Last week in our blog, we posted the first part of Brooke’s story in which she shared the multiple ways she experienced covert emotional abuse within her marriage. As we read the second half of her story today, Brooke gives us an insight into the secondary harm which happens to most victims when they reach out for help. In Brooke’s story you will see that she was doubly abused by therapists who apparently were not trained in abuse. She was also spiritually abused by friends and ministry leaders who claimed to be knowledgeable and desired to help, but were not and, instead, did serious harm. You will see how their responses exacerbated her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) into Complex PTSD and other serious health issues, making her journey to healing her trauma far more complicated and lengthy. Too often, first responders place demands on the victim and minimize the abuse, while at the same time, they are disarmed by the cool and collected demeanor of the abuser. First Responders have a hard time imagining that the person they have been experiencing outside of the marriage, the one who is causing the harm, presents an entirely different set of behaviors and attitudes behind closed doors at home. They ignore the red flags rather than confront them, and they miss the clear signs of trauma the victim displays.
The experience over the course of my 25+ year marriage living under my husband’s oppression, I lost my confidence to think clearly, trust my feelings and perspective, and I was a shell of my former self.
Early on in my marriage, when I began to lose clarity, the first person I naturally reached out to for support was my best friend; sharing with her all the lies, anger and crazy-making behaviors. “Well, God hates divorce so that’s not an option” became her mantra to me for over two decades. It was my first exposure to this legalism, but certainly not my last. My best friend believed that unless I could prove my husband was cheating on me, I didn’t have Biblical grounds to take any action and my reaction should be to just keep praying. It had never been pointed out to me, by pastors or other Christians, that God abhors abuse within relationships and that verbal and emotional mistreatment is just as much abuse, as physical violence. As a result of not knowing this then and thinking my friend was spiritually wiser, I felt compelled to stay; staying only emboldened my husband’s abusive behavior. My friend’s ideology had me believing that the institution of marriage was more valuable than my own safety and that leaving my marriage would equate to disobeying God or losing His favor. Even years later when I learned about my husband’s adultery — dozens of affairs, which gave me the most widely accepted Biblical grounds for a divorce — my friend encouraged me to forgive because “he was really crying and very sorry.”
On the outside, I looked fine because I had learned how to conceal what was going on in my home. But on the inside, I lived in a constant state of confusion and despair. I started experiencing what I later learned were panic attacks. I was scrambling for answers so when I came across the word and meaning of “narcissist,” it was a before-and-after moment for me. I immediately confirmed that my husband’s behavior checked 8 of the 9 traits found on the list of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) established by the psychiatric world. “Abuse” was not a widely-used term at that time and it would be years before I discovered the list of abusive behavior terms and definitions created by The M3ND Project. But recognizing that he was a narcissist helped me start to understand some of the chaos and dysfunction he created.
When my husband finally agreed to marriage counseling, we went to six different Christian counselors over many years. My husband gave me strict guidelines on who he would and would not see, and those guidelines propped up his moralism of appearing like a “big time Christian” on the outside. Strategically, my husband would ask to meet with the new counselor alone before we met as a couple. Therefore, by the time I walked into the first counseling session, he had already set the stage, portraying himself as the victim. I quietly accepted this because I was too fearful not to, but also I was hoping the counselor would discern what was really going on and rescue us. Instead, each of these six counselors made things phenomenally worse. And the only thing I walked away with from Christian marriage counseling was more trauma.
Our first counselor gave my husband permission to not disclose things about his affairs so he quickly learned that he didn’t have to be accountable for his infidelity. Another counselor asked me if I was really telling the truth about my husband’s erratic anger and cruelty. He clearly favored believing my husband’s calm and impressive demeanor that sat in his office over believing the threatening and mean-spirited demeanor that I described living with at home.
Trying to relieve the tension between us over my husband’s increasing unaccountability, a third counselor proposed that we create a curfew. My husband could be unaccountable to me up until a pre-arranged curfew time. He asked if I was comfortable with a 1 a.m. curfew or if midnight would be better. I remember thinking to myself, “wow, my husband just manipulated a Christian PhD into thinking it’s acceptable for a married man to be unaccountable to his wife.” He is THAT GOOD at manipulating people.
After a DUI, my husband manipulated an AA counselor from Hazleton into believing that he didn’t have a drinking problem and could do his court required counseling over the phone. One month after the mandatory counseling ended, he got his second DUI. One of the last counselors we saw refused to allow me to use the words “narcissist” or “abuse” because he believed it was wrong to put labels on behaviors — it was all just sin. We had to pretend that my husband’s abuse, drinking, and narcissism were just generic sins with generic cures. This naïve counselor’s effort to streamline several years of harm that had been done, actually kept us from any chance of restoring our marriage. One can’t cure cancer if it is not diagnosed as cancer and treated as cancer.
