The Rules of Abuse
TW: Domestic abuse
Within a month of leaving evangelical Christianity, I found myself a secular boyfriend. He was the opposite of what my church friends would have wanted for me in pretty much every way. Loud and gruff, with a thick New York accent, jeans oversized like he was still living in 2002. His jokes weren’t church-appropriate, all about blow jobs and drunk antics and the ways in which he did the opposite of honoring his parents. He didn’t seem to care how he came off to people, the antithesis of everyone I once went to church with—perfectly groomed socialites who wore tailored pants and boho-chic dresses and greeted everyone on Sunday morning with the warmest smiles they could muster.
Maybe that’s why I liked him so much. He was the farthest thing I could find from my seven years in the church.
The first night I went out with him, I broke at least five evangelical rules. I was already on the last strides of my faith, struggling for two years with beliefs like “the act of homosexuality is a sin” and “Paul’s not a misogynist—God wrote through him in all these letters!” It was becoming increasingly taxing to put pieces of my life and general self-discovery on hold because the faith system deemed it necessary to wait on a God who I wasn’t sure I even liked anymore.
And so I got drunk at the New Years party of one of my non-believing friends. Rule #1 broken. I wasn’t supposed to get drunk.
I ran into him. Oh yeah, that guy! I had met him at another party six months earlier. Awkward dude, with wiry old-man glasses, who had a weird sort of charm that I found somewhat alluring. We started talking, and we didn’t stop for about an hour. He got me another drink and I touched his arm.
Rule #2 broken. I wasn’t supposed to flirt with non-believers, much less initiate physical contact that suggested sexual sin.
We talked a little more and then a friend of mine interrupted and we split ways for the rest of the party. I could feel his eyes on me and was flattered by the attention, as my interactions with evangelical Christian men, who seemed terrified of me thanks to books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye, were often far less productive. Around 1 in the morning, I was tired and decided to leave, and he approached me as I put my coat on.
“You should stay,” he said.
“Nah, I’m tired,” I said.
“Do you want to get a drink? Right now?”
Rule #3 broken. I was entertaining something date-like with a non-believer. I was opening myself up for danger, both physically and emotionally.
We walked down a snowy street and found a bar, and I sat at a table as he bought drinks. He came back and we had a beer and I took his hand in mine and drew circles in his palm. When we left, the bar was crowded and I reached behind me and he hooked his fingers in mine and didn’t let go as we walked to the subway, and I felt a warmth in parts of my body that I wasn’t supposed to.
Rule #4 broken. I was sexually stimulated. I had been told to save all stimulation for my future husband when we were married.
We entered the subway and were taking trains on opposite sides of the platform. He waited on my side and held me from behind. He kissed the back of my head, then my cheek, and then I turned around and grabbed his face and kissed him like I wanted to.
Rule #5 broken. I crossed a line I couldn’t go back from. I had given him something that God didn’t want him to have.
When I left evangelical Christianity, I thought I was doing away with its rules. I thought I was burning them in a metaphorical mind fire along with the motions they had instilled in me. I stopped going to church and slept in Sunday mornings. I stopped praying before I ate and doing daily devotionals.
I started, instead, a new stage of my life—one in which I had sex and allowed a man to stay in my bed overnight.
For the first few months, the lack of rules was exhilarating. I untethered my body and heart and experienced something that resembled fullness. I allowed myself to love somebody, to call that person my boyfriend, to go out on dates and indulge in what my body wanted after. There were no rules anymore about emotional or physical purity. I could share my deepest thoughts and desires with this person and tell myself not to worry about what it was doing to my soul.
It felt like freedom, but I didn’t realize there was also a numbness, a lack of feeling in the places where my old restraints had been.
My boyfriend saw the numbness before I did, and he capitalized upon it.
It was a slow progression into what the relationship culminated into, a slew of I’m just kiddings and You need to learn how to take a jokes before I taught myself to stop being offended by his behavior. I was upset with him one night when he said that gender inequality in salaries didn’t bother him, because he was a man and why would he be bothered by something he benefited from?
