I waited for him to let me love him.
He was my world, my man, the person I loved deeply with my entire soul, but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t have him, not yet.
How long? How long would it take to understand, to know, to feel that he was ready to be mine? I didn’t know. But I knew that I hated her, what she did to him. What she did to me, to us. How dare she take what was meant to be mine, to be his, ours?
This is a journey that began nine years ago and will continue until death do us part, for that is what I promised. I made a covenant to God, in front of my family, friends, and Jay, that I would honor, love, cherish, forsake all others, and keep myself only to him until death. I was sure that I understood what I was saying, promising. I was sure I knew what love was. And I was sure I knew the God of love. Ours was a fairy-tale story, and it was just beginning. But the next few years proved otherwise as my hopes, dreams, and unrealistic expectations came crashing down around me and left me with a new reality—I needed to learn love. I needed to learn patience. I needed to learn to wait— for him.
His face was shaking, his body trembling. The man of my dreams had just asked me to marry him. His proposal had exceeded any surprise or present I had ever received. To say I was overjoyed to be his is an understatement! This was the man I had waited for my entire life.
He led me behind a monument on the Fox River Trail to share our first kiss. I wondered why we couldn’t just seal the deal right there where he had proposed, but I went along with him, thinking perhaps he was nervous, as was I. But in that most intimate moment, in the promise of forever, the reality of things past creeped in. He leaned in and as we kissed, I realized something was wrong. He was trembling, then he began convulsing. I opened my eyes and was surprised to see that he was staring at me, eyes wide with fear. I quickly pulled away and groaned in my soul as I realized what was haunting this precious moment. “Jay, it’s me,” I said. “I’m not her. It’s okay.” He had tears in his eyes as he said, “I know. I’m sorry.” I waited for him to feel safe and then we shared a very sweet kiss as the sun set over the Fox River in Aurora, Illinois. We were engaged!
As I share these intimate details of our lives, I do so with no malice or hatred in my heart. I cannot say that I haven’t been angry, bitter, or even doubtful of God’s love and goodness. I have, more times than I can count. But I share these to show my own ignorance, my pride, my lack of love, and how God gently brought me to a place to begin understanding how much He loves, protects, and selflessly gives mercifully to me daily. And as I continue to understand to learn who He is, to experience His love for me, I am in turn learning to love others as He would have me to.
This journey has been the most challenging of my life because it calls into question everything I have been taught, everything I think I know about God and His Word, my perspective on love, and what it looks like to show it. I’m not a psychologist, nor do I have any experience in counseling, but I know this: I inherited my husband’s pain, suffering, experiences, and fears the moment I said “I do.” As his wife, his biggest supporter, I was and am determined to learn to do whatever it takes to be the wife he needs me to be, the wife he deserves. One he can trust, confide in, be vulnerable with, and know loves him unconditionally. But unconditional love comes with a cost—and I had no idea just how high.
On September 10, 2011, we became Mr. and Mrs. Woodbury. It was the happiest day of my life. Jay swooped me up in his arms and gently placed me in that limousine, and we were off to our honeymoon. It was perfect, until day three.
I always had ideas and expectations, some intentional, some not. I began questioning why Jay would sometimes pull away when I tried to kiss him, or why he didn’t respond when I said or did certain things I assumed would delight him. I moved past the initial disappointment and hurt and thought I just needed to learn him. His love language—yes, that had to be where I was mistaken. But I wasn’t.
We settled in a cute little apartment in Littleton, Colorado. If walls could talk, they would have had a volume all on their own. In that little space of 950 square feet, I lost all feeling of hope, love, and security as my promise of “love and cherish” was put to the test, almost daily.
One night shortly after we got married, I waited for Jay to come home. Dinner was ready, and I was wearing a little something-something that was almost nothing-nothing. I was sure he would be pleased. He walked in the door, took one look at me, and said, “Why are you dressed like that?” and continued back into our bedroom to change. I was devastated. I had become vulnerable and tried something new, and this was the response I got? I angrily changed into something more “decent” and thought, “Okay. That doesn’t get it done for him, but why not? What’s wrong with me? Am I too fat? That must be it. I’ll lose weight.”
