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How a strict religious upbringing prepped me for an abusive relationship

Can the meek obedience expected of children in some religious traditions make them more vulnerable to abusive relationships as adults? One domestic abuse survivor tells her story.

Content warning: This post describes a violent and manipulative relationship. If you are in an abusive relationship, help is available. The 0800 Family Violence Information Line (0800 456 450) provides self-help information and connects people to services where appropriate. It is available seven days a week, from 9am to 11pm, with an after-hours message redirecting callers in the case of an emergency.

It started by earning points. I was 9 years old, enrolled in a church holiday programme. Each day we did crafts and other adult-led activities which included praise and worship.

There were house points awarded to children who were compliant, those who won the games, submitted to authority without question etc. I always got points for the praise and worship, which to me as a child felt like glorified karaoke. I was a natural performer and I have always connected with music emotionally. The more I closed my eyes and lip synced to Darlene Zschech, the holier I became. Little paper coupons got pressed into my hands as I earned these points. The more you cried, the more devout and pure your soul was.

This thinking continued into my teenage years. Tracking the pastor on stage with teary eyes, craving their validation. “Give me a prophecy. Tell me I’m worthy.” Clinging to their words, regurgitating their spiritual sustenance into diaries and journals. Reading the Bible and being told how to interpret scripture, how to feel about things, how to treat people. I was the perfect robot.

I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend. Us girls didn’t date. We kissed dating goodbye and fantasised exaggerated platonic moments about the guys we served next to at summer mission. We wore t-shirts up to our chins and gave side hugs. We knew we weren’t allowed to have meaningful conversations with men, and we only knew boundaries that were imposed on us for “our own good”. Rather than developing our own sense of morality, there was much less resistance if we stuck to the rulebook.

So when this man strode into reception at my work and turned his attention on me, I was a goner. Call me a bleeding heart or an immature girl (I was both), but I wanted to save him. I thought I’d found my life partner, the man who would finally take off my clothes and my purity ring. He was Christian and he respected my virginity, but that only lasted a year – because what better way to show my love for him?

My parents found out a week later (I’m still sorry about that, Mum). I packed my things into my friend’s car and moved into his family’s garage. I was his. He owned my heart and I loved him with every cent in my bank account and every ounce of my attention.

When he told me not to talk to that friend anymore that didn’t like him, he was protecting me from their negative views. When he didn’t like the way I dressed, I changed my outfit. I was used to submitting and being told how to dress and act around other men. So the more he shouted and screamed at me, the more his discipline showed me he loved me.

I was hopelessly devoted. My unconditional love was all our relationship needed.

Over the next six years, I’d have these altar call moments when I’d search my heart for how I could be better, abandoning my own ‘selfish’ needs – like a regular income, trust in a relationship and outside friendships. If he became emotionally distant, I needed to try harder, be more devout in my love for him. If he wasn’t coming home to me at 3am in the morning, I needed to up my game and haul my pregnant ass into the car to pick him up.

I was ride or die. I was faithful. See how righteous I was? Yes, he could look through my phone. Of course I wouldn’t lose any more weight because it made him feel insecure. Of course I would let him drive my car whilst he was disqualified. Our trials and tribulations would make us stronger. Strong enough to lie to the police. Strong enough to support him when he wasn’t working and on probation for assault. Strong enough to stay together after countless times cheating, and warnings from other people to stay away from him.

This torch of unconditional romantic love burnt my hands even as I clung to it for warmth.

Breaking point came one night when I was inside my bathroom, barricading the door against him. He had been drinking with my cousin who had stood up for me and tried to tell him how shit his behaviour was. They were screaming at each other so I hid and was calling for help. He was kicking and punching the door while I was standing behind it, sobbing into the phone, pleading for his family to come and pick him up. It was 3am in the morning and our son was 10 days old. I’d had a caesarean birth and was holding my stomach so my stitches didn’t tear.

To this day, I don’t know who called the police – but I’m forever grateful to them. They arrested this man that I loved but so desperately needed to be away from. My family drove up from out of town and I stayed with them until I was able to drive again. I didn’t tell them what had been going on. I was too proud to admit how bad things were, and I felt that I deserved this for ‘falling out of God’s favor’. I still felt an obligation to safeguard his reputation; I’d been taught that women protected their men and never spoke negatively about them.

Four weeks later I came back to Auckland and began the journey to freedom.

Reader beware, the most dangerous time for a woman is when she tries to leave an abusive relationship. He doesn’t want to give you the space to think clearly so he follows you from room to room, sucking out the oxygen.

