One of my closest friends was in a sexually abusive marriage, and I had no idea. For years. Now that we have weathered much of that horrific storm and she found the courage to soar, I want to reflect and capture what I learned through the process so that you can better know what to expect and how to help your adult friend (I’m not dealing at all with childhood abuse) should she face such a crisis.
First, I learned that I would never ever guess that sexual abuse is taking place. For me, this is one of the most unsettling truths about our friendship. Despite having an incredibly close friendship, I had no clue. Zero. How is that possible??? How could I go fly on a plane, stay at her home, be right there with the two of them, again and again, and NOT see it? How?! I still don’t get it. Consequently, now I wonder what I’m missing in other relationships I have. What am I not seeing? Mr. Nice Guy could be hiding a horrific secret life. When this anxiety strikes me, I try to replace it with prayer. I pray that any sexually abusive sin taking place will be exposed (Ephesians 5:11).
Second, I learned that sexual abuse that has taken place is worse than I can imagine or have been told. I got certain information about the abuse from my friend. Then I formed an idea of what happened in my mind. Over time, more information came out, and I realized the situation was much worse than I had first perceived. And, even now, I know I will never fully comprehend what my friend and a few others I know have gone through. At first this upset me. How could I be a good friend and not know and understand what my friend had been through? But, eventually I came to understand that God fully understands and knows and that is all my friend truly needs. I must accept my limited understanding of the situation and trust that God loves my friend more than I do.
Third, I learned that I see the abuser differently than my friend does. My friend was married to the abuser. Lived with him. Truly loved him. They had shared many happy moments in their years together. They were raising three children together. From my view, his abuse eclipsed any sort of love or happiness they had. All I could see was the abuse. I wanted him far away from my friend and for her to be safe. She however was very torn. She saw more than just abuse.
Fourth, I learned that I hurt my friend. Interestingly, I just learned this truth this week. I sent my first draft of this post to my friend to make sure she was ok with me sharing her story. I had included something that I had said years ago that I thought was really helpful. He had been sending her text after text saying “I love you, I love you, I love you.” I had dogmatically countered (each time he sent her that type of text) saying, “No he doesn’t! He’s lying!” This week I discovered my reaction “was one of the most painful things.” Ouch. That hurt. Guess I wasn’t the “perfect” friend I had envisioned. When I first heard about the abuse, I freaked out a bit. Yeah, I would say freaked out is a good way to put it. I was so angry. So very, very, very angry. Really wanted a punching bag. However, my friend still loved him and she believed that he loved her. Not perfectly. But, that he did love her. Soooo…learn from my mistake and realize perhaps love does exist to some degree even in an abusive relationship. Be careful what you say. You probably shouldn’t say the first thing that comes to mind!
Fifth, I learned to pray intensely for my friend. The whole process of learning of the abuse, knowing she wasn’t leaving him (yet), knowing I could never go stay with her again as long as he was in the home …I was heartbroken. I didn’t know where our friendship would go. I didn’t know what it would take to get her to safety. I tried to talk to her (we already saw I didn’t always do a good job with that!). I tried to listen to what she was struggling with. I tried to reason with her. But, ultimately, I realized I better pray, pray, pray. I knew only God could truly change the situation. Not me. So, I prayed. I prayed so hard for her. As I think about it now I am brought to tears. To see a friend in such dire circumstances and to feel so helpless. It’s awful. But, we have the power of prayer on our side. And, so pray, pray, pray, pray, pray.
Sixth, I learned to focus on just the next right step. When dealing with abuse, sometimes just focusing on the next right step is all that is needed or helpful as you discuss the situation with your friend. For example, when taking the step to get the abuser out of the home, my friend didn’t have to decide at that same time whether to divorce him or not. She didn’t know what the future held or how events would turn out. Divorce might or might not happen. Keep focusing on just that next right step.
Seventh, I learned sexual abuse should be reported to the authorities. Maybe this seems like a no-brainer to many. But, for some of us, the culture we grew up in relies on the church and family to take care of such matters. It would never be considered to report my friend’s abuse. Unfortunately, this was my mindset in earlier years. However, due to all that my friend went through, I now have a totally different mindset on reporting abuse. I’ve come a long way in understanding the deep depravity involved with sexual abuse and the great need to have governing authorities involved. I’m not saying the church and family don’t have a role in helping the abused and abuser. However, I am saying, it is completely appropriate to get the authorities involved when a crime is being committed. And personally, I think it is a very wise choice to get them involved. I am thankful to a man in our church who is in law enforcement who has also greatly helped my understanding of the need to report sexual abuse. One reason God created the government is to be an avenger on the one who practices evil (Romans 13:1-4). Even if an abuser truly repented, consequences still exist for their sin (and in this case crime). A fruit of true repentance would be a willingness to face the consequences (Luke 19:2-10).