As the evening progressed, thoughts of diets and how quickly they could work consumed me. I passed Jay in the hall and decided I couldn’t wait any longer to show him how much I had missed him that day and really wanted him. I said something like, “Hey, baby,” and grabbed him by the shoulder. I pushed him up against the wall and started to kiss him deeply. He shoved me away quickly and forcefully and said, wide-eyed, “Why are you doing that? Please don’t do that. I don’t like that.” As he walked away, something inside me died—hope. Hope that this man actually loved me. Did he? How could he and treat me this way? Didn’t he want me at all? Why had he married me? Was I to be rejected like this when I tried to show him how much I loved him? Was I unlovable? I hid in the bathroom and sobbed, my heart broken, my confidence in myself, in him, in us gone. This evening was to be the first of many full of uncertainty, sadness, questions, and mostly hurt for both of us as we tried to reach each other.
While I brewed over the next few months over my disappointment in the physical aspect of our married life, I turned to God and His Word. I even met with a pastor’s wife and several others for counseling. One woman told me, “God meant you to be with Justin, and I’m sorry to say that this is your life now.” Others told me to leave Justin. They said I didn’t deserve this kind of life or treatment. Like me, they were convinced that if he truly loved me, he would never put me through this kind of rejection. How was it possible to be so connected in every other aspect but to be so far apart when it came to showing physical love and sharing intimate experiences with each other? Doubt filled my mind daily. Was he cheating on me? Was I ever going to be good enough for him? Skinny enough?
As these thoughts plagued my mind, one truth kept coming back to me like a beacon of light in the darkness: Justin and I were meant to be together. Our story (that is a book in itself) is one full of threads of God, His leading us toward each other. This truth gave me the strength to keep growing, to keep trying to understand my husband. So we continued to share amazing, fun times together, to read each other’s thoughts, finish each other’s sentences, and share the same hobbies, desires, and even music preferences. I had no doubt that Jay was my man and that God had given him to me. But our physical disconnect was the cause of many arguments, even fights. Oh, how we fought. Jay becoming silent, me slamming doors and screaming at him from the other room that he couldn’t possibly love me, promising myself that I would be returning home soon to the people who truly loved me.
I recall during one argument Jay desperately calling out to me as I ran into the bedroom slamming the door, “If you knew how much I loved you, you would be the happiest woman in the world. If you could just see into my heart, you would know. You would because I do! I love you so much.” But he was right—I couldn’t see his heart. And although many of his actions screamed, “I love you,” many of them sang a different song that I was interpreting as, “I loathe you.”
But somehow, even in those times, I knew we were trying to reach each other. Even when I was certain he was trying to hurt me, I saw pain in his eyes, confusion, and something he couldn’t explain or tell me that I so desperately wanted to know and understand. I knew that must be the key, the key that would unlock this wretched box of hurt that was such a big part of our marriage. So I dwelled on all the times Jay had shown me love. They were my bread and butter for years.
And I threw myself into study; I ordered as many books on marriage, love languages, marriage psychology, and sex as I could. I was going to fix this, I thought, even if it meant fixing myself, my perspective on marriage, our reality. And I learned, a lot actually. My communication with Justin improved, as did my ability to show respect. We enjoyed each other; we grew closer. Arguments became a thing of three months’ past, then six, then nine, but when they reared their ugly head, those situations escalated quickly and always returned to the familiar theme— rejection, doubt, and insecurity in Jay’s love for me.
One night after a moment of physical rejection, I blurted out, “I hate what she did to you. I hate what it’s done to our marriage. I wish so badly you would just get counseling.” He looked at me bewildered, and I thought, “How can you possibly not know you needed this?” But then I remembered, he had never received counseling. Ever. Had never even been encouraged to pursue that as part of his healing. I considered that maybe we should get counseling together because now I needed healing.
The years passed by quickly. Jay never sought counseling, but I continued learning and implementing the ideas as much as I could. My prayer life consisted of thanking God for what “worked,” whining about what didn’t, and begging Him to heal my heart. I’m not sure exactly when the turning point came, but one evening as we were trying to reach each other physically, I saw fear in his eyes, again. I stopped and began asking questions, just a few. Justin shared a few details I was unaware of before then, and I began to understand. I put myself in his place and realized that he wasn’t rejecting me; he was rejecting her. He was resisting what she had done to him, and I was reminding him of her. I wondered what to do and the answer was clear: stop.
