Dena Johnson Martin Christian Blog and Commentary

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Why Did I Stay? Part 1

My husband and I were talking last night about my previous marriage, about some of the things my kids and I had endured. He asked me one simple question:

Why did you stay so long?”

I want to give you a brief look inside my first marriage. Yes, if you’ve been a reader very long, you know my ex-husband was a pastor who had an affair. You can certainly surmise there was porn and emotional abuse involved. But rarely do I give specifics. If I do, they are usually generalized comments attributed to people who I have spoken with about their marriages rather than being attributed to my own marriage.

My goal has never been—and never will be—to disparage my ex-husband. Instead, my goal is always to help others who are in toxic relationships or who are stuck picking up the pieces when their marriage falls apart. My goal is always to point others to the One who can give them hope and a new life in the midst of their despair. My goal is always to be a source of encouragement to those who feel they will never see beautiful days. My hope is to encourage the church to take emotionally destructive marriages seriously.

Today, I want to address why strong, intelligent, independent women stay so long in destructive marriages. In doing so, I am going to talk about a few of the things I endured during my seventeen-year marriage. Through my words, I hope I can help others understand what an emotionally destructive marriage looks like.

I also want to acknowledge that I actually escaped before the worst years hit. Whether it was because I wasn’t there to be a buffer or simply because it was a downward spiral after the divorce, my kids endured far more than I ever did. I won’t tell their stories because that’s for them to tell, but we have had discussions about their lives after the divorce.

And, I want to say that my ex-husband had some incredible traits. He had more potential than he ever recognized. He was one of the most gifted preachers this world has ever seen. He had the ability to explain the Word of God like most only dream of. He was captivating from the pulpit. He was creative. He was smart. And He was funny. Really funny. I am so glad my kids got that trait from him. (And for those who don’t know, I use the past tense because he passed away very suddenly a few years ago.)

But behind closed doors, things were not what they seemed in public.

Do you know that I had NEVER heard my husband curse before our marriage? Never. Not even one slip of the tongue. He was going to be a pastor, after all, and he portrayed that very well. On our honeymoon, he was watching a baseball game (I know, that says something right there) and I began to hear a string of LOUD profanities fly from his mouth. I was shocked and horrified. Profanity had no place in my life nor my family, and yet here was my husband of one day letting words fly that I had never heard.

Loud, profanity-laced tirades became common in my life for the next seventeen years. Those outbursts were frequently aimed at sporting events or someone who dared not agree with him, but he only had the tirades in front of me because he was just “venting” which was one of my duties as a wife. When we were in public or watching a game with someone else, he was a calm, collected sports fan that got excited but was always in control. Behind closed doors, he was a lunatic, ranting and raving over a bad call, throwing things in anger when the game didn’t go his way. I often asked him why he respected others enough not to behave this way in front of them, but he didn’t have enough respect for me or the kids to control himself at home. He would frequently remind me that he was the “king of this castle” and was able to behave any way he wanted at home.

One of the first big fights we had left me curled in the fetal position in our room, begging God to help me understand why I had been a success at everything in my life—except marriage. I don’t remember what the fight was about, but I do remember it was all my fault. Everything bad in our lives was all my fault. For seventeen years, everything was my fault. Whether it was big or small, argument or accident, everything was my fault. And, there was no such thing as a rational discussion about issues. Without fail, when there was a decision to be made, if I didn’t agree with him, it turned into a loud, profanity-laced outrage until I backed down and did things his way. I was also reminded it was my job to “submit” to him as the head of the household.

We made a number of moves during our pastorate. During one move, my two oldest kids were 3 years old and 3 months old. I was trying to get the house packed and ready for the team to come move us. This was another issue: his responsibility was to earn a paycheck, and mine was to take care of everything else. Everything else included cleaning the house, caring for the kids on my own, mowing the yard, doing the shopping and cooking…and it didn’t matter if I was working outside the home. It was still 100% my responsibility.

On this particular day, he had told me he would take the kids and entertain them so I could pack the house. I had been trying to pack and entertain the kids, but it just wasn’t working. However, when it came time for him to take the kids so I could focus on packing, he changed his mind (another issue…he rarely kept his word to us). Once again, a loud, profanity-laced tirade ensued against me. He grabbed the kids as he yelled, taking them to the car, reminding me how selfish I was. As he got into our vehicle to leave, he said, “Bye. I’ll have the kids back Sunday night. I’m just practicing for when we are divorced.” When I told my now ex-sister-in-law about this statement, she told me it was emotional/verbal abuse. That was the first time I had ever been confronted with the truth that his treatment was abusive.

Without going into great detail, I will also say that our intimate life was laced with abuse. I was a virgin when I married (as was he). I was naïve. I didn’t know what was normal in the bedroom. Looking back, our intimate life is one reason I know he was a porn addict. Suffice it to say, we did not have a healthy sexual relationship. Like everything else, it was very one-sided.

So now, the question Roy asked: Why did I stay so long?

Come back next week to learn the answer...