This day, October 15, 2013, would have been her twentieth anniversary. Elisabeth freely shared from the questions I asked her. I hope her story brings comfort to anyone feeling alone today.
Could you provide a brief summary of your experience in ministry and then how your church dealt with the difficulties in your marriage, your feelings about their handling of the divorce and their releasing you - what did that mean in your opinion?
My ex-husband and I attended one church for the entirety of our marriage. I was on staff twice, and held various leadership positions, even starting and leading the women’s ministry for ten years. I kept our marriage problems largely to myself, which was one of my biggest regrets.
When I shared some initial concerns early in our marriage with some church people, though I received some very good advice, I also received advice that should be given to wives in struggling marriages, not to wives in abusive or addiction-fraught marriages. Taking this advice continued our downward cycle for about a dozen years.
However, how our reconciliation attempt was handled was nothing short of a miracle. We had a team of literally ten people around us, praying for us, encouraging us, supporting us, giving us counsel. It was the best possible situation for where we were at the time, and I will never forget or be able to repay the people who poured their lives into ours during that crazy-hard stretch.
Do you feel your faith and the evangelical church dynamic impacted your ability to navigate the difficult marriage and divorce process?
Yes, but in some odd and contradictory ways. I stayed for so long for a million reasons, but one was that I felt I absolutely could not leave without some kind of spiritual loss that would impact me for the rest of my life. I was terrified to end my marriage. Also, given the advice I was given early on perpetuated some faulty thinking on my part, and so I didn’t even consider that abuse was a part of the picture until much too late. However, on the other hand, towards the end, I felt that I basically had this small community walking me gently toward the end of my marriage, though none of us knew it was going to end that way at the time. It was really a beautiful thing that I think most people who aren’t involved in the intimacy of a church would never have been able to experience.
Can you describe the sense of isolation that you faced in projecting a seemingly 'together' marriage while dealing with hidden turmoil?
I blame myself for keeping things in as long as I did. As I mentioned, I was leading the women’s ministry. I felt I had to be an example to the other women of my church, and my marriage was not one for anyone to emulate so I kept it hidden. Also, to be really honest, I loved everything about my life except my marriage, and to expose the truth meant – in my mind – that I would lose everything else that I loved.
Keeping everything in for so long was exhausting and it took its toll on me physically. By the time we began the reconciliation attempt, I was on an anti-depressant/anti-anxiety medication, I was having heart palpitations, eye twitches, migraines, and trouble sleeping. I was a mess, basically! I think that goes with anything stressful that you keep in…it will come out one way or another. Either you work it through in healthy ways or it will leak out, hurting yourself and those around you, which it did.
How did you find courage to confront and admit the reality and were you able to discern safe people?
It all started because I went to a new counselor specifically to work on my anger issues. I told her, “Hey, this is my life. This is my hard marriage. My circumstances are not going to change. So I need you to help me not be so angry all the time. I don’t want my kids looking back on their childhood and just remembering me as an angry woman.” That’s when I realized there was abuse that I had been reacting to all along, and that’s when I went to my church for my final plea for help. So I basically found the courage because I was desperate to change something in me that I finally became sick of living with – my anger.
I prayed for safe people to come around me, and they did. On that team of ten – half of whom I barely knew when we started – I respected and trusted every single one of them. I had been so burned up to that point. I think, honestly, God just knew I couldn’t take that happening, so he lovingly hand-picked our support team.
How has facing your difficult marriage and experiencing divorce encouraged you to be more real in everyday living?
You can hide living in a bad marriage. No one ever really has to know. But you can’t really hide that your husband isn’t coming to church anymore or has moved out or that you’re looking for a new place to live, you know? My circumstances forced me to say, “This is my life now. You may not agree with it…heck, I don’t really even agree with it…but this is me, for better or worse.” It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done to start telling people how much of a mess I had actually been all those years, but I have never felt more free in my life. Having nothing to hide is one of the best feelings in the world. Now I just say what I’m thinking and I kind of don’t care as much anymore if people agree with me or not. That’s not my business if someone doesn’t like me.
Are you surprised by the support or lack of it in the church and from family, friends as you journey this path?
