how the church functions that he knew there had been enough history that he wasn't going to be able to just completely ignore the issues. But the next best option was to make sure I wasn't there, and then offer partial partial information. And because this was never verified, or questioned by myself, or anyone else, it gave the opportunity for the deception to continue. And I've seen this in multiple other contexts that we'll talk about later. But I think that this was really a problem when it came to us getting the help that we needed.
And I would add, that's part of the pattern, confessing just enough, but just partially as well, and you are so right, the fertile soil for sin is silence, and even partial silence. So tell us how you got to the point when you realized your husband's behaviors, were never going to change that, in fact, there was never any evidence of a desire to change.
This is again, another few years later, we had survived another couple of years. But early one morning, I was just laying on the couch in our living room, I had had trouble sleeping the previous night, which was actually not the norm for me. But as I woke that morning, I heard are suddenly for work, I heard the door closed, I got up around the corner of the kitchen, and I found Mike completely disrobed and masturbating in the kitchen. And I just remember thinking, my first thought was a horrible it would have been if our son had come back into the house, or, you know, forgotten wallet or lunch, or whatever, only to witness his father masturbating in the middle of that kitchen. And that was so infuriating. But again, part of the risk and this thrill for him was to do these activities where people in this case, me or our children could potentially catch them. And so this was just a very disturbing characteristic of his addiction. I honestly don't remember many of the details of what came immediately, I was about a three to four minute time period where I just I don't remember anything. But the next thing I remember was leaning against the counter, and just thinking how very similar this was to the first time I had caught him. And I don't know if you would remember, but at that point, our oldest son was six weeks old, and I had rounded the corner in similar fashion and caught him. And now that son had graduated from college, and we were approaching 25 years of marriage. So after 25 years of marriage, and 22 years since I had first become aware of issues, I had gotten married very young, but that was almost the entirety of my adult life. After all the counseling and the moving and the partial confessions after we had changed churches and started over again and again, we were now in the exact same situation we had been in almost 25 years ago. And this was just the day that I felt like I could not carry on. In many ways. It was not the most egregious thing that had happened. But I just could not keep up the pretending the vigilance, the shame, the rejection. I just couldn't keep going and through what I truly believe, as I look back was a series of interventions by the Lord. Less than 24 hours later, I spoke on the phone with a biblical counselor who was trauma informed. And he asked me several very sensitive questions about my experiences. that in all the years of counseling we had been through I had never been asked. And this was really the first time I began to understand that this was not something I had to accept - that the lying, the manipulation, the abuse, both emotional and sexual - were not simply to be tolerated because I was a Christian wife. And so shortly after this, we began a period of separation in which Mike moved out. And I begin counseling and also working closely with two of the elders at our church. And this was the first time they were aware of our history and what my children and I had been living with, during this time. And so as I began to process, what I was learning in counseling, things that we'll talk about later, the the impact on marriage of being an image bearer of God, the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation, and when each is needed, and when each is appropriate. As I was working through those things, Mike fell into somewhat of a familiar pattern of really trying to control the narrative of what was happening and to determine his own rehabilitation process. And so rather than accept advice from our church, he chose a group of friends that he felt comfortable with, and decided that that would be how he would rehabilitate, and he would not work with the elders, or follow the counsel of the elders from our church. And so over a period of about eight months, it became clear that his responses were not going to allow for reconciliation. And so with the support of the elders that were involved in our situation, we moved toward divorce. And people often asked me what I was feeling during this time. And to this day, all I can say, is just such an enormous sense of relief, and peace, that I felt so deep in my heart, it's really even hard to articulate. I had more than many aspects of the so called Christian marriage for a very long time. And so while I hurt deeply for what my children were enduring, for the first time, in several decades, I can go to bed at night without fear. I could leave my house without calculating who was at home, what time should I be back, I could attend events without a crazy amount of planning. And so although it was hard, in many ways, and even harder times were yet to come. I was just so thankful for the month of respite and rest after so such a long time of so much pain. So in 2020, we were divorced. And again, just a sense of relief. And I know many people would say, ‘That's a terrible reaction to have.’ But I was so incredibly exhausted, spiritually and emotionally, that the strongest emotion that I had during that time was this this, this overwhelming sense of relief. And my children and I, during that time started to try to put our lives back together. My youngest daughter was the only child that was left at home full time at this point. So we stayed in the same church. And I continued to work at a nearby Christian college that was very closely associated with the church. And at the time of the divorce, because of our circumstances, I was told by the elders that were involved in our situation that I had their complete support, I would not have any restrictions in terms of ministry involvement, and I would not need to find another church. And so of course, this was incredibly comforting to me and to my daughter, and one of the primary reasons why we decided to stay in that church.
And I'm grateful for how the church surrounded you and how they supported you. It's um, comfort to hear that. So, in Luke six, he records John telling the multitudes whom he baptized to bring forth fruits and keeping with repentance. And then he articulates with them the specific ways in which repentance can be seen in those actions. They are to share abundantly, act fairly, not take money - anything really from anyone, by force or any other way - not to accuse falsely and to live life content. Well, Michelle, we both know it takes a long time for a seed to become fruit. But in your patiently waiting for almost 25 years to witness your husband's repentance, you instead saw many patterns of the opposite. There was taking from you from himself, taking from your children, there was deception, blame shifting, and a discontent with you, the wife of his youth, that's a significant amount of time to live that way. And then to try and find healing. So let's start talking about what that process looked like after your divorce.
