The Big Secret
About the Guest
Author and family therapist Dr. Ramona Probasco tells what it's like to be married to an abusive man because she's been there. The man she thought was her knight in shining armor on her wedding day began physically abusing her just three years into the marriage. She prayed for years that her husband would change, and that God would give her the strength to save her marriage, but she saw little improvement. Probasco provides insight into why abused wives don't leave their husbands sooner, and how the abuse affected her children.
Are you in an abusive relationship? Download Ramona Probasco's Abuse Evaluation Assessment
Ramona ProbascoDr. Ramona Probasco holds a Doctorate in Psychology and has conducted extensive research in the area of domestic violence. She is a Marriage and Family Therapist, a Certified Domestic Violence Counselor, and a Nationally Certified Counselor. She has been in private practice for over twenty years. Dr. Ramona is an expert and sought-after speaker on domestic violence and how to authentically heal well from the trauma it causes. As a personal overcomer of domestic violence, she offers guidance and...more
Dr. Ramona Probasco tells what it’s like to be married to an abusive man. Probasco provides insight into why abused wives don’t leave their husbands sooner, and how the abuse affected her children.
The Big Secret
Bob: For 16 years, Ramona Probasco was married to an abusive husband who threatened her if she ever tried to expose their relationship.
Ramona: Ben would say to me, “If you ever call the police, someone will be dead.” I took him serious—he had a real attraction to guns and buying guns. He would buy them; I would hide them. So—and because of his military training, I believed him. I believed what he said, and I didn’t want to test that.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, December 3rd. Our host is Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. Domestic violence is happening in more marriages than most of us realize. Ramona Probasco says victims need wisdom to know how to find safety if they find themselves in that kind of relationship. We’ll talk more about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us.
We’re going to get into a tough subject today.Dennis: A very tough subject. We have the author of a book called Healing Well and Living Free from an Abusive Relationship. I like the subtitle—this has all kinds of hope: From Victim to Survivor to Overcomer. Dr. Ramona Probasco joins us on FamilyLife Today. Ramona, thanks for joining us.
Ramona: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you both.
Dennis: Thanks for this book—I really appreciate that.
Dr. Probasco is a marriage and family therapist—certified Domestic Violence Counselor. She’s been a counselor and a therapist for over 20 years—a sought-after speaker—and now, she’s authored this book.
I’ve got to tell you—I was riveted by the story. I was, once again, reminded of how many of our listeners find themselves in life-threatening, horrific, dangerous situations.
I want to take you to year 14 of your marriage to Ben—that’s not his real name—but you were married, and you found yourself in an incredible situation. Explain what happened that day and where your husband, ultimately, took you in that experience.
Ramona: Well, the title of that chapter is “Something Broke Inside Me.” It’s the moment when there was a shift from me hoping that Ben was going to change and the miracle was going to be that our marriage would be saved to focusing on myself—me changing/me healing. The miracle was going to be that God was going to give me the strength to do what I needed to do, not only to heal, but to leave.
At that particular time, Dennis, we were preparing to go to speak at a small conference—I guess you could say. We were two of the featured speakers that evening, and it was getting late.
Ben still was not dressed or ready to leave, and I was getting nervous. I was putting my makeup on; and I said to Ben—I said: “Ben, we’re going to be late. Please hurry up. Get dressed.” He was ignoring me; and as often would happen in order to punish me/get back at me, he would not do whatever it was I was hoping for.
In this case, I was hoping to be on time and to be at this event and to be prepared. It went very quickly from 0 to 100 fast. At the moment, I was in the bathroom. Actually, I was sitting on the toilet to be very honest. Ben came up to me—he grabbed my head, and he drove his thumbs into my eye sockets.
Ramona: You know, to this day, I can remember the horrible feeling of his thumbs rolling around in my eyes. He left, as he often would after some sort of physical assault or even verbal—didn’t always have to be physical—he would leave, or he would go sleep somewhere.
I run into the shower, and my daughter came in. She’s like: “Mama, leave. You can leave. You can do it this time. We can do it together.”
For several days, my vision was not sharp—I guess that’s the best way to describe it. Around my eye socket was like bruised—felt bruised. At that moment, there was like a shift in my vision, internally, where my internal vision came in 20/20. I saw that this was not going to work.
A couple days later, Ben—as often would be the case in many situations and relationships like this—the abuser will use physical connection or intimacy to get the person to circle back into the relationship and try again—try harder/fight for us—things like that. That was often the case with us. When Ben approached me, I just said: “I can’t.
“I can’t do that this time.” He said, “Well, why not?” I said, “Because this time, something broke inside me.” It was an emotional breakage of: “I just can’t come back, emotionally.” That set the stage for several years of moving forward and eventually divorcing.