Eighth, I learned that that the right path is not necessarily an easy path.
I was so thankful when my friend found the courage to take that next step and soar. Finally, she was safe! The abuser was out of the home. What happened next shocked me.
Hardship #1: Family, friends, and the church turned on my friend while choosing to support the abuser. When abuse comes to light, people have a choice. Believe the abused. Or believe the abuser. This is not as easy as it may sound. I’ll remind you that I had zero idea this abuse was taking place before my friend confided in me. With a few other people that have confided in me about their abuse, I would never have guessed their abuser was capable of such crimes either. It seems the familiar abuser rarely if ever appears to be an abuser. He actually might appear to be a very friendly, kind, funny, generous person. Tragically, the victims that have confided in me have all been abused by someone who was in leadership at a church. These abusers are able to publicly get up in front of a church congregation and teach from the Bible then go privately and commit such horrendous sexual acts against those they publicly claim to love. This extreme double life of the abuser can make it so hard to believe they really are an abuser. You will have to trust your friend. This is perhaps when your friend might need you the most. You must keep supporting her. Keep speaking truth to her. Keep encouraging her. Be there for her. Remind her she is on the right path.
Hardship #2: Financial hardship came upon my friend. After my friend had the courage to soar, I had to watch her suffer incredible financial hardship. Her family had turned on her. Her church had turned on her. (And I will interject here, she did go to the authorities, and her husband was eventually convicted of crimes that sent him to jail.) She had been a stay at home mom and had no source of income. She faced a number of health problems limiting her job options. She had three children to support. Her husband took all the money from their bank account when he left her. She had seemingly nothing. But, God proved He could provide. He had not forsaken her. She saw Him provide in very concrete, real ways that blew her and her children away at times. He also used the government to provide financial support. She was able to get a job. One of the concerns of having her husband leave the home was the financial hardship that could come. Perhaps this is why many stay in abusive relationships. During the course of this hardship, I wrote a letter (with my friend’s approval) to several friends and family members explaining her situation and asking for financial help. I was so moved by people’s generosity. And even that letter opened doors that would probably never have been opened otherwise. Even in trials, God is working.
Hardship #3: Children involved will not understand and will greatly hurt. My friend has three kids. They can’t understand why mom and dad are no longer together. They can’t understand why they can now only see their dad under very limited circumstances. They hurt. There is so much hurt involved here, continuing hurt, a lifetime of hurt. But it is not my friend’s fault. Her choice is actually a very loving choice towards her children. I hope one day they understand how much their mom did to protect them. Keep reminding your friend of what an amazing mom she is. When around the kids, seek to put in a good word for their mom. Most likely they will be hearing very negative comments about their mom from non-supportive family members. Make sure your words build, build, build her up. She’s being attacked on so many fronts.
Hardship #4: Church is no longer a safe place. While church should be a place to go to find spiritual strength to face our trials, my friend has not been able to find that currently. Sadly, my friend has been in several church situations with spiritual leaders who have turned out to be sexual criminals. Her faith in the church has faltered. Her story is complex, and I will not go into it. But, understand that when spiritual leaders prove again and again to be hypocrites, it can be very, very hard for a person to continue to seek a church. I pray that she will find a healthy church. I pray that her faith in God will not falter.
Ninth, I learned my friend can use her experience with abuse for good. While the road through sexual abuse and recovery is long and hard, I am so thankful to now be able to say my friend is a survivor and is thriving. Life isn’t easy. She still has to deal with many repercussions from the choices her abuser made and is making. But, she keeps facing life one day at a time. In fact, she now owns a very fashionable consignment boutique which she uses as an avenue to promote awareness for domestic and sexual violence. She had the courage to soar and now she is helping others do so as well. I am so proud of her!
Tenth, I’ve learned you may never know that you are a friend to someone who is sexually abused. I have come to the conclusion after talking to a few abused women plus reading testimonials in books and online that an abused person has a very, very, very hard time coming forward with her story. To anyone. Recently my friend had a lady about 80 years old come in to her boutique, hug her, and whisper in her ear, “I am a survivor too.” My friend encouragingly said, “You don’t have to whisper that. It’s not your shame to carry. That’s his. You’re a survivor!” She tentatively replied, “I have never told anyone.” Can you imagine?! Perhaps you can. Perhaps you are one of those untold stories. If so, I am so sorry. Jesus sees you. Now. In all the pain you carry deep within you hidden from the world. His Word can bring healing to your hurting soul. His Word can comfort. His Word can give hope. His Word is what you and I need today, tomorrow and always. And if, God forbid, you are currently in a sexually abusive marriage, I pray you will find the courage to soar.