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Marriage Intensives Can Deepen an Emotional Abuse Victim’s Trauma

Marriage Intensives Deepen an Emotional Abuse Victim's Trauma
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My friend, Gretchen Baskerville, and author of The Life Saving Divorce (affiliate link) is conducting a survey about marriage intensives HERE. Thousands of Christian couples go to marriage intensives every year in hopes of restoring their marriages, but do they work? The results of her survey are eye opening.

If you’ve tried going to a marriage intensive to save your marriage, I want to encourage you to participate in Gretchen’s survey ​HERE​. I’m going to interview her on the Flying Free podcast in the next couple of months, and you’ll get to hear the results and find out what they mean.

Because nobody wants to throw thousands of dollars down the toilet.

Want to hear about my marriage intensive experience? Here is chapter 51 of my upcoming book (title and cover to be revealed on January 1, 2024).

Chapter 51 Marriage Intensive

I had heard about marriage intensives. They were luxurious getaways in the mountains or by the beach where couples would have group sessions, individual sessions, and time alone with their partners to talk about their relationships and enjoy one another in a beautiful setting. Those couples would then go home with healed marriages. They were expensive, but you couldn’t put a price on an amazing marriage, right? So, when a friend of mine recommended a local counselor who was “known for his successful marriage intensives,” I knew this was what I needed. This was Custer’s Last Stand. It would be my greatest, most expensive, and last-ditch initiative to fix our marriage. Rosie was convinced this was our Miracle Moment. The Turning Point.

I was secretly hoping it would be in the mountains.

When I called to make the appointment, I found out this marriage intensive would be two days in the counselor’s local office a few miles away in cold, slushy Minneapolis. We would have to bring two other couples along with us to observe and offer support. Also, the counselor wanted $7,500 up front in a money order before he would put us on his schedule. Also, his schedule was full, but he could take us in two weeks if he didn’t take a vacation he was planning. Also, I needed to decide immediately.

Something was off, and I felt disappointed and somehow betrayed, but I quickly set my heart aside knowing it was deceitful above all else, and who could know it? It didn’t matter if the intensive was in an ugly setting, expensive, and not private. I was just short of being willing to sign my soul over to the devil if only my marriage could be fixed. And this couldn’t possibly be a devil if he would actually cancel his vacation just to help us. Plus, miracles can hide in dark places, right? Believe the best, Natalie!

One of the support couples we found had been in a church small group with us for several years, and the husband, George, was serving as a church deacon. He would eventually work with John to help him be “the husband Natalie needed.” George would also give me a book called Fierce Woman to drive home John’s narrative that I was the problem because I had a brain, a voice, and words, and sometimes I had the audacity to use all three of them despite not having a penis. I thanked him, read the book, took notes, and then told George I could not relate to the woman in the story, but it was an interesting read. And that was true. The woman in the story was a bitchy pastor’s wife who tried to control her quiet, hard-working pastor husband, and eventually she repented and got nicer and wrote a book that played right into the hands of controlling, misogynistic Christian men who had wives who sometimes made a peep about it.

Anyway, I got the intensive set up, and John reluctantly drove us there on the first day. He would have been relieved to turn around and go back home to research used cars on his computer in peace—and for $7,500, he could even buy one. But this horse was out of the gate and galloping down the racetrack, and there was no stopping it now.

For the first couple of hours in the office, the counselor told us all about himself, his practice, his trips, his wild success in saving marriages, and his lovely daughters who looked hot in their stilettos. Would we like to see a picture? Eventually we got down to business, only interrupted here and there with related anecdotes as well as some speaking in tongues, which made John and me uncomfortable, but what did we know? Maybe it was the secret sauce? By recording the time of his stories in the margins of my notebook, I calculated that about $2,500 of my investment was spent on learning all about our amazing counselor and his amazing life.

When he did finally focus on our issues, I learned that twenty-five percent of my pain was because of how John had betrayed me. Twenty- five percent was because of how I betrayed him. Twenty-five percent was because of how I betrayed myself. And twenty-five percent was because of how I betrayed God. So basically, I was responsible for seventy-five percent of my pain, and that was supposed to make me feel empowered. The key to solving our marriage issues was intimate friendship, amazing grace, and extravagant love. And all three of these would, in turn, give us the added bonus of hot, erotic, orgasmic sex. I was all in, but that wasn’t the problem. I tried to tell the counselor again what I perceived the problem to be: my husband was hurting me, and he didn’t care, and he wouldn’t stop.

At that point the counselor told both of us to stand up and face one another. Then he told me to put my hands around John’s neck and look at him like I wanted to kill him. I was following all of the instructions perfectly because I still believed that’s how you make things work—and I really needed this to work—but even as I obeyed these strange instructions, I felt my brain exploding with the insanity of this request. What was he trying to prove?

The counselor took a picture of me strangling my husband like a deranged killer, and then he showed the picture to us. John gave a sad, knowing nod. I burst into body-wracking sobs. The only thing I could think was, “This is what John has been telling me for twenty-one years. Every time I point out something hurtful he has done, he tells me I am a horrible person. I’m stupid. I’m mean. I bring nothing to the table but trouble. I’m a terrible daughter, wife, mother, and friend. Yes, I wished he was dead a time or 3,495, but I’d never kill him. I was only hoping he’d die of natural causes so I could find some relief. I really am a selfish wretch, and how can anyone stand to be within three feet of me?

