Groomed for an Abusive Arranged Marriage: Alyssa Wakefield’s Story (Podcast)

by | Jun 9, 2022 | Abuse, Podcasts | 37 comments

Alyssa Wakefield Groomed for Abuse
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What if you grow up in what you now call a sex cult, and you marry because your dad told you to?

Did you really consent to that marriage? And how does it even happen in North America today that girls are being pushed into arranged marriages?

Today’s podcast sounds more like one of those True Crime documentaries.

Alyssa Wakefield is the daughter of a couple big in the fundamentalist homeschooling movement; the Gothard movement; and John MacArthur’s church. She married a man big in the same circles, and joined Doug Phillips’ Vision Forum circle.

Homeschooled, she was groomed for an early marriage. They stopped teaching her at 16, though she desperately wanted to go to college. And her father arranged for her marriage to a man more than a decade older than her. That marriage, Alyssa says, was abusive.

Today Alyssa tells her story for the first time–at least her story in her own words. For many years, she and her ex-husband were used as poster children for a successful courtship story. Her story was in homeschooling videos. She’d be up on stage at conferences.

Today she gets to tell the story without her father’s input or her father-in-law’s input. I’m honoured she chose to tell it to us.


Or, as always, you can watch on YouTube:


Timeline of the Podcast

0:10 This is a new topic for us!
2:15 Alyssa shares her childhood upbringing
9:25 Breaking her will, intro into purity culture and Gothard teachings
17:45 Intro into betrothal culture
21:30 Being a target for grooming
37:15 Fathers made a marriage arrangement
44:15 How Alyssa was selected for her marriage
49:45 Proposal at first real meeting
55:45 Rebecca and Sheila talk through this kind of upbringing

This is what happens when we take away children’s agency.

Notice how the whole focus of parenting of Alyssa was fear. Her parents were trying to control her life because they were afraid of outside influences. They use pious words and Christian language, but it all comes down to fear.

And when we’re afraid, we want to control. And so in these communities, there’s a hyper-focus on control. Combine that with a theology that tells men they’re supposed to have power over women, and it’s a toxic mix.

But can you see how Alyssa’s childhood meant that she didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to refuse that marriage? That’s why we need to stop using parenting techniques that try to control our kids, and instead learn to raise them with compassion, guiding them to make good decisions rather than forcing our will on them.

Join us on June 21st for an awesome FREE webinar with Wendy Snyder from Fresh Start Families (she was on our podcast several weeks ago talking about what compassionate discipline looks like.) It’s totally FREE, but you just need to register!

What if you don't need to control your kids and punish your kids to raise great kids?

Let’s look at evidence-based parenting methods that WORK that bring life, rather than break our kids’ spirits. Plus they’re easier on you!

Join us for a FREE webinar June 21 with Wendy Snyder from Fresh Start Families. Start your new parenting journey!

Much of what Alyssa said her parents believed and practiced is actually mainstream evangelical theology.

When Rebecca and i were processing Alyssa’s story afterwards, we were commenting on how so much of what she was saying her parents believed and practiced is merely common theology taken to its logical conclusion. Yes, it’s extreme. But it’s still on the same spectrum. It’s still about control. It’s still about men being in charge. It’s still about not trusting your emotions. It’s still about blind obedience.

We need to stop promoting these things as correct at all, even in small increments, because this is what it leads to. We need to realize that the root is the problem. The extremes aren’t the problem–the root is! A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough, as Jesus said. It’s time to put an end to these theologies which try to control women and children, and instead help people thrive as children of God.

Things Mentioned in This Podcast:

UPDATE: Listen to Part 2 of Alyssa’s story!

Podcast Alyssa Wakefield Groomed for Abuse

What did you think of Alyssa’s story? Can you see the commonalities in theology that’s common in evangelicalism and in fundamentalism? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Jo R

    Haven’t listened yet, but just reading the podcast notes, these two sentences jumped out at me:

    “It’s still about men being in charge. It’s still about not trusting your emotions.”

    Perhaps this is why men so often shut down their emotions, so that they can claim they’re not relying on those oh so deceptive, untrustworthy feelings. The thing men rely on is, therefore, their completely rational minds.

    Of course the corollary that comes directly out of that conclusion is that since “women are emotional,” they can’t actually think straight (though why men lose their minds in the presence of a little female skin would seem to give the lie to the statement that men are strictly rational, but I digress). That indictment in turn sets women up for the gaslighting that we endure pretty much everywhere: in society, in church, and even in our own homes.

