How I Learned--and Unlearned--to Submit to Abusive Men

The first time I was sexually assaulted, I was 15 years old. 

The attack occurred at a party, largely attended by co-workers and friends from my first part-time job. The young man who assaulted me was someone I considered to be a friend at the time, a co-worker who generally treated me kindly. I was shocked, humiliated, and confused by his behavior.

Most alarming, however, was what happened the next day.

Suspicious that what I'd experienced was wrong, I confided in some friends at work. Because he was so approachable, I even told my boss. Every single person I spoke to--male or female--offered one of the following responses:

  • "You'll only stir up trouble if you keep talking about it--just let it go."
  • "You're making a bigger deal out of this than it needs to be. Let it go."
  • *shrug* -- "It could've been worse. I wouldn't fuss about it. Let it go."
  • "Do you honestly want to get him fired, just to prove a point? Let it go."

Let it go, let it go, let it go. 

I was 15. And thanks to those friends, co-workers, and my supervisor at the time, I learned my first lesson:

"It is better to submit to abuse than to stir up trouble by challenging it. Just let it go."

That was a lesson that stuck, and one that was consistently and adamantly reinforced for the next decade of my life. 

***

For more than a decade, during my most formative years, I dated constantly; if one relationship wasn't working out, I'd find the next man in line before breaking up with the first. I was terrified of being alone, unsure of who I was if I wasn't defined by a relationship, or the interest of a man. At the time, I thought I just needed to find the right person, and to be the perfect, indisputably right girlfriend to suit him. The origin of this fear is impossible to pinpoint, but was probably influenced by too many Disney movies, unhelpful messaging from our culture, and my own inherent romantic tendency.

In hindsight, it's easy to see that I was searching for something none of those men could ever supply; but regardless, I still spent a lot of time dating and interacting with men, and as a result, I have a decently large pool of experience to draw upon. 

When I was 16, I dated a guy for a longer period of time--that guy turned out to be the most physically abusive of them all. Looking back, I think I excused a lot of his behavior because he came from a broken, abusive home. How else could I expect him to behave, coming from a home like that? His parents screamed and swore at him, and their marriage was obviously in crisis. I had two loving parents, happily married for decades; how could I judge him? I directed my anger and frustration at his parents, and continued to date him anyway.

With the voices from the year prior ringing in my mind, I let it go.

In that relationship, I endured both sexual and emotional abuse--it was my job as his girlfriend to submit to the requests of my boyfriend, no matter how uncomfortable I was with the situation. Even if I was crying, begging, scared, or simply unwilling, a job was a job, and I had no right to neglect my responsibility. It was unfair and wrong of me to object. 

Through this boyfriend's comments and lectures riddled with messages of shame, obligation, and his absolute authority, I learned my second lesson:

"Especially in a committed relationship, a man has the right to tell me what to do with my body."

In the end, I didn't break up with that boyfriend because he was abusive--I broke up with him because I liked someone else more. Hard to believe, isn't it? These lessons of abuse weren't evident to me at the time; I didn't arrive at a place of naming that experience as abusive for many, many years. So I moved on, and invested in the next guy, oblivious to the dangerously low bar that was set for my dating relationships. 

As I transitioned into college, I dated someone new, and different. He was 'less experienced' than I was, more permission-based, and the perfect man on paper--we even graduated at the same class rank, which was obviously a divine indication of our destined union. Compared with the men I'd known before, he was a saint.

I was unmovable in my determination that this young man deserved to be at the center of my world, and did everything in my power to keep him there. That was a trend in my relationships that I have since unearthed: "I'd rather accommodate you than risk losing you." At the time, I didn't realize what I was doing, or how harmful that posture could be. 

While this sweetheart of mine was not physically abusive, he did not treat me well. Part of this was a result of his own immaturity, I think, but not entirely. Whatever his true motives may have been, he taught me my third lesson: 

"My thoughts and feelings are irrelevant."

