One way to retraumatize and groom a victim of abuse is the promotion of the “marriage, no matter what” ideology which is common for women coming out of Christian abuse-affirming churches. The damaging “marriage, no matter what” ideology is a salvation fantasy and a form of idolatry that must be exposed. This ideology teaches that no matter what happens within the “marriage” the marriage covenant is of the highest value. The commitment to marriage is more important than safety and violence; it’s more important than accountability, it’s more important than life, and at the end of the day, it’s more important than God (i.e., idolatry).
In my new book, The Elephant in the Church: What Women Teach us about Sexism, Abuse & Safety within the Christian Community (2024), Beth shares her experience with this message when she says, “I can’t tell you how many times I heard the head pastor say from the pulpit, while teaching about marriage and submission and things of that nature, ‘They might not have been the right person before you married him, but you married him. And so they are the right person now.’” This ideology has so many casualties, so many war-torn women who tried, and tried, and tried to make their marriage work, who compromised their body autonomy, who gave and gave, who surrendered and submitted to insecure, abusive, and theological misogynistic men for the sake of the “marriage” only to be left isolated, alone, and many times ostracized from the only community they have known. Marriage cannot heal abuse, and in many cases it merely provides safeguard and protection for an abuser from being held responsible for his toxic behavior.
My mother was one of those women. For nearly twenty years my pastor father had been cheating on my mom without her knowledge. Finally, after someone blackmailed my father it all came out. My mother stayed in the home for another year while my father got “help” but nothing changed and my mother was ultimately forced to leave with my siblings and me to seek safety three states away near my mother’s parents. I remember a few years later we had gotten a steady home and began going to a church that we all seemed to enjoy when one of those “bless your heart” type of church ladies approached my mother, saying, “Your kids need a father!” to which my mother remained silent. For years, she never told the truth about my father’s lies or infidelities but instead chose to remain silent and supportive. Because she believed what was taught as the “marriage, no matter what” message, she remained legally married to my father for another 12 years before she felt free enough to get a divorce and start dating again in her sixties. There are many misconceptions about divorce and its impact on “the children,” but I would argue a toxic, dysfunctional, abusive marriage will always do much more harm than a divorce ever could. Gretchen Baskerville’s book The Life-Saving Divorce is a vital resource on this topic. Here is a meme breaking down what a “life-saving divorce” actually is and the mindset that needs to change to create healthier relationships.
As an important side note, I want to add to this discussion. This isn’t some anti-marriage feminist, “let’s go burn bras and liberate all the oppressed women from the bonds of patriarchy” (though that doesn’t that bad), as much as this is a call to hold men accountable for horrific behavior and not hide behind the institution of marriage as a pass to act like a man/baby. If you abuse your wife and treat her like shit, then yes she will leave you, because that is not how you treat someone you love—that is how you treat someone you hate.
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