In 1983 Lisa became a Christian.
It was a life-altering experience that she embraced with “enthusiasm and was filled with joy and excitement” at her future.
This new life led to a basic assumption that all new Christians were on that same road, making her “lenient in forgiveness.” She knew her own sin and the forgiveness she received in Christ. Lisa knew she must pass it on.
She met her future husband, Anthony at a coffee shop. He seemed to her to be “sincere, charming, loving, gentle, mature in his faith.” And, his heart for missions took her in.
She fell fast for him and they were married in two months.
“I soon realised something was wrong in my marriage, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. It was very covert, hidden behind the façade of him fulfilling his God ordained role as head of our family. I found it near impossible to have a productive conversation with him. My opinions were mostly not valued or considered as valid. He used sarcastic jokes to poke fun at me, but I felt the sting deeply inside. If I tried to explain how I felt, my feelings were dismissed as being invalid and I was told I was too sensitive and couldn’t take a joke . . . He was jealous of my friendship with other women and wanted my full attention all the time. He did not have close friends. We only ever went out as a couple.”
Lisa and Anthony went on the mission field, but after Anthony had a “falling out” with the mission leadership, the couple returned to their home in South Africa.
Three years later they returned to the mission field, serving in Zambia deep in the bush. She said, “We literally hacked our way onto our newly acquired property and set up a mission base.”
They oversaw a fruitful ministry of developing a Bible Training School and church planting endeavours in addition to various other projects.
During this time, Lisa explained that she tried to be the best wife she could be. She tried to be more submissive. She tried to be an obedient wife. She tried praying more. Believing more. She tried marriage counselling and “watched countless DVD’s on better communication and marriage enrichment.”
She attended seminars. She read books.
However, he would be negative and vindictive. He would constantly nit-pick and used character-assassination often obscured as a joke with Lisa and everyone and everything else around him. Lisa said the staff, fellow missionaries, friends, fellow workers, their children (and at times even their pets) were the targets of his abuse.
Keeping the Peace
She said, “I would desperately try to placate him and keep the peace.” She would excuse his behaviour and defend his actions all the while internally she was screaming at the injustice being done to others.
Lisa tried talking to him. She explained, “I desperately wanted him to understand the devastating consequences his words and actions were having on me and on others.”
But nothing she did could fix her troubled marriage.
He would simply deny everything and then shift the blame to Lisa. She said she would walk away more confused, taking on guilt and shame for what had happened.
Anthony was so sincere in declaring his innocence, she thought surely, he must be right. She was to blame.
She could see that their marriage would have a major impact on the children and determined to protect them in any way she could.
“I wanted them to feel safe and secure and have a firm foundation of trust and respect. . . I over functioned big time. I just wanted to make things okay and normal.”
Still, there were good times too. He could be charming, friendly and sweet. And Lisa sought to extend these times by never rocking the boat. She knew the bad times, that she described as “really bad,” were just around the corner. But, she worked tirelessly to keep those times at bay.
Inevitably, those bad times came to the fore. No matter what, they were never able to discuss any issue and find a resolution. Never. “Anthony was always right, and he had the final word and say in everything” and somehow, she was to blame.
So, Lisa said she would “slump back and do intense introspection, cry, and confess before the Lord and determine to do better next time.” After all, she said, “it was my duty as a Christian wife wasn’t it – to stand by my man for better or for worse?”
Silent Tears in the Night
“There were countless nights of silent tears, of crying out to God to help me find a solution, to soften my husband’s heart, to lead me to an answer. I forget how many times I cried in the toilet whilst I ran the shower to cover my loud sobbing. But then, I would pull myself together, put on my happy face and fill my days with busyness to forget the bruises on my soul.”
In time Lisa said this all became her “normal.” She considered it too horrible to face the truth that her husband and marriage were incredibly broken. She said, “I knew it in my heart but didn’t know what to do about it.”
Like others in domestic abuse, she had no idea where she would go. Abusive mission leaders are notoriously difficult to “out.”
She didn’t even really have the words to describe it and so just “secretly carried the burden and pretended all is well.” Lisa said she became “so good at pretending I fooled everyone. Even myself. I was in denial.”
A Mission of Broken Relationships
Lisa said that things were not going well at the mission base and Anthony had “littered” the path behind him with broken relationships of his own making.
The couple resigned from the mission organisation and a few months later Lisa broke down “in total burn out.” She shared that she emotionally and physically crashed.
Anthony was furious.
It was very inconvenient for him.
He sent her to Johannesburg.
There she “semi-recovered.” However, when she returned to Zambia things became worse than before.
They moved to a new mission location, and he now had absolute control. They lived “off the grid” and were completely dependent on inconsistent solar power. Whether she needed the washing machine, the laptop, to switch on a light, use the car, go to town, buy a cool drink, cut her hair, or visit a friend, she needed permission from Anthony. She had no money. Had no access to money.
