This is the seventh story in our “Freedom From…” Series, an 8-week series featuring women who have faced adversity and found freedom in the process. The following is the true story of Gwyneth Nelson (a pseudonym), as told to the Bridging the Gap team. All names have been changed to protect anonymity.
Could this be real? There was no denying the fact that Gwyneth’s preschool-aged daughter had just witnessed her father’s rage. Her husband had hit the boiling point again, throwing Gwyneth across the hallway and into the doorway until she finally crashed into their daughter’s room that lay beyond. He stormed away, and she quietly got up from the floor, locked the door, and went to comfort her daughter. “Did Daddy do that?” she asked. “Yes,” Gwyneth replied, “but everything is going to be okay.” Crawling into bed with her daughter to help calm her until she fell asleep, Gwyneth made a decision: This would be the night she decided to stop the impact of domestic abuse in her daughter’s life. It was a difficult decision, but one that ultimately would point her in the direction of healing.
Yet even as she made her decision, she wondered: How was this even possible? They were both supposed to be Christians. How could she be experiencing domestic violence and abuse in her Christian home? And yet she was.
Born into a loving pastor’s family, Gwyneth had been a “good girl” her whole life. She had a relationship with Christ, but sometimes struggled, feeling as though she was judged on her performance.
She had met Tom at a Christian college where they both were students. He was charming, smart, and handsome. He too was the child of a pastor, so they had been raised with similar backgrounds. Tom loved a good theological debate, and prided himself on his desire to see the “lost” come to relationship with Christ.
Soon after the honeymoon, she starting noticing signs that life wasn’t going to be a fairytale. Tom insisted the master closet be his alone, relegating her clothes to a spare bedroom. Their “joint” checking accounts only went one way – although his name was added to her checks, he refused to add her name to his. They weren’t struggling financially, with both of them working good jobs, but he still wanted to monitor and control her spending. When she bought some new drinking glasses and a shower curtain, he screamed and yelled because he had wanted to purchase those items himself. While she had been excited to decorate their new home together,she learned that she should gain his approval before even hanging a picture on the wall or she would risk facing his anger. She began to realize that if glasses, a shower curtain, or pictures could trigger rage, almost anything could.
Time went by and his rages got worse. Sometimes after an episode, the neighbors would come by to see if everything was okay. Embarrassed and ashamed, Gwyneth told them everything was fine. But the truth was, it wasn’t. Her former confidence and self-esteem seemed to be melting away. She wondered what kind of Christian woman she truly was if she couldn’t even please her husband. As he began to condemn even the “spiritual” things she did, like how often she listened to worship music, she started to question her ability to even be a woman of faith, let alone a good wife and mother.
On the outside, things looked just fine. Tom appeared spiritually mature: He referenced Scripture impressively, prayed eloquently, and was the life of the party when they hosted their Christian friends. Gwyneth played her part to make it look like they were happy and doing well.
But because she couldn’t predict what would flip the switch on Tom’s anger, she walked on eggshells. Suddenly and without warning, she would be on the receiving end of uncontrollable rage. If she tried to back away, he would corner her, grabbing her shoulders and yelling in her face. Sometimes he would shake her or push her to the floor. The fear these episodes produced was overwhelming. The threat of physical harm was devastating, though she rarely received bruises. The fear sometimes immobilized her. Enhanced by severe verbal and emotional abuse, she lost confidence in her ability to identify what was real. As “truth” was verbally twisted and thrown in her face, she regressed to an emotionally weakened state.
Disheartened and confused, Gwyneth pleaded in prayer for God to help her overcome her failures as a wife to Tom. She took to heart his assertion that she was disrespectful, unsubmissive, and insolent. She constantly confessed her sin to God and searched Scripture to find direction and consolation. She clung to the verses that talked about forgiving others, even as Tom continued to rage.
After their daughter was born, Tom’s rage got worse. Unprovoked anger would spew out at the oddest times. As their daughter became a toddler, she watched the explosions, and even though they were directed at her mother, she began to react to Tom’s anger. Sometimes when her dad was angry, she would try to calm him down by distracting him with either charming or disruptive behavior. Sometimes she would try to protect her mom, and other times she would retreat in sadness.
Gwyneth tried to take matters into her own hands, to work harder, and “own up” to her mistakes. She had a deep desire to serve God, was college-educated and enjoyed a successful corporate career. She admonished herself, Surely she could learn to respect Tom more. Surely Tom loved her and they could figure out their issues. She understood her insufficiencies, she thought, and attempted to fix the situation. But nothing worked. Tom was never satisfied.
When the opportunity came to attend counseling together, Gwyneth jumped at the chance. At first, Tom used it as an opportunity to blame and accuse her in front of an audience, assuming he could convince the counselor that Gwyneth was controlling and disrespectful. The counselor made some recommendations, which Tom partially followed for a time. But even with counseling, the situation didn’t really improve.
