He never hit her, as far as I know. He never needed to. He controlled her with his barbed words, his glowering silences,
their his money and everything else. Her soul was battered into submission so much that any physical abuse would have been superfluous. She fought back with secrets and disapproving looks, resentment under the surface, and hidden tears, but ultimately she would always bow her will to his.
The irony behind all this was that she had been free for a couple of years, and her return to captivity was my fault.
My parents divorced when I was five. We moved away from my country, my home, my language, my friends and my family. I had to give away my dog because we could no longer keep her. Thousands of miles away from it all, we started a new life with my grandma and away from my dad. Everything had been shattered, fragmented into pieces. We tried to make a new mosaic, but sometimes I caught my mom crying when I surprised her.
God was still with me. I knew that and felt His presence. When I heard the Bible promise that if two or three agreed on anything in His name, it would be done, my heart grabbed onto it and wouldn’t let go. I would find other people to agree with me, we would pray for my family to get back together, and it would be done. I remember slipping away in the grocery store, running up to random old ladies and asking them to pray with me for my parents to get back together. My faith was unshakeable, even when I asked my dad once during a visit when (never if) he was going to marry mom again. He gently told me, “Probably never.” My jaw dropped in disbelief, then I jerked my head back up and began praying harder. Two and a half years after the divorce, my parents were remarried to each other.
It became our testimony. Look at how God had restored their marriage and our family! Oh, how God can change hearts through childlike faith! We saw hope light up so many faces. Except that though their marriage may have been restored, it wasn’t really transformed. It remained horribly fractured, even though they were now back together again.
There were good times. For awhile, he would be in a good mood, and the whole family would live on tiptoe, terrified of setting off the next rage. Surely things were really getting better, though. That last explosion was a low point, but it seemed so much better now. If only she could avoid setting him off by her poor housekeeping, not being appreciative enough, not praising him enough, by making any mistakes at all… We were probably exaggerating his reaction just a little, anyway. I mean, of course he was angry, but he had a right to be. If we would just try harder…
It wasn’t until some dear friends of mine began to come to terms with leaving abusive marriages that I realized that this was truly abuse. As I read through Why Does He Do That: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft, I would have to stop and put it down because I was shaking. This was my childhood. It also showed a very distorted, twisted view of my own marriage.
I didn’t marry my father. My husband is not an abuser. Most of the time, things were happy and peaceful between us. Yet, I had no idea what marriage was supposed to look like. I saw my husband through the kaleidoscope of my parents marriage. Any action, tone of voice or phrase that reminded my of my dad became a trigger. It warped my perspective and shifted everything into sharp, broken pieces. I would play out some of the same scenarios that I had witnessed. I would ascribe my dad’s motives to my husband, while I alternated between the roles of aggressor and victim. I’ve spoken with the same cutting, contemptuous tone of voice that my father used. I’ve reenacted my mother’s helplessness, resentment and passivity. Sometimes I still hold my breath, afraid of a reaction that doesn’t come. Just like the tiniest bump disarranges the picture in a kaleidoscope, I freeze inside when I think that something might jar the serene image of our marriage.
Even now, there are times when I am tempted to blame my mother, although she was the victim, not the abuser. I know that she was conditioned through decades of abuse. I know that it isn’t really my fault (or God’s) that she has been stuck in this marriage for decades now. She clings to all that she has been taught about wifely submission, and he continues to abuse her in nearly every possible way except through hitting her. Since the bruises aren’t physical, she doesn’t think it really counts. Yet most of the time, my dad and I were very close. He has many qualities that I love and admire, and I still feel the pull to defend him, even though he isn’t the one who needs defending and his abuse is indefensible. I’ve been out of their home for many years, but my perspective is still so skewed.
I love them both so much, and hurt so much to see the abuse continue and feel helpless to change it. As a child, I was convinced that I had the power to fix their relationship through my prayers. I don’t feel any faith now, just sadness, impotence and frustration.
So many people used to tell us that we had the perfect family, that we were a beautiful picture of God’s power to heal a broken family. The were looking at an illusion. And though it was with a very different spin, what I had learned to see in marriage was just as false. I really do believe that He mends the shattered, and that grace can take the pieces of our past and somehow transform them into loveliness. I just don’t want to look at a distorted image anymore, and some days it is hard to put down the kaleidoscope.
Image credit: schnaars on Flickr