Marital rape is tragically common and is rarely understood or validated by professionals.
Women who are repeatedly raped by their partners are often confused about what is happening to them as they suffer a wide array of devastating effects.
Isabelle, a member of the Betrayal Trauma Recovery community shares her harrowing story as a victim of marital rape. Offering validation and empowerment to other victims, Isabelle and Anne take a deep dive into the insidious and covert nature of marital rape, and how women can find safety and healing. Listen to the free BTR podcast and read the full transcript below for more.
What Is “Marital Rape”?
Consensual sex means that both parties have given an enthusiastic “yes!” after being completely honest about their sexual behaviors and sexual history.
When men lie about their porn use and other sexual acting-out, they are committing sexual coercion.
Marital rape and sexual coercion also occur when:
- A woman says no repeatedly, but eventually gives in.
- A woman asks for it to stop after sexual contact has begun.
- A woman is crying or openly expressing distress during the sexual experience.
- A woman has said yes because her partner has guilted, shamed, threatened, or forced her to give her “consent”.
Coming Out Of The “Fog Of Marital Rape”
Many victims of marital rape have difficulty finding words to express what has happened to them. When reality sets in and they begin to understand that they are rape victims, that painful reality can lead to serious trauma, in addition to the trauma they are already experiencing because of the rape.
As women accept the devastating truth and begin to share their story, find support, and set and maintain safety boundaries, they are able to begin their journey to healing.
Marital Abuse And Faith-Communities
One roadblock to safety for victims of marital rape is the lack of support and validation from faith-communities, as well as the spiritual abuse that “religious” abusers and rapists use against their wives.
As Isabelle explains to religious listeners, choosing to protect yourself and your children from a dangerous individual is God’s will: the vow has already been broken by your abuser and it is your duty to seek safety and peace for yourself.
Isabelle finally understood that God didn’t want her or her children to be abused. He wanted them to be safe.
What we’re supposed to do is walk the journey to Heaven together, help each other to get to Heaven. Abuse in a home is not getting anyone there. As much as I wanted a loving, healthy marriage, that’s not what we had. Although marriage is good, the safety and the salvation of our souls, each of our souls, is a greater good.”-Isabelle, Shero
Finding Safety From Marital Rape
“[A wife] holding the abuser accountable for his abuse is not what ruined the marriage. What ruined the marriage was the abuse.”-Anne Blythe, founder of Betrayal Trauma Recovery
The emotional, physical, sexual, spiritual, and mental devastation that victims face from marital abuse is severe and can be long-lasting.
However, as women set and maintain effective boundaries, they can begin the journey to safety and healing.
Boundaries are not requests, ultimatums, or statements. They are courageous actions that women take to separate themselves from abuse, just like Isabelle.
Betrayal Trauma Recovery Supports Victims of Marital Rape
In the end, Isabelle filed for divorce and has begun to experience healing in ways she didn’t think could be possible.
Betrayal Trauma Recovery prioritizes a woman’s safety over all else.
If you have been betrayed and aren’t sure if you’re being abused, Betrayal Trauma Recovery can help you.
Join the Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group today and find a community of knowledgable, compassionate, and validating women who are ready to stand by your side on your journey to healing.
The Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group meets daily in every time zone and offers victims the safe space they need to process trauma, express hard emotions, and ask important questions.
Remember, you are not alone, and you deserve support.
Welcome to Betrayal Trauma Recovery, this is Anne.
I have a woman named Isabelle on today’s podcast. She has been walking the path of healing from childhood sexual abuse, narcissistic abuse, betrayal trauma, and marital rape for years. In February of 2019, just months after her three-year divorce was finalized, she experienced a miraculous healing of the chronic pelvic floor dysfunction that was a result of sexual trauma and had caused debilitating pain for nearly 20 years.
She has experienced, firsthand, the healing power of creativity and now works as an expressive arts facilitator. She feels called to share her creative talents and the wisdom she has gained from her journey so that other women may experience hope and healing as well.
Isabelle: Thank you, Anne. It’s good to be here.
Anne: Isabelle is a little nervous, I’ll just put that out there for everyone. Let’s start with your story, Isabelle.
