Debbie Ricker's courtship with her ex-husband Michael* started just like many relationships do. "I met him at a restaurant," she remembers. "I was with a friend. He said hello, and I ended up asking him if he wanted to eat with us. He seemed nice at first."
That didn't last. Within two months, Michael asked Ricker to move in with him. It seemed quick, but the now-60-year-old from Los Alamitos, California, was turning 30 and hoping to have kids.
"I was lonely," she says. "He became more and more critical, but I had an abusive father so this was familiar. At that time, I'd never even heard of verbal abuse."
So they got married. Ricker says Michael's attempts to control her became more frequent and pronounced after their honeymoon. A month after they married, she got pregnant and Michael said she needed to abort the baby. But Ricker had always wanted children, so she told him no.
Michael was unsupportive when Ricker went back to work just one month after giving birth; he was working as an electrical engineer, and she as a mental health care consultant for hospitals and other facilities.
"He wouldn't help me with [our daughter] or anything around the house, but [he would] tell me everything I was doing wrong," she explains. "I was so exhausted."
He would tell me that I was a 'horrible wife' because I made him feel dirty for 'making love' to me.
Ricker remembers watching a news story one night about a mother with postpartum depression who had injured her child. "The exhaustion made me think, 'Could I do something like that?'" Ricker says. She cried and told Michael about the delirium of her tiredness and the pain of those thoughts, but he remained distant.
They didn't have sex for a few months after the birth of their daughter, but eventually Michael told Ricker that he "owned" her body. "He said that, because we were married, he could do whatever he wanted." she says.
When Michael began raping Ricker, she didn't realize that sexual violence could exist between a husband and wife. "He would wake up the next morning and berate me," she remembers. "He would tell me that I was a 'horrible wife' because I made him feel dirty for 'making love' to me."
The Rape That's 'Not Rape'
It's hard to know how common partner violence actually is, says counselor and psychologist "There are only a few studies that have been conducted, which report anywhere from 10 to 30 percent occurrence [in intimate partner relationships, excluding LGBT]," she explains. "About 30 percent of all rapes committed are committed by the husband, boyfriend, or significant other. If domestic violence is coupled with it, the chances of rape jump to 70 percent."
One of the difficulties in reporting statistics is that many people don't realize that marital rape is rape. "Until 1993, throughout most of the Unites States, it was not illegal to force sexual intercourse on your spouse," says Dr. Ivankovich. "Specifically, the laws excluded the spouse as a perpetrator when defining the occurrence of a rape."
The melting pot of cultures and religions nationwide are another challenge when it comes to clarifying what constitutes rape. "You can't dismiss the role of upbringing and beliefs," Ivankovich insists. "In some cultures, it remains permissible to forcibly engage in sexual activities with your spouse — and for many, what happens behind closed doors in a marriage stays behind closed doors."
The Spoils of Spousal Rape
Ricker says that her husband raped her four times, but the trauma — both physical and mental — is immeasurable.
Ricker went to the gynecologist for a checkup after one of the rapes. "She asked me if I'd been having rough sex," she recalls. "I thought, 'Rough sex? Why would I be having rough sex?'" The injuries were the result of forceful penetration during rape. "I actually had to have surgery to fix the damage he'd done," Ricker says.
And then there was her second child. "My son was conceived out of one of those rapes," she says. "It interfered with my ability to bond with him when he was born."
Accepting that she was raped was a tall order for Ricker. A therapist drew her attention to the disconnect she had with her son as a child.
Ivankovich says the "mental health fallout" from sexual violence among intimate partners is hugely significant. "Depression, anxiety, PTSD — you name it, you'll see it," she says. "This is still rape, so all of the same things you would expect one to feel after rape, a person will feel here, too."
Ask someone who's been in an abusive relationship their favorite color, what they like to do for fun — they have no idea anymore.
Ricker's marriage to Michael lasted just four years, but it's taken many, many more years than that to undo the damage. She never formally accused him of the rapes because she didn't trust her own composure in court and didn't want to lose her children.
"Judges get 13 minutes to hear a case," she says. "Many mothers would get hysterical, whereas the abuser would be cool, very calm, and often the bigger breadwinner." For seven years, her husband had 50 percent custody of their kids, but Ricker spent 16 years and $126,000 fighting to keep them with her.
Ricker was raised Christian, and although she fell away for a time, she ventured back to her faith on her own terms. "My relationship with God is what's gotten me through," she says. "I've finally reached a sense of understanding about what happened, from my own perspective. It took me so many years to get here."
Even though her kids are grown and her relationship with Michael is long over, her experience with abuse isn't finished. Today, she runs a support group for women who have been in abusive relationships — and Ricker says it's been as beneficial for her as it is for the women she helps.
"I learned that we all share common traits," she says. "We have a Cinderella complex, where we think that everything will be fine if we just wait it out. We are not good at keeping boundaries. We are excessively loving and compassionate, and we excuse bad behavior. We are very naive and have low self-worth. We've lost that sense of self. Ask someone who's been in an abusive relationship their favorite color, what they like to do for fun — they have no idea anymore."
If you are in an abusive relationship or have been a victim of spousal rape, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or chat online at , in addition to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 for access to advocates and 24/7 assistance.
*name has been changed