We dated for several years, and throughout our relationship, I was consistently dismissed and disregarded when I raised a concern. Whether I communicated that his friends were rude to me, his actions hurt my feelings, I was afraid of something, or even that I simply wanted him to be more open with me, the message that I consistently heard was that my feelings did not matter. He shrugged me off, told me I was overly-emotional or dramatic, and sighed audibly if I mentioned a topic more than once. My feelings were an annoyance to him, like a fly he could never quite swat to death. 

Perhaps the best example of this was when he told me that he and his roommates had ranked their girlfriends according to who cried the most--I didn't cry as much as Joe's girlfriend, but I definitely cried more than Bob's girlfriend. So with the evidence at hand, it is scientifically possible to cry less; perhaps I should give that a try, he said.

Evidently, it would've made life easier for him if I was less emotional. Less "me". 

To be fair, he wasn't the first person I'd learned this lesson from. But I cared about him the most of any of my previous relationships, so this message was really driven home. I learned to be ashamed of my tears, to be embarrassed by my feelings, and to distrust emotion as something unpredictable and volatile.

After that relationship ended in the typical back-and-forth fashion, I was absolutely wrecked. By then I was in my third year of my undergrad, and I had been with him for so long that I had no idea who I was. I was depressed, uncertain of what I wanted to do with my life, and lonely. 

Let's take a moment to reflect on what I'd learned so far:

1. It is best to submit to abuse.
2. Men have a right to my body.
3. My thoughts and feelings are irrelevant. 

***

In my youth, I spent a lot of time watching Disney movies: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast. There are some common threads there, along with the dangerous message that culture--and often the church--sends about a woman simply "waiting" for her life to begin, for her prince charming to arrive and make her existence worth something.

My life was a wreck, and I had a lot of problems--in fact, I was convinced that I was the problem, and that a man was the answer. So I dated at a frenetic pace, throwing myself out into the world of men recklessly. I treated some good guys poorly, and also dated a few who reinforced the lessons above. 

One guy in particular comes to mind. On several occasions, I remember him saying that my disinterest in getting physical was my fault, possibly even a medical issue that I should consider looking into. Let me restate that one: I didn't want to participate in certain physical acts with him, and as a result, he told me I might be broken. He never asked "why?" or entered into the conversation with me; he was too self-absorbed to admit that the problem could be related to him--his behavior, his desirability, or his responsibility in the relationship. A disconnect between us was automatically my fault, every time. 

It was about a year before my next long-term relationship, a record-setting "break" for me. My new boyfriend seemed nice enough; he was always saying things like, "We never have to do anything you're not comfortable with," or "You don't have to do XYZ until you're ready." I told him about my previous abuse, and he seemed to take an interest and be somewhat sympathetic. 

That would've been great, except for the fact that he was simultaneously expressing dissatisfaction in our physical relationship, and suggesting that he might break up with me because of it. That, my friends, is what we call manipulation; mixed messages cleverly applied to control my behavior and leave me feeling guilty, and to make me feel personally responsible for his dissatisfaction. 

Looking back, the other red flag in that relationship was that he genuinely believed that respect and treatment of women should be conditional: "Some women deserve to be treated well, like you. Others don't, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that." Yes, he literally said that. And I don't doubt at all that he meant it.

By then it was 2011, and I was at the lowest point in my life; I was depressed, my self-worth was deep into the negatives, and I had no idea who I was. I had graduated college earlier that year, and had no idea what I wanted to do with myself professionally. 

In the midst of that pain, Jesus spoke grace, love, and gentleness to me in a way that changed my life forever. For me, this is essential to my story, but let me be clear: whether or not you are a Christian, I believe that every woman is capable of unlearning harmful lessons and challenging abuse. You do not need Jesus to stop being abused. Yes, Jesus offers a beautiful, restorative, life-changing love along with earth-shattering freedom, but that is not the point of why I'm writing today, and I want to be very clear on that before proceeding. Every woman, regardless of her faith, deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.

