Women talk to me. Not sure why. Maybe it’s this strange tendency to laugh inappropriately during confessional sessions. More likely, my Christian pedigree worked the magic– pastor’s daughter, pastor’s granddaughter, pastor’s great-granddaughter. We attended my father’s church for years, my household appeared to be in order, therefore surely I’m an expert on the ways of matrimony. The whole ‘older women instructing the younger’ kicked in somewhere around thirty-five despite the fact I didn’t have a swinging clue.
I did not cultivate bleeding hearts by the front door, they just appeared right and left. Quite possibly the teaching in our church contributed—just as politics or law enforcement tends to attract a certain personality type, the heavy emphasis on the wife’s submission and patriarchal headship attracted men with an abusive streak, . I’m going to go with that theory and believe our churches were top-heavy with abusive men because the atmosphere made them feel all warm and snuggly rather than the cynical viewpoint that most men are abusive.
The Blind Shall See
For years, I did not understand what I was hearing. I spent lots of time waving my hands about and squealing. I tried to offer help but generally said something lame like, ‘my husband can be pretty difficult at times too.” or “when I figure this out, I’ll write a book and we’ll move to Reno.” They thought I was joking. Silly women.
Once upon a time, I was a highly social person. When I left, only a couple of good friends remained, both blessed by the anti-husband’s seal of approval. Nice ladies who I loved dearly, but the fact remains, when I broke ranks, I lost their companionship.
Let’s take a moment while I feel sorry for myself a little.
During those years of informal counseling sessions, I did learn to recognize the difference between a difficult man and an impossible one. The difficult might be proud or stubborn or shortsighted, but once they recognized the unhappy wife in their kitchen, they tried to make amends in some fashion, no matter how awkwardly. These wives would come back later, grab me in church with a twinkly eyeball thing that made my nerves scrape together and say, “Thank you *so* much Sister Ida for praying with me the other day. Can you believe? Melvin prayed about it and already things are improving! God is so good!”
This always annoyed the crap out of me. For one thing, I couldn’t follow my own advice and expect a hallelujah chorus and, for another, how come God kept answering their prayers for marital bliss while the fish in my own kitchen continued to rot the airwaves? And another-nother thing. . . you know what kind of advice I gave? “Have you told your husband how you feel about that? Go home and talk to the man for heaven’s sake. He isn’t psychic.”
Despite my nasty inclination toward self pity, I realized these women didn’t want instant perfection. They wanted to feel heard. They wanted to know their husbands cared enough to listen and respond and make a few adjustments in the right direction. (We are, of course, talking about women who actually came for advice, not the really scary women who generally hung out by the alter offering advice no one ask for.)
Meanwhile, Back on Topic. . .
Yes, I was a stellar counselor to the weak and weary. This constituted the extent of my helpfulness. Still the hurting arrived on my doorstep whilst I continued to complain to the Almighty.
Looking back, I’m just now starting to see God’s plan. I was learning to discern abuse in others even though I could not see the same patterns acted out in my own living room. Please explain this if you can because I do not have a clue. I’m going to blame the fog of confusion the beast kept wrapped about my mind with his constant stream of crazy-making. I do know the fog lifted only after I refused to listen to him any longer. Still, once my eyes pried open, many things snapped into focus and those years of hearing story after story made all the difference.
The Turning Point
I was beginning to see a different breed of husband, tyrannical in nature, taking no prisoners, determined to have its own way at any cost. These men were nothing like the flawed yet somewhat reasonable men who took their wives feelings into consideration (upon realizing their wives had feelings.) No, the tyrants refused all compromise. Backed in a corner, they might give ground only to extract a heavy price later. Their wives came away feeling worse with every encounter. They looked beat. They looked unloved.
Another distinction—the wives of these bullies showed up at my doorstep confused. No way they could articulate their ongoing troubles. If they did manage to come up with a complaint or two, they also supplied a half dozen reasons why nothing suggested would ever help. The scary part? They were correct and I knew it. These women felt trapped—the rock and a hard place, the double bind, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
In contrast, the Normals had a really good idea what they wanted. They had actual, concrete problems. He spends too much money. He won’t help around the house. He looks at other women.
Problems loomed. Ignorance abounded. These ladies might or might not take advice. They might leave the living room and go do something stupid like running off with the pool boy. They might take advice and discover they should’ve shelled out the cash for a trained counselor in the first place. They might be miserable, unhappy, unfulfilled and sexually frustrated but they were not held prisoner in confusion and fear.
The Big Picture
Here’s how I came to picture the difference:
In a normal marriage, you’ve got two imperfect people sitting on a sofa. They fuss, they smile, they smooch, they fuss some more. They conflict. They scoot away from each other toward opposite ends of the sofa. Maybe one goes and gets someone else to come sit on their lap. The other may walk away, or the offending spouse may leave with their new squeeze. Or they may kick the third party off, learn to scoot closer to each other and eventually smooch some more.
In an abusive marriage, you’ve got two imperfect people sitting on a sofa. Right smack in between, you’ve got a five hundred pound orangutan holding hands with the husband. The monkey makes sure his boyfriend always gets his way. The man may scream, holler and yell, or make snide remarks and sulk and brood. He may get some girl on his lap and smooch her while the wife tries to peek around the monkey. Every time she thinks she sees something, the monkey smacks her good. Every time she tries to say something, the monkey smacks her good. Every time she tries to address something, the monkey smacks her good.
The monkey is a deal breaker. You cannot reason with a monkey. You can’t fix a broken marriage as long as that monkey is on the sofa.
Deal breakers come in other forms—drug abuse, alcoholism, mental illness. The important point here? To realize that advice given to Normals will not apply to Monkey Marriages. Books written for conflict resolution, counseling, marital advice, sex education will not work. So the big step—the very first, very big step is–Name the monkey.
The First Step is Always the Toughest
If there’s an orangutan on your sofa, you are being abused. Or you’re Steve Erwin’s wife. The first is more likely.
In my experience, this is the most difficult step to freedom. Stop allowing the one abusing you to define abuse. You must discern. There are objective criteria. There are books out there to help you understand. Ultimately, you must stare that monkey down and say its name.
If you identify abuse, you need to understand a few things to get free. You are dealing with a different animal entirely. Stop focusing on your mistakes, your issues. Stop taking blame for everything wrong in your marriage.
Of course you make mistakes. Of course you aren’t perfect, who claimed you were anyway? Of course you have issues from your childhood.
None of that can be addressed with someone whopping at your head so stop trying.
You are never, ever going to make that threesome work.