Isabelle: The part of my story that has led me to where I am today and being on this podcast, would begin when I was six years old. My uncle sexually abused me on Christmas Eve, at my grandparent’s home. As I have been walking through the healing from that, as well as from the trauma in my marriage and my adult life, I have realized that it was that event, that moment in time, that disrupted the healthy development of my body and spirit.
I realized that it was at that moment, also, that I was not just told the lie, but I was told by his words and by his actions, that love is pain. That love and pain are synonymous, they go together. I can see, now, how believing that set me up for not recognizing abuse in the future.
Anne: I’m so sorry about your experience. When you got in the relationship with your husband did you recognize his behaviors as abusive at first? Or were you still in that mindset that love hurts?
Isabelle: I think that that was what I know from years and years of therapy and EMDR, what my therapist would call a core belief. It was just in there. I didn’t have to think about it, if that makes sense. I didn’t consciously think about it. That was part of it, and my now former husband is a narcissist.
In the beginning, I did not recognize what he was doing as abuse because it seemed to me that he was my knight in shining armor, all his promises to take care of me, that he adored and loved me. He was four years older than me and would tell me that my innocence and naiveté were so attractive to him and that he loved that about me, and he would teach me everything I needed to know.
I bought into all of it. I didn’t know about love-bombing and gaslighting and all those things. I was only 18 and had never seriously dated anyone. I was just a freshman in college.
Anne: When did you recognize his behaviors as—perhaps not abusive at first, right? My guess is when things start happening that are harmful, you’re not thinking immediately this is an abuser. First, every woman goes through this, “You know, maybe he’s just stressed out.”
During that time, where you know that something is wrong, but you don’t know what it is and you may have been blaming yourself or other things, what types of things did you do, not really comprehending that you’re in an abusive relationship, to try and establish safety and peace in your home?
Isabelle: I am Catholic. In our marriage, birth control was an issue, and I will say honestly, I used NFP. I learned Natural Family Planning. I learned to know my body and to chart my cycles. He said that that’s what he wanted to do, that it was the right thing for us to do, but he did not take any of the responsibility for what the husband should. It was really on me.
We’d had four babies in a little over five years. I was homeschooling the oldest who would have been a kindergartner at that point. I can actually picture it right now, sitting here, the moment when I knew deep inside of me that something was wrong. It would have been after the fourth baby, I told him that I needed a little break before we have another baby.
I didn’t say I won’t have another baby, I just said, “Not right now, I’m tired. Really, really tired.” My body was exhausted. I’d begun to question how manipulative and coercive—although, those weren’t the words that I used at the time, I probably would have said, “Wow, he’s really persistent. He gets really angry and mean if I try to say no.”
This particular night that I’m remembering, he actually, after being persistent, he got really kind and said, “No, no it’s okay. I understand. Sorry, we’ll just go to sleep, and we’ll wait until you’re not fertile.” I remember going to sleep thinking, “Wow, he gets it now. This is good and I’m feeling safe.”
Then, I woke in the middle of the night to him forcing himself on me. I attempted to beg him to stop, and even when I told him he was hurting me and that he’d promised he wouldn’t, he just became more and more violent. I knew, because I knew my cycles, and I knew I was going to end up pregnant, and I was. When I told him that I was pregnant, his response was, “How could you let that happen?”
Anne: I’m so sorry. After this event, did events like this continue to happen?
Anne: Then you have five kids after this. Did you try some of the common marriage advice that we get as Christians, but also just as society, in terms of loving or serving or forgiving or any of those things? Talk about your experience with that, how that played out?
Isabelle: For years, I began to see, then, that there was a very unsettling lack of compassion and disregard for me and then, I began to notice, for our children as well.
Anne: As the rape continued, did you know, at the time, that it was rape? Would you have defined it that way?
Anne: How were you defining that part of it?
Isabelle: For a long, long time I was very, very confused because, even when I would try to talk to him about it, like, “That really hurt me,” or, “Why are you doing this?”—now, I know I would call that the gaslighting and the projection, all those narcissistic manipulation tactics, but at the time he would tell me I dreamt it. “No, that didn’t happen.”
I would ask him, “Why did you do that to me again?” He would get angry and tell me what a horrible wife I was to make up such lies, that I must really hate him to even think such a thing. I would lay there thinking, “But I know I didn’t dream it.”
