Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Recognizing Pervasive, Poisonous Power in Marriage

There are two kinds of power. One kills the spirit. The other nourishes the spirit. The first is Power Over. The other is Personal Power. Power Over shows up as control and dominance. Personal Power shows up as mutuality and co-creation. Mutuality is a way of being with a person which promotes the growth and well-being of one's self and the other person by means of clear communication and empathetic understanding. Co-creation is a consciously shared participation in life which helps one reach one's goals.”

Patricia Evans, in her book The Verbally Abusive Relationship, outlines two very different paradigms to life. Reality I is what she calls Power Over. Reality II is Personal Power. Each of us lives according to one primary Reality, although I'm sure there is some overlap.   

Those who live in Personal Power desire the common good and are willing to communicate and cooperate with others to achieve worthy goals, including those which meet their own reasonable needs. On the other hand, those who live in the Power Over mindset must control others to get what they personally want. In fact, what they really want is CONTROL. If they aren't in charge, nothing is right with their world until they gain the upper hand. Even if it destroys others. Even if it ultimately destroys themselves.

This is what I call pervasive, poisonous power. Pervasive because it is nearly always there and affects so many areas of life. Poisonous because it is malignant and damaging. (Pernicious is another word that comes to mind, but isn't as familiar to many.)

What happens when a Mr. Power Over marries a Ms. Personal Power? She is coming from a position of good will. She invests emotionally in the relationship and works toward their mutual well-being as a couple. She expects to listen and she expects to be heard. Prior to the wedding, he tends to be on his best behavior because he doesn't want to alienate. When the ring is on and she's made that firm commitment, he's got her. He may be able to suppress outward Power Over behavior for a while – months or even years – because being nice suits his purposes: it gets him what he wants. It just won't last. But here's the rub. If he can't get what he wants by being nice, he'll turn to nastiness. The soft paws disappear as the sharp claws are bared. Out come the accusations, the manipulation, the shaming, the demands, the intimidation, and even the violence.

When Mr. Power Over begins to exert his control, his wife is at first bewildered and uncomfortable. Why is he acting like that? Did she do something wrong? Hmm. What can she change? She'll try harder to please him. That doesn't work. He's angry at her, making accusations. She's more confused than ever. She thinks he just must not understand. She tries to explain how she feels, what her intentions are, to let him know she's on his side. She wants a healthy relationship, and she's willing to sacrifice dearly for it. On the inside, he's gloating that he's got her under his thumb. He may let up the pressure a little and throw her a bone of a conditional approval. But that high soon wears off. He must find something else to criticize – not because there is anything wrong, but just because he needs to throw her off balance emotionally to maintain power. 

Again, remember that his primary thirst is for complete control. Yes, he might truly want her to keep the house cleaner or spend less money or keep the kids quieter, or whatever else he's complaining about. But that will not satisfy him. He can't be pleased. If she has managed to maintain a sense of self dignity and the satisfaction of what she thinks is a job well done, he will feel the need to destroy it. She must be continually dependent on him or he won't be happy.

Meanwhile, if she isn't aware of the power play at work, she is in utter turmoil. If she has grown up in a family atmosphere of Reality II (Personal Power) and doesn't realize that there is such a thing as Reality I (Power Over) and that she is married to it, this just doesn't compute! She is still operating from the assumption that if she tries hard to please and appease him, and if she learns all of the best communication techniques, that he will love her in return and they will have a healthy relationship. 

Unfortunately, it's not going to happen. Until he realizes and relinquishes his primal need to control her, she's fighting for a lost cause. 

What if she grew up in home with at least one Power Over parent, especially if it is the father? If that's the case, she's already been conditioned to accept abuse instead of expecting respect. She thinks it's normal and that she deserves it. 

No matter which way she grew up, she's likely to blame herself. Hopefully, she'll realize what's really going on and become empowered to stand up to it.


I'm already anticipating some objections to what I'm writing. I've read quite enough troll comments on blogs addressing the same issues. Here are three possible objections:

"Don't we all have power struggles? Why so dramatic here?" 

