Dena Johnson Martin Christian Blog and Commentary

haunted: till death do we part

Until death do we part…

It’s the famous phrase everyone reminds you of when you are in a tough situation. Those are the words that rings through your mind as you try to make sense of your life, as you struggle with whether you can remain in a toxic marriage. Those are the words that remind you of the commitment you made not only to your spouse but also to God. They can be the words that keep you in bondage in an abusive marriage.

If it’s not physical abuse, it’s not really abuse.

If he hasn’t hit you, you need to stay.

Marriage is a forever commitment you should never leave.

How many times have I heard words like that, words to minimize the impact of verbal, mental, emotional abuse. It seems many in this world still do not understand the impact of abuse on a person, on their psyche.

Perhaps they simply don’t understand how this type of abuse often escalates to physical abuse.

Friday night is Dateline Mystery night for me. I rarely watch it live, but always record it for viewing later. This last week was no different. I began watching it Friday night, but quickly fell asleep after an exhausting week that had taken everything out of me. I knew, though, it was one I needed to watch. Saturday morning I was up early, finished my class assignments, and determined to watch this episode before my day really began.

The episode was appropriately titled Haunted, appropriate because it has haunted my mind ever since I watched it. It was the story of Susan Powell, a young wife and mother from Utah who went missing in Utah in 2008. It was suspected that her husband, Joshua Powell, was responsible for her disappearance and likely death, but investigators couldn’t find the evidence to charge and convict him. As they finally began to close in on him and were able to put him in jail for child porn charges, they placed the two young boys with their maternal grandparents.

On his first supervised visit, Joshua Powell exploded his house merely seconds after his children entered his home killing him and both boys.

I remember the story from 2012. I remember the absolute sadness of these two precious boys who lost their lives. However, there was so much more to the story that I didn’t know.

Susan Powell kept journals. She detailed the abuse she suffered—at the hands of her perverted father-in-law and her husband. She talked of the mental, emotional, verbal, financial abuse. She told of how her husband sold her car and made her ride a bike the seven miles to and from work down very busy and dangerous roads. She wrote of how nothing she did was ever good enough for her husband, of how he allowed her to be an object of lust for her father-in-law.

And she talked about her commitment, a commitment that was to extend beyond this earthly life into eternity. She talked about her faith and how she just needed to stick it out because that’s what her faith taught her. She talked about trusting God to change her husband, to fix the problems in her marriage.

Sadly, Susan stayed too long.  

As I watched the story of Susan Powell, my heart ached. Susan left a vivid picture of her abusive marriage through her journals and videos. Very rarely do we get this type of glimpse into an emotionally abusive marriage, through her own words as she shared the very real truth of the danger of all abuse…not just physical abuse.

A few things really jumped out at me, and I’d like to share them with you in hopes that someone, somewhere, will find the strength to overcome.

Escape plans must be made carefully as the period just before and after you leave is the most dangerous. Susan had decided it was time to stand up for herself rather than being the sweet, kind, submissive wife she had always been. She began to assert herself, to tell her husband she wasn’t going to be treated this way any longer.

As Susan asserted herself, Joshua began to change. He began doing things around the house, helping with the boys. He began going back to church with Susan. And Susan thought her more assertive persona was making a difference.

Sadly, hindsight is 20/20. Joshua wasn’t changing; he was plotting. It was during this time frame that he bought a variety of articles that were most likely used in Susan’s death: an acetylene torch, ties, tree mesh. The night she disappeared, Joshua made pancakes and made a plate for each individual. Strangely, Susan began to feel ill almost immediately after eating and went to lie down. That was the last time she was ever seen.

As laid out in the Dateline investigation, Joshua knew he was losing control of Susan and control was of utmost importance to him. If he could not control her, he would find a way to keep her in her place. If he couldn’t have her, he would make sure no one else could either.

And this is the truth of emotional and mental abuse: just because it has never been physical, you have no guarantees it will not turn physical. Abusers need control of their victims at all times. If they feel they are losing control, they will go to extreme lengths to make sure they regain control. There is no way we can fully understand the warped mind that is the abuser.

Susan was trapped in an abusive marriage by her faith. This point is tough…really tough. I am a firm believer in the covenant of marriage. I am a firm believer in taking our vows before God and man seriously. I am a firm believer in fighting for our marriages, in trusting God to make the changes necessary.

But there is a huge difference in the everyday issues that plague all couples and abuse. So often, we hear conferences on love languages and improving communication. Those topics are wonderful—if you are in a marriage with a normal human being. But when you are married to a sick, self-centered individual living in the flesh?

When your spouse is an addict, an abuser, a narcissist, learning their love language will never help. Being the perfect spouse is not going to matter because they won’t see your fight for their marriage. Nothing you do will ever be right, be good enough. The sickness is deep within them, and only surrender to the Savior—total and complete surrender of every aspect of life—will ever change them.

Is God able to change them? Yes! Absolutely! But because they are firmly convinced they are right and everyone else is wrong, it’s going to take a lot to get them to a place where they believe they need help. And without them recognizing their need for help, they will never change.

So many of us stayed in our marriages way too long because of our faith. We kept hoping God would change our situations when we were actually trapped in an abusive marriage. We couldn’t see the abuse because we were so focused on God’s ability to fix it, so convinced He would step in and make all things right.

And He does make all things right…but sometimes He makes all things right by giving us a new life.

Those of us in the faith must learn how to identify abuse and help victims understand God never intended marriage to be a place of bondage, that He would never value an institution above and individual.

Being part of an intact family is not necessarily best for your children. How many times do I hear people express their fear of the impact of divorce on their children! I so understand. When I chose to walk away, that was one of my biggest fears. And my children bear their scars.

But I shudder to think what would have happened if I stayed in my marriage. Ultimately, my kids began to see what a normal, healthy home life was like when it was just the four of us. They understood what it was to be comfortable in their own home, to not have to worry about fits of rage because they were just being kids. They were able to go outside and play with their friends without fear. My kids ultimately became far healthier and better adjusted in a safe and secure home.

Sadly, the courts are yet to recognize the reality or the dangers of verbal, mental, and emotional abuse or the instability that could cause it to escalate to physical abuse. Too often, we as divorced individuals are forced to send our children into an environment where we believe they will suffer, where sometimes the sickness is so deep that the scorned spouse will take the ultimate step and take the life of his/her children. Fortunately, those cases are far less common but always much more publicized. But it is a very real threat for so many.

I guarantee that being raised in a stable, safe environment with a single parent is far superior to being raised in a traditional family with an abuser. The chance of breaking the cycle is far greater when children experience the real thing—unconditional love, safety, grace—over the sickness that pervades every element of an abuser’s home.

I am convinced that God allowed me to walk through so much pain and anguish to be a voice, a voice to those trapped in abusive marriages and a voice to the church, calling others to see the truth of how we have twisted Scripture to use it to keep people in bondage. I love the Word and I love God…and I believe in the sanctity of marriage. But I also believe God never intended marriage to be a prison where sin abounds and abuse flourishes. He loves His children way too much. He came to set prisoners free…even if the way to freedom is through divorce.