***

My experience of meeting God--expecting condemnation but receiving grace--was a turning point in my life. I broke up with my boyfriend for ambiguous reasons; I just knew that I wasn't meant to be with him, and that my life was turning in another direction. I started going to church, and took a break from dating anyone, at all. Gently and patiently, God started to show me that I am valued and cherished independent of men; I am not defined by men, but have a beautiful, unique identity of my own that He designed.

Armed with the love and affirmation of Jesus, I eventually started dating in the Christian world. I read Josh Harris's books, and came away somewhat unscathed; mostly I was energized by the idea that there were men out there who would be bound by Christian doctrine, and inherently respectful as a result. Ready to dive in to this new world, I sat back and waited to be pursued according to the 'standard practices' of Christian dating. 

Unfortunately, my experience left me disappointed, and wounded in new ways. The only variation in the Christian dating experience versus the secular dating experience was the type of abuse, and the convenient blanketing of mistreatment in Jesus's name. 

To be fair, not all of my experiences in the church were bad--I'm getting to that. But I think it's important to highlight that abuse inside the church does happen, and I believe there should be a major effort by the church to champion accurate, healthy messages about respecting women, and to educate men about how to behave according to Jesus's example. 

The most harmful Christian dating relationship was one that was never fully defined, because the guy could not decide whether or not I was worthy of dating him. He openly questioned whether or not I was "Christian enough" to fit into his lifestyle, and his ministry. In the meantime, while he measured me spiritually, he made excessive physical advances, and pressured me to participate while also touting my "responsibility for my own boundaries" -- restated, "I get to do what I want, and it's your job to stop me if you don't like it." This is a distorted and inappropriate understanding of consent, one that is being exposed and challenged in the conversations surrounding Harvey Weinstein today.

***

In the midst of all this disappointment, I met a guy named Andrew; we're not sure how we met. Probably serving in the children's ministry together, while I was busy flirting with someone louder, and more aggressive. 

We started hanging in overlapping social circles, and he gave me a ride home from the airport on my birthday in August 2013. A few days later, he called to ask me out, and we went on our first date the following weekend. We went out for sushi, and laughed a lot more than I expected to.

Andrew was a mystery to me; he was quiet, respectful, patient, and easily the best listener I'd ever known. He made strange jokes about himself that sounded arrogant, but everything else about him and his behavior suggested humility and selflessness. We dated for awhile, and I marveled over the small ways he showed his affection: throwing out the "dad arm" in a near-miss traffic incident. Bringing me a jar of spices he thought I would like. Sitting with me at Kaldis and letting me talk his ear off, for hours, about whatever was on my mind. 

In the end, his kindness scared me--I felt uncomfortable because he was nice. Yes, you read that right. I couldn't stand how well Andrew treated me, so I broke up with him a few months after we started dating.

And I ran back to men who treated me like crap.

The thing about learning a lesson is that the concept becomes a part of you--we learn to ride a bicycle, and have a hard time forgetting how to do so successfully. Muscle memory takes over, and we respond according to patterns and historical experience. I learned to accept abuse, so I was most comfortable when I was being abused. This was an ugly, sad lesson for me to learn, and it took a long time for me to even identify the gravity and implications.

***

Months after Andrew, I had just finished dating someone else who treated me so-so. At the time, I was interning at the church; part of my responsibility included shadowing a pastor in various types of meetings, to understand how pastors care for the members of the church. 

In this meeting, a woman was upset because she wasn't sure whether or not she should be dating the person she was with. To help her walk through that conversation, the pastor asked her a series of questions:

  • "Do you respect him?"
  • "Could you respect him for 50 years?"
  • "Does he respect you?"
  • "Does he cherish you?"
  • "Do you think he'll cherish you for 50 years?

As I was sitting there in the corner, taking notes and sworn to silent observation, lightbulbs and trumpets started going off in my brain: Why didn't my most recent boyfriend treat me the way Andrew used to? I respect Andrew. I have no doubt that I could respect Andrew for 50 years. He respects me, and you know what? I think he might cherish me, too.

