Maria remembers the first time her husband hit her. The couple was driving in their car, and he punched her. The second time the physical abuse occurred, Maria’s 9-year-old son grabbed whatever he thought could be used as a weapon to hurt his mom—a broomstick and a knife—and locked himself in the bathroom. He called the police on a cell phone.
“We started, obviously, really nice,” Maria said of their relationship and the marriage, which occurred in December of 2009.
But things began to change after the wedding.
“Our work schedules were changed too,” she said. “He was working in the afternoon; I was working in the morning, so I wasn’t able to see everything he was doing. I just started to notice that he was kind of acting differently. He was more quiet than usual, and he didn’t want to eat. So a lot of things were changing. Then my son found a couple of bottles [of alcohol] underneath the bed …. It just got out of hand.”
When Maria mentioned to her husband that he should consider getting treatment for his alcohol problem, he replied that he wasn’t an alcoholic and that he could stop drinking whenever he wanted.
As Maria became more involved with her church, she realized that her situation wasn’t healthy.
“I talked to my pastor,” she said. “My pastor supported me and everything. He talked to my husband. My husband promised he was going to stop drinking. But instead of getting better, he kind of rebelled because I talked to somebody else about the situation. He wanted to keep everything under the rock.”
Once Maria’s husband knew that her pastor was aware of the situation and others from church, he began to get more violent and eventually hit her.
But the emotional abuse was already occurring.
“He was very mean to me, talking to me about … he knew I didn’t have a father,” Maria said. “So he was always saying, ‘You don’t know what a man is.’ Cause I said, ‘You’re not a real man, because a real man would not touch a woman.’ He said, ‘You don’t even know what a real man is because you never had a father. You never had a father figure, so how do you know what a real man is?’”
After the second violent confrontation, Maria knew she needed to get out.
She went to The Dwelling Place, a Christian transitional shelter for abused women and their children. Residents are allowed to stay for 12-18 months while they heal and develop the skills they need to live on their own and secure adequate employment.
The women attend approximately six hours of classes each week at The Dwelling Place and then commit to 20 hours in the community for work, school and volunteering.
“When women first come, they are usually very broken, very emotional, very sad and withdrawn and depressed or angry—and understandably so,” said Jody Cowdin, executive director of The Dwelling Place. “It’s a normal reaction to the pain and the trauma. A lot of them have post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety issues and trust issues. It takes a while for the defenses to come and for them to start to receive truth and relationships that are going to be healthy and supportive.”
Most of the women who come to The Dwelling Place carry lots of shame and judgment from their relationships. In fact, Cowdin said most women leave their abusive relationships seven times before they actually break free. Maria left three times before coming to The Dwelling Place.
“I think the number one feeling that women have is shame, and fear of being shamed and judged and criticized as if they are failures as women and as wives, as mothers,” Cowdin said. “So they try to hide a lot of that shame. Shame holds them captive a lot of times in kind of their own personal emotional bondage to what they’ve been through.”
Maria arrived at The Dwelling Place with that sense of shame.
“I didn’t want to say anything because I didn’t want to get criticized by people,” she said. “You want to pretend to have a perfect relationship. It’s never going to happen. You have to be brave and speak out, get help.”
Maria also believes that telling at least one other person about your struggles is key to getting the help you need.
“Because when you start trusting at least one person, you kind of feel like, ‘Oh my gosh, I let it out already. It’s not that hard,’” she said. “Then you can talk more about it, and you feel more comfortable talking about it without feeling so much shame and pain. I think that ultimately releases you to seek help, to talk to someone like Jody.”
The Dwelling Place is also a place where kids can talk about their own experiences. With a background in elementary education and training as a registered play therapist, Cowdin has noticed in her four years at The Dwelling Place that kids need their own measure of help and restoration from domestic abuse. So she wrote “A Kid’s Guide to Understanding Domestic Abuse” as a way to communicate to kids in a language they can understand.