In summary, our marriage counseling experiences amounted to Spiritual Abuse and Double Abuse® for me. In their attempts to save the marriage at all costs, each counselor failed to see me and, instead, they sacrificed me. It was so much easier for them to put the onus on me to adjust, forgive, and move on, rather than to try to change a master narcissistic abuser. I eventually terminated each of our counseling sessions because, for me, our marriage only got worse. “Quitting” became part of my husband’s narrative against me: He was willing to go to counseling and “fight” for the marriage, but I was always “quitting.” The truth that there was no transparency, no accountability, no healing and no change with every counselor was never part of his story.
My Spiritual and Double Abuse® continued with local churches and Christian leaders when I reached out to them for help and understanding. For example, an influential bible study leader I had for over 10 years met with me a few times and listened as I described living with my husband’s alcoholism, discovering his adultery and suffering through his verbal and emotional abuse. I wanted to believe that she was my advocate until one day her parting words were that she wouldn’t do anything because she is “not a whistleblower.” She also informed me that because we were not technically members of that church (even though we were regular attendees who faithfully tithed and they were very happy to take our money) the church would not help me either. She then gave me a list of some things I needed to do if I wanted to get the church’s support in the future, and never reached out to me again.
In another situation, I reached out to the leadership of a Christian men’s group my husband was part of for many years. I hoped that once my husband’s faith peers knew he was abusive and living in adultery with a drinking problem, they would rally around him with tough love. The leaders promised that our meeting and communication would be strictly confidential. Weeks passed and rather than hearing back from them, the first thing I heard was OUTRAGE from my husband because they told him we had met. It appeared that their goal was to give him a heads up on what I was saying and not to intervene. Although I had explained to them how destructive counseling had been for our marriage, they said they wouldn’t get involved unless I returned to marriage counseling. They lied, violated my confidence, caused even more psychological harm for me from my husband, and were willing to overlook his egregious sins and violations of his vows. They never apologized for their betrayal. Instead, they “doubled down” claiming they did nothing wrong. A couple years later, it became public that the leader of this group was exposed for sexting and prostitution.
Through another friend’s concern, she set up a meeting for me with her pastor because he claimed that he could assuredly identify a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”. If my husband was saying one thing and living another way, this pastor would know. My gut told me not to meet with him, but agreed anyway because of my friend’s encouragement and my own desperation to be validated. We met several times and rather than educating himself on covert abuse or gaining an understanding on the faulty thinking in abusers, this pastor befriended my husband. After one lunch together and against the advice within all of the professional and expert research and books that I shared with him, he sided with my husband. He decided he believed my husband, severed his connection with me and soon thereafter my friend severed her connection as well. They deserted me in favor of an abusive, alcoholic adulterer. It was exactly the Double Abuse® that The M3ND Project so clearly identifies.
The Spiritual and Double Abuse® from these Christian counselors, leaders and pastor brought me into the darkest days of my life. I had never felt so alone as I when I was rejected in my greatest time of need by God’s people.
I had lived in a constant state of angst and trauma with my husband for decades, but it was the Spiritual and Double Abuse® that plunged me into an exponentially darker trauma. With Complex PTSD, I descended into a long battle of health issues, medical testing, surgeries and diagnostics. I was genetically tested when my team of nine doctors believed my health decline was too extreme to only be stress-related. The tests found no genetic markers and no medical explanations. Consequently, the more I separated from harmful people, the more my soul healed and my body followed.
In 2017, I met Annette Oltmans, founder of The M3ND Project. Annette was the first person that I heard speak about the physical trauma that happens from non-physical harm. Our bodies do keep the score of our experiences (book by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk) and most importantly, God is keeping score of all the harm that we have suffered.
Also upon meeting Annette, she gave me her list of Covert Emotional Abuse Terms and Definitions. Similar to when I discovered the term “narcissist”, reading The M3ND Project’s definitions was life-changing for me. I realized there are others living with the same abuse, the same nightmares and struggling to put it into words. It remains the most powerful information on abuse that I have found.
The covert suffering from my ex-husband made me passionate to help other Christian wives and the suffering at the hands of the church drives me to be a voice, to write my story and to support the work that The M3ND Project is doing. I love that TMP has created teaching and training for the abused, the church, the first responders and even the abuser. Educating everyone is the only way to make a difference in this epidemic.
We hope that by reading Brooke’s story, you are able to see how gaining clarity of the issues she was facing became a necessary turning point in her ability to take concrete steps towards her own healing. At the M3ND Project, we provide a comprehensive list of terms and definitions that describe specific abusive behaviors so abuse can be identified and confronted by victims and First Responders. These terms and definitions are integral to victims’ processes of unraveling their confusion. We also see In Brooke’s story an overly familiar and unfortunate theme: the clear signs that too many therapists have not been sufficiently trained in abuse to provide the care and counsel their clients need. Properly trained therapists fully recognize that couples therapy is strictly contraindicated in emotional and physical abuse cases. When people in positions of power and authority doubly abuse victims it makes matters so much worse for both the one who is being harmed and the one who is causing harm. That is one reason The M3ND Project places a priority on training therapists and faith-based leaders of all beliefs. If you know a therapist or pastor who is harming you and needs our training please connect them to us so we can help.