Yes, everyone wrestles with power issues to a certain extent. We can all be selfish and inconsiderate. No one is a total villain or saint. However, I'm not talking about normal marital difficulties, an evenly matched tug-of-war, but a significant and toxic imbalance of power. This isn't because the woman is dumb or weak, but because her trust and kindness are being used against her by someone with an unusually overbearing personality. Again, the words PERVASIVE and POISONOUS describe this kind of power. If you haven't experienced this, count your blessings.

"Isn't a man supposed to lead his family?”

A man can certainly serve his family well by providing leadership in many areas, just as his wife can. Each one's personal strengths can be amazing assets if they can work together with mutual respect. LEADERS LISTEN. LEADERS LOVE. 

True leadership is not tyrannical or domineering. Leaders consider what other people need. They nurture those in their care. I believe in egalitarian marriage, but I think that even those who believe in traditional gender roles can at least agree on that. 

But what about a Power Over woman and a Personal Power man? Why are you always painting the women as victims?” 

Yes, of course women can be the ones trying to exert pervasive, poisonous power. But as tragic and common as that scenario is, that's not what I am writing about here. This is why. There is a different dynamic in play there that is beyond the scope of this article. 

A woman is perhaps more vulnerable in this situation precisely because of gender role expectations from both church and culture. She's stuck because she doesn't feel she has any recourse. She is conditioned to think that if the marriage is in trouble, it's her fault and she needs to fix it. If she wakes up to the Real Reality and takes a stand for herself and her children, all she hears from her husband, and perhaps her church, is, “Woman, submit!” or “You're being rebellious!” I wrote about this in my post The Bad Boy and the Angel


So this seems like a pretty hopeless scenario! What is a woman in this situation supposed to do?

That's a great question - but I'll have to save it for another post soon. Let me say right off:

If you or your children are in any kind of danger, get to safety immediately! Call the police, your National Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-7233), or your local women's crisis shelter. They are trained to help!

I also have a lot of articles and recommended web sites about abusive relationships. Here are some of the specific links:

On my blogs:

Other sites:

This post was inspired by seeing one by Natalie Klejwa: Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire! Go read her blog! She's got some amazing stuff there! I first connected with Natalie, another home school mom with a big bunch of children, after reading her earlier post on the red flags of abuse: Deal Breakers: Advice to Unmarried 

Grace and peace,
Virginia Knowles

Monday, February 2, 2015

Mara's Story: Anger After Abuse (DV Story #4)

Last year, I featured a three part series of interviews with domestic violence survivors, in hopes of helping abused women find healing and educating others in how to respond with wisdom and compassion. You can find those interviews here:
Now “Mara” has come forward with some thoughts on anger after abuse. This is not technically an interview since it is not in Q & A format, and at her request I have also done substantial organizational and style editing to best convey her thoughts, so I guess you could say this is a collaborative guest post of sorts. No matter what you call it, let's welcome Mara.


Like the other women who have shared their stories on this blog, I have chosen a pseudonym to protect my family's privacy. “Mara” is my name for this story because it means bitter. But that's not the end of my story.

Here is how I will start.

I am a survivor of many years of physical aggression and emotional abuse in the home. It hurts to even type those words, but that one sentence cannot even begin to convey the depths of pain this has entailed. It is a “Mara” life.

Where do I get the “Mara” concept?

In Exodus 15:22-25, we read “Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink its water because it was bitter. (That is why the place is called Marah.) So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink?” Then Moses cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became fit to drink.” (Some versions say that the bitter water actually became sweet.)

Then in the book of Ruth, an older woman named Naomi has suffered deep loss with a famine, an exile, and the deaths of her husband and two sons. As she returns home to Bethlehem after her long sojourn in Moab, she tells her old friends, "Don't call me Naomi. Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.” Her spirit has been crushed and she doesn't see much hope for the future. Yet that is not the end of the story. By the end of the book, she has been restored to connection and joy.

I like those two stories. They speak redemption in the end, when all is well again.

Yet it troubles me that when people are trying to relate to a woman who has suffered abuse, they want to paste on a “happy every after” ending once she is “safely” out of her dangerous situation. Now we can move merrily along, can't we? It's easier that way than actually walking with her step by step on what will be a long and bumpy path. Her pain and anger and even her danger are not nearly over.

