Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Is "Violence" Really the Right Word?

He sat across from me, behind a desk. He was soft-spoken, the quintessential shy guy in the corner. When he asked me that question, "Is 'violence' really the right word? Doesn't that water down the word 'violence'?" I had been trying to explain to him why I—why people like me—so often felt that the church was not for us.

He knew from a previous discussion I had with him that I had been struggling with the changes in the Church. The efforts to pull back from the burden the church places on people have left many of us at the edges feeling even more adrift and on our own than we already did. 

I had stumbled over trying to explain how the things we teach at church conflict with our lived experience, when the pinnacle of church attendance—being sealed to a spouse for all eternity—was one of the sharpest tools in our abusers' box, and the promise of trying again brings feelings of fear and inadequacy rather than peace and hope. 

I had awkwardly mentioned that "all work out in the end" has little meaning to someone who is, here and now, drowning in a sea of expectations and needs. Not least of which is the expectation that we will find hope in the principles the church teaches.

I had tried to explain how emotional domestic violence worked when that question stopped me short. I looked at him and said, "Yes. I do." He asked me why.

Casting for some common ground in our experiences to hook onto, to try to build understanding upon, I shared a story from my own life. When I was newly moved into my house, a neighbor came over to talk to me and my husband. We chatted about gardening, and I mentioned morning glory, the bane of my gardening at the time. The neighbor said, "Morning glory? Oh, that's bindweed." And I said, "Yes, they are the same thing."

Not a big deal, right? But after the neighbor left, my husband came up to me and said, "You know, you really offended them. They aren't going to want to talk to us again because of what you said about the bindweed." 

Also not a deeply horrifying event. Couples talk to each other like that often. But it wasn't just one event. Time after time, he pointed out how I had offended someone, or made them not want to accept us in the area. After awhile, I became afraid to speak up, feeling like an emotional bull in a china shop. I was never able to connect with anyone.

Months later, when someone in the neighborhood watched our daughter, she was convinced that I was a standoffish, cold person. That was an image my husband had carefully cultivated. She showered my daughter with all the love she perceived me withholding. She often made comments to me that made me feel like a terrible mother. She pointed out every first I missed because I had to work. Every time my daughter showed attachment to her and not to me. I was grateful to her for being the mother I couldn't be, but it hurt deeply. It wasn't until years later, when the divorce was in process, that she came to me and confessed that it had all been on purpose. That my own husband had convinced her I was incapable of love, and so she tried to protect my daughter from me.

Even now, over a decade later, I find connections with people in my neighborhood and ward very difficult. And every time I realize I've offended someone, I crumble. I'm aware of it. I'm working on it. But I can never quite get rid of the little voice in the back of my head, telling me I'm a bull in a china shop. I am always afraid that I will offend someone and the consequences to me and my family will be dire. Against my own will, I have emotional armor built to handle those consequences when they come, and therefore, very few people really know me.

And when things finally did become physical with my husband, I was ready to accept it as what I deserved. I know I would have never had the courage to get out if my dad hadn't shown me the way, and if the Spirit hadn't guided me to it. Had it not been for the mere emotional abuse, he never could have physically abused me.

I wasn't able to explain all that to the man behind the desk, my bishop, at the time. But you tell me, is "violence" the right word, or does applying it to mere emotions water down the meaning?


  1. If "war" is not watered down by its use in "War in Heaven" then the same should hold true for violence -- emotional abuse is accurately violence in the spiritual sense the same as using "war" to describe premortal proselyting is accurate in the spiritual sense. Far from watering the word down by inclusion, we likely instead water down the word violence by restricting it to our brief, mortal experiences with physical harm to the exclusion of the damage emotional abuse can cause.

    I'm not overly fond of expansive definitions of words in general, but this is one of the rare-ish cases I believe it appropriate.

    Physical abuse is hard to deal with, but the emotional abuse seems to leave the more lasting impact. Because we are spiritual beings, who have lived in a situation approximating Zion for who knows how long in the Preexistence, this fallen society is just as hard for the core of us to deal with as the physical difficulties attendant to our new mortal bodies.

