Guest post: I was the perfect Catholic wife. It didn’t fix my abusive marriage.

[ADMIN: Today’s post is by a friend who wants to remain anonymous. I am grateful to her and to so many survivors of abuse who want to help protect others who are suffering and who feel so alone.]

“The first affairs were only about sex,” he said. “It was the last one, where he thought he was in love, that really caused him trouble.”
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The man who said these words to me had been a confidant of my late husband. I had reached out to a number of his friends after my husband’s death to better understand what had happened to us, but I was stonewalled, and on this day I didn’t expect to learn what I did. I knew there was one affair, although I was still reeling from finding the hotel receipts as I tended his affairs (pardon the pun). He had admitted that his relationship with a coworker was “too close,” but denied, for years, repeatedly, that any sex had happened.
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Things I found in my house indicated otherwise. This man I married in a Catholic Church 25 years earlier, who told me early in our marriage that he simply could not tolerate it if I ever broke our vows, who went to Mass and presented himself publicly as a good Catholic husband and father, was a serial adulterer.
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An online support group for victims of adultery proposes that all adultery is abuse, because it requires lies, diversion of time, energy, funds, and devotion, and it exposes innocent spouses to potentially deadly diseases without their knowledge. In reading the shared stories, I saw wide patterns of abuse – ones that were more familiar to me than I had previously been brave enough to admit to myself.
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I was a Catholic wife, you see – a good one, one with steely determination to stay married no matter what. I never missed Mass, prayed for my husband every day . . . I was pleasant, cooperative and loving to him, supportive of his career and never demanding or critical. I started buying “How to have a good Christian marriage” books before the ink was dry on our wedding license. If there was a “How to be a good wife” article, I had read it and tried to followed it. We had been through terrible times including him moving away for an extended time, but I thought we had weathered the storm. It wasn’t until I admitted to myself – in the surreal safety of new circumstances – that I had suffered abuse for years.
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I am safe because I am writing anonymously and because my abusive marriage is unequivocally over, but I remember what life was like before. I was never physically beaten, although he said I deserved it. He told me that he (who was trained in hand to hand combat) could snap my neck in a second. The fact that he was holding my head in a wrestling lock at the time, and I saw nothing odd in that interaction, is eerily telling of how accustomed to abuse I was. There was rage and verbal abuse, rage driving, manipulation, and threats to abandon or divorce me. When I learned of the serial adultery, I had to reprocess twenty-five years of memories, realizing I was being lied to and betrayed the whole time.
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Why write about this? Because I believe that Catholic culture creates a dangerously optimistic expectation for marriage, encouraging people to strive and not give up, as if their effort can make any marriage thrive. For many many people, that is the best advice; but some of us live (or lived) in situations where covert abuse masked the hidden truth that one of the spouses in the marriage is too disordered (by sin, mental illness, addiction or other issues) to function in a Sacramental Union. Very often the faithful spouse suffers in isolation, feeling compelled to endure more abuse to be faithful to their marriage, family, Church.
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They need to hear that they aren’t alone, that they are loved and that they need to make hard decisions based on the situation they are actually living, not based on who they hope their spouse might turn into.
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Do you have to leave, once you recognize that your partner is incapable of being in a Sacramental marriage? I don’t think so, but I believe you are in for the discernment task of your life. There were many reasons why I never left – some of them reasonable and some of them (namely my hope and optimism) were horribly misguided and not reality based. I go from being really proud of myself for doing exactly what I vowed to do (literally until death did us part) to being very angry with myself for not being brave enough to see what was right in front of me.
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In some ways my now adult children benefitted from an intact family, but in other ways, my late husband’s negative influence on their adult personalities is much worse than I feared it might be.
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What can the Church do to help people in this situation?
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–Priests and deacons need to look for signs of adultery, abuse, mental illness and addictions when people come for counseling. A number of them missed huge red flags in our case.
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–Folks with long, loving marriages could be humbly thankful, rather than prideful, almost shaming other people who you assume “give up so easily.” You might be surprised how much it hurts the widowed and abandoned to hear bragging about how long you have been married.
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–Create safe places where your friends can share confidences about adultery. There is a lot of victim-blaming. Although forgiveness is a good goal, pressuring people to offer it up immediately allows adulterers to avoid the natural immediate consequences of their sin, and it doesn’t help real healing; and it burdens the victim more than it heals the situation.
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–If you have any influence at all in media, Catholic or otherwise, please (and I beg you from the deepest depths of my broken heart) never ever again publish anything akin to “How to Affair-Proof your Marriage.” In reality, even the very best most faithful and loving person cannot remove from their spouse the free will that God gave them. You cannot control if your spouse breaks their vows. Only they control that. Articles like these imply that we have control that we simply don’t have. I know that is frightening, and I’m sorry for that, but it’s true.
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–When people show you repeatedly who they are, believe them. The biggest long term mistake I made was believing if he fully understood how much he hurt me, then he would stop. We often think if people have the right data, they will make the right decisions. I wrote him letter after letter after letter, begging him to treat me with a baseline level of decency that he would not violate, and he simply refused.
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So I gave my whole heart to a man who abused me, lied, cheated and manipulated me, and then he died and left me to finish raising our children.
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Did I despair? Am I mad at God and resent the years I gave? No. God walked with me and guided me and helped me heal, and I have chosen to live the best life I can. In the depths, I felt great reassurance that God would bless my faithfulness. I remember saying “I wonder if God will restore my marriage or I will live as a contented single or if I will find love again.” Oddly enough, I actually received all three things (with the caveat that my “restored” marriage was lived without all the details I later learned, so it was not properly informed).
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How could I ever trust again? I decided that a willingness to trust was not something I would let my abusive husband take from me.
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For the suffering, please know that God hasn’t abandoned you, but ask Him His will and try to not be afraid of His answer. He might tell you to flee.
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Protect yourself. Protect your children. I know the horror of realizing the one you trusted the very most is your greatest danger. Be strong even when you live awful moments when people blame you. Know that what you lived scares them, because they want to feel immune from it, and distancing themselves from you helps that process. Know your Father in Heaven treasures you and you can still be a good Catholic despite life not turning out as you had hoped.