I’ve had some people trash me online who don’t know me. Those I can let go pretty easily. They don’t know me and that’s much more about their issues than mine. But I have a few people in my life who have made it clear they disapprove of me (even though I wasn’t the divorce-initiator). That has been one of the largest heartbreaks through this whole thing: truly feeling like I was doing what I was supposed to be doing, following God, following wise counsel, and then to still have people disapprove. I still ruminate on that every once in a while.
But overall, oh my word, my friends and family have blown me away with their steadfast support. My real friends floated up to the surface through this and they have stood by me through it all. One even said that I could mess up everything and she wasn’t going anywhere. That’s love.
Do you find old patterns of thought challenging to overcome?
Absolutely. I can get an email or text from my ex-husband and it can still sometimes send me into a tailspin and I go back to feeling like I did twenty, ten, even three years ago. That’s going to take some time. But even just last night, I got an email that was pretty ridiculous, and because I happened to be in a really great mood, I just wrote back two sentences, deleted it, and determined that I wasn’t going to let that steal my joy. That was a huge victory for me.
How will you equip your children to face disappointing realities in their own life?
My sweet kids have seen more than most teenagers have seen, which breaks my heart. They’ve seen the police at our house. They know about addiction. And I’ve talked to them super clearly about abuse in relationships and the different kinds, and what to do if you think you’re being abused, and how to treat other people. So, as sad as all that is, they are pretty darn equipped with some important things that I didn’t even know until the past five years. Plus, as I say to them every time they leave their house, “Who guards your coming and going?” (from Psalm 121) and they reply, “Jesus.” They know some really good things now that they wouldn’t have otherwise, so I have to take comfort in that.
As you approach your former wedding anniversary, describe your perspective now versus the day you took your vows.
The day I took my vows, I was terrified. There was a part of me that knew we shouldn’t be getting married, but I pushed passed that. I had no idea what I was signing on for, because certain behaviors didn’t emerge until after the wedding. Now, as what would’ve been my twenty year anniversary is today, I just feel compassion for that young, scared girl. She was looking for security and someone to love her and someone to love. She wanted a lifelong partner and family. And she wasn’t trusting God to provide her with what she was dreaming about. It makes me sad for that naïve version of me. And yet, I stand here now, on the other side of things. And I am grateful for what I’ve been through. I grew so much. I’ve changed so much. I don’t take things for granted like I did when I was younger. My faith is stronger and more real. And now, even though it does scare me to think I may be alone for the rest of my life, I now intend not to settle for security sake. If I’m going to remarry, it needs to be a big love that can withstand our humanness.
How is this year different from year one? year ten? the final year you were married? the first date to pass following the divorce? Do you sense growth? change of perspective?
Year one, we really were in the honeymoon phase; it was as if all our problems and arguing dissipated. For about nine months. Then it was just hard for most of the rest of the time.
Year ten, I was coming out denial and seeing some things that were really scary. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the tools to deal with any of it, so I just kept the cycle going.
Our final married years were horrible. The abuse and addictions were at their peak. I was miserable and physically and emotionally exhausted. I need to add, this entire marriage was no walk in the park for my husband either. I was very difficult to be married to as well.
Our divorce date was bittersweet. I still couldn’t believe this was happening and yet there was a relief that I almost didn’t know what to do with.
My one-year date post-divorce was just a regular day, though I did get a massage. :)
Everything in my life has changed since my marriage has ended. There is peace in my home. I don’t know the last time I yelled at someone. I am not hiding anymore. I am figuring out who I really am. I am still messing up and hurting other people, but there’s grace for that. I’ve found a new church that feels like home. And I’m free. Not just free of my marriage, but free deep down. It’s kind of amazing to feel that way after all those years of pain.
*Note: Elisabeth and I have only *met* online, but I would embrace her as a friend if real life every brings us together.
Elisabeth Klein is the author of Unraveling: Hanging Onto Faith Through the End of a Christian Marriage, speaks several times a month to women's groups, and is a member of Redbud Writers' Guild. During her time at Christ Community Church’s Blackberry Creek Campus in Aurora, Illinois she began and led their women's ministry for ten years prior to moving to the city’s Orchard Community Church. She lives with her children in Illinois. Visit her online at http://www.elisabethklein.com/difficult-marriage-divorce/ or https://www.facebook.com/ElisabethKleinCorcoran. She is the moderator of two private Facebook groups: one for women in difficult Christian marriages, and one for Christian women who are separated or divorced. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org if interested in joining.