What? How could I not love on my husband? How could I not kiss him? Because he needed me not to. I didn’t initiate much more than holding hands after that night because I was waiting for him. That was the hardest part of learning and loving my husband, because I wanted him, I needed him—but I couldn’t have him.
Then we were blessed with two sweet children. My joy could not be greater. Jackson and Juliette were images of Jay and myself, and they gave us more love, joy, and fullness than we could have imagined. I was comfortable in our new normal; life was busy but full of each other. I had developed a system of carefulness with Justin, showing him affection but not pushing too far, or showing my disappointment when the time between our romp in the hay had become a little greater than I had hoped for. I continued hiding my deep desire to love on my husband in my own way, safely masking it with coping strategies. I still wished that he would love me in the way that I thought I deserved, that made sense to me, that made me feel loved. I began to shut him out of certain thoughts and tempered my sexual feelings to a point that I thought I was emotionally untouchable. I had finally convinced myself that I could no longer be hurt by his distance or our lack of physical intimacy. I had finally learned how to love my husband; I had fixed the “problem,” or so I thought.
As I became more passive toward Justin, my journey toward healing began. We had begun attending a new church. As I listened weekly to God’s Word being preached, I began to realize that I had no idea who God really was. I had been taught faithfully by my parents about His character, His salvation, and His judgment, but I lacked understanding in one part of His character: His love. Yes, I had sung about it for years. I believed the words of “Jesus Loves Me,” and I knew that He “loved” me, but other than hearing about His death for me to save me from God’s judgment, myself, and my sins and their consequences (death and eternal separation from God), I didn’t know how He loved me. I didn’t even think of considering this: He knows me. Me! All of me! My thoughts, my frame, how I’m put together, what makes me sad, what makes me happy, what makes me laugh, what makes me cry, what makes me secure, what causes fear in my soul, what makes me who I am. There’s no smoke screen, no hiding, He knows it all. And He loves me, all of me, for exactly who He made me to be!
I heard the pastor say emphatically, “You are loved,” and realized for the first time that God, the Almighty, my Creator knows all of me and yet somehow not just loves me, He loves me greatly. This beautiful revelation began to stir my heart. I became like a child in a candy store; I needed to learn more of His love. If God could accept me for exactly who I was, how could I learn to accept my husband exactly how he was? And could I attain such a deep level of love that would look past the hurt, bitterness, and everything we had been through and yet help my husband know he was loved for everything he was?
I dug into God’s Word and learned how He’s patient with me. He doesn’t display my sin or talk about it to others. He doesn’t strike me down the moment I’ve sinned. He doesn’t point out my flaws or make me a living example of how I “should have done better.” He loves me by stating my sin, directly and quietly as I’m listening to His Word being preached at church or as I read it, sometimes in one-word phrases, not shouting or in a lecture. He states it, clearly, concisely. Then, He leaves me alone to consider and to come to Him. He doesn’t drag me to Himself or force me to be what I “should be.” He waits for me to come to Him, to repent. He waits!
As I started to see this part of my God’s character, my life began to change. My anger began to soften; my bitterness slowly became a thing of the past. My heart began to be drawn deeper toward Justin. I loved him even more. My heart ached for him; I was devastated that he couldn’t experience physical love without being hurt or afraid or associating it with feeling dirty. My patience and willingness to wait for him grew, and I desperately longed for him to be protected and healed from his past sexual abuse and the horrible aftermath it had caused us. I prayed for healing, for a release from this hold that had been such a cloud over our joys of almost nine years of marriage. I prayed for forgiveness for my own anger and bitterness toward him, his parents, his upbringing, his past cultish church’s teachings, his friends who only hurt him more instead of encouraging him to seek help, and the woman at the center of it all. I prayed that I wouldn’t wish her dead and that God would give me the ability to pity her as a predator who had taken my husband’s innocence without remorse or reservation.I prayed, I learned, I waited. Then, almost as quickly as the hurt that had so early become a regular visitor in our marriage, it was replaced with something only God can give—peace. Peace in my heart as God answered my prayers, for I had begun praying for what was really His will—harmony in relationships, love, peace, patience, long-suffering, forgiveness, wisdom, growth, gentleness, truth.