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ADMIN NOTE: Here are some resources that might be helpful to you if you think you may be in an abusive marriage.  Not all abuse is physical. Please do not assume it’s “not really abuse” if it’s not physical.
When I Call For Help: A Pastoral Response To Domestic Violence Against Women. An overview from the USCCB on the Church’s teaching about abuse within marriage, with some resources for what to do next.

What is domestic violence?

Catholic role models who escaped abusive marriages: Rose Hawthorne, founder of the hospice movement; Catherine Doherty, founder of Madonna House; St. Margaret of Cortona.

“Has he really changed?” (source unknown)

Image at top by Crosa via Flickr (Creative Commons)

 

Old movie review: Shotgun Stories is downright Shakespearian

About ten minutes into Jeff Nichols’ 2007 movie Shotgun Stories, I asked my husband, “Am I crazy, or is this, like, Shakespeare?”

Check it out: In rural Arkansas in the heat of summer, a woman knocks on the door of a shabby house. Her son opens, and she announces, “Your father’s dead.” The three brothers inside take this news in various ways, according to their natures. They next turn up at the funeral held by the dead man’s newer wife and his four newer sons, who enjoyed comfort and security after their father gave up alcohol, took up religion, turned his life around — and abandoned his first family entirely. The oldest son interrupts the eulogy to tell the world “You think he was a good man. But he wasn’t,” and he spits on the coffin. The upgraded family doesn’t take kindly to affront, and they take their revenge — and the bitter feud inevitably unfolds from there.

“He made like we were never born,” says the oldest son; and then he spends the rest of the film showing the world that, now that the father is dead, the first son is here, and he will not retreat. It is as if he cannot. Later, when his estranged wife finds out that there was a fight at the funeral, she asks him, “You think that was wise?” and he answers, “Doesn’t matter.” All the men in the movie are caught up in a violent drama that rolls out inexorably, as if it’s beyond anyone’s control. It is very hard to fault them for any of the choices they make, even when they will clearly lead to suffering, because they are behaving as one must in their world. It is as if the death of their father abruptly demands a higher, more elemental way of responding to the world — acting, rather than just enduring. (At the same time, at least some of the sons want the next generation to have something different.)

The three sinned-against sons are drawn in a few deft strokes that make fully-realized characters: One ambitious but prideful, one passive but single-minded, and one meek but intensely loyal. They are, you gradually realize, named “Son,” “Boy,” and “Kid,” (even the family dog has a more human name), while the upgraded family of sons are named after the father and after apostles. There is even a “fool,” a meth cooker named “Shampoo,” who cruises in and out of scenes delivering news, badgering, and instigating more drama. We never even see the father, dead or alive, but we know him well, through the memories of the seven sons he left behind.