“We don’t often think about the kids,” Cowdin said. “If all they see growing up is, ‘There’s a victim and there’s an abuser, and I grow up to be one of those. I see my mom getting beat up, and she’s in pain; I don’t want to have that happen to me. My other choice is to become an abuser, but I don’t want to end up having the police take me to jail.’ Kids just naturally end up one or the other unless they know there’s a third choice.”
The book presents that third choice.
New hope, new future
When Maria arrived at The Dwelling Place—as is the case with so many women who seek shelter—she was hurt, ashamed, lost and unsure of her future. She no longer had a home, a safe place to go back to or the loving husband she thought she married.
But after her 13 months at The Dwelling Place, Maria has changed the course of her life and accomplished many things.
“When I look at Maria, I see someone who went through a very, very difficult time, but has this message of hope also,” Cowdin said. “You will get through this, and you will have a good life. Maria is now employed full time in a nice professional job with benefits and has her own house with her two kids and is doing very well.”
While things in Maria’s life are healthy and hope-filled, she still is learning that not everything she wishes for has yet to come true.
“I’ve also learned that God has His timing; it’s not on my timing,” she said. “I still have a hope that one day [her husband] and I are going to get together, and we are going to serve the Lord. The Bible talks about having faith even when you don’t see it. Faith is hoping for something you don’t see yet, but you know it’s going to happen. That’s what keeps me going. I have that hope; I have faith that eventually my life is going to be the way that I always thought it was going to be.”
How common is domestic abuse?
The recent case involving NFL player Ray Rice has once again placed domestic violence at the forefront of our national conversation. As the NFL—and other areas of society—decide how to effectively deal with the occurrence and consequences of domestic abuse, here are a few important facts to keep in mind:
Definition: “Domestic violence is the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior perpetrated by one intimate partner against another. It includes physical violence, sexual violence, threats and emotional abuse. The frequency and severity of domestic abuse can vary dramatically” (Source: National Coalition Against Domestic Violence).
When does it occur? According to Jody Cowdin, executive director of The Dwelling Place, domestic violence can occur early on in relationships or after many years. She reports that her organization has helped women who have been married for nearly 50 years.
How prevalent is domestic violence? More than 42 million women in the U.S. have experienced “rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime” (Source: “The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report” via the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence).
Slightly more than 30 percent of women in the U.S. have been “slapped, pushed or shoved by an intimate partner in their lifetime” (Source: “The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report” via the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence).
Additional statistics on domestic violence: Between 30 percent and 60 percent of those who abuse their partners also abuse children in their household (Source: Edelson, J.L. (1999); “The Overlap Between Child Maltreatment and Woman Battering”; Violence Against Women; 5:134-154, via the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence).
“Boys who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults” (Source: Strauss, Gelles, and Smith, “Physical Violence in American Families: Risk Factors and Adaptations to Violence” in 8,145 Families. Transaction Publishers (1990) via the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence).
In Minnesota, at least 25 women lost their lives to domestic violence in 2013. At least six family members or friends were killed. At least 12 minor children lost their mothers to domestic violence (Source: Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women 2013 Femicide Report.)
What is The Dwelling Place?
The Dwelling Place is a Christian nonprofit organization that provides transitional housing and support services for women and their families who are escaping domestic abuse. Residents typically stay 12 months but can stay as long as 18 months. Some residents rely on The Dwelling Place for crisis shelter and stay only 30 to 45 days.
The group provides:
- Case management and transitional housing for women and their children.
- Opportunities to develop skills that will help them in the workplace.
- Opportunities for spiritual discipleship and personal growth.
The program at The Dwelling Place includes five hours of classes each week and 20 hours of community involvement, which includes work, education and volunteering.
The organization also offers support groups, individual and family therapy, life skills education, financial education and counseling, employment training, Bible study and a prayer ministry.
To learn more, visit www.thedwellingplaceshelter.org.