Carmel* was a first-year student at a Sydney university, living 300 kilometres from home. She fell head over heels in love with Tony*, a fellow student. ‘We loved each other. I held really dear our wedding text, Ruth 1:16, as I changed so much of my life to be part of his.’
‘Tony was a control freak. He had a job where he could boss people around, and he thought it was okay to treat me the same way — like one of his subordinates.’
She was abused for about 20 years. ‘It got worse and worse as time went on.’ She was subjected to psychological, emotional, sexual, financial and social abuse, and finally physical abuse also. At her lowest point, she attempted suicide.
‘Tony would ring me up several times a day when he was at work. At first I thought this was an indication of his care for me. Later I recognised that it was control; he was restricting my movements.
‘He isolated me from my family and friends because I wasn’t allowed to use my own car to go to see them. If I was talking to a friend on the phone in the bedroom he would come in and lie on the bed so that he could listen to the conversation. When he was away with work, he’d call me every night and tell me what I could and couldn’t do.
‘It seemed okay to him to treat me like dirt during the day, but come bedtime I was meant to be the loving wife that “it was my duty” to be — as he often used to remind me.
‘It’s like the frog in the saucepan.
‘I talked to people at church about it’, says Carmel, ’but I think they were too scared to say much or do anything to help me. My husband was very involved in the church and I think they didn’t want to rock the boat. Probably they didn’t believe that such a good man could do something like that, and thought that I was making it all up. When I told my pastor, he told me to trust in God for strength and to pray about it. So I learnt to shut up, not talk about it and just put up with it.’
Carmel struggled with self-worth, too. ‘I blamed myself for our marriage breakdown. I wasn’t good enough, thin enough. I didn’t do things properly; I was useless. Most of all, I wasn’t the wife I was meant to be. I was a bad example for our children. I guess that when you’re told these things often enough, you begin to believe them.’
Carmel attributes her suicide attempt to believing that everyone would be better off without her around. ‘I was too bad for the church, even for God.
‘In the end I became a robot, with no thoughts of my own. My only thought was that so long as I could keep Tony happy, I would survive.’
Financial uncertainty was also one of Carmel’s big worries. ‘I didn’t have money of my own; it was all in joint accounts. I had no control over them, and had to give account of every cent I spent.
‘In the end I was so mentally unstable that I couldn’t even think clearly, and all the time he was telling me how I wouldn’t cope without him.’
She eventually became very depressed and attempted suicide. Even then, when counsellors suggested that the marriage was the problem, she couldn’t face the prospect of separation. ‘I was afraid of the unknown.’
Carmel kept going to church after she left Tony. ‘But I couldn’t sit through an entire service. I believed that I shouldn’t be there; I was too bad. I had committed the worst sin by leaving my husband. For a while I couldn’t go to communion because I felt so unworthy.’
The church needs to speak up and address domestic violence, she urges. ‘Domestic violence is hidden behind many closed doors, including in our church. It won’t go away if we simply ignore it. We have to recognise that there is a problem and that it won’t be fixed by telling women to ‘go home and pray about it’, as I was advised to do.
‘Women need to know that they are valued in the church and are not just an appendage to their husbands. If pastors don’t know what to say in a domestic violence situation, then they should refer abused women to an agency that can help them.
‘Most of all, never fob off a woman who comes for help. Listen to what she is saying. Believe her! It may be her one and only attempt to be heard.’