I don’t remember what anyone said or did while I sat there crying and shaking. But when I had calmed down enough, I asked timidly through my snot, “Is there any chance you could take a picture of John doing that to me? Because that’s why I set up and paid for this intensive. I was hoping John might see how he is hurting me for a change, and maybe even want to stop. But instead, this is getting all turned around again, and we are examining how my very existence is somehow victimizing John. I don’t think I can keep doing this if you are going to enable John to continue to deny, minimize, and justify how he hurts me.”

I was scared to cross this professional counselor, but if there was any time to speak up, this was it. The Miracle would require me to speak about my experience no matter what. The counselor agreed, and we set the scene up again with John putting his hands around my neck. The counselor snapped the picture, everyone looked at it briefly without any comment, and then we moved on to the next exercise.

I got the message loud and clear. What John did to me was irrelevant; in fact, it would always be twisted to become my responsibility somehow. If I chose to react, that reaction would be the new focus and the reason why John mistreated me in the first place. It would always and forever come back to me because, in this religious culture, it was always the woman’s fault. All the way back to Eve.

I shut down and don’t remember much of anything after that. I do remember going into a workout room where the counselor told me to pretend a punching bag was first John and then my mother, and I should say whatever I wanted to it while punching it. I said I didn’t want to punch it, and I had nothing to say to a punching bag. I didn’t want to pretend it was my mother, my husband, or anyone other than what it was. He insisted I had to do this. It was part of the transformation process. I still wanted the Miracle, although I was pretty sure by now this was another dead end. But just in case, I cooperated by pretending to be angry at the punching bag so the counselor would think I had obeyed him and would make the exercise stop. Then we went back for more prayer and speaking in tongues. I pretended I was okay with all of it, but every cell in my body was aching to get away. “This is going to change your marriage! You can do it! This is the Miracle you’ve been waiting for! It will be worth it! Just wait and see!” Those are the thoughts that made me stay.

Thanks a lot, Rosie.

There was one incredibly healing thing that happened there, though. I shared a haunting dream I had a few years prior to this, and I told the counselor how I could not seem to shake the feeling of foreboding and terror it still evoked in me whenever the memory of it skirted across my mind. In the dream, my own family had lured me to an empty football stadium with the promise of a birthday surprise. But when I got there, everyone I had ever known had gathered together to stone me to death. I had always suspected that I was unworthy of life, and the dream confirmed that I deserved to die.

The counselor had me close my eyes and retell the dream in as much detail as possible, only this time he told me to look for Jesus in the dream. To my surprise, it was not hard for me to find Jesus. When I got to the part where everyone started laughing and throwing rocks at me, the entire stadium melted away and quieted. I stood in a wide-open field, and Jesus was there, smiling at me with kindness, compassion, and total love. He wasn’t loving me because He had to. He was loving me because somehow, in that moment, I was lovable.

I was never again haunted by that dream. I could recall it without any emotion other than gratefulness that Jesus had me no matter what. In this world, I could be hated and killed, but in the Real World, I was loved and held. Always. I’m not super woo-woo. My mom inoculated me with her scorn for anything emotional, and I’m not sure if that’s a plus or not, but I do know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God gave that dream to me and even used a narcissistic counselor to prepare me for what was around the corner.

The week after the intensive was over, the counselor requested that we write a review about the outcome of our marriage intensive. John had been in a good mood and on his best behavior that week, and I was invested in believing the Miracle had occurred because the alternative was unthinkable. I wrote a glowing review and pressed the send button.

I should have waited three more weeks.

And that’s chapter 51! Be looking for the release of my new book on February 22. And if you’re on my mailing list, you’ll be the first to find out the title and see the cover on January 1.

Flying Free Sisterhood

An online coaching, education, and support community for women of faith in destructive relationships.

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The Comments

  • Avatar
    Bonnie
    December 29, 2023

    Thanks for sharing this with us Natalie. Words cannot express the debacle of your one sided marriage INTENSIVE experience. It may have not done anything for your eX, but even God’s grace? Mercy? Love? for you was there amidst that absurd experience to heal that awful dream. That touched and encouraged me. THANK YOU. I toss enough stones at myself.

    I don’t think it would take social research to recognize that marriage intensives may be helpful for people that have age appropriate emotional intelligence and spiritual maturity.

    But if there are any of what I call the 4 A’s: abuse, addiction,adultery, abandonment issues, forget it. Waste of time and money and adds more trauma…

  • Avatar
    Kirsten S
    December 29, 2023

    I can so relate to the experience of how my very existence is somehow victimizing someone who has actually hurt me and the enabling from the counselors, pastors etc to continue to deny, minimize and justify this. It has been both mind boggling and extremely damaging. Thank you for sharing this

  • Avatar
    MLI
    December 29, 2023

    Been there done that. Glad I’m not alone

  • Avatar
    Margaret
    December 29, 2023

    I appreciate you sharing your experience including the (awful) dream and then seeing how Jesus in the situation loving you brought some healing. I have heard about this kind of healing from a christian therapist/author; that it is very effective. Jesus is our Loving Healer. You share your deep pain and maddening frustrations about your experiences and revelations while revealing your sense of humor. I’m sure your new book will be an insightful and fun read.

  • Avatar
    M
    December 29, 2023

    Great chapter! Looking forward to the book