“Sisters watch out for each other, comfort, and are there for each other through thick and thin.”–Bonnie L. Oscarson
The principles of sisterhood are usually apparent within any church. But particularly within the Mormon church. We women meet together as sisters to discuss home and family enrichment, exchange recipes, discuss child-rearing. We pride ourselves in being part of the largest women’s organization in the world—so much that the division of the girls from the boys starts at a very young age. Girls are separated from the boys to learn the women’s way. We learn, we are taught, and it is modeled for us: we should feel like we belong with the women, our sisters.
But what happens when that sisterhood betrays us?
I was in a toxic, abusive relationship. As I became a victim in my marriage, I felt drawn to a new Relief sister at church. My husband was controlling, especially of my friendships. He distrusted women with whom I developed close bonds due to shared experiences. It was as if he feared my closeness with another would be the pathway to my escape. And eventually, he would be right.
This is when I met her. I needed human connection even though it required whole-hearted vulnerability, something that was difficult for me at the time because of my secret. I thanked Heavenly Father every day for my new friend, this single sister.
Brene Brown became a prophetess to me at this time when I was profoundly alone because no one knew what my home life was really like or the private struggles I wrestled with as a betrayed and abused wife. Being thrown into the situation, treading water with no life raft, I began to take her advice to dare greatly and brave the wilderness, forcing myself to start to be more authentic and more true to what I was actually feeling, experiencing, thinking.
And I started with the safest place I knew—the sisterhood.
This single sister’s story was shockingly similar to mine, which caused me to trust her.
Experiencing the secrecy of abuse, I was desperate for support and connection, and it was clear we had these things in common. She had a harrowing story of surviving an abusive marriage herself, a husband who cheated on her with her best friend, and spoke of her struggle as a single mom with full custody. She wore this like a badge of honor. I was taken by her bravery. At the time, I could never imagine being in her shoes, having gone through all she had gone through.
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We became intimate friends, walking together in the mornings, lunching at Panera, bonding over being a betrayed spouse. Soon, I felt comfortable enough to confide in her about the abuse I was experiencing. I shared my secret with her—I had contacted my local domestic violence shelter and heeded the instructions to have a safe place to go and a plan in place should the time come. Her reply was empathetic just as I would have expected it to be. She also urged me to leave because I “wouldn’t have any trouble finding another guy.”
Growing up, I had difficulty making friends, trusting. I was insecure, unsure, cautious. Modeled for me, a system of unattainable perfection that would be my determinant for personal worth. I was told what to wear, what to do, what to be. Don’t wear sleeveless tops. Learn how to sew. Be a wife one day. In Young Women’s, Sunday lessons taught about how my purpose was to be a wife and mother, and the more I volunteered for closing prayers, the cuter my husband would be.
I liked sleeveless tops, found sewing irritating, and really wanted to nurture my independence. I was scared of getting close to many friends because I suppose I suffered from imposter syndrome.
I believed that sooner or later my friends would find out I really wasn’t that great of a person, not really that talented, not worthwhile.
They would find out that underneath the sleeved shirts and scripture cases, I was a fraud who fantasized about being a single woman with a career. And this would make them all leave me. Of course, these were irrational fears, and of course, the unattainable standard of perfection is also irrational and inauthentic. But I did not know or see it this way.
Growing up, people would describe me as guarded. Even into my adulthood, I remained this way. I don’t know where that came from exactly. I do know that when I first found out about my husband’s marital betrayals, my unattainable standards of perfection were shattered. As a dutiful wife who sacrificed my career and education for his, I convinced myself this was the standard. I stayed awake spending sleepless nights nursing four babies, moving several times for his dreams while my work in the home went unnoticed and thanked by the discovery of affairs, year after year. It is pathetically cliché. Like dominoes, the unattainable standard of perfection—the perfect wife, the perfect marriage, the perfect husband—crumbled under the weight of his betrayals and what would soon become physical trauma.