    • Codec

      I do not think it is that men are taught to turn of their emotions as much as it is trying not to let emotions control you.

      Still, it is not helping that people are treating women (as well as men in some cases) as being incapable of making informed decisions.

      • Hannah

        From personal experience, not being controlled by your emotions can very easily turn into ignoring/ switching off your emotions. I think that if emotional health isn’t taught or modelled then it’s much easier to head down the route of suppressing emotions. This may be accidental and unplanned. For men and women.

  2. A2bbethany

    Can relate alot to her story, though my dad thought staying in the world was good. He stopped us from going to deep into things like the gothards and vision forum. Or another direction of the Amish/Mennonite, as we had influences. My sister’s abusive husband actually was Mennonite, for a long time.

    I liked that point that biblical doesn’t equal good or godly. A good thing to remember when considering the many different interpretations put into the Bible.

    And I think why I relearned everything so quickly after marriage, was my relationship with God. I didn’t put anyone’s word over my own words from him. Because I understood that we’re all on individual and different paths. What’s right for my parents or friends, might not be my path in life.

  3. Phil

    Im only 20mins in but I have to make comment before I forget…Alyssa’s story made me think of my home Church Pastor who led an incredible Ministry in our church. First as an Assistant then returning as Lead. I always valued his words and direction. However, I recall the infant baptism of my oldest and there was something there that has always troubled me. We had to go to Baptism class before our son could be Baptized. I recall his words along the lines of the baby is a sinner. All the baby does is eat cry and poop. Like thats a sin? Of course one Baptism for the forgiveness of ALL sins. It was just presented as foul to me…and I have never processed that other than there was something afoul. Then the other big one I just came to realize totally right now because of this podcast..I was molested by a Youth Pastor in our church who did not serve during the Pastors Ministry I am referencing: when I finally was ready to talk I knew of another kid who hung out with this Youth Pastor. Although he came from a stable home with two parents (unlike me). I wanted to know if this kid (now an adult) had the same experience as me? My Pastor told me I should not approach him on that matter as he was about to get married. So I never spoke to him about it. Right here right now – this very minute I am going WHAT? If anything my Pastor should have set up the DAM meeting with us to find out! Because if in fact he did have the same experience as me, his future wife should certainly be aware and he should have started working on it! What strikes me about Alyssa’s story is that her parents decided to play God well before we have even gotten to he arranged marriage part of the story. Raising a child in extreme protectiveness of this world is basically saying I am Jesus and I am your savior. Thats what Alyssa’s parents message was to her. Thats freakin awful.

    • A2bbethany

      If you think about it, raising a kid like that makes no sense. Why let them live at all if they’re that fragile? Why not encourage family’s suicide pacts?(sorry if that’s too dark for a comment) that way, it’s Garunteed to be no more sin or sins ever committed? They’ll all just shoot up to heaven! And you can say that single men are meant to tell the “lost”. Family’s then won’t need to control every breath of everyone. It’s a much simpler solution to their way of thinking.

      Yeah life down here got messed up by the fall. And I do believe in original sin, but that doesn’t mean the world isn’t beautiful! I believe that there’s 3 spirits (or spiritual components of a person). Good, evil and my own individual spirit. I was made for living and loving life. I don’t need to be broken down or something. Because of sin, I do need to repent and be saved. But that actually comes later and naturally as I became an adult. If a child dies, they are taken to heaven. (A belief that a lot of Christians have. Where that line is, is a debate. But generally any child too young to comprehend good and bad.)

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Thank you, Phil. It is just awful.

      And I know I’ve said this before–but I’m just horrified that you were abused by a youth pastor, at church, at what was supposed to be your safe place. I’m so sorry.

      And, yes, seeing children as just evil and always in sin for what is merely developmentally appropriate behaviour is so, so wrong and does so much damage!

  4. Jo R

    When and how do horny, out-of-control teenage boys turn into good-willed, decent, self-controlled, godly men?

    • Codec

      As someone trying to do just that I can say it is a process. A process that has not been helped by the way most folks talk about porn.

  5. Codec

    I find it disturbing. You had what happened with Ravi Zacharias which was horrible. Ravi may have helped me grow and learn but when it came it it was rather disturbing. You have Kent Hovind who I disagree with having commited spousal abuse on his two ex wives as well as all of the other criminal or academically dishonest stuff. You also have weird culty stuff with this Gothard guy. I know that a lot of good is also being done but a real cavalcade of debauchery has been exposed.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      It totally has! I think God is stripping things bare right now, bringing the hidden things to light. There is a massive purification and refining going on, and too many people are taking the wrong lessons from it. But a lot are seeing the truth–that we missed Jesus altogether with so much of our theology and how we built our churches and ministries.