Truth! I end that list with truth because it was last on my prayer list. Truth hurts. Truth divides at times. Truth can tear relationships apart, yet I longed for it. I pursued it, howbeit differently than before. I waited for my husband to allow me to love him physically. I waited for my God to show me more of Himself. I waited for God to change my perspective of who I thought He was and how He loved me. I waited to not ask the probing questions, I waited to not pursue avenues of love that meant so much to me but caused fear in my husband and division in my marriage. I waited.
In 2018, my wait was finally over. Justin began sharing details without my asking of his experience with the woman his mom had called a friend. I listened quietly. I didn’t judge. I was careful as my heart wanted to lash out and I wanted this woman put away for good so she couldn’t hurt anyone else. I encouraged my husband in truth, in God’s love for him. I reminded him that he was a minor when this occurred. I encouraged him to write a book about his experiences. He was hesitant and, at this point of his healing journey, unready to share this incredibly dark, painful part of his life.
But God was working. He is always working! I’m so grateful that He is never done working in us, in our situations, in our hurt, our mistakes, every area of our lives. Justin began forgiving. I could see it. It was evident as he spoke more and more in the following months about how what I did sometimes reminded him of his abusive experience, and we began to communicate as we had needed to in previous years. Our intimacy began to deepen. I learned what was safe for Justin, and he began to feel safer physically with me, more accepted. I didn’t demand or request anything except what he was, my man. And what a man he is!
Finally, Justin decided that he needed to share his story. He was experiencing forgiveness and healing as I had never seen before. He was finally at peace. He could talk about Carol Lynn without speaking of her demise. He could talk about sexual abuse without losing his temper. While I was still learning what was safe for him in the bedroom, our intimacy blossomed into that which resembles a glorious honeymoon! Happy days arrived for me in quick succession. Who would have thought the roles would be reversed and so much could be experienced later on in our marriage rather than in the former days? Now if we could only hire a live-in babysitter as we make up for lost time! One day as Justin was sharing more of his past leading up to the sexual abuse, I said, “It seems as though you were very sheltered but not protected from the sin that envelops every one of us.” He looked at me, jumped up from his seat, and exclaimed, “That’s it. That’s the title of my book! Sheltered but Not Protected.”
I never would have thought that all the hurt, pain, bitterness, and anger could be transformed into healing of this kind. And I never would have chosen this path for us, nor did I ever consider that from the moment I said “I do” that this is what it meant. It meant that I would begin learning who God really is, not who I think He is. It meant that I would begin learning what love really means, learning how to love, learning what it means to be the wife my husband needs, learning how to be someone safe for her husband, learning how to live selflessly, learning how to pray, learning what to pray for, learning to listen, learning to wait, and learning to wait more.
You see, my friend, the answer is . . . wait! Loving is waiting. Waiting for the one you love to feel safe with you, waiting for them to share or not share their abusive experience with you, waiting for them to know that their experiences won’t be talked about to others by you, waiting for them to understand that they are loved by you by being exactly who they are, understanding that the problem is not you and they really do love you but can’t show it in ways you wish they would, and that is all right.
So, my friend, wait! Wait for her, for him. I can’t promise that you won’t hate parts of the journey, the struggles as you desperately try to reach that person. But if you love them with everything you are, you’ll realize as I did that in loving them, you are part of their healing, their comfort, their joy as they walk through their past, present, and future with you as their biggest supporter. Support is patience, patience is selfless, selfless is giving up every expectation, every demand, and the let-me-fix-you notion as you wait. You can’t fix them! Wait for them to heal, to feel safe with you, to have those most intimate moments without associating you with their past experiences, fears, and hurt.
So as you wait, love. Love them with your whole being however they feel loved, expecting nothing in return. As you learn their needs in different circumstances or settings, you will begin to understand their hurt, their suffering, and their fears, and those will become yours. So bear all these along with them because they need you to.
As I walk through this journey with Justin, I’m beginning to understand what the phrase “God is love” really means. “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4–7). God loves us all in these ways, and I will continue striving till my dying day to love my husband, too.
As you read my husband’s account of his sexual abuse and how God brought him to healing and forgiveness, I hope you will find peace, love, forgiveness, healing, and encouragement, whether you have been abused, know someone who was, or are even married to a victim of abuse. And if you’re the one waiting, there is hope. It may take time, a lifetime, perhaps. But he or she is worth it. Please, wait!
Emily Woodbury July 2020