Screaming in Silence: Intimate Violence within Marriage
It didn’t feel right, but she wasn’t sure if it was because she didn’t know better or if it was wrong. And she had no one to ask- who could she talk to about something so so personal. She felt like she was screaming in silence.
A therapist was treating Ruthie, a bright, frum and articulate mother of a large family while she was leaving her abusive husband. She vividly recalls this session in which Ruthie described that she used to feel like she was “screaming in silence”. Others never knew about her painful intimate experience-it was silenced.
Intimate abuse is hard to talk about; it is an extremely sensitive and taboo area. In marriage, we are responsible to each other as partners in a loving relationship of rayim v’ahuvim (loving companions). This explains why intimate abuse is one of the most difficult aspects of domestic violence to recognize and address.
Abusive relationships are defined by an ongoing pattern of coercive behaviors in which one person uses against the other to obtain and maintain power and control. There are many ways this can happen. We often speak about physical abuse, when there is intentional and unwanted contact which injures or emotional abuse, where verbal tactics are used to control the victim. The notion of intimate abuse within marriage is harder to grasp. It feels complicated.
People do not generally discuss the intimate areas of their marriage; this is even truer in Orthodox religious communities, where discussion is muted because of our attention to modesty and tznius. This challenge is compounded by the fact that community members often marry young. Couples in our communities may not have an understanding of what constitutes “normal” and “consensual” and may not have anyone to ask, or anywhere to turn.
Sometimes, there is actual physical force or the threat of physical force. Other times, there is social coercion. Women describe feeling forced by their understanding of their role as a wife, and as a woman. As a client once expressed – “He is my husband and I am his wife, and I am obligated to satisfy him, even when I feel violated, humiliated and ashamed.”
Women hesitate to report this abuse for many reasons. They may not recognize it, and are confused by their role and marital responsibilities. They may feel very loyal to their husband, and accusing him feels much worse than describing the other types of abuse. Some women don’t want to acknowledge it because they don’t want to see themselves as a “victims.”
This form of abuse has many negative outcomes including physical and psychological injuries and pain. These assaults take on a spiritual impact. Women often feel that not only were they physically assaulted, but that their soul has been damaged. A part of them, that is so sacred, is demeaned and violated.
Our hope is that we can give voice to this silenced experience and bear witness to those suffering. We also need to prevent this abuse. We need to find more ways to talk about healthy relationships. This is challenging because we value modesty and respect the sanctity of marriage, but the absence of this discussion silences victims and inadvertently sanctions the abuse. Torah values promote beautiful, mutually satisfying marital intimacy.Let’s create a space for these challenging discussions so that the most sacred aspects of marriage are not a platform for abuse.