I felt as if I was making progress, I was in counseling with a biblical trauma informed counselor. Despite all my years in the church and Christian College, and even in ministry, I was actually learning so many things about how God viewed me, that was really transformative in my life. But that healing process was dramatically interrupted several months later, through events that transpired both in my place of employment. And my church, I think I mentioned before they were closely associated. And in a series of public blogs, it came to light that the college administrator at the school, had hired a man with known sexual predatory behavior as a faculty member. As more information was released, it also came to light that the head pastor and an elder at the church I attended, who, by the way, have been very supportive of me. And I want to make that clear, in my situation, but he also had been involved and knowledgeable of the issues regarding this faculty member, and yet, had invited the man in to speak to our youth group, including my youngest daughter attended that youth group, and even preach in a morning service. So over the course of the next couple of weeks, both the college administrator, and the pastor told partial truth, if not lies, and implicated other in innocent individual in the process of this whole mess coming to light. The faculty member with a background of sexual sin, of course, was fired and abandoned as a result that he was not obviously useful for public relations purposes at this point. And so I do think that this is really important to point out, because covering up sexual sin, and enabling abusers is not good, merciful or kind for anyone, including the abuser. And I have often thought that if, if that particular man had any hope of restoration, it was likely destroyed by the deceptive actions of the Christian leaders that he had encountered. And this was just a perfect example of that devastating reality. As for the impact on me personally, and on my children. Man, when you have gone through sexual trauma, and you and your children are daily dealing with the effects of that, it is hard to put into words how devastating this was. Our foundation at home had long been eroding. It had long been shaky, but now our church and my workplace felt equally unstable. And I just could not and I still do not understand why was this overlooked and accepted, as some of the very foundational elements of the faith tradition that I had been raised in was a commitment to a different sexual ethic, that truth and integrity and leadership that that matters, that we were to live differently because of our relationship with Christ. And suddenly, those things that I, again, had considered so foundational, just to seems like things that we wrote white papers about, rather than things that we truly believe that truly guided our decision making individually and corporately. And so the fabric of my faith tradition was just obliterated and I want to be careful there because it wasn't my faith that was obliterated. But all of us operate our faith in a context. And so the context in which I had been raised and learned to express my faith, I was just absolutely floored that we were as a corporate body going to accept these actions. My kids were angry and hurt and it was just such a dark time for our family. I did try to ask questions directly of the leadership involved. But the responses were typically very arrogant in nature. At that time, there was just an outright refusal to answer your question, which only added to our confusion and pain. I remember asking different leaders over and over, can you please just help me understand? Why is this not a big deal? Why has this been overlooked or excused? Did the the women and the men who have been so deeply wounded by sexual affair, do they just not count as much as the men who make the decisions and run the show? Doesn't matter what Jesus says about these things about truth and integrity, about dealing with sexual sin? I don't have answers to those questions. I didn't get answers at that time. And to this day, I don't have any clarity about how these events and what happened, line up with what we say that we believe.
Those are good questions, I think you are not alone in asking them. And one of the things I'm sitting here thinking, as you're talking to is, you know, your situation, your leaders knew about your case, and what was happening in your, in your home, your marriage, what happened to you and your children. But in so many churches, people like you are sitting in the pew, and maybe the leaders don't know that something has been happening in their home, and or they're also trying to heal from what has happened. And when these types of decisions are made, I don't think we recognize in the church, in leadership, how devastating overlooking, … diminishing, I should say the circumstances like these, how devastating that is to a person's healing. And honestly, I would have to say our pews are just full of people in different circumstances, but trying to heal. There's a lot of sexual sin out there, right. But anyway, when we talk with our next EXPERT CONTRIBUTOR, which is it will be Brad Hambrick, I'm going to ask his perspective on this too. But for today, I just again, want to thank you so much for telling the story, again, for allowing those emotions to come to the surface again. I know they're not pleasant, the audience can't, I can't see who I'm interacting with, but at times, I can just see that the burden that comes through again, just from reliving the experience, but you're doing that for the sake of our audience, and showing how God worked through your story, how your story is in His story, and helping us all be better at caring for abuse and caring for victims cannot say thank you enough.
But that's all for today. I think we're going to stop here. Next time when we meet with Michelle, again, we're going to just be asking some very specific questions as Michelle was like inner experience of the circumstances that the story that we've told over the last two sessions. But next, the next episode, it will be Brad, who will help us understand more about Michelle situation, but also specifically, and I know this was very important to her the ways that he talks about domestic abuse and survivors and their suffering. And then also what he's written about, which is forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation in this situation, which Michelle brought up a new understanding. So just make sure to join us again on the next episode with Brad on the safe to whole podcast, and then following we'll talk with Michelle one more time and just get some clearer picture of her inner insights. But anyway, thank you, Michelle, for being here today.
Thank you for having me. I really, really appreciate the opportunity.
If you want to know more about domestic abuse, go to ‘called to peace.org’. They have a lot of resources that would be helpful can get a hold of an addict advocate if you need one. Also, I recommend Darby Strickland's book, ‘Is It Abuse?’. And that's an excellent resource for both victims and church leaders for identifying patterns of abuse. And specifically Darby speaks in one chapter regarding sexual abuse in marriage. And then as I've said before, Dr. Jeremy Pierre and Dr. Greg Wilson's book ‘When Home Hurts’ is particularly helpful for church leaders.
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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