When we hear stories of coercive control, it’s the question on everyone’s mind: Why doesn’t she just leave? The answer is as layered and complex as the woman herself, yet very simple: at the end of the day, she feels she has no choice. Her specific reasons may vary, but at the core of things, it all comes down to a disordered wielding of her own power. She feels powerless and afraid to leave him, yet she also believes she is strong enough to endure the trauma. Here I’ll share some of my story and reasons why I stayed.
My bottom line was this: I was determined to save my marriage. I truly believed that if I was faithful, kind, patient, and respectful enough, I could carry us through. I stubbornly took on full responsibility for our survival as I gritted my teeth, put my head down, and shouldered my way through coldness, contempt, anger, and violence. I was strong, I was brave, and I was going to see this thing through.
I believed in miracles. I believed that impossible things could and would happen for us. I believed that we would become a beautiful picture of redemption, that he and I would undo all of the wrongs together. We were going to blaze a new trail of blessing and goodness for others to follow. It was a beautiful dream; a gorgeous trap that became my idol and blinded me to reality. I told myself this fantasy world existed somewhere in our future. It’s where I would go to hide when things turned ugly in the right-now.
My hope for healing led me to minimize the damage that was being done to me and our children. I truly believed I was doing the best that I could for them–that by fighting for my marriage, I was providing them with a secure foundation for life. When I did try to leave him, we ended up living in a homeless shelter, which was so traumatic itself that it made going home to an angry and controlling man sound like paradise. He was the sole wage-earner, and our kids were little. How could I even keep them fed without him? I wasn’t sure that I could.
It seemed wiser to focus on helping him; drawing out the goodness in him with love, kindness, gentleness; smoothing over pain with forgiveness. I believed that love would not fail me. I believed that I could respect and honor him into being a respectful, honorable man. I embraced the role of godly, long-suffering wife with zeal, placing myself as a buffer between him and the children. I filled up journals with prayers and petitions on our behalf. I was hyper-vigilant to maintain the “peace” in the house. I managed his mood and needs while insulating the kids from his dark side as much as possible. We stayed busy at parks, the library, play dates. I prayed for God to soften his heart.
Maybe the most maddening, confusing part of it all was how wonderful he could be sometimes. Like the Saturdays when he woke up late and the kids would pile on top of him and they would all giggle and snuggle and everything felt safe and perfect and exactly the way it was supposed to be. I, of course, would suppress my exhaustion and frustration that he’d slept in until noon while I had been up all night with the baby. I was happy to overlook little things like that in exchange for these moments, because we felt safe and connected, and that was a miracle. I drank it in like a magical elixir for the disease that was plaguing our family.
The scraps he threw my way became an indulgent feast; I savored every morsel of goodness. Those tiny beams of light breaking through the dark provided just enough warmth to keep me going. I told myself that we were making progress, healing was happening. Yes, this was going to be our new normal, and the kids would see God’s work in our family and it would shape them in such a good way. I told myself that there was hope.
Looking back, I see how even those mornings were all about him, about making him feel special and loved and wanted. We couldn’t stay in that happy bubble for long, because he didn’t reciprocate their enthusiasm. As soon as the kids sat on him the wrong way or got too loud or started to irk him with their silliness, he’d send them out. That was always the first crack in our perfect moment, and from there the whole facade would crumble.
I didn’t believe him when he told me he didn’t love me anymore. This information did not fit into my vision and dream for our family, therefore I refused to accept it. I was unwilling to waver from my pursuit of a whole, healthy, together-forever family. What I slowly came to realize was that while I was fighting so hard for that dream, I was sabotaging it. Because the whole time I was grasping and clawing for ground in this fight for our family, he was poisoning our souls with his anger, violence, and selfish indifference. I was too busy playing house to see that we were wilting. The light and life was being drained out of me and my children and I was singing redemption songs to them at night after they had been dragged to bed by their hair.
My hugs and kisses and prayers couldn’t un-abuse them. My light and love couldn’t heal the sickness in our home.
I began to believe we were trapped between love and violence. I might have stayed forever if it weren’t for our children. Kids will be kids, and they didn’t fully understand the risks of upsetting him. By being normal children, they revealed his ugliness in ways that even my placating denial couldn’t rationalize. It was his stubborn and unpredictable violence toward them that finally cut through the fog of delusion and energized me to start preparing for our escape, which came about in a way I never expected.