Listening to and supporting survivors of domestic and family violence
My keen interest in the campaign to put an end to domestic and family violence is a deeply personal one, borne out of the experience of feeling trapped in a highly emotionally, financially and spiritually abusive conservative Christian marriage for 20 years. How did this happen? With the benefit of hindsight, I will attempt to explain this briefly.
In my early twenties, I was seen as an ‘easy target’ – shy, lacking in confidence, with low self-esteem and a highly empathetic nature. I was not particularly ‘street smart’ or experienced with intimate relationships. I had been raised in a very conservative Christian family that believed in the sanctity of marriage and family. When my older, worldly, good looking and charming (former) husband came into my life, I was simply swept off my feet! We were married three years later.
When we first met and after we were married, we both had good well-paying jobs. Our combined savings paid for a deposit on our first home and, once purchased, our incomes were put toward much-needed renovations and the mortgage. My then husband was working full-time as a shift-worker and so I naturally organised everything I did around his timetable so that he could rest and then look after the kids whilst I was at work part-time. We began investing in property and shares to afford our children’s private schooling and to plan for our eventual retirement.
Unfortunately, when our youngest child was 18 months old, I was thrust back into the workforce full-time in order to put food on the table and keep a roof over our heads after the organisation my husband worked for collapsed. I look back on this period and realise that his loss of status, independence, income and professional growth contributed to his growing tide of shame, jealousy and resentment, which were ultimately directed towards me.
As my husband was unable to find a new job that could exceed my full-time healthcare sector income, he became a home husband and I became the principal income earner for our young family. As part of his new home-based responsibilities, I handed over all the household finances for him to manage. Unfortunately for me, his ever-growing resentment towards me led to financial abuse.
While my then husband did not physically or sexually abuse me, he didn’t need to in order to gain full power and control in our relationship. Instead, he preyed on my low self-esteem, slowly but surely creating a culture of dependence and then constantly reinforced this with various forms of coercive control through the use of manipulative and undermining behaviours, commonly referred to now as ‘gaslighting’. I was like a puppet on a string.
As a result of years of emotional, financial and spiritual abuse, I was simply exhausted and really lost all sense of myself and any hope for anything different or better. I guess I would describe myself in my thirties and early forties as, “The lights were on, but no-one was home!” As part of his gaslighting strategy, he either had an excuse or an answer for everything and I was led to believe that I was actually the one causing all the relationship and financial problems we had.
According to him I was too sensitive, too proud, not earning enough, spending way too much on our children’s education at a private school and on their extra-curricular activities, spending too much on food and utilities, never happy, nagging him constantly, too fat, looking old and tired, ugly, and, stupid – just to name a few of my long list of perceived faults.
Whenever I did question where all our money was going, not knowing that he was squandering it, and try to get him to see that how he was treating me was wrong and that he was putting our marriage, children’s welfare and our future financial security at significant risk, he retaliated with questioning my fundamental Christian values and beliefs. From his point of view, how could I possibly call myself a ‘Christian’ if I didn’t trust my husband, forgive him when he made mistakes, submit to his will and acknowledge his position as ‘head’ of our family?
Unfortunately, his spiritual abuse was perpetuated and reinforced by my church. Sermons on the importance of forgiveness in marriage and the sanctity of marriage and family reinforced my acceptance of his constant domestic abuse. He took advantage of my ‘Godly guilt’ with increased outbursts, as I kept silent about what was going on behind closed doors.
Consequently, I took on more and more hours of work on top of my full-time job, including a second part-time job and other roles in order to service our ever-growing debts. I was working between 80-100 hours a week and still we made little to no headway financially. However, he continued to work part-time, refused to be accountable for anything and had complete control over our finances. It was an absolute nightmare.
What he did with all the money I was earning was a mystery at the time, but I eventually found out, through months of investigations after he left, that he certainly enjoyed womanising at my expense and sustained heavy losses on the stock market from trading in ‘futures’ markets having to pay margin calls (demands for additional capital) when the stock market suddenly turned against him. We lost everything we had through what was essentially gambling, including our family home and two rental properties, a substantial shares portfolio and other smaller investments. So, by the time he left, there were huge debts to repay. Due to the outdated laws around marriage, I was left solely responsible for all of his debts.