    Someone once pointed out to me that Nephi had gone through not only physical but also emotional abuse, and knowing that changed the way I read those early books in the Book of Mormon a bit. Studying those books, I began to see Nephi struggling with some of the very things you are speaking about -- its all over the subtext of the record we have of him. It drives home how those who struggle in this way are not alone (and are, in fact, in good company). Nephi worked through his scars for years and though in the end it seems he largely made it to the other side it reinforces the lasting impact (even to a prophet of God who has seen the Savior) of such types of physical and emotional violence.

    But it also drives home the hope that God seemingly does some of his best work with those of us who are scarred. "[A]nd having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days;" takes on some new meaning when you recognize that the afflictions he saw in the course of his days represented violence both physical and emotional, and it really drives home the hope offered by that "nevertheless." And, if I am being honest, sometimes I wonder whether my scars (and even those still-open wounds) are the things that make me most useful to the Lord -- it does seem to work out that way.

    1. Thank you. Those words are too small to express how I felt, reading your comment.

      I also speak my perspective offline, and usually the reactions I face make me feel like I am unfaithful and ungrateful. I am told I must be depressed, but in therapy I'm told I'm not.

      I wish that we could speak about hard things more freely, without being told we are disloyal or broken.

      At the end of this experience, my bishop asked me if I was depressed. I told him I didn't think so, because underneath the stress and struggle, I know who God is. I have no faith that things will work out in the end, that I'll reach the end result of exaltation that I crave. But I have faith in Him. Whatever the result, I know He loves me. Even if I do not have a place of eternal increase, I will have the place He chooses for me. I am happy with that. I don't need a place in His kingdom on earth or in heaven to be happy.

      Like Nephi, it's been hard. But I have also been highly favored of God. Even if, as a divorcee who is not on the "covenant path," the Church doesn't recognize it.

  2. Your last sentence in your comment struck me. I am thinking of the covenants we make (I am certain that it is a covenant path, not an ordinance path) and trying to remember all the covenants I have made. I am not perfect in keeping them (praise the Lord for the gift of His atonement).

    I have been thinking about the specific covenants associated with marriage. Reviewing them I realize that they are not about staying married, they are about striving to lead a holy life that is based upon the work of, and direction from, the Lord (a life-long process) with the anticipation that both of you will do so. The abject failure of one partner to seek holiness, and to instead seek to oppress, creates great pain, danage,sorrow and distress for the other, but does not negate at all the worth of that other's efforts to still seek to respond to life in a God-guided way in spite of the abject failure of one partner.

    I read in your writing a woman who is, like many of us, still on that "covenant path". That last covenant is one you make as an individual, and is about your personal commitment to try to become the kind of person who is learning how to build relationships in holy ways (which many of us are trying to do and really hoping to do better than we are).

    No matter what others may think, one partner's decision to choose a horrible alternative path has no power to stop the other from continuing to try to keep that covenant to live a holier life.

    I believe that there is a reason why that is the only covenant that comes with the adjective "holy". And I believe that there is a very good reason why we make that covenant individually as opposed to other temple covenants that we make as part of a group.

    Granted the path doesn't always look like the one we anticipated, but the way it looks to me, if you are still working on working with the Lord, you are still on it.

    Ain't nobody can kick you off a path of holiness based upon a personal covenant with God if you want to continue on it.

  3. I agree with the shy guy, violence,is probably not the right word. Having worked with perpetrators, direct and so called indirect victims, I think the right word is terrorism. Some might think that waters down the term. Still the purpose of terrorism is to dissuade, punish or hurt not just in the moment but so that EVERY choice forward is shaded by the act. While I appreciate and value those who have also survived and rose to great heights, I, personally, am left not feeling the same. Isn't it similar to saying since George Washington Carver was a slave and did brilliantly, then anyone with that history has no excuse to not do the same. Or since Abraham Lincoln overcame a horrific childhood and adult life (major depression) and still became president then any 34 y.o can do it too. I believe in the end when we are known fully, we will see differences which explain much more than we know now. Nephi is amazing and as he told his story, it is unique. I believe the point of these stories, George, Abraham and Nephi, is not to do what they did but to do our best. Rely on God, and keep moving. I do not know Nephi's companion's name but it is noteworthy, she stood by him when she is mentioned.


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