In the Jeep, with a laundry basket full of books in the back seat and a scrim of gauzy fog trapped in the windshield, he promised.
“What if you stop loving me?” I asked.
“I won’t. I never will. I promise.”
“But what if you do?” I needed to know. I already knew.
“Then I’d be a jackass.” I laughed. Maybe I didn’t know. And in an instant, he was on me, one hand pulling my head back a fraction of an inch too far, pushing me into his kiss and one hand around my throat, just tight enough to make me dizzy and uncomfortable. The bruises would fade by the next morning. I thought it had to be like this. I didn’t know that love could be kind or generous or stable.
I thought of love like a fire you walk through alone, trying to keep pace with the smokey shadow in front of you. Not too close—he’ll strike at you for stifling him. Not too far—he’ll beat you down for abandonment.
This was a delicate, frantic dance, a ritual I kept up for years. But then I lost the rhythm of submitting to abuse. It escaped me without any effort on my part. And I lost him too. I lost my husband without really losing him. I lost him to himself, and his pain and addiction.
What I have left is anger—a woolen, itching thread that trundles back into a tense ball of grief. I hold that ball in my hands gently, terrified and hopeful. All around me are the smoldering fragments of our marriage, of our trust in each other, of our parenthood and of our companionship. I feel bereft. Terribly, deeply alone.
I sit alone in the back pew at church on Sunday evenings. The church where we met, where our child was baptized. I try to time my coming and going to avoid talking to anyone. I was successful for a while.
Then an old friend was filling the pulpit. As we sang the tri-fold Amen and he walked down the aisle toward the back door, he stopped next to my pew and asked how I was. Caught off guard, I said that I wasn’t doing well at all. Before I knew what was happening, his wife was there too and they walked with me toward a quieter corner of the church. They had heard (small towns, big drama) but only recently. They had heard and their hearts had broken, they said. I started to cry. I am so used to being doubted, interrogated, and cast out.
How could they have know how intensely lonely it is to lose access to the friends and family and husband who are right in front of your eyes? How invisible it feels to walk through life scorned by those who know every secret and turn away?
We talked. He reminded me that a husband is to represent Christ’s love. Everyone fails at this. Some failures are more spectacular. He was supposed to love me but he hurt me instead. Willfully. Habitually. He continues to do so.
“But you still have a husband,” he said. I shrank, anticipating another call to return to abuse. But he went on, “You still have Christ. He is yours and you are his. He loves you with perfect tenderness. He will never, can never harm you.”
I didn’t have words to explain to him then that what causes me the most pain these days is the phantom pain of being without a husband. The confusion I feel at that pain coils itself around all my thoughts. How is it possible to miss someone who was bent on my destruction?
It’s possible because I fell hard, fell deeply and blindly and completely in love with someone who wanted to hurt me, shame me, and disgrace me. This commitment to him, to his desire for my harm, warped my thinking. It’s not so simple to notice a love that is the complete opposite of the kind you have known for so long. I longed for it but couldn’t believe I deserved it. I was convinced that I only deserved pain.
When do you lose your husband? Do you lose him when he jokes about an affair after coming home inexplicably late? Or is it when you find the indisputable proof? Do you lose him the first time you catch him watching porn? Or is it when you realize it’s every day, binges so long and grotesque you vomit when you discover it? Do you lose him when he leaves you? Or is it when you leave? Do you lose him when he hits you? Or is a bitter word, a push, a slap enough? I did not have a husband. But I still have a husband.
Your maker is your husband,
The Lord of Hosts is His name;
And the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
The God of the whole earth he is called.
For the Lord has called you
Like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit
Like a wife of youth when she is cast off,
Says your God. (Isaiah 54:5–6)
Sometimes when I’m trying to pray, I ask the same question.
What if you stop loving me?
It feels childish and ridiculous. But I have to know. Everything hinges on the hope, the truth of Christ’s love now. It’s all I have. Having it, I need it, desperately.
Without this love, I would have continued to believe that I am nothing, dirty, and unworthy. I could not have spit those lies out. I could not have stopped burning myself up. I would never have trusted that Christ’s love could be enough to shelter me through the aftermath of abuse. All I can say is this: His compassion is great. His love is everlasting. Your maker is not a jackass. He cannot be. You are safe in him.
Cover image by Ryan Franko.