The other thing, I think it’s important to know, is that because this went on for so long, I ended up after the eighth baby was born with what, at first, they named postpartum depression, but my OB kept saying, “No, you were depressed while you were pregnant.” Then it became treatment-resistant depression, then bipolar disorder. I was in and out of the hospital for depression, suicidal ideation, and many, many ECT treatments.
Anne: Nobody, throughout this time, including you, recognized that you were an abuse victim?
Isabelle: Eventually, they began to ask me if he was abusing me. Then, after a couple of years of in and out of the hospital some of the doctors at the hospital started saying, “We know he’s abusing you. We don’t know exactly how or what because you won’t tell us, but we know he’s abusing you and you do not have to go back home.”
Wife Rape Is Never OK
But I had eight small children and I was married before I graduated from college. I’d never worked a day in my life, so where are we going to go? Where are we going to go? By this point, I was on medications, I had hospital records, and he just kept telling me, “You won’t tell anyone because no one will believe you. They know you’re the crazy one,” and making threats like, “If you do tell anyone, I will take the money and I will go find a woman and children who make me happy.”
I see articles and listen to things about domestic violence now, and I believe that it is very, very true that, in an abusive relationship, marital therapy can just further the trauma. Even if I would get up the courage in a session to try to say something that was happening, we would get in the car to leave and he just wouldn’t take me home for hours.
The kids would be calling asking, “Where are you? Where are you?” He wouldn’t let me answer and he would just rage at me. One of my psychiatrists used to call me the walking dead and say that I would never ever be better because I was so catatonic and so sick. No one believed I’d ever be able to get free of him and be able to keep my children. That my children would be further harmed. That was very scary.
At one point, I was seeing a psychiatrist and she was also my therapist and she began using words like abuse and marital rape. I can remember, one night, telling him, “What you’re doing to me has a name, this is marital rape.” For anyone who knows a narcissist, you can imagine that narcissistic stare and smirk, you know that glare, and he just sat there with his arms folded and glared at me and said, “Yeah, so? What are you going to do about it?” I thought, “Nothing. He knows.”
At that moment, I realized, for all him telling me he wasn’t doing the things that I knew he was doing, and he didn’t mean it, and you know all of that, I thought, “He knows. He knows what he’s doing, and he knows I’m powerless to do anything about it. I’m going to die in this marriage.”
Anne: Did that moment flip a switch for you?
Isabelle: Not yet. I guess it did flip a switch in that it was at that point then that I began speaking up more to my therapist. That’s when I began insisting on things like separate beds. Part of my story also is that, with the depression and with what they called bipolar disorder and I had chronic physical pain as well, so I was on medication after medication after medication—just handfuls of medication three or four times a day, which did not help the walking dead effect. There would be nights when I would be really unconscious from the medications and I would wake up in the morning knowing, from the pain, that he had raped me during the night.
At that point, I began telling him that, if he would just stop that, then, at one point, I did tell him that if he had sex with me again while I’m unconscious from my meds then I will have to go see an attorney. He didn’t speak to me for several days and then other abuses became worse. It did not get better.
Marital Rape Is Rape
Other things became worse. What ended up happening, I think then, is the more that I began challenging him and speaking up the more abusive he became, even in front of the kids. It began to affect my younger children.
At this point, we had nine children. After the eighth baby, and a couple of years of in and out of the hospital, I was in the hospital for a full month, they basically said, “We don’t know what else to do and we know you can’t go home.” They insisted that I go and live with a relative for a while. They told us that, if I were to get pregnant again, the baby would not survive because of all the medications I was on and that I would probably die.
A few weeks after I was out of the hospital, he came to visit me at my relative’s, and he raped me again and got me pregnant again, telling me that he had heard God tell him that another baby is what would heal me.
Anne: Spiritual abuse.
Isabelle: Oh, there were lots. Yeah.
Anne: Was he a well-respected man in your church?
Anne: Had you told clergy about this at all? What was their response?
Wife Rape Is Abuse
Isabelle: I did. My therapist, when I got so depressed, she insisted that we get marital counseling. Of course, for a while he would only go to the priest, and he was so good, I wasn’t raised Catholic, he was. He would always say, “Well, I’m the one who taught you the faith and I’m the one who knows God, you don’t. You only know God because I told you about him. You can’t tell me that you know what God wants.”