  6. Noel Lokaychuk

    Wow. I actually feel so much gratitude after listening to this. We were on the fringe of Gothardism for years, but never went all the way. I remember telling my father when I was 14 that when the time came I thought maybe he should just arrange marriage for me. But he laughed it off, and downplayed that. I really appreciate that. When I was 17 there was a guy that my parents told me they would accept courting me (he was 24) but when I didn’t respond they left it. No pressure. My sister and I were damaged by all the literature we had in the house on the topic, but I am so grateful that they didn’t practice what was preached. My younger sister’s relationships were badly affected by the remnants of courtship, but I wasn’t married until I was 28- against my parents’ “will,” to a divorced man. But I am so grateful they never went full Gothard!

  7. Lena Mae

    I literally broke down crying several times listening to this podcast, because I suddenly didn’t feel so alone in my experience…so much of my confusing childhood began to make more sense. My family joined IBLP when I was a toddler, and we used their resources in homeschooling, and even though we were never on the extreme side, I’m beginning to see how subtly and yet perniciously these toxic teachings wove themselves in my very psyche. I’m 30 now, and the whole “you can’t trust your emotions”, “the heart is wicked”, etc., has led to me experiencing excruciating self-doubt– it’s like I can’t even trust my own reality, because I’ve been gaslit since I was a child. And there’s the whole depriving of one’s agency that Alyssa talked about, which has crippled me because I’m terrified to make my own choices– when she mentioned the forced hugs after an apology, it reminded me of whenever someone in my family hurt me in someway, and my mom told them to apologize, I would be forced to say “I forgive you” right away. I remember when I was about 6 or 7, being an introvert, it took me a while to process my own emotions, and I didn’t want to say “I forgive you” without processing what happened and making sure that I really meant what I said, so I resisted, I just wanted some more time to think about it, but my mom said that I had to choose to forgive right away, because she wouldn’t tolerate bitterness in the house, and if I didn’t say “I forgive you” nicely, then I would be punished. Yes, I would be punished for not forgiving the person who hurt me and who only apologized because they were also coerced. It’s no wonder that I struggle with the concept of forgiveness now as an adult, because it always feels like a violation of my free will, a betrayal of my emotions, a dismissal of my emotions. I long to heal from all these childhood wounds, but I don’t even know where to begin. How do you begin to dismantle things that you were taught when you were so young? I wish the people who came out on the other side of this would talk about more of the practical, day-to-day things they did that began to heal these broken places, instead of just in really vague, general terms.

    • Eliza

      I was also raised in ATI–though my parents always despaired that they were not good at following all the parenting rules (thankfully!)–but still a lot of the teachings got deeply ingrained in me. These may be TOO specific, but these are small silly things that have helped me speak up for myself.

      * When I made easy-over fried eggs for breakfast (which is nearly every morning), inevitably a couple of yolks would break. I don’t like that as well, but I would always take them because of course it’s my job to do everything in my power to serve and support my husband, which included always giving him the best of literally everything. I finally decided that I would let myself claim the unbroken egg yolks! I deserve delicious runny egg yolk too! (BTW, he had no idea I was doing this and fully supported me taking whatever eggs I wanted.) Oh, and I can totally give him the more successful eggs if I feel like it, but I don’t feel like I *have* to any more.

      * I mostly have to give myself permission to say “no.” My family doesn’t care. It was me that felt like I always had to be there with whatever anyone asked. So sometimes, I just say, “no,” politely, because I just don’t feel like getting up and getting that for you right now. Or I put it off until it’s a convenient time for me. (I realize this would be *terrible* advice for a selfish person, but if you’ve gone your whole life trying to make everything good for everyone but yourself, it can be a free trip to empowerment and you are not suddenly going to turn into a horrible selfish monster.)

      * We set aside money each month to be our personal spending money and it goes into a separate bank account that is solely for that purpose. I’m the only one on that account. I still have trouble spending money on myself but it does help that it’s just sitting there with nothing else to do.

      * Therapy is good if you can do it, but even if you can’t, find a way to make some time where you just think about what *you* are feeling and thinking about things. Even if you can’t do anything about them, being able to honest about how you feel about them is a huge part of staying sane and in touch with yourself.

      * At one point, and after a lot of therapy for both of us, my husband and I had a ceremony where we released each other from our original wedding vows (made under courtship pressures and assumptions) and committed ourselves to each other in a new ceremony.