Since the abuse was mostly limited to their home, only the three of them really knew what was going on. However, when her mother came for an extended visit, she witnessed Tom’s manipulation, control, and erratic behavior. Uncomfortable with the situation, she changed her flight and went home early.
After her mother confirmed the abuse, Gwyneth felt ready to speak up. She called her counselor and asked to talk to him without Tom present. She wrote down what she intended to discuss, in case she couldn’t speak it out when the time came. As she read the truths on those pages, a wave of healing was unleashed. It was okay to ask for help.
As the counselor listened to her, he confirmed that her explanations validated some of his concerns regarding their situation. He recommended that Gwyneth and Tom each ask support partners they could trust to come with them to their counseling sessions, hold them accountable, and help them follow through with their goals. It was then that Gwyneth learned how beautifully God designed the community of believers to help be the hands and feet of his healing: She wasn’t condemned by everyone, as she had worried.
Sharing the messy truth with a few girlfriends and her family was painful but liberating. No one was really surprised by her disclosure, and they confirmed their love and concerns about inconsistencies they had seen in her relationship with Tom. They began to walk the journey with her towards healing and resolution. As counseling continued with the support partners in the sessions, Gwyneth’s supporters cried and shook in anguish while listening to Tom’s hostile accusations. Because of what they heard, they feared for her emotional and physical safety and checked in with her often. Family and friends recommended that she separate from Tom, and they respectfully waited with her until she was ready.
Though it was painful to watch, her family and friends studied as much as they could about domestic violence. They discovered that there are no easy answers. Alongside Gwyneth, they prayed and studied Scripture, listening as she poured out her fear and confusion. They supported and encouraged her emotionally as they shared their time and processed their own pain.
Tom did not respond well to the counselor and their pastor’s insistence that he become accountable to other men regarding his anger issues. The attempts to stop the abuse were unsuccessful, and almost two years after Tom threw her into her daughter’s room, she made the decision to separate. She wanted their marriage to be restored, and although she knew that divorce would be a possibility, she needed to do what was best for her and her daughter’s safety. At the same time, she was concerned about how divorce would affect their daughter. She knew the church’s views on divorce and wondered if her friends at church would judge her or accept her anyway. And mostly, she worried how God would respond to her.
After several years of unsuccessful attempts at reconciliation in the midst of separation, Tom and Gwyneth divorced. She is now a single mom with the weighty responsibility of providing for her daughter and herself. Their new life isn’t easy, but she is grateful every day. Her daughter is happy and thriving. Because of the abuse, Gwyneth has full legal custody, but her ex-husband sees their daughter regularly. Occasionally, there are still some abusive phone conversations and emails that arise as they communicate, but Gwyneth is continuing to navigate the confusion of freedom from domestic violence.
As she moves forward, she has found release inputting victimization and shame behind her, and she has discovered new direction and purpose in life. She still experiences grief over her lost marriage, which can be a grueling process of recovery. But she has seen God’s faithful hand of help throughout her journey. She has felt his acceptance and love as he has strengthened her along the way. She has discovered his grace like never before in her relationship with him, and she has come to realize that God will not abandon her along the way. He understands the muddled issues of our lives, and he is a safe refuge in the midst of every storm.
And most of all, she discovered that God intended for her to be free from abuse, for her own health and well-being and that of her daughter. God does not condone behaviors like Tom’s, and never intended for Gwyneth and her daughter to be bound by abuse. There was help for her to escape from the abuse when she finally discovered where she could look. Just taking the first step of speaking the truth out loud to her counselor was freeing. Finding grace-filled people who believed her and were willing to help her was part of the process.Taking the next steps toward eventual healing and freedom were not far behind.
Throughout her recovery, Gwen continues to find strength in Psalm 18: “But me he caught – reached all the way from sky to sea; He pulled me out of that ocean of hate, that enemy chaos, the void in which I was drowning. They hit me when I was down, but God stuck by me. He stood me up on a wide-open field; I stood there saved – surprised to be loved!” (MSG)
Have you or someone you know experienced some time of domestic violence or abuse? Might today be the day to begin the healing process?
National 24-hour Women of Substance Crisis Intervention Hotline: 1-866-862-2873
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 or www.thehotline.org
Peace and Safety in the Christian Home: www.peaceandsafety.com
FaithTrust Institute: www.faithtrustinstitute.org
The Battered Wife by Nancy Nason-Clark
Violence in Families: What Every Christian Needs to Know by Al Miles
Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft
If you missed the first five weeks in our series, you can read them here: Freedom from Fear and Insecurity, Freedom from Expectations , Freedom from the Pain of the Past, Freedom from Terror, Freedom from Guilt and Shame, and Freedom From Unforgiveness.