It troubles me even more that when an abuse survivor is processing anger that people heap more shame on her. “Forgive and forget!” “Move on!” “Stop being so bitter!” “Everyone makes mistakes! What about your own sin? Take the log out of your eye, will you?”

I am still angry. At a lot of people.

I am angry at the man who mistreated me and my children.That one is obvious. He was supposed to nurture and protect, not use aggression or manipulation to try to control us!

I am angry at myself and even my children for not being good enough to be treated well. If ​we had just been more compliant, more diligent, more organized, more quiet, more sweet, more... Well, maybe we could have been a happy family. Of course we could never be good enough, not in a million years, to please one who can't be pleased. I know that. I really do. But I am still angry at myself for not being more. I am also angry at myself for not realizing what was happening until I was in over my head. Also, for not being a “good enough” mom in the aftermath when everyone was hurting and it was so hard to give grace out of my emptiness. I just accidentally typed that last word as emptimess. Yes, I am an empty mess sometimes.
I am angry at those who failed to protect me or who told me that I had no rights to speak up. I am angry at those who judged me for staying so long in my marriage. I am angry at those who have judged me for leaving. I am angry at those who are completely innocent and clueless, because I am jealous of their ignorance and their perfect untroubled lives. I wish I didn't know what I know.

I am sometimes angry at God, because he did know and it still happened. I could easily echo Naomi's words: “...the Almighty has made my life very bitter.”

By now you must think of me as a total piece of work, a woman who spends her days fuming and foaming at the mouth, shaking her fists at heaven.

I don't.

I get up every day and live my life. I don't think about anger or bitterness most of the time. I forgive offenses as quickly as I can. I try to bless those who have mistreated me. I go to church and read the Bible and pray. I thank God for so many things.

Some people say that anger cannot co-exist with thankfulness. I disagree. I can be angry and thankful at the same time. I can be angry about an injustice – because it is WRONG and should be opposed – and yet still thankful for God's strength and provision for me within it.

Let's try it on my anger list above.

While I am angry that the man I married chose to act abusively, I am thankful that God has enabled me to still appreciate some of his good qualities. It is by the mercy of God that we can co-parent in relative peace now that we no longer live in the same home. He is still conscientious about providing for us and helping us out in many ways. Yes, I am thankful.

While I am angry at myself for not being "good enough" as a wife and mother, I am thankful that I am able to work through these issues with help from a counselor and take steps to make practical changes because they are right, not because they will get me approval. While I am angry about living in denial about the abuse for too long, I am thankful that did finally realize the problems and took action to keep my family safe. My kids know I love them even when we all mess up. I do know how to apologize. So do they. That helps. I am most thankful that I don't have to be good enough for God. He takes me where I am but doesn't leave me there. He is working in my heart and I see growth. That's good enough for me.

While I am angry that some others have not responded with (perfect) wisdom or compassion to my situation, I am thankful for those who have at least tried. I treasure the network of friends and family who have stood by me, encouraged me, and helped me in many practical ways. I am a voice to help others understand, not just my own story, but those of so many others vulnerable women and children. I can give courage to the oppressed, because I have been there, too, and I know what it's like. Yes, I sometimes resent those whose lives are relatively untroubled compared to mine, but I am thankful – really thankful! - that they have their untarnished peace and joy. I won't begrudge them that. Besides, they may in fact be fighting a secret battle I never see. That is a reminder to always be kind to everyone.

And the final one is sobering. While I am sometimes angry at God, I am thankful that he is big enough, strong enough, merciful enough to handle it. The Good Book says, “A bruised reed he will not break.” People will still make their poor choices, but he helps me to be resilient instead of brittle. I am thankful for that.

Oh my, this has turned out to be a really long guest post. I'd better stop now! Thanks for reading this far, and God bless!

Thank you so much, Mara! That was really an encouraging perspective on anger and thankfulness. God bless you, too!

May God bless us all.

Virginia Knowles

Monday, December 29, 2014

Love Light

Such love does
the sky now pour,
that whenever I stand in a field,
I have to wring out the light
when I get home.