Anne: Did you convert to Catholicism? Was he part of that conversion process?
Isabelle: I was baptized Catholic and had the sacraments but my parents, we went Easter and Christmas, if that, as I got older. Then, as a teenager and a young adult I didn’t go. My parents ended up getting divorced and he grew up in a home where they did daily prayers and the rosary and mass every week.
I was not raised Catholic in that way, so he’s the one who, I would say, brought me back to the faith. It really was when I began homeschooling my children and having children, then I realized I needed to grow in my faith so I could teach them and pass the faith on to them.
Anne: How do you feel about your faith now, from this experience?
Isabelle: I absolutely love my faith. It is God who rescued me and my children. I don’t know where I would be—I do, I would be dead if it wasn’t for Jesus and all the time after time after time that He saved me. It was my faith that got me through it. Just clinging, clinging to Jesus and the Cross. I didn’t know what else to do.
Anne: Talk about when you started really making your way to safety after attempting the typical love, serve.
Isabell: When we started seeing priests and pastoral counselors and then marital therapists, a lot of times the message bottom-line was, “You don’t know men and their needs very well. You need to learn more about what men need and meet your husband’s needs,” “You expect too much of him,” things like that.
I operated under the belief that I could change him. That if I just loved him more, if I was more self-sacrificing, maybe he would learn to be compassionate and self-sacrificing, which, of course only just fed into his sex addiction, narcissism, all of it.
Anne: Yeah, people don’t understand. That actually makes it worse because that’s what they want. They are abusive on purpose, to get what they want and then you’re giving them what they want. They want more love and respect and you turning the other cheek is, basically, an abuser getting what he wants.
Isabelle: Yeah, I would say to him, “But, wait a minute, you told me that you needed more of this,” or, “You needed me to change and be more fun. Now, I’m being more fun.” Then he’d say, “Well, why would you think that’s what I wanted? That’s not what I meant. This is what I meant. I want you to be like this.” Then I’d be like, “Okay, now wait a minute, so how do I be like that?” It was crazy-making.
Anne: Totally. Mine told me he wanted me to stop asking questions. One night, I decided I wasn’t going to say anything except for just yes or no and kind of respond to what he was saying. Then he got mad at me for being cold. So, I was like, “Well, great. It’s just a no-win situation, right?”
Isabelle: After the ninth baby was born, and I survived a suicide attempt, I ended up with anorexia. My therapist, of course, recognized that what I was doing was trying to kill myself without actually killing myself, and forced me into treatment.
Why Marital Rape Is Confusing Sometimes
It was being in eating disorder treatment, and hearing stories from other women and meeting other therapists and other people and telling little bits of my story and seeing how people reacted, that, no, this is not normal. I began to get some education on domestic violence and abuse.
Then, our youngest daughter ended up with anorexia when she was only eight years old. She stopped eating when she was seven. You know, you asked before if that was the moment when I snapped and woke up?
Anne: I wouldn’t say “woke up,” it’s not like you were in denial or anything. It wasn’t your fault. It was just you couldn’t comprehend it for whatever reason. All victims go through that.
Isabelle: For me, the analogy of almost being asleep kind of works in my case because of the depression and the medications. I mean the medications just had me in a fog.
Anne: Yeah, and I think that’s the perfect word to describe it. “The fog of abuse.” Even if you’re not on medication, it is like a fog and coming out of it is like coming out of a fog.
Isabelle: Yeah. You’re right. That is the better word. Seeing his abuse towards my youngest became very physical and overt. He was very covert about a lot. My eating disorder brought a lot more abuse also, like right out into the kitchen because he would, in front of the kids, plate my food and tell me I had to be obedient and eat my food. It got pretty nasty sometimes and I was not taking it so passively anymore.
It was when I saw him—I can remember one particular occasion when she tried to run from the table and not eat and he chased her. She was about 20 pounds underweight at the time, and she was only eight years old, so she was tiny, and he grabbed her by the ankles on the steps and pulled her down the steps onto the hardwood floor.
I jumped between them and grabbed her. At that moment, I remember thinking I had to protect my child. It wasn’t about me it was about protecting my children. It wasn’t until then, I think, that I started talking to my therapist about how we needed to get safe, “I think we need to get out of here. He’s not ever going to change, is he?” At some point in there, she helped me to see that the way that he was treating my child was exactly the way that he had been treating me, and it was okay to say, “I won’t be treated this way anymore either.”
