This is probably the most difficult thing I’ll ever share about my life.
In my book “It’s Life Jim…” I shared the complexities of my life with as much honesty, openness and integrity as I could – except for the 22 years of marriage. I gave it a general, neutral sort of appraisal, mostly out of respect for our families. I have no wish to tarnish Min’s memory, but in sharing this I hope to be able to bring light on the area of abuse, especially under religion.
Min was a wonderful woman, intelligent, warm, talented, generous and a sharp dry sense of humour. She had many friends who can attest to the genuineness of her heart, as can I when it came to relationships and her passion for justice and the underdog. She was a beautiful soul indeed.
But in our marriage it was a very different story. We shared something of our struggles with sexuality when we first got together, so she knew I had “struggled” with being gay, although I could never tell her the depth of the ongoing struggle. She’d also had same sex relationships. But we both “knew” that being gay was not an option as Christians, so marriage was part of the process for changing my aberrant sexuality. Due to my complete non-attraction to women, and only ever feeling romantically and sexually attracted to men, the only solution to my survival was to become almost asexual, but putting on a good act for romance and sex.
We got on well otherwise with so many similar likes and dislikes, and our passion for God, social justice and music, especially worship music. However, pretty soon into the marriage, she began to feel let down, and rightly so. I was hardly the romantic knight in shining armour type. On top of that, I’m ADHD, although I wasn’t officially diagnosed until around 15 years later. This meant I was forgetful, easily distracted, brain running non-stop, always putting my foot in things, impractical, disorganised – all the things she found really annoying. She became determined to change me. Not that she’d actually say that, but she was, none the less.
The church made it so much worse though. They were into the man being the head of the house, strong, authoritative, organised, the “priest” in the family – all that stuff – stuff that was utterly beyond me. She demanded I take the role in ways that were a never ending source of failure and humiliation, and then berate me endlessly every time I failed.
The worst was the emotional abuse. The constant belittling, endless arguing, comparing me directly to other men who apparently had it all together. I was constantly on the back foot because it was all true – I wasn’t like that, but I had to be, because, well, religion. She judged every action, my motives and my heart, forever causing me to doubt everything about myself. She would call me at work two or three times a day, usually upset about something I’d done or not done, or wanting me to affirm her, or to be the man in some situation. I nearly lost a job over the long tense phone calls. She would do weird things like demand that I call someone to organise something or sort out a mess, and then stand next to me and tell me what to say – incredibly demeaning!
I lived in absolute fear. Sometimes we’d go to bed and she’d lie there telling me off for what seemed like half the night. If I said anything, it was wrong, so I’d say nothing and that was wrong. I would often lie there in the dark with my fingers jammed in my ears till they hurt so I couldn’t hear her.
Sometimes I’d explode, and the arguments would be dreadful. We had a physical fight once, early in the piece, out of utter frustration. Turning up to lead the church worship, each with a fat lip, was not a good look! I never did it again, the shame and guilt ate at me endlessly for not having enough self-control.
Our son often got the brunt of it as well, especially as she would constantly change how we treated him. I’d try to be firm and she’d undermine me and spoil him, or I’d be loving and understanding with him and she’d tell me off for being too soft. Again, religion was the underlying factor for a lot of this. The expectations of trying to be a perfect family were impossible. Our frustrations with each other were palpable.
We lived a complete lie, a sham. It’s taken me this long to come to terms with the level of abuse I lived with for 22 years. I kept thinking I deserved it, that I was the problem and if I became the man of God I was supposed to be she would simply be OK. The idea was that the man was always at fault for any problems in a relationship – that the woman would always be magically sorted out when he was righteous enough.
I can vividly recall the utter fear and desperation of the relationship. The dread of coming home from work wondering what I’d done wrong today, just knowing there’d be something. Every outing together was an exercise in anxiety, wondering what I’d do wrong, say wrong, forget to organise, leave at home etc. I was expected to initiate and provide interesting conversation all the time, and to think of endless ways to show my love. I was constantly hounded for not thinking of her. Yes, I certainly had my problems and I regretted every one of them. I sweated over every one of my faults, and hated the fact that I wasn’t honest enough to say I was still just as gay as I ever was. But I couldn’t even recognise I was abused, I was convinced it was all my doing. Not physical abuse, but emotionally and spiritually.
It was actually horrific abuse, and I’ve finally got to the point where I can call it for what it was. It nearly killed me, literally. I lived in total suicidal depression, and yet I had to hide that as well. I couldn’t afford to let anything show, although it often did, and then I’d be put down and abused for not being strong and getting the “right” help. When any visiting ministry or “man of god” came to our church she expected me to go up for prayer, and if I didn’t I was being rebellious and stubborn, refusing to let God fix me.
When she was diagnosed with cancer I was devastated – after all, despite our problems, I’d sacrificed 20 years of my life for her, and still experienced a lot of affection for her. But I was the one who wanted to die and she desperately wanted to live. The hell of the next 20 months became worse, if that was possible.
The guilt and shame I experienced daily was relentless, and she still controlled and manipulated me emotionally to the point where I was glad she would be gone. And that was the most horrific thought imaginable – that I was capable of thinking something so cruel! So I blamed myself as she got worse, thinking I was “cursing” her. I did incredible mental gymnastics to sidestep the conflict in my head and heart.
When she died, I cried inconsolably – for us, for what we never had, for who she was outside of our relationship, for our friends, for our son, for everything I’d done wrong, and for the relief. Then I had a “breakdown”. The depression and anxiety swamped me like a flood of black mud, but that’s another story.
I was a victim of abuse, and I had the classic victim mentality. I deserved it after all. I couldn’t leave because she loved me and needed me, and if I changed enough she’d stop abusing me.
I understand what caused a lot of her need to do this, and in hindsight, feel so much compassion for her. I also understand why I allowed it to happen. I can’t change anything, but in sharing this perhaps I can help others who have experienced abuse, and it’s a cathartic exercise to explore it and bring it to the light.
Do I blame religion? More than I would have thought. Sure, our basic needs and drives were there in the first place, but religion inflamed everything. It validated the abuse. Religion gave power and provided the structure.
Although I’m a very different man these days, it still hurts to remember, and I still “walk with a limp”. Maybe I always will, but life is good now.