There may possibly be an Old Testament/New Testament story being played out between the two families, working through themes of fathers who abandon us and yet somehow ordain our every move. I need to watch it again, because I know I missed a lot the first time around. Here’s a trailer that gives a pretty fair overview, although it doesn’t include the other two brothers, which is a shame:

What’s extraordinary about Shotgun Stories, and what also blew me away in Mud, the other Jeff Nichols movie I’ve seen, is the sense of place. Rarely, rarely have I seen such a true and real and immediate world through the lens of a movie camera. When the three brothers slump dejectedly in the street of their cracked, tired old town, I feel like I’ve lived there all my life and I’m sick to death of it. When Son reaches down to clear out the drainage pipe in the fish farm where he works, I feel the mindless weariness of it my sore elbow and my damp shirt cuff. I see exactly which parts of the tract home were fixed up by Son’s fed-up but not heartless wife, and which parts have fallen under the fate-haunted influence of the three brothers. The movie is clearly filmed on a shoestring, but it doesn’t look cheap, just true. Remarkable.

What I haven’t mentioned is how funny the movie is, in unexpected spurts. The third son, Boy (Douglas Ligon), a gentle, pudgy, part-time basketball coach who lives in a van down by the river, tries at one point to hook up a full size air conditioner to his van; and ever since his attempt, his radio will occasionally start blaring cheesy power ballads, and there’s nothing he can do about it. He endures this several times, at the worst possible moments, and it is only after the fourth time that he thinks to turn the volume down. But it is Boy who eventually becomes the center of the action after Son can’t protect his brothers anymore.

The casting is, as in Mud, impeccable, and the acting is flawless. Michael Shannon as Son is tremendous, infuriating and heartbreaking at once, his face conveying three layers of emotion for every word he tightly utters. Like the dead father, the shotgun of the title barely makes it on screen. Instead, you see scars of the past, and are waiting throughout the entire movie to see whether or not it will go off again, and what will come of it all. You will not be able to take your eyes away.

We saw this movie on Netflix streaming. Rated PG 13. Some violence and fleeting foul language; very intense in mood; suitable for teenagers. Highly recommended!

Boys with sticks

boy with sword 2

Several years ago, a nice family came over our house. It was partly for a social call, and partly to see if our family would do well as a daycare for their two kids when the mom went back to work. The girl was about four, and the boy was about six.

As we adults chatted, the kids explored the house. At the far end of the living room were the toys, including a tidy bucket full of weapons belonging to our sons and daughters. There were bows and arrows, swords of all kinds, scimitars, light sabers, pistols, slingshots, rifles, daggers, and machine guns. I watched a little nervously, because I knew this mom leaned progressive, and was raising her kids to be non-violent.

Her little girl immediately found a baby doll, sat down, and put the doll to bed. The little boy scuttled over to the weapons, and before I could say more than, “Um–” he had grabbed two swords and swung them, with a natural expertise, in a gleeful arc over his head.

“HAHH!” he shouted, and held that pose for a moment, swords raised. Eyes on fire, happiest boy in the world.

I slewed my eyes over to his parents, not sure what I would see. Horror? Disgust? Outrage? Dismay?

They both looked . . .  immensely relieved. “Well, there goes that,” said the dad, apparently referring to the no-weapons policy they’d followed strictly for the last six years. I tried to apologize, but they both said, “No, no, it’s fine.” And it was fine. There was no tension in the room. Their son had hands made to hold weapons, and now he had some.

I wasn’t surprised to see the boy taking so naturally to swordplay, but I was fascinated to see his parents taking so naturally to the rules of our house, which were so different from the rules in their own home.  Once their son’s unsullied hands first made contact with the weapons of war, the whole family relaxed into that reality immediately.

In this short piece in The Globe and Mail, this mom’s friends need someone to tell them what our friends realized: Hey, it’s okay if your boy wants to swing sticks around. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with him, or that he’ll inevitably grow up to be a rapist or a sociopath or a steroid-fueled abuser. There is a place for fighting boys in the world, if we let there be a place.

