We are only at the very beginning of The Iconic Feminine. As this site grows and we get to know each other, there is going to be a lot of discussion about how marriage is a path to holiness, through self-sacrifice. “Marriage is martyrdom,” as we say in the Orthodox Church.
Because this demands so much from us, including leaps of faith that are not for the faint of heart, I want to start FROM THE BEGINNING acknowledging that not all marriages require this of us. Please, hear me out on this.
For eighteen years, I was married to a man that was incredibly abusive. A bisexual man with narcissistic personality disorder that caved into his passions and, ultimately, betrayed our family to be with men. We have a daughter, and his disdain for all things female was making her begin to hate herself. We were headed somewhere very dark, and I could not allow her to go there. (At a later date, I will tell you about how our family made it through and pulled her from the brink of gender dysphoria). In the end, to protect her, I left him. Anyone with experience dealing with a narcissist will immediately understand just how soul-sucking it can be. For those who have blessedly not dealt with this, here is a great article on life with a narcissist.
So, I want all of you to know, although I will be writing (and inviting others to write) about dealing with marital difficulties, even extreme marital difficulties, I am in no way encouraging a woman in a dangerous, abusive, or adulterous situation to endure those things. On the flip side, I am not saying that all of those situations should lead to divorce. Never would I want to be responsible for such advice. As with all things that effect our lives so deeply, I would encourage all of you to, first, speak with your priest (or pastor for those of you whom are Protestant), second, to seek counseling (whether you go or stay), and third, always place the safety of yourself and your children first.
Now, this likely will lead some of you to ask, “how do I know if my husband is actually abusive or this is just life?” I asked myself that very same question for a lot of years. We grow up hearing (constantly) that “life isn’t fair.” Often, this makes us feel like maybe we are being spoiled by expecting treatment greater than we deserve. And the misunderstanding of our spiritual obligations can make this even worse. “God hates divorce” (Malachi 2:16). How often did that verse ring in my ears? Usually in my ex-husband’s voice because he would say it when arguing why I should let him see men without ending our marriage. Or endure his emotional crucifixions. And submission… a word I hated for a while. A LONG while. Women are to be submissive to their husbands. Ok. We are. But what does that REALLY mean? A woman I know, her husband used this to force his wife into allowing him to perform a sex act on her while a man her husband was attracted to listened over the phone. I am fairly certain this is NOT what St. Paul had in mind when he told wives to submit to their husbands. That’s a statement I am willing to stand by.
So, to the question of, “am I in an abusive relationship?” I don’t think anyone on the internet can answer that question for you, fully. Especially not in an article written for all women and not a specific response to your situation. But, there is some amazing wisdom to be found in our ancient church fathers, and for this, I want to quote St. John Chrysostom, and his thoughts on Ephesians, Chapter 5.
“… the partner of one’s life, the mother of one’s children, the foundation of one’s every joy, one ought never to chain down by fear and menaces, but with love and good temper. For what sort of union is that, where the wife trembles at her husband? And what sort of pleasure will the husband enjoy, if he dwells with his wife as with a slave, and not as with a free-woman? Yeah, though you should suffer anything on her account, do no upbraid her; for neither did Christ [upbraid the Church].”
I find this commentary particularly helpful. Without a doubt, I can say that I was chained down by “fear and menaces” with my ex-husband. That I “trembled” at him. If you have read my post dealing with a very rough time I am going through with Ben (my husband), then you know I am not saying that experiencing pain automatically means you are in an abusive marriage. Far from it. But I know that, even when Ben is completely unreasonable, even under the influence of medication that was affecting him a very horrible way, I do not “tremble” at him.
In another commentary on the same verse, Chrysostom writes, “So just as [Christ], when [the church] was rejecting, hating, spurning and nagging Him, brought her to trust Him by His great solicitude, not by threatening, lording it over her or intimidating her or anything of the like (emphasis added), so must you act toward your wife.” And regarding Ephesians 5:25, “nor let him despise her as being in subjection, for she is the body; and if the head despise the body, it will itself also perish.”
Now, please, PLEASE do not use these quotes to evaluate and criticize your husband when he falls and makes a mistake. This is NOT your role here. I provide these quotes as context for understanding abusive behavior. Do you live in a fairly consistent atmosphere of threats and intimidation? Do you feel despised? I think this is enough of a red flag to go have that discussion with your priest/pastor and seek professional counseling.
We will be addressing submission and what that means over, and over, and over again, so I don’t see where it has much of a place in this particular post. However, I don’t want to leave this dangling without some context of our duty, as this could lead to an imbalance of how to frame what I have been sharing with all of you. So, from our same St. John Chrysostom, “For example, let the hands and the feet, and all the rest of the members be given up for service to the head, but let the head provide for the body, seeing it contains every sense in itself. Nothing can be better than this union.” Also, “how, one may say, is there to be love when there is respect? Love is most powerfully present when accompanied by respect. For what she loves she also reveres, and what she reveres, she also loves. She revers him as the head and loves him as a member of the whole body. God’s purpose in ordering marriage is peace. One takes the husband’s role, one takes the wife’s role, one in guiding, one in supporting (emphasis added).”
In the past, I have seen some authors separate out the idea of submission on the part of the woman and say that we are under obligation to obey God in this REGARDLESS of what we are enduring. One in particular, whom I will not name because I will do nothing to increase her fame, went so far as to suggest enduring beatings for the sake of “saving” your husband. While I would never presume that God would not call anyone to endure this, I do not think it falls under the category of practical wisdom, and this expectation and teaching has caused more misery than it has “saved souls.” Submission does not happen in a vacuum. God never separates things into a false dichotomy. Often, we will see this idea when people argue about faith versus works. The bottom line is, St. James said that “faith without works is dead.” They need each other. In the same way, submission from the wife and sacrifice from the husband go hand in hand, and one without the other is pathology.
If you are still uncertain, I will leave you with one last question to ask yourself. If your daughter were being treated the way you are, how would you feel about that? This is an especially good question to ask in situations where you aren’t being physically abused, but emotionally. I used to wish my ex would hit me. If he would only hit me, then the outside would visibly show how the inside feels. Then I would tell myself, “this means it isn’t that bad,” and then I would guilt myself into thinking that I was simply selfish and looking for an excuse to sin. What changed that for me was my daughter. One day, when she was five, I realized that if things did not change, she was going to grow up thinking this kind of behavior is normal, and she would repeat my cycle (as I had repeated my mother’s). No. I couldn’t do that to her. It had to stop. I tried to get him to be a partner in making that stop. As anyone that has been married to a narcissist can tell you, the reply I got was that I was “crazy.”
My prayer is that this gives us a framework to pursue our discussions about marriage, martyrdom, submission, and holiness without encouraging women in dangerous situations to further submit to damaging abuse. I love all of you too much to be responsible for that; especially since reading the wrong book caused me to endure three extra years of abuse that I could have avoided.
If you feel you are in an abusive situation, please reach out to me in our Facebook group. Let me know you have sent me a message and I will get back with you. And please, seek guidance from your priest/pastor.
All my love,