A lesson that I had been slowly learning for months--years, arguably--came into focus in my mind and heart: Through years of abuse, I learned the wrong definition of love, and I'm beginning to see what the right one looks like. In fact, I'm beginning to believe that this new "true" love is a lot better than the false "love" I knew before. 

After that moment, I sought counsel with some trusted mentors and friends. I talked through my revelation, the damage that had accumulated over the years, and my desire to apply the new definition of love to my life. I talked about Andrew, and how I felt about him.

All of those counselors and friends encouraged me to tell Andrew what I learned. It was a humbling, vulnerable, brave experience, but I did just that. I told Andrew that I broke up with him because he showed me a good kind of love, when I'd only known a false love before him. I told him I respected him, and wanted to try again, if he would give me the chance. As always, he listened well, asked thoughtful questions, and carefully considered his response.

The next day, we stood in a parking lot in Clayton. "I wanted to take a day to pray about it, and seek some counsel." He paused, and grinned. "Of course I'll be with you again! I can't believe we get another chance. I can't believe you want to be with me." (I can't believe you want to be with me either, man of mine. It is a lovely mystery that I sit with every day, a beautiful gift that I take for granted far too often.)

We dated for a couple more months, and in that time, something extraordinary happened--Andrew kept listening to me. He was concerned when I was sad or afraid, and attentive when I said anything at all. His kindness wasn't a charismatic mask carefully adorned to lure me in; he was consistently, genuinely kind. And I'd never known anyone like that before. 

One day, I made a passing comment to Andrew about an incident related to my previous sexual assault. His eyes got wide, and he started crying. If you know Andrew, you know that he doesn't cry much. Obviously deeply affected by what I'd divulged, he communicated deep sadness, shock, and anger over what I'd experienced. 

And I had barely skimmed the surface of my past.

I sat with him, stunned by the realization that he was the first person to respond appropriately to my abuseever. He did not blame me, but grieved for the pain that I received, and burned with anger for the inappropriate behavior of those men. That was one of the milestones in our relationship, a moment when I felt seen, heard, known, and cared for in a way that changed my life. 

Slowly, I began to learn that romantic abuse was not something I should ever endure, or be silent about. I learned how to be treated well as a girlfriend, then as a fiancee, and now as a wife. Andrew calls me beloved--his promised love, one who is cherished, treasured, admired, esteemed, and adored. And his actions only serve to support his words--he loves me with a selfless, sacrificial love that puts my own needs ahead of his own. When he messes up, he apologizes, and he consistently takes responsibility for his mistakes. 

Even writing about it now, two years into our marriage, I have to choke down tears. It is astonishing to see how much different my life is now, and I am stunned by the magnitude of that merciful, magnificent transformation.

***

As incredible as it was to know the beauty and freedom of a healthy, respectful relationship, that was only part of the battle. I'd only learned to challenge romantic abuse, and I had very little reason to fear that anymore, since I was engaged to a wonderful, genuinely respectful man.

During the seasons of our engagement and early marriage, I experienced a dangerous, different kind of abuse--abuse from a trusted mentor and friend, with no romantic associations whatsoever. This man lured me--and others--in with messages of my own worthiness and value, then slowly and skillfully changed his messages to degrade and shame me. When I questioned his words, he found a way to blame me and make me feel responsible, and often guilty. When I saw him treat others in questionable ways, he twisted the words of the Bible to keep me from challenging his actions.

He was really, really good at what he did. He could spin webs of lies like no one I've ever seen before, and discredit anyone who would challenge him before they got a chance to do anything about it. I submitted to his authority--at least to some degree--for more than a year before I finally got away from him. When I had space to process my experience and time to seek wise counsel, I began to name and see his actions for what they were: manipulative, spiritually abusive, and very, very wrong. 