Lisa described spending many days under the covers in her bed. She felt hopeless and helpless. She was suicidal. But thoughts of her children and grandchildren prevented her from following through.
He Was Suffering Because of Me
Lisa was shamed by Anthony for making his life miserable and difficult. “He was suffering because of me.” He complained to their pastor that her behaviour and attitude were causing him great distress.
The mission was failing and they had lost most of their personal financial support. He was spending much of their support on the ministry but was not well liked by the local community. Anthony attempted “practical training sessions” with local farmers but Lisa thought they “attended out of politeness, and afterwards no one actually implemented any of his teachings or ideas.”
He was critical and depressed and blamed the lack of success on others and Lisa, who, in his view, were ungrateful for his hard work and sacrifice.
Lisa suggested they return to South Africa to be closer to family and find work. Surprisingly, he agreed, and Lisa was thankful to get back home. However, he did not like Lisa spending so much time with her sister and mother and she continually tried to “appease him and live up to his expectations” while also caring for her family.
Lisa and Anthony’s finances were in very bad shape. Fortunately, when Lisa got a part-time job, she also opened her own savings account. Due to his irresponsibility, she did as much as possible to take care of her own needs.
She knew something had to change. She was desperate.
Again, they tried marriage counselling and were both diagnosed with various relational problems. However, as most marriage counselling goes, there was no diagnosis of abuse. She was discovering that marriage counselling rarely fixes an abuser.
Back at Square One
“And so, we were back at square one, except that I now struggled with increased, suppressed anger.”
Late in 2019, Lisa and Anthony had another incident and she determined to take steps to salvage the marriage. She secretly recorded a conversation and “told him that I was done with the status quo and of taking all the responsibility to find a solution to the conflict and unhappiness in our marriage.”
She explained that she drew a line in the sand. He needed to put some effort into finding help for their embattled marriage. Or else.
Anthony did nothing.
But, with Covid lock-down of 2020 came what Lisa described as her liberation.
A mutual friend knew that she was deeply unhappy and stressed in the marriage. She had challenged Anthony at various times and became his enemy number one. She encouraged Lisa to stop trying to fix him, suggesting he was not going to change. Rather, the friend encouraged her to work on her responses to him instead.
During a conversation, her friend casually mentioned that Anthony displayed “narcissistic behaviour” and at that moment Lisa said “a light went on for me.” She spent time learning about narcissistic, overt and covert emotional and verbal abuse and realised she had a name for what she was suffering.
She was “ecstatic, relieved and elated! I wasn’t crazy after all!”
For a time, Lisa thought she was the only Christian experiencing this. Then she discovered the shocking statistics for abuse in Christian marriages.
But being a victim of abuse did not sit well with her. Lisa said she was determined not be a “victim, but an overcomer and with time, a thriver!”
Lisa sought out a psychologist and for the first time felt that she was heard and believed. She researched and learned as much as possible. She learned how to “grey-rock” – a strategy to survive emotional abuse – and how to create boundaries.
Slowly she gained clarity.
Anthony spent much time away during one year. It gave Lisa time to develop courage to put boundaries in place and by the time he returned she had made some changes to her lifestyle. She hoped the boundaries would be an opportunity for Anthony to become self-aware and take responsibility for his part in the destruction of their marriage.
He did not.
He accepted it because she “no longer reacted negatively and critically to him.” She realized later that this was a typical response for an abuser. “It is all about how things affect him.” Never would he own up to contributing to the situation.
Lisa refused to be intimate with Anthony.
Again, he didn’t protest.
Lisa then asked him to move out of the bedroom and put “house rules and financial adjustments” in place.
They were living like “housemates with separate lives.”
“I asked him to consider therapy for himself and suggested a therapist. He went three times and then stopped going ‘because he didn’t have any problems.”
Bitter, Angry and Resentful
It became clear to Lisa that he was not willing to take responsibility or to change his behaviour or attitudes.
As time went along, Lisa found she was focusing so much on Anthony’s toxic behaviour that she was becoming what she described as “bitter, angry, and resentful.” She had insomnia and was struggling with her health. She longed for Biblically based advice and counsel.
Then she stumbled upon Leslie Vernick’s website, YouTube videos, and blogs.
Lisa was determined to make staying with Anthony work because she could not envision being financially independent. But it became apparent that living this way was unsustainable.
“The covenant had been broken a long time ago and the marriage was over.”
Rather than “staying well,” it was time to “leave well.”
With the support of Lisa’s children, her family, and some close friends, she sought out a divorce attorney and filed.
“I followed the safety advice from Vernick’s to inform Anthony of my plan. He did not contest it.”
As she walked out of the courtroom this scripture came to mind:
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.Galatians 5:1
Lisa was finally free to start rebuilding her life, to heal and see Christ’s restoration and fulfilment of His purposes in her life.
Lisa had gone from victim, to survivor, to thriving as a Conqueror.
Lisa ended by thanking Leslie Vernick and her team for all they did to bring her safely through.