Abuse…on the Mission Field? by Karolyn Dekker
Isabel’s voice revealed pain and fatigue from the ongoing struggle with her husband. As a new convert, she wanted to learn how to respond to the emotional and verbal attacks of her unbelieving spouse, Carlos. I listened with empathy.
“It’s so frustrating. He says he’s the man of the house, but won’t make a decision to save his life. He puts it all on me, and ignores my pleas to take charge. If things work out, he takes the credit. If they don’t, he’s quick to criticize my poor judgement. He accuses me of trying to wear the pants in the family, but he’s the one who gave them to me!”
I mumbled something about I Peter 3:1, encouraging her to win her husband without a word. It sounded Biblical, but I didn’t know how convincing I was, to her or me. On the way home, I asked myself, Why could I relate to her? I shouldn’t know how she feels, yet I do. Who can I tell? Not Isabel. After all, my husband was not only a missionary, but also her pastor.
Carlos had a valid reason to act as he did – he’s an unbeliever. What about my husband, Juan? I often used the male/female difference excuse, or blamed stress, but I knew the problem was deeper. However, while living out my lifelong missionary dream, I wasn’t willing to reveal our secret. If uncovered, it could send us home.
Over time, it worsened. I struggled with depression and insomnia, had little motivation or energy, and found it difficult to plan day-to-day activities. Life was overwhelming. From the outside, circumstances looked good. The ministry was growing. We enjoyed life in rural Mexico as missionaries. Support was up. Why complain? Yet, I was a wreck and wouldn’t let myself admit it.
Juan had an excuse for his critical words, lack of support, silence, or absence: It was my fault. If he hurts me, it’s because I hurt him first. If I’m sad, I’m too sensitive. If I cry, I’m manipulative. If I ask him to be available, I’m unsupportive. If I share my opinion, I’m disrespectful.
I begged God to make me a better wife, but even when I met Juan’s standards, he’d find something new to criticize, or predict my improvement would be short-lived: I was never going to change. He claimed to know me better than I knew myself.
My story sounded unbelievable. My embarrassment discouraged transparency. After all, everyone admired Juan as a spiritual leader. If I said otherwise, who’d believe me? Would anyone take me seriously? I kept safely hidden behind my mask in public.
As our children grew, they witnessed Juan’s hypocrisy. How would they reconcile the fact that they knew the same God my husband claimed to follow? Juan’s inconsistencies could be whittling away at our children’s faith and that possibility haunted me.
While stateside for a second furlough, the doors closed and we couldn’t return to Mexico. I knew I needed to face our problems. Once I started to remove the mask and reveal truth, God brought me a team of people, showing me I wasn’t alone. Their support provided much needed clarity, especially when it came time to make the hard decisions. I learned to depend on some key principles that kept me sane during times of utter insanity. I needed to:
- Nurture my relationship with God. In order to move forward (regardless of what “forward” looked like), it was important that God be my primary source of strength. I depended upon prayer to keep the root of bitterness at bay in order to hear God’s voice in the process, though often those prayers were merely groans. I needed to own my sin and repent when required, but I also had to avoid the trap of self-blame and stop allowing Juan’s false guilt to push me to confess things I hadn’t done. Finally, I needed God’s Word to feed me. The Psalms provided much needed refreshment and nourishment. I had no energy for inductive Bible studies; I was in survival mode. I received assurance God was with me in the bottom of my pit.
- Read Christian books about relationships, abuse, and boundary setting. Hearing others’ abuse stories was eye-opening, and ironically, assuring. My problem wasn’t unique. Maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t going crazy. Maybe it wasn’t all my fault. Maybe there was a way to deal with it besides just enduring the pain. Books on boundaries provided practical tips on how to respond to crazy-making attacks, unfair accusations, and covert deception. I learned how Juan’s past hurts prevented him from connecting emotionally with anyone, not just me. People admired his love for the lost (communicated in a sermon), but when the lost got up front and personal, there was no love or intimacy. The solution wasn’t a relationship seminar or marriage counseling. He needed to deal with his personal pain first.
- Build a support system and start telling my story. This was crucial. Of course, God is my Rock, but I also needed Rockettes. I found a counselor and started telling my story to safe friends and family members. I couldn’t carry the burden alone anymore. I wished I would’ve started this sooner, especially on the field, but I didn’t understand how ignoring the situation simply enabled Juan to continue his ways, worsening over time.
- Be ready for anything. Several people advised me to create a plan in case Juan turned violent. He never did, but statistics show it’s likely. Had he ever been physically abusive, I knew the next step would be Get to a safe place! When it came time to ask for a separation, I knew it needed to happen with a third party present. Having a witness during difficult conversations kept Juan accountable and ensured my emotional safety during that meeting.
- Leave the rest to the Lord. God would be my husband, whether for the interim or indefinitely. He is the God of the Red Sea. At one point, Israel thought they would be destroyed, but Moses said, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord…The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.” (Exodus 14:13-14). Then the waters parted! I didn’t have to have it all figured out. I needed to lean into God and let Him guide, trusting in His deliverance.
I hope you can’t relate to any of the above, but if you can, there is hope, even if you’re on the mission field, or, heaven forbid, the pastor’s wife! Please know that God’s heart is for the oppressed –that’s you. Trust Him to come alongside you during the process of revealing the difficult truth. He does not ask His children to turn a blind eye to sin.
If you’re not experiencing abuse, you may know someone who is. Ask God if you should be her Rockette. Don’t worry, no tights or high kicking required. Someone out there longs for a listening ear. Be a source of truth. She’s so used to hearing lies she may already believe some of them. Don’t let her think that an abusive marriage is her cross to carry! There is hope and deliverance awaiting her.
Thank you for sharing this painful experience, Karolyn. As a survivor, I have written on the topic. How hard it is when our faith community betrays us, but God is with us to bring us out. If those of us so injured could stand up together, it would be a powerful force for change.
I so agree. Too many times the problem is swept under the rug, or the lack of safety in the church keeps women (and possibly some men!) silent. Yes – we need to come together to work for change!
I’ve been in the mission field for some time with my husband, returned stateside to take care of our marriage. Unfortunately, nothing was changing and I decided to leave him 3 weeks ago. I feel like no one talks about this… missionaries go through stuff too.
I am so sorry.
My divorce happened almost thirteen years ago and our missionary career ended. You are not as alone as you may now feel. God will comfort you through the many losses ahead. I promise you that, based on Who God Himself is – not just basing my words on my own experience.
He has used my pain – nothing is wasted with Him. But for you, right now in the midst of the wrenching apart… please know Focus Ministries has been a huge support and one of the many ways God has healed my broken heart. ❤️