Michelle was 16-years-old when she became pregnant. Her parents and religious community coerced her into a forced child marriage with her boyfriend, a 19-year-old veteran struggling with PTSD and anger management. Underage marriage deprived Michelle of her childhood, and it was 25 years before she was finally able to divorce her abusive husband and protect her three children from the dangerous situation.
“His words became the hands, and those have
left scars that his hands never could”
It had been my hope that my story would have ended differently.
That it had been of love that grew from teenage pregnancy, a happily ever after that came from trauma. I wanted all these things and more, but that isn't how my story ended. What I can tell you is that I survived and that I thrived. I have gone on to create a life out of chaos, and I have three beautiful children that make all the heartbreak worth it. I am finally at peace, but that doesn't mean that what happened to me is right or that marriage before the age of 18 should be legal.
People often look at what is gained when a teen mother marries the father of her baby, what I lost on that day is far greater than anything I gained. I lost my voice, identity, future, education, and hope of being an equal partner in a healthy relationship. Before my marriage, the minister informed my ex-husband, "if you don't like who she grows up to be, you need to look at yourself, for you will have raised her."
At that moment, any doubts that the adults didn’t know they were handing a child over to a man who would be a father figure rather than a husband were destroyed. He would control who I was and how I would behave, and everyone knew it.
I wish I could tell you that I remember all the details of the months leading up to the marriage, but I went into shock.
What I do remember is being told that my child deserves both parents, his dad saying that I deserved a swat, my dad refusing to talk to me, phone calls I had to make to every family member explaining the shame I had brought to my family, keeping my pregnancy a secret from my little brother, meeting with church elders, and all of the adults believing that I had made my bed and marriage was what was required. But I didn't. I made a mistake, and they made the bed in which I would have to spend the next 27 years trying to survive. The adults were speaking so loud that I couldn't hear the sound of my own voice.
That fog quickly lifted within days of our marriage. The verbal abuse started on day three, the first affair two weeks after we were married. Within months of our daughter's birth, the physical abuse started. As an adult with years of therapy behind me, I can see that none of this was my fault. As a child raised to believe that a godly woman will save her family, his failings were a representation of my sin, my inability to be the wife God had called me to be. The way he behaved became my shame to carry.
No matter how hard I tried to be perfect, the abuse continued.
The first time he hit me, I fought back. He told me he was the property of the US government; if I hurt him, they would arrest me, and I would lose my daughter. She was my lifeline—to lose her would be worse than death, so I stopped fighting. The threat to take my children away from me either by law or through emotional manipulation is what kept me bonded to him. He knew that this threat was the one thing that would make me toe the line no matter what.
While my education had technically ended, I didn't stop learning. I learned to be hungry. I learned to smile when I wanted to cry. I learned to be silent and agree. I learned to lie to family about how he was behaving, as he was kinder when I sang his praises to anyone who would listen. I learned what each movement of his body meant. I became an expert at interpreting his moods and the danger level they predicted. I learned that he controlled every aspect of my life. I came to accept that only death would free me since divorce was never an option due to our religious beliefs.
He stopped hitting me four years into our marriage after I left him the first time. I used to think this proved he could change.
But he hadn't changed: he had just taught me how to be afraid. His words became the hands, and those have left scars that his hands never could. Over the years, I left him often. His affairs and drinking would only stay controlled for so long before he would spin out of control. I would leave, he would promise to do better, plan fun trips to prove how much he had changed, promise again to do better, and I would go back.
This continued our entire marriage. I lived and breathed the cycle of abuse. All the while, I smiled. His earlier threat to take my children was never forgotten.
It wasn't until I had been in therapy for a year that I realized that my life was not normal, that in most marriages both people have equal say in the affairs of the home. All marriages that end are extremely painful, but when one person was a child when the marriage started, it’s even harder.
My brain developed amid trauma. Through counseling, I have finally been able to start forgiving the people who did not protect me, including myself. I have had to accept that nothing about how I lived or even how I felt was healthy or real. I have been diagnosed with CPTSD, and I am actively working to heal the trauma bonds that connected us. I have fled my home, moved states away, and talked to endless legislators.
Over the last year, I have grown and learned more than I thought possible, but I am still afraid.
I avoid any possible interactions with him, and when they are unavoidable, I make sure I have someone with me. The reason I was married is one lawmakers often give for why they won't end marriage before 18. Teen moms are protected by marriage, and families are created. This simply isn't true. It sets the child up for years of physical, emotional, and financial abuse, an unequal balance of power, low education levels, and long-term mental and physical health problems.
At 44, I started my life over. I am enrolled in college, moved into my first home, and started a career. I have learned that I have a right to be safe, am worthy of kindness, and can laugh and play without fear of retaliation. More importantly, I know what it is like to not live in a constant state of fear, and I finally live in peace.
I hope that when people read about child marriage, they will stop thinking it happens in other countries, in other religions. It happened to me, an All-American Christian girl, in middle America. If marriage hadn’t been an option until I turned 18, we would never have gotten married. I would never have been abused, and I would have been free to grow and learn in safety.