Bob: Had there been physical violence against you throughout the marriage?
Ramona: It actually started three years—a little over three years into the marriage. When it came to money—we fought a lot about money. I always wanted to save. He would always say, “You’re like a little chipmunk always saving the nuts.” I thought, “Well, there is some wisdom with the chipmunks; because when winter comes, they need to eat!” [Laughter]
He would purchase things without, you know, us discussing it—and expensive items. One time, he even bought a house without me knowing. I know that sounds crazy, but there is not enough time to answer that; so I had agreed to it, and he started paying the bills.
Well, I found out, through the mail, that he had not paid the electric bill. There was a pink slip, and our electricity was going to get shut off. His mother called—it was a Saturday morning, and she called like she often did. I told her about it—this was three years into the marriage. After I got off the phone, he was just furious that I had shared that with her. He picked me up and threw me against our bed—the headboard of our bed. That was the first physical assault.
Prior to that—in the dating years and in the first couple years of our marriage—there was name calling, swearing at me, not keeping his word, backing out of commitments last minute.
Dennis: That was what happened, physically. There were also things that you said that happened, emotionally.
Dennis: Spiritually, this was what was surprising to me. He claimed to be a follower and a believer in Jesus Christ.
Ramona: Yes; that’s right, Dennis. I was raised—my parents sent us to Catholic school, and that really prepared me to understand there is a God.
I personally did not accept Christ as my Lord and Savior until I was 17 years old. It was Ben who shared with me, early on in our dating years—he had accepted Christ—that’s what he told me. He was the first person to ask me about Jesus.
So that, for many years, really confused me. I just didn’t—I didn’t understand God’s heart for this matter. I just really believed that the more I prayed the better it would get; but it was the more I prayed—what I was wanting the answer to be didn’t end up being the answer—but it was the perfect answer for our situation, and God truly did save me and my kids.
Dennis: How did you process that? Here is a man, who has professed the name of Jesus Christ—has been used by God as an instrument to help you find salvation, peace with God, forgiveness—and yet, it’s like he’s a Jekyll and Hyde.
It was hard because the confusion with Ben, for me, caused confusion with God. I can remember one particular time when I came home, and I was the only one at home. The kids were gone, and Ben was out. It was the middle of the day, and I just was literally screaming at the top of my lungs at God. I mean, I’m just going to be very honest. I was just like, “God, why are You not answering my prayers?!”—it just wasn’t getting any better. It would seem like it was “getting better,” but it never lasted. It always went back to same old…same old...
Bob: You said the physical violence didn’t occur until three years into the marriage; but some of the things you described, during the dating years or in the first three years before it got physical, are things that—if I was sitting with a young woman today, who said: “Well, he calls me these names; and he gets angry like this... One time, he kicked the refrigerator really hard,”—
—I would say to her, “These are significant warning signs.” You’d say the same thing today; right?
Ramona: Right. Oh, for sure; that’s what I teach now.
Bob: So, the question is: “When that’s happening to you, were there not little red flags popping up in your head, going, ‘Warning!’?’”
Ramona: Yes; “Warning!” “Warning!”
Ramona: Exactly; there were those feelings. There were times where—especially after Ben proposed to me—that I felt like it was going too fast, too quickly, too soon; and I would want to kind of slow it down. When I would do that, he would threaten to break up with me; or when we were engaged, he would say: “Just give the ring back. It’s over.”
Part of my story is—when I accepted the Lord, my dad thought I had joined a cult. He was a very strict Catholic. He was from old country Europe, escaped from a Communist country when he was a young boy. He thought I joined a cult. He basically told me I needed to stop—
—I was attending Student Venture in high school—I needed to either stop going to that group or I needed to leave.
So, October of my senior year, I moved out. I didn’t have—my family wasn’t really involved—I was estranged, because of my professed Christianity. Ben was right there; you know?—he was there for me. He bought me—his family sent me a winter coat when it got cold. He was just—he was there, so I kind of dismissed—I minimized the things that made me concerned.
Dennis: I want to speak to the singles, who are listening to this broadcast, and the moms and dads, who may be watching their daughter in a dating relationship; and they have some suspicions. If you are seeing behavior that is not appropriate, or even approaches the line of somebody being out of control of their anger or abusive language toward your daughter, you’ve got to step in!
Dennis: To love somebody enough to say, “Are you really sure about this?” What I hear you saying—you were isolated. You didn’t have your family, and I don’t hear friends’ voices coming in to protect you at a time, which could have saved you 14/15 years of pain.
Bob: Well, I’ve often said to young women: “Watch how the guy you are dating treats the waitress and how he treats his mother—
Bob: —“because he may be charming to you”—and let’s be honest: Abusers are often unusually charming—
Ramona: That’s exactly right.
