Sisters take care of each other, watch out for each other, comfort each other, and are there for each other through thick and thin. ~ Bonnie L. Oscarson
READER POST: I was in a toxic, abusive marriage. I felt profoundly alone because no one knew about my struggles as a betrayed and abused wife. I’d been thrown into murky waters without a life raft, so I clung to Brene Brown’s challenge to dare greatly. I forced myself to be truer to what I was feeling, experiencing, and thinking. I knew I needed human connection even though it’d require a vulnerability I feared, so I looked to the safest place I knew: the sisterhood in my Relief Society. Surely my sisters would lift me if I mustered enough courage to tell them I was being abused. I was wrong.
I felt drawn to a new sister at church. We began walking together in the mornings it and lunching at Panera. I listened to her story, which was shockingly similar to mine. She told a harrowing tale of surviving an abusive marriage, of a husband who cheated on her with her best friend, and of her struggle as a single mom with full custody. She wore her history like a badge of honor. I was taken by her bravery.
I shared my story with her and eventually told her the one secret I’d withheld: I’d taken what felt like a drastic step and contacted a local domestic violence shelter. I’d heeded their instructions to formulate an escape plan that included a safe place to go. Her reply was empathetic, as I would’ve expected, and she urged me to leave my husband because I “wouldn’t have any trouble finding another guy.”
Growing up I’d had difficulty making friends, trusting. I was insecure, unsure, cautious. My LDS upbringing had taught me my worth was tied to unattainable perfection. I was told what to wear, what to do, what to be. Don’t wear sleeveless tops. Learn how to sew. Become a wife and mother.
But I liked sleeveless tops and found sewing irritating. I wanted to nurture my independence. I was scared of getting close to my peers. I suppose I suffered from imposter syndrome. I believed, sooner or later, my friends would find out that I really wasn’t that great, not really that talented, not worthwhile–not cut from the finest Mormon cloth. They would find out that underneath the sleeved shirts and scripture cases, I was a fraud who fantasized about being a woman with a career. And they’d abandon me.
Of course, these fears were as irrational as was that unattainable standard of perfection. But I didn’t see it then.
Upon discovering my husband’s affairs, my hope in those unattainable perfection standards shattered. I’d sacrificed my education and career for his because my doing so was the righteous standard I’d been taught. I’d spent so many sleepless nights nursing our four babies. I’d moved several times for his dreams. He showed his level of gratitude for my work at home with the children by having multiple secret affairs, year after year. And then with physical violence. It’s pathetically cliché.
When I finally took the children and left him, I had injuries. Visible, horrible abrasions and bruising. I fled across the country to my mother, all the while struggling with the insurmountable task of mothering my own babies through their confusion. Each night, as I checked into a hotel, the clerk would stare at my injuries and then at my children. I suffered flashbacks and nightmares for weeks.
We spent a peaceful summer in a desert town, loved on by family and building new relationships. Soon, I learned my husband was taking me to court, intending to gain custody of our children. The anxiety hit hard: I was sick during the day, up during the night. I packed up the kids and headed back to the place of my abuse. I prepared for court.
As I walked into the courthouse, I saw her. My friend, the single mother who survived the horror of an abusive marriage, the woman whose husband had cheated on her with her best friend, who had full custody of her children. I was touched, thinking she had shown up to support me.
But she wouldn’t look at me. I felt confused, uneasy, but nothing could’ve prepared me for what happened next: she spoke in defense of my husband. My abuser. She proffered testimony that I had planned to kidnap my children, that I was an unfit mother, and that my husband would never abuse me.
She was the new Other Woman in my husband’s bed.
My spirit flattened then and there. As the days passed, realization after realization swept over me. She’d been sleeping with my husband when my skin was black and blue from his abuse. I learned they had attended the temple together the summer I’d been selling my plasma to put food on the table. She’d stayed overnight at my home. Within days of me fleeing for my life with my children in tow, they were going on hikes together, dating, romancing each other. I discovered they’d conspired from the onset of our “friendship.”
Though my abrasions and bruises faded, the damage she did to me still lingers. I have trouble trusting. I have trouble feeling like I am good. I struggled to separate friendship from pain and loss of self-esteem. I doubt my instincts. She hurt me in such a fundamental way when she attacked my mothering in court and used my children as pawns to destroy my relationship with them. It’s a betrayal only a woman can fully understand.
And the sisterhood?
Boyd K. Packer once said of the Relief Society, “This great circle of sisters will be a protection for each of you and your families. You are safe within it. It encircles each sister like a protecting wall.”
I believed that. I know my experience isn’t the norm. I know Relief Society sisters do protect one another. But not all the time. Implicit trust given without first earning it can lead others like me into abusive friendships, or dishonest and manipulative friendships. If I’m harsh, its because I’m still hurting.
I’m still hurting because the more prominent voices in this great circle of my Relief Society vocalized their support for her relationship with my husband, inviting them both to pool parties and barbecues while marginalizing me as unrighteous. Sometimes our religious sisterhood participates in our own oppression. Maybe it’s a survival mechanism in a patriarchal system. But maybe it’s simpler than that.
Structured sisterhood is the opposite of organic sisterhood. Its walls are paper thin, made from a false façade. Instead of being authentic, such friendship is artificial. Instead of being supportive, it’s suppressive. Instead of being genuine, it’s generic.
And none of this is true sisterhood at all.
READER BIO: Lesley Anne is an RN by trade and a single mother to four young children, all of whom love art, play-doh, and dance parties in the kitchen. She comes from a heritage of Mormon pioneer-stock and appreciates her roots. She is an advocate for abuse survivors. To find her other submissions on SQ, please use the search tool, using her first name.
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One Reply to “A Betrayal in My Religious Sisterhood”
I am so sorry you went through this! I agree, though. My dad was abusive (though he didn’t have affairs) and the way the ward reacted was heartbreaking. Some, a few, stood by us, but others did not.
Sending you love and strength!