Anne: Yeah. Talk about the intersection of the abuse and sex addiction. Did you recognize the abuse first or his sex addiction first? Can you talk about pornography use and other things that you observed?
Isabelle: I did not observe any of that. The sex addiction I did. Not the pornography. You know, we had therapists say for years, “You know, I think he’s viewing pornography.” I would say, “No. No, he wouldn’t do that.” For me, it was the sexual abuse was really what drove me to start looking at other options, that I was going to need a divorce.
Anne: Talk about the divorce situation. You’ve talked about the advice that helped you, these therapists who were flat-out telling you, “This isn’t safe, you’re not safe.” Making your way to safety, actual safety, not the love-serve-forgive pseudo safety that we’re looking for, but actually starting to make your way to actual safety. What did that look like for you?
Wife Rape Is Soul-Crushing
Isabelle: First, I tried an in-house separation. “Let’s try co-parenting, living in the same home and co-parenting but no intimacy of any kind and separate bedrooms.” He could not respect that. Even when I was sleeping in my girl’s room, he would just come in there, so that wasn’t working.
Then, when my youngest was so ill with anorexia, I found a priest who really listened. He sent me the United States Bishop’s document on domestic violence. It was reading that that shifted the way I was seeing and thinking about what was going on in my home and in my marriage.
Anne: Can you talk about that document? Since I’m not Catholic, I’m not familiar with it. What about it shifted your view? The reason I ask is that so many of the women who listen to this podcast are religious, they may not necessarily be Catholic, but they feel like they’re bound by covenants or promises or their vows or whatever, and so I wonder if what helped you might also help them.
Isabelle: Right, because, for me, I took my vow and my covenant, the sacramental nature of my marriage was of the utmost importance to me. I truly believed my vocation was marriage, and that I needed to be self-sacrificing for my husband and children. What helped me in that document was the Bishop’s talk about how God does not want anyone to be abused.
There is a difference between making a sacrifice for your husband and allowing your husband to abuse you, and that, when husbands are being abusive, not only are they harming me, but because I was being harmed, it was harming my children, even before he became physically abusive to them, because their mom was being harmed, and that he was also harming himself.
That my vocation, as a wife, was really that the spouse is what we’re supposed to do is walk the journey to Heaven together, help each other to get to Heaven. Abuse in a home is not getting anyone there.
I had to make the really hard decision. The bishops go on to say that a wife has not only the right to do what it takes to get herself and her children safe, but she has the responsibility. I began to see what was going on from a different perspective. As much as I wanted a loving healthy marriage, that’s not what we had. Although marriage is good, the safety and the salvation of our souls, each of our souls, is a greater good.
Anne: I try to talk to women about that all the time. I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. We marry in the temple, right. We take our temple covenants very seriously and we want an eternal marriage. It’s the same thing there.
You could be saying, “I’m not going to divorce because I want an eternal marriage and I made these covenants,” but those covenants are just with God. They’re not just with God, they’re with the other person, but if the other person is not worthy of those covenants, then you don’t have an eternal marriage, so all your sacrificing for your eternal marriage is in vain.
Isabelle: Right, and when this priest helped me to look at the history of what had been going on in my marriage for over 25 years, he began to use words like that to me. The fact that, “Do you understand that the first time he did this he broke the covenant? There was no more covenant. There was no more sacredness. There was no more sanctity, what he did was evil and wrong.”
I was not the one breaking the covenant, it had already been broken. Abuse breaks the covenant. There was no more covenant to protect. I needed to protect myself and my children. Actually, because of my personality type, knowing that doing this really hard thing of asking for a divorce that was, in a sense, also for his good and his protection by removing myself and the children.
Anne: His only hope for repentance, really, is accountability, right. Yeah, I think that’s really important for people to understand, that you holding the abuser accountable for his abuse is not what ruined the marriage. What ruined the marriage was the abuse.
You experienced a lot of physical and sexual abuse. I just want you to pretend, I know that this is impossible, but just for a minute, to pretend that you had only experienced the psychological, the lies, the infidelity, the porn use, the putting you down, the psychological and emotional abuse.