St. Francis of Assisi

I took all of the sky pictures you see here. I can't resist sunrise, sunset, clouds, tree silhouettes. It restores my soul when I am weary and doubting.

Such myriad ways he pours down his lavish love from on high.

As we start the new year, every once in a while, gaze at the sky and receive beauty.

Grace and peace,

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Bad Boy and the Angel

While decorating for Christmas last week, I left this angel on the table. The next morning, I found her standing with my daughter's Ken doll. Apparently she was planning for them to get married as soon as she could find someone to officiate the wedding.

Something about the angel caught my eye. She was looking down, probably because she is supposed to be a tree topper smiling benevolently at the children below. However, standing right next to Ken, she seemed like she was sad and feeling shamed, like he was mad at her and she couldn't bear to look him in the eye.

In light of the series I have been writing on domestic violence, this image made me think of the dynamic between a Bad Boy and an Angel in a marriage. (By the way, for the purpose of this article, I'm the one who posed Ken with his hand up about ready to hit her.) I'm not talking about Bad Boy in the sense of an outward persona, like a guy with tats all over him. I've met plenty of nice guys with tats. In this post, I'm specifically talking about a man who abuses his wife and/or his children through manipulation, harassment, intimidation, and/or physical violence.

Here's a problem: If she is from a religious background that teaches strict gender roles, it is highly likely that she's been taught to put up with it.

She's the good girl, the Angel.

She is supposed to sweetly submit to whatever he dishes out.

If he is rough and brusque and forceful, he's just being manly.

If she protests, even tactfully, she's being rebellious.

You just need to submit! The Bible says women should submit!” he demands. “Why are you so contentious, woman!”

You just think you are so perfect and holy!” he accuses. “You think you're such an angel but you have as many problems as I do!”

Oh, you just want to be a LIB-ERRR-AAAATED WOOOOMAN! It's all about WOOMMMANN power!” he yells.

Ahem. What's the alternative? Slavery? What man in his right mind wants a woman to be in any kind of bondage or subjugation? A man who loves his wife does all he can to make sure she is liberated and empowered.

If Angel goes to her church for help, she might be told to try harder, be sweeter, submit to everything with a smile. She must not argue with Bad Boy. She must not separate from him. Or if she does separate, she must agree to work toward reconciliation. It's up to her to make this work. She's the good Christian girl. The Angel. Her family is counting on her. She's in this for life, right?

Let's snap back to reality, OK?

I'm all for intact families. I'm all for being patient and encouraging people to change.

But abuse is wrong.

If the marriage has moved from “difficult” to “dangerous” then a separation – even a permanent one - is absolutely justified.  Safety and sanity are the priority.

What then?

If Bad Boy is truly repentant and serious about change, fine. Let him prove it over a long period of time with no manipulation or pressure for reconciliation.

If Bad Boy continues with his behavior, or even if he plays nice when it suits him but keeps the same abusive attitude underneath, reconciliation will be a farce. How do you know that attitude is still there? Is he blame shifting? Is he describing you with words like disobedient, unsubmissive, or negligent? Is he trashing you in front of the kids? Is he trying to make you feel guilty for setting boundaries? Is he accusing you of being “holier than thou”? Is he interrogating you about things that are none of his business? Is he trying to keep you off balance emotionally? Is he insisting that if you really cared about God you would reconcile with him? Is he trying to control you, and criticizing you if you don't do things the way he wants? Does it seem like when he does something nice that he is trying to obligate you to do something for him? If things are not going his way, does he sulk, pout, or yell? Do you feel like you are still walking on eggshells around him?

My friend, if you are in an abusive marriage and you have been taught that you need to respect him anyway, consider this. A woman may think she is respecting her husband if she gives in to whatever he demands. But that is not respect at all. Instead, she is coddling him like a toddler who is having a tantrum. Respect is treating him like a full grown man who can take responsibility for his own actions and attitudes. If you respect him, you will expect him to man up. Bad Boy needs to get a grip and be a Big Boy for once. If not, he will have to face his consequences. You in turn will have to be strong enough to set your boundaries and stick by them. If that requires a separation or even a divorce, that's on him, not on you. If you have children, they are counting on you to protect them, not only from being abused themselves, but from even witnessing violence and intimidation.