There were times when he would grab my keys so I couldn’t drive away from him, or take my wallet so I couldn’t buy anything, while a therapist’s words echoed in my ears about keeping a spare key and cash in case of an emergency like this.

He would pound on the door in the middle of the night for me to let him in, and I would because I didn’t want him to wake the baby, and maybe because part of me still craved reconciliation and his approval.

Despite my pleading, he wouldn’t leave, so I did.

I was holding my 2 month old baby and running down the street to the local Plunket to seek sanctuary. They called the police for me and cautioned that this would start the ball rolling for victim services. I held my son and nodded, looking out the window to see his figure running down the street towards us, growing bigger with each second.

I got a protection order, I was able to show the police text messages where he threatened to kill himself if I left him, or described how he would smash my teeth in and gouge my eyes out before bashing my head in. I knew what he was capable of, having sat next to him in court countless times and hearing every detail. We had this joke that I never worried about him when he went out drinking, because whenever he got arrested he was able to call me from the station. I knew that he could knock out two men with one punch, and that he had gone back later to stomp on their unconscious faces. This knowledge used to make me feel protected; now it hung over me like black terror.

I moved house to somewhere he didn’t know. Packing boxes, terrified that he would show up like he had been doing, despite the protection order. Shine rang me every day to check in; I went to the police station and reported every time he contacted me. I went to group therapy for women that had been in abusive relationships. I looked around and these strong, powerful women and wondered how we all could have got it so wrong.

My martyr attitude cost me six years, and so much heartache.

Over time it got easier; the 4am calls from private numbers ceased. I quit one job after he showed up at my work; afterwards I could drive home without scanning the roads for his car, wondering if he would follow me home.

It has taken years to see what part I played in enabling his behavior, and how my ‘til death do us part’ attitude damaged my view of a healthy relationship… or how I thought I deserved the life I had because of my sins. It has taken five years of being single and finding myself again.

I mourned the death of our relationship. My dreams of working through our valley and coming out on the other side, a shining example of relationship purgatory, was not to be.

Most of all, I feel like I let my son down by my poor choices, and it’s screwed up, but at times I have resented my son for ‘breaking us up’. I felt like we still could have been together if our relationship hadn’t threatened my son’s safety.

I have fought hard to find the person that I am without the religious stigmas or my past view of myself. I have found love again in the most unexpected way, and here’s what I have learned on this journey:

  • Instead of turning the other cheek, walk away and create distance (even just emotionally) from people that hurt you.
  • You have ultimate control over your sex life, friendship circles, decisions, how you dress and act. Be very vigilant about whose voice you choose to listen to. What’s wrong with your own?
  • Have open conversations about sex and relationships. Especially with people that have different opinions. We do ourselves a disservice by surrounding ourselves with people that parrot the same beliefs as us.
  • Being married or committed to someone does not give them ownership of your mind, body or soul. Your body is yours to have sex when you want to. Your time and attention is yours to give to others as you want.
  • It is OK to feel whatever you feel, and you should never be made guilty or told that you’re wrong for feeling a certain way.
  • You can choose the life that you want for yourself.

What can we do?

  • Be aware that NZ has terrible statistics around domestic violence, and that just because a women doesn’t have a black eye it doesn’t mean she’s not being abused. The wounds on the inside take the longest to heal.
  • Take this quiz, which can help you be honest with yourself about how healthy and positive yours is (or isn’t).
  • Protect the children – they don’t choose to be in an abusive home, their parents do.

Where to get help

If you are in immediate danger, dial 111 and ask for the Police.

  •  Are You OK?. For information about family violence, what it is, and where to get help.
  • The 0800 Family Violence Information Line (0800 456 450) provides self-help information and connects people to services where appropriate. It is available seven days a week, from 9am to 11pm, with an after-hours message redirecting callers in the case of an emergency.
  • Oranga Tamariki–Ministry for Children. Phone 0508 FAMILY (0508 326 459) if you are concerned about a child or young person.
  • Women’s Refuge. Phone 0800 REFUGE (733 843) or look in the white pages of the phone book for your local refuge.
  • Shine: ‘Making homes violence free in NZ’. A free helpline 0508 744 633 provides information to victims of family violence and to those worried about a friend or family member who might be experiencing family violence.
  • National Network of Stopping Violence is a network of community organisations working to end men’s violence to women and children across New Zealand.
  • Community Law Centres are located throughout the country

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