Picture a closet, bursting at the seams. Now picture a girl, back to the door, doing everything she can to brace herself against it to keep the contents from tumbling out all over the room.

I was that girl. And I'm going to tell you about the dirty little secret that was in my closet.

I'm a Christian. I don't mean "Christian" in a cultural sense. I mean that I'm a born-again, church-attending, asked-Jesus-into-my-heart, used-to-be-on-staff-at-a-church, quiet-time-having kind of Christian.

And this was my secret: I was in a very difficult Christian marriage.

And I don't say "very difficult" lightly. I don't mean he didn't bring me flowers anymore. Or the toothpaste cap was always off. I mean there was more fighting than peace, more crying than laughter, more hiding than truth, sobbing-on-my-bathroom-floor-asking-Jesus-to-kill-me-because-divorce-wasn't-an-option kind of very difficult.

And I didn't want anyone to know. And yet, deep down, I was hoping that someone would figure it out and rescue me.

It has been almost four years since I stopped hiding. During that time I went through a 15-month church-led reconciliation attempt. I was released by my church elder board to legally separate. Three months later I was then served divorce papers. My kids and I moved out. Our divorce was final. And my marriage has been in my rearview mirror for over a year now.

Not an isolated case

Recently I began writing about all of this—difficult Christian marriages, domestic abuse, addiction, divorce, and the Church's response—as a form of therapy and advocacy. I thought I was alone, the only girl stuck in a hard Christian marriage in the whole wide world. I have since learned that I was far from alone. Difficult Christian marriages are everywhere. And their presence is one of the Church's darkest, dirtiest secrets.

I was not alone. We are everywhere. We are sitting in the pews. We are participating in Bible studies. We are leading ministries. We are sitting in the front row as our husbands—the pastors—preach about biblical marriage to the congregation while we die inside.

I moderate a private group on Facebook for Christian women in difficult marriages. I started it one year ago and it has grown (by word of mouth alone) to almost 500 women. And I know we're just scratching the surface.

Many women who love Jesus are dying in their marriages. Though there are many church leaders who understand this, there are many more who don't. I have heard more stories than I can count that go something like this:

"I went to my pastor for help. I told him that my husband (drinks excessively, lies to me, has a porn addiction, calls me names, won't let me access the checking account, etc.) and he told me that I need to (submit, work on my anger, get into a women's Bible study, pray more, serve him more, have sex more, respect him more, stay put, cannot get divorced without it being a sin, fill in the blank). So I went back home, did what he told me to do, nothing changed, and I felt even more hopeless than before I asked for help."

I hear this story over and over and over again.

Responding with wisdom

If a woman stuck in a difficult marriage approaches you for help, I have some thoughts for you. Every case is different, but these are some tips for how we can respond in life-giving ways:

Believe her when she says her marriage is harder than the average marriage. If she has come to you, she has likely come close to bottom. She's finally admitted to herself that things aren't the way they're supposed to be, and she has more than likely exhausted other avenues of help. She has probably been to counseling or a recovery group, and she's coming to you as her last resort. Which means, she's vulnerable and exposing herself to you. She would only do this if she were deadly serious about how bad things are.

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