Bob: —people. Ben was—he was a sweep-you-off-your-feet charmer; wasn’t he?
Ramona: Right; very witty, funny; yes.
Bob: Yes. So, you can see how that side—you’re thinking to yourself, “If he was that all the time, this would be wonderful.”
Bob: But then, to have—and I imagine, for you, it was every couple of weeks—maybe, more often than that—there would be an episode; something would come up.
Ramona: It definitely follows a pattern. It’s referred to as the cycle of abuse, where you feel tension. You’re walking on egg shells; you’re trying to keep the peace. Then, there will be some sort of explosive event—it doesn’t even really matter what it is—but there will be an explosive incident. The person will experience verbal, emotional, physical, [or] sexual assault of some kind, which that phase doesn’t last long at all. Then, it loops right into the honeymoon phase, where there are promises of change/counseling: “I’ll go to AA,” “It’ll never happen again,”—gift giving.
For me, there was never any gift giving, typically. He would, sometimes, go to counseling; but he wasn’t committed to it. It wasn’t true repentance. Few abusers change. I mean, statistically, the research shows one percent of abusers do the deep work of really changing. I like to use the word, “ repentance”; because that’s what it is—a real 180-change of mind, heart, and how they think.
Abuse is not about anger.
We all get angry; we don’t all abuse. Abuse is about a mentality; and primarily, it’s driven by lack of empathy and entitlement.
Dennis: There was this big secret that you referred to in your book taking place. The way you kind of couched it was: You went to church. You were there among all the believers, singing the praise hymns—but a big secret.
Ramona: That’s right.
Dennis: I want you to comment on two things. First of all, the time when he warned you that, if you called the police—
Ramona: —someone would be killed; someone would die; yes.
Dennis: —someone would be dead; but then, I want you to comment, after you comment on that, about the prevalence of this within the Christian community.
Ramona: Yes; well, to answer your first question. Often, people ask, “Well, why didn’t you just leave?” or “Why didn’t you call the police?” Here’s the truth—it is much easier to leave a non-abusive partner than it is to leave an abusive one—
—they don’t allow themselves to be left easily. As a matter of fact, the fatality rate actually goes up by 75 percent when a victim attempts to leave or is leaving; so it is very dangerous when you leave—so that’s the first thing.
Ben would say to me, “If you ever call the police, someone will be dead.” I took him serious—he had a real attraction to guns and buying guns. He would buy them; I would hide them. I—and because of his military training, I believed him. I believed what he said; I didn’t want to test that.
Plus, there was the fact of—even with the person, who is being victimized like this, there is also the duality of presentation—how I presented in public, how we presented in public. How he presented—he had a Jekyll and Hyde. Well, I had a presentation of altogether perfect. I was trying, with all my might, to maintain that, hoping that I could somehow fix it behind the scenes.
Bob: You said your daughter came into you after Ben had put his fingers in your eye and said, “You can leave.”
Bob: How old was she?
Ramona: About 11; yes.
Bob: She knew Daddy hurt Mommy.
Bob: Was this just kind of common?—her experience that Daddy hurt Mommy?
Ramona: You know, when you think, “Well, your kids aren’t hearing anything; because you are arguing behind closed doors,”—or whatever—that is not true. They know. As a matter of fact, my son—when he was a teenager, we were talking. I don’t remember what the question was, but his answer—in his answer—he literally described the cycle of abuse, without using the correct terminology, in his own adolescent words. All three of the kids were fully aware of it, because I would leave with them many times.
On average, a victim will leave six to eight times before they leave for good. I would take the kids a couple states away. We would go to the beach; we would stay there, hoping for “Ben to cool off”-type thing.
Dennis: For how long?
Ramona: The longest time was almost a week, but there was a lot of pressure to stay married.
I came from a family, where there was no divorce; and there just wasn’t support. There was not, initially. Now, my folks are very supportive. They are some of the biggest advocates of my story and my book, and my whole family knows Jesus now. My dad has apologized, through tears. I mean, he still will cry about it and say, “I’m sorry,”—you know—“for what I did”; but they all know the Lord. So, that’s a good ending there.
Dennis: So, back to the question of incidents within the Christian community/in the church. Are there stats out about this?
Ramona: Yes; as a matter of fact, when I was doing my doctoral research, I studied, specifically, domestic violence and faith-based relationships. I wrote a 300-page dissertation out of this research. In my research, I created a 50-question survey—an anonymous survey—that I gave to over 500 women from a mega-church in the United States—
—asking them questions related to this topic of what’s going on behind closed doors. I also surveyed—this portion was not anonymous—but 30 churches / 30 mega-churches, within the United States, to see what they are doing in response to domestic abuse within their congregation.