It took a solid year of counseling, spiritual direction, and support from friends and family to begin to recover from that experience. But during that process, I got angry. I got angry because this man was able to hurt me (and others) with no ramifications. I wrestled with what I'd learned about him, and as scared as I was to do so, I spoke out about his behavior. 

This is one of the most important lessons I've learned, friends. Abusive individuals seek to rob us of our voices--getting that power back, affirming that our voices and our words are valuable, is crucial. This is why I write posts like this, and talk about my history. This is why I give details about experiences that are extraordinarily painful--and somewhat embarrassing. I continue to affirm my right to speak out, to name abuse, to challenge it, and to see that abusive individuals are held accountable for their actions.

***

I have been fortunate to have many wise, compassionate people speak into my circumstances, both distant and recent, to listen and to correct the lessons I learned in my past. Jesus and Andrew continue to be a team, in a way, that gradually heals my wounds and helps me unlearn those harmful, deeply-ingrained lessons. It is a process--I still get angry with Andrew for being nice to me, on occasion. But between his daily, gentle example, the gospel of Jesus, and the support and counsel I've received from friends and professionals, I've completely thrown off the harmful lessons of abuse.

In their place, I've learned some new lessons:

All women--all people--are worthy of respect.

No person--including my husband--has control over my body, except me.

My thoughts and feelings are valid, valuable, and deserve to be considered. 

Fear and shame are red flags--I should never feel afraid in a relationship, romantic or not. 

Abuse of any kind needs to be named, challenged, and answered for. It should NEVER be brushed aside or minimized.

***

In recent years, people have had varying responses to my story, and I've seen surprising and concerning responses to stories that have similarities to mine. It might be tempting to ask some of the following questions, or make the following statements:

  • "You were foolish and boy crazy! I would never put up with that kind of treatment."
  • "So there are some bad guys out there. Not all of them are like that--you just had a bad sample and picked the wrong ones." 
  • "Do you realize how brainwashed you were? I mean, you totally let him control you."

The problem with these types of statements is that they continue to place the burden of responsibility on me--the victim of abuse. It is true that we are responsible for our actions and choices; trust me, I know. But that is not a valid reason to minimize or excuse the abhorrent, abusive behavior that is widely accepted in our culture. I'm talking about these experiences more than 10 years after they happened, in some cases, and to some degree, I'm talking about them en masse for the first time. What does it say about our culture if it's taken me this long to speak up, and to name this behavior as wrong? 

If you are tempted to say something like the statements above when a friend is confiding in you regarding an experience of abuse, I would strongly urge you to reconsider and appropriately align your perspective. Challenge the definition of acceptable behavior that our culture has applied to men. Dare to hold individuals accountable for their behavior, especially men, who are currently given the benefit of the doubt in an outrageously unbalanced fashion. 

We live in a fundamentally broken world. I don't have the answers for how to solve the problems we face in our culture, but taking accusations of abuse seriously seems like a good place to start. As a victim, there are a few things that I wish people would know about the experience of being abused:

  • Being abused is not an indication of weakness or gullibility. Never, ever suggest that.
  • Being abused is confusing. There are a lot of mixed messages coming in from the abuser, in combination with messages from the past. It's difficult to name what is happening in the midst of the abuse. 
  • Being abused is isolating. Skilled abusers and manipulators know how to make their victims feel alone. This makes it all the more important for others to pay attention, and intervene.
  • Being afraid of someone is never acceptable, and always a red flag. Period. If someone comes to you and says that they are afraid of someone else, something is wrong with that individual's behavior, and the victim needs protection and defense. 

Pay attention, friends. Value the words of the women around you, and stand up for people who are in the midst of abusive situations. Challenge your friends who use derogatory language about women, or catcall women on the sidewalk. (I didn't even touch on catcalling, or the neck-craning drive-by stares! Do you see how big the issue is, if these are 'minor' in the conversation?) Examine your present understanding of consent, and the definition of respect. Support community leaders, politicians, and organizations who serve victims of abuse, or who push legislation that holds abusive individuals accountable. 

Everyone deserves to be heard.

#metoo