Three years ago, Jill left her home for what was to be the last time, after a sustained campaign of psychological and emotional abuse by her husband that was designed, she believes, to make her suicidal.
“He had decided that I was a liability now, and that it was time to get rid of me,” Jill tells me over the phone.
“He just constantly made me feel really terrible.
“…he started going through my bank accounts, and telling me he needed to take away my laptop and my phone and my Internet access.”
“Up to that point there’d been more swings back and forward, like as soon as I cried and apologised he’d back off a bit and things would be easier for me for a while.
“But this time was different. We went into this relentless thing – each day for two weeks he’d find another thing to [criticise], and he started going through my bank accounts, and telling me he needed to take away my laptop and my phone and my Internet access.”
When Jill left her home, she also left her church and Christian community, and for a while felt very confused and spiritually disoriented.
“I felt like I didn’t know what was true any more.”
“I had had so many years of getting all my spiritual input from Howard and accepting his picture of me as what God thought of me.
“I felt like I didn’t know what was true any more.
“But at the same time I began to experience God’s care and it was a really huge thing that God cared about me when I was alone and friendless, because I’d had years of feeling like I was only worth caring about to the extent that I was a support to my husband and his ministry,” says Jill.
Jill’s husband Howard is a graduate of a well-recognised Bible College, and was a minister in a mainstream Australian denomination. He is a respected member of the community.
“…even though there were alarm bells that went off for me a couple of times, I ended up thinking that was just me not being reconciled to having to be submissive.”
But in retrospect, Jill says the warning signs were there from the beginning.
“Even before we were engaged he was quite controlling,” says Jill. “But even though there were alarm bells that went off for me a couple of times, I ended up thinking that was just me not being reconciled to having to be submissive.”
She and Howard had both been in Christian circles where there was a lot of teaching about women finding a strong leader who you could always submit to, and never have to question.
“If I ever had an opinion that wasn’t the same as his he would kind of threaten to end the relationship, and see what I would do.
“I always backed down, because I just thought he was wonderful and I was in love. I would say, ‘no no, I didn’t really mean it,’ and apologise for having an opinion.
“I think I thought that was how a Christian relationship was meant to look – from what I’d heard and the things that people had said.”
“He didn’t let me buy my own clothes, and he would tell me that I should know that I needed him to choose for me.”
After they were married, Howard’s controlling ways escalated.
“He didn’t let me buy my own clothes, and if I ever did, he would tell me that he didn’t like it, or that it made me look really terrible, and that I should know that I needed him to choose for me.”
Things only got worse once they had kids.
Her voice wavers on the phone as she tells me of the times when Howard would tell her that she didn’t know how to look after her kids.
“He’d tell me when to feed the baby, when to change his nappy, when to put him to bed. And I was expected to do it straight away, as soon as he said it.
“It really made me doubt myself.
“My mum says that’s when she started to worry about our relationship.”
“If I ever said anything in Bible study he would tell me afterwards that I said the wrong thing.”
A few years later, Howard and Jill were fully engrossed in local church ministry, and Jill says, “I was really happy because he was happy. It was always easier [for me] if he felt like he could do whatever he wanted.
“If he ever felt like people were stopping him from doing what he wanted, that was when things got harder for me.”
But the peace didn’t last for long.
“If I ever said anything in Bible study he would tell me afterwards that I said the wrong thing.
“Even after conversations we’d had, we’d go home and he’d pick over things I’d done or said with other people and tell me how many mistakes I’d made and how socially incompetent I was,” says Jill.
“He had been telling me, repeatedly, that the kids would be better off without me.”
After one particularly upsetting interaction over a meal, and in front of their children, Jill says that something changed.
“I got really really scared, and it got to the point where he was telling me that I needed to be locked up in a psych ward.
“He had been telling me, repeatedly, that the kids would be better off without me, that everyone would be better off without me, that it would be better if I wasn’t there.
“But I really didn’t want to kill myself,” says Jill.
“People were telling me it was abuse, but I didn’t believe them because I was so used to thinking everything he did was right.”
Jill reached out to people around her who she thought might be able to help. But when she returned home, Howard came into the bedroom, closed the door and raped her.
“I felt like it was a punishment for me trying to go off and get help.
“I was so scared, I never imagined something like that happening,” says Jill.
“But I still didn’t think anything was wrong. People were telling me it was abuse, but I didn’t believe them because I was so used to thinking everything he did was right.”
Later that day, Jill left the house, even though her children remained in the house with her husband. She made multiple attempts to see her children, but was nearly always thwarted by her husband, who told her she was an unfit mother.
Jill now shares custody of her children with Howard, and tries to teach them that you know the tree by its fruit, and that life is not about sounding good, but about doing good to other people.
Early on after leaving her husband, Jill was able to connect with some Christians who clearly told her that what she had experienced was wrong, and showed her the love of Jesus in practical ways.
“I feel like I have a faith now that can acknowledge the pain and hurt, and acknowledge it to someone who can understand it and has promised to deal with it.”
“If it hadn’t been for them I might have stayed away from Christians and churches altogether as I felt like I didn’t know who I could trust,” Jill heartbreakingly tells me.
Many parts of the Bible were also difficult for Jill to read, because she would hear it in her husband’s voice, and with the kind of slant he would put on it.
“For at least a year I couldn’t read any part of the Bible on my own except the Psalms, and some of the gospel stories. Everything else seemed too overwhelming and sometimes scared me and worried me.”
But Jill says she has experienced God’s care and provision in ways that reassured her that God loved her, was for her and wanted her to live.
“I think my faith in Jesus is stronger now than it’s been for a long time, and I have a confidence to turn to God and pour out my heart to him in a way that I couldn’t before.
“[Before], I was always unable to acknowledge how bad I was feeling and I felt like I should be happy to have such a godly husband and that I should just pray to be more submissive and patient and a better wife. I couldn’t really pray honestly.
“So I feel like I have a faith now that can acknowledge the pain and hurt, and acknowledge it to someone who can understand it and has promised to deal with it.”
*The names and some of the details in this story have been changed to protect Jill’s identity and personal safety
A message from Jill to other survivors of domestic violence
“I would like to say that God *doesn’t* want them to stay in that situation. God wants them to flourish and blossom. Jesus came to give life and freedom, he doesn’t approve when he sees people being mistreated and abused in his name.
“It’s so important to talk to the right person – someone who actually understands domestic violence.
“Teaching that tells women (or anyone) to deny and distrust our feelings, is teaching that plays into the hands of abusers.”
“I know a number of other Christian women, including ministry wives, who have gone to their senior minister or minister’s wife, and have been given advice that has sounded spiritual but has put them in more danger and made it much harder for them to escape.
“Listen to your instincts – if a situation or a person doesn’t feel safe then get away from them and get help.
“It can be especially hard for Christian women to do this because we have so often been subjected to teaching that undermines our ability to listen to our God-given instincts and gut feelings.
“Teaching that tells women (or anyone) to deny and distrust our feelings, is teaching that plays into the hands of abusers.
Some warning signs of domestic abuse
- A tendency to dismiss others’ opinions or points of view
- Lack of respect or charity for those who disagree
- Laughing at others for being less intelligent or ‘well taught’
- A need to have his ‘authority’ confirmed, for example, by testing your willingness to submit on trivial points
- Only wanting to spend time with people who look up to him or defer to his opinion
If you or someone you know needs help please call the Domestic Violence hotline on 1800 737 732 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.
If it’s an emergency dial 000.More