Fortunately, there is now recognition of emotional, psychological and financial abuse in Australian Family Law. There is also a great deal of discussion surrounding the complex issue of coercive control. However, back then, because of the existing marriage laws, huge problems with the Family Court of Australia and the sheer expense of legal proceedings very few cases, including mine, ever went to court.
As a result, when I finally separated from my husband, my solicitor warned me off this course of action unless I was willing to spend in excess of $250,000, which I clearly didn’t have, to have my time in the Family Court. There was also no guarantee of a successful outcome, or in the unlikely event that I was successful, that I would ever see so much as a cent from my ex-husband leaving me solely responsible for all legal costs, and consequently even more debts to repay.
Not surprisingly, I decided to avoid the additional costs associated with going to Court and instead accepted the awful terms that were put before me by his solicitor for settlement, including responsibility for all costs associated with the ongoing care of our children and payment of all the debts he had accumulated in my name under our joint accounts.
As he was on a minimal wage, he qualified for Legal Aid and as I was working full-time and above, I did not. I simply didn’t have the financial means or access to free legal representation to challenge him. This is one reason why so many people, like my ex-husband, are able to keep doing what they are doing without fear of retribution.
The scars from this lived experience of domestic violence run very deep and at times the impacts are still overwhelming, especially the financial ramifications.
Seven years ago, I was constantly on the verge of bankruptcy and the stress of that was dreadful. I held a very responsible state-wide role for a large multi-national company and feared losing my job if I disclosed the abuse I was experiencing at home and my apparent financial mismanagement.
My back was against the wall and once I gathered enough courage to tell him to leave, it became truly a race against time to repay the debts he accumulated in my name and then save anything (let alone enough) for my retirement! I did not want to end up as part of the alarming and fastest growing statistic in Australia’s homeless sector of single elderly women living way beneath the poverty line and consequently sleeping on the backseat of their cars.
Fortunately, today, I am so happy and unbelievably grateful to be known as a ‘good news story’! For five of the last seven years, I have earnt, scrimped and saved enough to repay the debts. Over the last two years, I continued to save enough to take my children on a wonderful overseas holiday and then make a deposit on my very own home.
In addition, two years ago, I met the most wonderful man and earlier this year we were married. My children are now adults and live independently of me.
However, unfortunately I witness the intergenerational effects of my abusive first marriage in their relationships with young men. I am hopeful that through my new union, God will help my husband and me to demonstrate to my children how lifegiving a loving, mutually respectful and truly trusting relationship a Christian marriage can be.
I owe so much to the wonderful kindnesses, wise counsel and practical assistance of two female Anglican priests, for without them I think I would likely be dead. The first priest helped me to identify and recognise that what I was being subjected to was in fact long-term emotional, spiritual and financial abuse. She explained that I was under no obligation to stay in an abusive relationship, especially as it was well known by that point in time that he was intimately involved with another parishioner. She also helped to make me aware of the heightened danger I would most likely be in when we separated. Following our separation, I spent the two years in a hypervigilant state as his behaviour towards me was both aggressive and unpredictable.
The second priest helped me over the course of the following 18 months to process my experiences and heal.
I share my story with you in the hope that in the not-too-distant future, we as a Christian community can better assist those who are living the silent nightmare I was – to give them access to knowledge and permission to seek assistance, as well as encouragement and support.
As a survivor, The Honourable Quentin Bryce’s words in the Foreword of the ‘Not now, not ever’ report, speaks to me:
“It is beholden upon all of us—every single citizen of this diverse, vibrant state—to take a stand against domestic and family violence; to commit to protecting the vulnerable; and to make it clear to those who would hurt another, within a relationship of intimacy and trust, that we will not tolerate, excuse, condone or accept their behaviour.”
It is time for us to declare that domestic and family violence has no place in our community. Not now, not ever! Amen.
Note from The Rev’d Gillian Moses, Spokesperson for the ACSQ Domestic and Family Violence Working Group: The Anglican Church Southern Queensland (ACSQ) is committed to promoting and supporting a safe environment for all. Domestic and family violence is unacceptable. We offer pastoral care to victims of domestic and family abuse. The ACSQ is part of the Queensland Churches Together Joint Churches Domestic Violence Prevention Project (JCDVPP), which publishes resources for clergy and lay people.
If you are in immediate danger, call 000 for police or ambulance help. For a list of helplines and websites available to women, children and men, visit this page on the Queensland Government website.