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When my children and I left, I had injuries. Visible, horrible abrasions, and bruising. The assault gave me flashbacks and nightmares for weeks. I remember driving across the country, fleeing to my own mother while struggling with the insurmountable task to mother my own. Each night as I checked into a hotel, the clerk would stare at my injuries with concern.
I withdrew from many friends in the sisterhood at this time because it was likely their husbands were sitting next to my husband at church and something in me knew that was unsafe.
We spent a magical summer in a desert town, loved on by family, gaining tools of coping, building new friendships. Soon, I learned my husband was going to be asking for custody of the children and was taking me to court. I had anxiety over what might happen. Sick during the day, up during the night with worry and fear for my kids.
Coming back to the place of my abuse was surreal. I knew walking back into the lion’s den would be tough, mentally and emotionally. As I walked into the courthouse, I saw her. My friend who was a single mother, who had a harrowing story of surviving an abusive marriage, whose husband had cheated on her with her best friend, who had full custody of her children. The friend who wore this like a badge of honor. I was taken by her bravery, thinking, Wow, is she here for me? Realizing that once, a long time ago, I never could have imagined being in her shoes, and at this moment I was.
But she wouldn’t look at or acknowledge me. Nothing could prepare me for what happened next.
Soon, I realized she was there with my husband, for my husband. My abuser. The shock and horror were earth-shattering. How could she? Why? What? It soon came that she would proffer her testimony, stating that I was an unfit mother, that I planned to kidnap my own children, that my husband would never abuse me. She bragged about working as a city employee in social services and taking children away from unfit parents. She took pride in these things—virtue-signaling, using the lives of my children as collateral.
I have never felt betrayal like this before. It flattened my spirit and stamped out so much of what I thought I knew.
It would be years before I grew to be able to fully trust myself again after her indescribable actions. Realization after realization swept over me, day after day, that she was having an affair with my husband, at the same time my skin was black and blue from his abuse. I learned later that they attended the temple together during the summer while I was literally selling my own plasma to make ends meet. She had stayed in my home, carelessly boxed up my intimate belongings, and intentionally destroyed my personal possessions. I saw from private chats that they had conspired together from the beginning. Within days of me fleeing for my life with my children in tow, they were going on hikes together, dating, romancing each other. Convincing themselves to “keep this a secret” since “Mormons are judgmental,” and they knew they were doing something very wrong.
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Realizing she put herself, her career, her livelihood on the line for him—a person she knew was abusive—left me in disbelief day after day after day. Her betrayal felt as bad as the physical abuse itself. Those horrific abrasions and purple bruises faded—her damage still lingers.
I have trouble trusting. I have trouble with friendships. I have trouble separating friendship from hurt, pain, and loss of self-esteem.
I have trouble knowing if my instincts are worthy and good. I have trouble feeling like I am worthy and good.
I can never forgive her (and she has not asked) for betraying me in a way that only a woman would understand—using my children in her plan, hurting me in such a fundamental and cheap way, by attacking my mothering.
It is laced with powdered sugar to make it look sweet, but underneath I have learned it can be moldy and rotten. And simply fake. Implicit trust given away without first earning it is manipulation, set up, and framed by a system we are already second place within. Where women slaughter on each other in horrific ways to gain approval as the best prize.
I’ve often observed that our sisterhood participates in our own oppression. Some would assert this is a survival mechanism, instituted by a partriarchal system that damages all women. We eat our young like an oppressed species would do. Though, I’m starting to think it’s simpler even than that.
Maybe it’s because we pride ourselves on the sisterhood we think we have, without really knowing what it means. Boyd K. Packer says of the Relief Society, “This great circle of sisters will be a protection for each of you and your families. You are safe within it. It encircles each sister like a protecting wall.”
But this structured sisterhood creates the opposite of organic sisterhood. These walls are paper-thin, made from a false façade. Instead of authentic, it is artificial. Instead of supportive, it is suppressive. Instead of genuine, it is generic.
And none of this is true sisterhood at all.