What can "outsiders" do to either prevent abuse or intervene?

Parents: Raise your boys to be strong and gentle. Raise your girls to be strong and gentle. Teach integrity, responsibility, mutual respect, and compassion above everything else.

Pastors and counselors: Rethink your teaching on gender. Be sure you are not enabling abuse. If a woman comes to you for help, make sure she is safe in every way. Do not tell her to submit to abuse. Do not demand that she save her marriage at all costs. Do not tell her husband that she is the one who is out of line if she doesn't. Be like Jesus and do what is right.

Friends and relatives: If you see it happening or even suspect that it is, think hard about what you can do to intervene without causing more risk of harm. First, go to the woman with compassion and ask what you can do. Be supportive. Be discrete. Be love.

Everyone: Please read...

Saturday, December 6, 2014

For To Us a Child is Born, The Prince of Peace (Strength in Hymn)

The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living
in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government
will be on his shoulders.

And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor,
Mighty God,
Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace.

Of the greatness of
his government and peace
there will be no end.

He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.

The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this. 

Isaiah 9:2, 6

Enjoy these renditions
from Handel's Messiah,
foretelling the birth of Jesus.

Advent grace and peace
to you and to all the world,

Virginia Knowles

(P.S. Art pieces by Jim Shore.)

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee (Strength in Hymn: Advent)

"Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee"
by Henry Van Dyke

Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee,
God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flow’rs before Thee,
Op’ning to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness;
Drive the dark of doubt away;
Giver of immortal gladness,
Fill us with the light of day!

All Thy works with joy surround Thee,
Earth and heav’n reflect Thy rays,
Stars and angels sing around Thee,
Center of unbroken praise.
Field and forest, vale and mountain,
Flow’ry meadow, flashing sea,
Singing bird and flowing fountain
Call us to rejoice in Thee.

Thou art giving and forgiving,
Ever blessing, ever blest,
Wellspring of the joy of living,
Ocean depth of happy rest!
Thou our Father, Christ our Brother,
All who live in love are Thine;
Teach us how to love each other,
Lift us to the joy divine.

Mortals, join the happy chorus,
Which the morning stars began;
Father love is reigning o’er us,
Brother love binds man to man.
Ever singing, march we onward,
Victors in the midst of strife,
Joyful music leads us Sunward
In the triumph song of life.

It's the first Sunday of Advent,
time to sing carols in church,
time to light the first candle of five.

This morning we sang
"Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee."
I love the lyrics,
which aren't just for Christmastime.

Read them again.
These aren't sappy holiday sentiments.
This is the real stuff of life for every day.
Love. Sadness. Forgiveness.
Doubt. Praise. Strife.
Triumph. Darkness.  Light.


I was thinking today,
even before I sang this carol,
that I need to "march onward" and
 move forward in 2015.
I need "big picture" progress 
in several areas of life.

Before January comes, though,
getting ready for Christmas
in a busy, busy household
 will keep me quite occupied.

I only wish I could say that
doubt, darkness, sadness and strife
never visited our home
at Christmastime or any time.
Like many other families,
sometimes the holidays are hardest.
We're expected to be jolly.
We don't always feel like it.

All the more reason
to lay it all aside for a while,
to drink deeply of joy,
to fill my soul with fresh courage.
All the more reason to pause
and adore, praise, worship, and love
the one who made me, redeemed me,
and still comforts and guides me Sunward.

Here is a prayer for the start of Advent,
for when joy and faith don't come easily.

"Merciful God, always with us:
We confess that we do not know how 
to prepare for your Advent.
We have forgotten how to hope in miracles;
we have ignored the promise of your kingdom;
we get distracted by all the busyness of the season.
Forgive us, God.

Grant us the simple wonder of the shepherds,
the intelligent courage of the Magi,
and the patient faith of Mary and Joseph,
that we may journey with them to Bethlehem
and find the good news of a child born for us.
Now, in the quiet of our hearts,
we ask You to make us ready for His coming.

More posts for Advent in real life:

More hymns for the season
from last year's Advent series:

A Few of My Advent Poems:

God bless you!
Virginia Knowles