What I found from the women is that, what is happening outside the church, is also happening within faith-based communities. As a matter of fact, the prevalence rates of violence—meaning one in four women / one in seven men experience some form of severe physical violence in their lifetime, within the United States; and one in three women, globally. Statistically, the prevalence rates were the same. They were reflected the same—with the exception of spiritual abuse within faith-based communities.
As far as the churches were concerned, what I found is—none of them, at the time, had anything for abusers.
There was no support group, and these are mega-churches—there were 5,000 members or more coming on a weekly basis—these are big churches. Some of them did have something for victims. One of the largest churches in the United States said to—and this church is bigger than a small city—their response to me was: “We are waiting for God to raise up somebody in our community to address this.”
Dennis: I’m just thinking: “Right now, ultimately, this broadcast will probably be heard by a half-million women. One in four—125,000 women going to church with you and me—and we’re all looking at each other like, ‘Every body’s got everything all together.’ The reality is—we don’t.”
Dennis: That’s why I found that chapter that you called “The Big Secret”—
Dennis: —I think that’s a great description of what’s taking place. The need for the church to establish these groups and give women—
—and for that matter, men—safety/a place to have fellowship—but also realize they are not alone.
Ramona: That’s right.
Dennis: The aloneness is where you get trapped.
Ramona: That’s—or get isolated. That’s exactly right.
Dennis: And it’s hard to know what the truth is when you’re in isolation.
Bob: So, I’m thinking about the 125,000 women who ought to get a copy of your book; but they can’t do that.
Ramona: That’s why we have a Kindle version. [Laughter]
Bob: I mean—really? If a wife had a book like this—
Bob: —and her husband found it—
Ramona: I know.
Bob: —that’s a triggering event; right?
Ramona: Absolutely. That is why we have a Kindle version. On my website, DrRamona.com, there is a safety exit button that—if she’s afraid that her steps will be traced, she can click that and that erases.
Dennis: I’m looking here. I think you could rip the cover off this book. [Laughter]
Bob: Brown paper bag. [Laughter]
Dennis: Seriously, I would find a way to get the book to read it—
Dennis: —because you really may be dealing with a life-and-death situation.
Bob: We’ve got copies of the book available in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. As you said, there is a Kindle version available. We also have a link to your website, Dr. Ramona; and we’ve got a link to the “Abuse Evaluation Assessment” that you’ve put together so people can look and ask themselves the question, “Am I in an abusive relationship?”
Go to FamilyLifeToday.com. The information you need is available there. You can order Dr. Probasco’s book from us—it’s called Healing Well and Living Free from an Abusive Relationship. You can order it from FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call to order: 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, the website: FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
You know, as we think about the subject we’ve been talking about today and think about the end of the year, it’s always interesting to me to hear stories of how God will take the conversations we have, here, on FamilyLife Today and use them powerfully—
Dennis: Yes; that’s right.
Bob: —in people’s lives.
Dennis: It really is true, Bob. This is where people are living; and a lot of us can’t imagine anything like physical, emotional, sexual abuse, verbal abuse taking place; but it is happening, in home after home, inside and outside the church.
I’m involved in a situation with a friend, where I was asked to speak some truth into a young woman’s life, who was in a desperate situation in her marriage. I just started pulling up broadcasts you and I did. You remember Tiffany Lee Plumb—her marriage was, for all practical purposes, done.
Dennis: I mean, she left her wedding dress; didn’t she?—out—
Bob: —out in the driveway.
Dennis: —out in the driveway on top of a pile of all of his stuff.
Listeners heard that and received help, and hope, and courage to turn something bad into something good, Bob.
This is the time of year, where about 40 percent of our donors show up and make this radio broadcast possible for the other 11 months of the year.
Dennis: And we need your help right now. FamilyLife Today is a donor-supported ministry. If you show up and listen, and then give, we can continue to provide help and hope from the Bible and from stories of people that give courage and life to those who are facing enormous odds.
Bob: This is where your donation dollars are going to help people, who are in difficult circumstances—couples in strained relationships / parents who need help raising the next generation. Right now, there’s a special incentive—actually two incentives—to make a yearend donation.
The first is—every donation we receive, between now and the end of the year, is going to be matched, dollar for dollar. Your donation will be doubled, thanks to a matching gift that’s been put together by some friends of the ministry. The total amount in the matching-gift fund is $2.5 million. We want to take advantage of all of that, so we’re asking FamilyLife Today listeners: “Would you consider a generous yearend contribution, knowing that donation will be matched, dollar for dollar?”
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Tomorrow, we’ll talk about what victims of domestic violence can do to get help and to be safe. Dr. Ramona Probasco is going to be back with us tomorrow. We hope you can be back as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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