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Abuse 4 246Surviving domestic abuse: Sarah’s story 

From an article by the Diocese of Gloucester

Sarah*, a member of one of the worshipping communities in the Diocese of Gloucester, spoke about the ordeal she went through in a marriage where coercive control was part of everyday life. Coercive control is an act or pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.

Sarah said, “The kind of coercive control I experienced was so subtle that I doubted myself. For a long time, I wondered if my husband might be neurodiverse and wondered whether if he had a diagnosis, it might have been easier to live with. But years down the line, I was deleting some emails and realised, ‘No that’s just plain horrible!’ The nature of coercive control is that you never have any time to think because you are never given any space.

“Being a victim of gaslighting (manipulating someone so that they question their reality) has left me struggling to trust my own judgement. I am still reality-testing. One of the most helpful things that the Church safeguarding team did for me, was to make it clear that what I was experiencing was not normal.”

It was Sarah’s second marriage, and she was determined to be accommodating and forgiving to her husband, despite the challenging and manipulative behaviour he displayed from the start. She said, “Within a week or two of marrying him, my husband was threatening me – ‘If you step out of line, I’ll divorce you’. The sanctity of marriage in a Church context is really important to me. After a time, I was being really honest and saying to people around me, my marriage is atrocious. I am not sure whether I am going to survive this. If I’m honest, I was waiting for him to die. I’d been married before and I didn’t want to get divorced again.

“I can remember talking to a Christian friend who would always encourage me to forgive. She would say, ‘This is God’s work, this isn’t something for you to do.’ When she later experienced my husband first-hand, she was shocked at how he treated me. None of the behaviours alone seemed unreasonable, but when you put them together you get the bigger picture. My friend said to me recently, ‘I’ll never forgive myself for not really understanding what you were going through. I think in a Church context the default is to really support marriage. That’s what we believe in. The danger is that we may not listen to people who are really struggling, especially as it’s normal for women to moan about their husbands.”

I eventually had a conversation with a trusted Church leader, who said to me, ‘What you are describing is an abusive relationship’. I burst into tears and said, ‘Oh, is it? I thought it was hard.’ From that point on, the support from the Church was extraordinary. The most helpful thing was people saying, ‘This isn’t normal!’. You lose any sense of what is normal.

Sarah left her home, pretending she was going away for a business trip, leaving her beloved cat behind. Her husband never once rang to ask where she was. It was only later that she realised her husband was tracking her phone and had no need to ask where she was.

“You might be tempted to put up with an unacceptable situation for yourself but if you have children, you need to think about them. The long-term effects it has on them will be just as awful. You can’t really impose that on your kids. My children are in therapy, and I still really react to anything that feels slightly controlling, but that actually might be quite reasonable. The long-term effect of abuse is paranoia. I always keep all my doors and windows locked, even to this day. I would never leave a window open.

"I think the sad thing is, people in our parishes don’t think domestic abuse happens in our middle-class churches. The irony is that one profile of an abuser is somebody absolutely charming – so those very charming people on our PCCs or the husbands or wives of people on our PCCs might be the very people who are giving their families hell at home. Doing domestic abuse training can help to open people’s eyes."

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

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From an article by the Diocese of Gloucester, 24/01/2023

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