Now, it was obvious to you, in the end, that you had to do something because your physical self was in danger, but if you can just imagine now being away from it, just the psychological and emotional abuse, would you say that your soul was in just as much danger? I don’t want to say “just that” because so many of our listeners, that is what they’re experiencing and its horror. It’s like a horror show.
Like with me, I almost wanted—and he did end up physically hurting me in the end, but I almost wanted him to punch me because I thought, “If he punches me, then I’ll have proof. Then I’ll know that this is what’s happening.” The emotional and the psychological abuse was so confusing and it’s so difficult to track.
I just want to let women know don’t wait. Don’t wait until you’re experiencing marital rape or multiple ongoing marital rapes or physical abuse. You’re already being severely abused with just the emotional and psychological abuse.
Can you speak to that for a little bit?
Isabelle: Yeah, I can. Definitely, I agree with everything you just said. The emotional and psychological and the spiritual, for me, the spiritual abuse also. It’s soul murder. I truly believe that we are integrated human persons: mind, body, and spirit. Abuse of one of those, even if he’s not raping or punching, it’s abusing your personhood.
Wife Rape Is A Form Of Domestic Abuse
For me, even when I started going to a domestic violence support group and I told them when we went around and did introductions, I wasn’t sure what I was going say, and one other woman there actually said that she had been raped by her husband. I thought, “Okay. Well, if she said it, then I guess I can say it too.”
I wasn’t going to be the only one in the room to say it, but I still said, “…but he’s never been physically abusive.” I did that for a couple of years, and the counselors there would look at me and go, “Rape is physical abuse.” But it took me a couple years to think of my husband sexually abusing me as physical abuse.
Anne: We get it. You’re in the right place. Everybody listening right now understands what you’re saying because we’ve all been through, not that exact scenario, but something similar to that where we didn’t know what to call it.
I worry, right now, about so many victims who want to be positive and they want to save their marriages, and so instead of saying the word abuse they say things like, “He struggles,” or, “He has challenges,” or, “He’s doing so well considering he had an abusive upbringing,” instead of saying, “He’s abusing me. I’m being abused.”
I think, especially in sex addiction circles, so many CSATs want to say, “Well, expect relapses,” or, “Expect this,” or, “Expect that.” What they’re asking victims to do is tolerate ongoing abuse rather than getting to safety.
It’s so alarming, which is why I started this podcast, but when I started the podcast. God told me to start it, I didn’t really understand all these things, so for listeners who listened to me from the very beginning, they could be like, “That’s not why you started the podcast because you didn’t really know that back then.” I’d be like, “Well, I didn’t, but I know it now and I now know I don’t know what I don’t know still.” Next year, I’ll be like, “Oh, and now I know this thing.”
We’re going to pause the conversation with Isabelle right here and pick it up again next week. She’ll talk about her miraculous healing. Stay tuned for that, it’s an amazing story of hope.
If you are in a situation where you’re being emotionally or psychologically abused, you’re thinking something is wrong or something isn’t quite right in my relationship, what is it? I really recommend that you join Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group. We have multiple sessions in multiple time zones every single day.
You could hop on today, right now, talk about your current situation and get a professional Betrayal Trauma Coach who really understands abuse to help you immediately. We see, over and over again, that people going to just traditional therapists or couple therapy, they are not getting help immediately and they are not being helped to get to safety immediately. Safety doesn’t necessarily mean divorce because, actually, if you do get divorced, the abuse continues afterward.
Safety can mean a lot of different things, so please don’t let your fear of divorce or your fear of the consequences of setting boundaries keep you from getting the support that you need. Know that we love you and we care about you. I only want what is best for you. God does not want any of us to be in an unsafe situation.
Please check out the Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group schedule. If you go to btr.org, click on Services, and click on Daily Support Group. It’s amazing and you can actually talk to women who are going through this right now today. Also, the thing that BTR does that nobody else does is that we include pornography use and infidelity as abuse issues.
They are addiction issues, perhaps, to our spouses but, for us, it’s an abuse issue. If we don’t address it from that perspective, we’re going to miss the mark. We have to address the abuse that’s happening otherwise we can’t get to safety.
Again, check out that Betrayal Trauma Recovery schedule and join today.
Until next week, stay safe out there.