She says:

When I was pregnant I dreamed about the sweet, sensitive child I would have. I imagined us sitting at the table engaged in some means of creative expression, perhaps painting or writing stories. I imagined sitting quietly in the park listening to the birds and finding shapes in the clouds. But it was not to be.

My wild boy chases the birds, leaps from the park bench. He runs and jumps and yells and climbs. More than once I’ve felt pangs of envy while in the company of friends and their sweet, quiet little girls.

Before you lambast for not valuing her son, read on. It’s clear that she loves and enjoys her boy, and gives him reasonable rules: he wants to swing a stick? She tells him, “Be careful,” and leaves it at that. She says,

 I’m through apologizing for Malcolm. His wildness is not a product of permissive parenting or the negative influences of a violent TV culture. His wildness is his own, and as such I embrace it even if others do not.

But what is she supposed to do when her boy comes into contact with other boys, who are repeatedly told, “Put the stick down”?  She notes:

I have heard many open-minded parents declare: “If my son wants to play with dolls or dress up in girls’ clothes, I’m totally fine with that.” But what if your son wants to play with sticks and do battle? Are we so afraid of the power of violence to overtake us that we are uncomfortable with its harmless expression in children’s play?

Yes, we are, and it’s making a mess of the world. It doesn’t make violence go away when we always tell boys, “Put that stick down.” Instead, it’s making a world where people, boys and girls alike, have no idea what to do about unjust violence.

Boys playing with sticks is not a meaningless game. It’s something that little boys absolutely must be allowed to do, if that’s how they want to play. A boy who wants to pick up a stick needs to know that he can, and he may, and that his affinity for sticks is not a bad thing. He needs to know that a stick is a powerful thing, and that the world needs men who know how to use their sticks.

Boys who are never allowed to be wild are boys who never learn how to control that wildness. Boys who are not allowed to whack and be whacked with sticks never learn what fighting is like. What’s so bad about that? Well, they may end up hitting someone weak, with no idea how much it hurts to be hit. Or they may end up standing by while the strong go after the weak – and have no idea that it’s their job to put a stop to it.

Either way, the weak suffer. The whole world suffers.

Boys aren’t a problem to be fixed. Parent should correct the little details when the way they play really hurts someone else, but we should let the main energy of our children go the way it wants to go. If that means finding shapes in clouds or writing stories, that’s fine. Don’t push our sons to be fighters if they doesn’t naturally run that way.

But if they naturally want to turn everything they touch into a weapon, then that’s fine, too — as long as they know there are rules.  If your boys wants weapons, then keep weapons in your house. Make a place for them. Give your boys permission to be who they are, and encourage whatever good impulses you see in them.

And give other parents permission to let their kids be kids, too. Some parents aren’t hearing it from anyone else. If your house is the place where their son first lays hand on a sword, don’t apologize! But let him know that swords come with rules. Don’t banish fighting; banish cruelty.

In the issue of violent play, as with so many other issues, we’re forgetting there’s such a thing as balance and middle ground. Parents believe that there are only two choices: we can raise our sons to be quiet, passive, nurturing empaths who could easily slide into a princess dress without making a ripple — or we can raise them to be swaggering, slavering beasts who exist only to give orders and mow down anything in their path.

There is, of course, an in-between. There are men who are strong and tough and in control of their strength, and these men were once boys who grew up with both weapons and rules. But it’s become impossible to talk about that kind of boyhood, without being accused of trying to turn boys into one extreme or the other. When I say that my son carefully carried around caterpillars when he was a toddler, I hear that I have a secret desire to castrate men. When I say that my husband protects our family, I hear that I’m perpetuating rape culture and the myth of female victimhood. When I say that there is a difference between men and women, I hear that I am the problem – I’m the reason there’s violence and unhappiness in the world – I’m the reason we can’t all just get along. I hear that if only we would all agree to put the stick down, we’d be fine.

Yes, well. When your daughter is the one who’s lying barely conscious on the front yard of some frat house, my sons will be the ones who will know enough to charge in, swinging sticks to chase the brutes away. They’ll know because we let them have sticks, we let them find out what sticks can do, and we told them what sticks are for.

Violence doesn’t take over when boys are allowed to have sticks. Violence takes over when no one tells boys what sticks are for.

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If you watch garbage, you will get dirty.

darkness

We are in denial about how vulnerable our hearts really are. Watching brutality makes us brutal. Torturing our emotions inevitably makes torture seem more normal, not less.

Read the rest at the Register.