I walked up the subway steps and refused to look at him, as I had entertained enough sexist worldviews in the churches I went to. “You take things so seriously,” he said. “You really need to lighten up.”
New rule #1. I needed to learn how to take a joke.
He liked to joke about cheating on me, pointing girls out on television, on the sidewalk, at parties. Girls he’d like to have sex with, girls that weren’t me. “He’s just joking,” I’d tell myself, to comfort, to sooth, trying to learn from his responses to my past reactions that he didn’t mean anything by it.
I tried once to joke back, see if I could laugh a little, too.
“Oh yeah, she’s hot,” I said of one girl he spoke of on the phone, a friend of a friend we had met at a party. “Let’s have a threesome, that would be fun!”
The other end of the phone went silent.
“Hello?” I said.
“You’re lying,” he said. “Shut up.”
New rule #2. These were his jokes. I wasn’t allowed to join.
He visited me once at work and yelled at my coworker when she asked if his jacket was warm enough for the weather.
He called me stupid over and over—in front of my friends, their friends, even by ourselves in the middle of a subway platform.
He threatened to throw me down the stairs if I ever got pregnant, saying, “Oh, yes I would,” when I laughed and said that he wouldn’t.
He screamed at me for leaving my toothbrush at his apartment, and accused me of “snooping” when I tried to find a spot in the cabinet underneath his sink.
He yelled at me until I cried, and then told me that I needed to apologize, and I did, and he never did, and I felt so deeply degraded.
But within it all there were new rules that I was getting used to, new restraints that were nestling themselves in the wounds evangelical Christianity had created. #3. Stay silent during any and all of his outbursts. #4. Don’t assume that a threat is a joke. #5. Don’t try to make space for yourself in his life.
And against my will, old rules emerged that I thought I had left behind, restraints so deep in my psyche that I didn’t realize they were there.
You’ve had sex with him. That means you have to stay with him.
I wish I could say that I dumped this guy, especially after the time he held my head under a pillow until I couldn’t breathe, but the last rule he ever gave me was you can’t end this yourself.
Still, I tried. I had a reading in Brooklyn, and he didn’t show up. He called five hours later, and I asked if he even cared about me, if he still wanted to be with me, how he could have just not come.
I wanted to break up with him right in that moment.
“You know how much I care about you,” he responded in a tender voice that I hadn’t heard since we first met, since we first kissed, since he first held my hand like he wouldn’t anymore. “You know.”
It wasn’t unfamiliar territory, being told to believe the opposite of my experience.
The night that he broke up with me, we were watching television in his living room. A blonde woman in shorts appeared, and he talked about wanting to have sex with her. “Really?” I burst, finally. “You think these jokes are funny?”
I had broken a rule in my reaction, by expressing anger at something he said.
He looked enraged, incensed. “Are you kidding me? You could have sex with any guy that walked through the door and I wouldn’t care!”
I was silent for a few moments, collecting myself for a rational response. “It really hurts when you joke about cheating on me,” I finally said.
He took a breath and sighed. “I think we should see other people.”
I realize now that I had lost the thread of who I was long before I met him. I had been buried by the rules of fundamentalist Christianity and found them all replaced in familiar ways by the rules he gave me.
They were heavy, but I was used to carrying this kind of weight. I was used to calling myself the bad one and doing all the work to fix an invisible relationship.
And now, what do I do with rules? How can I have them in a healthy way? When I spent such a long time letting rules silence me, how do I live by any guidelines and trust that I’ll still be heard?
How do I stay unrestrained when I fear that I’m prone to traps?
What has helped is using the word abuse, making a rule of studying it, of trying to understand its effects. I’ve had to force myself to not shy away from it, to let myself identify inside of it, to look in a mirror and see my pain and not blame the wounds on myself.
Somehow, I think that abuse thrives less when its named. Just like my old pastors used to say about demons. Naming them is the first step.