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        OH MY GOSH. That last one brought tears to my eyes. That’s beautiful! That’s such redemption right there.

  8. Donita Fogle

    I believe this forced arranged ‘marriage’ system is being used in live gambling for older women and to use experienced ex wives to help with ‘younger wives’ and younger pornography participants and traffickers even in TX and OK and wherever remotes can be set up and satellite and trolls etc.

  9. Lisa

    If you haven’t done so already, do take a look at the latest Humans of New York story. It’s also about a woman who was severely abused in a cultish environment and it’s both horrific and hopeful.

  10. Jo R

    How is this whole arranged-marriage way of raising daughters not in actuality just a prettied-up, Christianized form of pimping?

    • Codec

      You have a point.

  11. Emmy

    Arranged marriages have been common for ages all around the world. They even are described in the Bible. But when Abraham sent his servant Eliezer under oath to find a wife for Isaac, he told him he was free from the oath if the girl he found would not want to follow him. And when Eliezer found Rebecca, she was asked by her family: “Do you want to go with this man?” They asked for her opinion and consent.

    There is no way to defend an arranged marriage without consent as being “biblical”.

    • Jo R

      Call me cynical, but did she REALLY have a free choice? Or did she give the only answer she was culturally allowed to give?

      I can easily see how a woman who turned down a marriage proposal might well be considered too, well, troublesome as a wife, and so no more proposals would be forthcoming.

      • Emmy

        You may be right. Maybe Rebecca did not have a real choice. I do not endorse arranged marriages, certainly not. My point was, however, that Alyssa’s situation was even WORSE that the arranged marriage of Rebecca, for Alyssa even had no formal choice.

    • Lisa M

      There are multiple instances of women being married with no mention of their consent in the Bible. And, like Alyssa in this episode, those that did consent– did they actually have a choice? Daughters were the property of their fathers until they married. Certainly some fathers likely gave their daughters choices and just as certainly, some didn’t.

      This isn’t a new idea among people who claim to be godly and many of the people in the Bible are examples of how not to treat others.

      The concept of a biblical marriage changes throughout the centuries when the Bible was written– from polygamy to monogamy. Prenuptial agreements were definitely common practice.

  12. Macy K

    I’m wondering what Alyssa’ involvement was with the ministry that her dad started, called Elijah Ministries. I believe he started it around the time that Alyssa married Robert Welch. If I remember correctly, Robert also worked with the ministry for a time.

    The motto of the ministry was “turning the hearts of the fathers towards their children, and the hearts of the children towards their fathers”. I personally was helped out of a home situation very similar to the one that Alyssa describes that she grew up in. When I was well into my 20s, I was still being controlled by my parents spiritual/emotional hold over me. It was Alyssa‘s parents and their ministry that helped me out of my situation. They encouraged me to listen to the Holy Spirit’s leading above everything else. I remember specifically that a verse they used that helped me was, “where the spirit of the Lord is there is peace”. I have always been grateful to them. I was wondering what you think about this in light of the other things mentioned in the podcast as well as elsewhere in the blog.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      She talks more about her dad’s attitude towards the abuse in her marriage in next week’s podcast!

    • a

      Hi Macy, Alyssa here. I am glad you were freed from controlling parents. Being controlled in your 20’s by parents is not only a shame, but abuse and I hope my folks called it as such. At the same time you claim they led you out, I was receiving emails about what to wear from my father, a good deal of pressure as to how to educate my children, how it was wrong for me to have an independent bank account as a married women, and encouraged to submit to abuse, my heart and words not listened to, as well as other things. I have found it is easy for counselors to lead others in the “right way” while not living it out themselves. It is easy for anyone to do that. However, I find it interesting that you felt a need to attempt to invalidate, or question, the very daughter of the people you are defending. I would guess outsiders may also see your folks in a light that you did not experience in the same way. I am glad you shared your limited experience you had and that it was positive. However, this podcast is my experience. I love my parents, always have, always will. But that does not mean silence is the correct response to my experience, nor does your experience in anyway, invalidate my own. Gothard, Norm, Doug, Piper, and many other men have helped people in areas of their lives… this does not make them accurate in all areas, theology, parenting, nor does it void out those they have abused, hurt, or directly gave bad and damaging advice to. Again, I am glad you found help, and freedom and they aided you with that. I did not find help or freedom in the same way from the same people and my experiences run life long and many. I wish you well, and consider? For example — I have also gotten good advice from sources in my life, that in their personal lives, I do not know what those closest to them experienced; so it is a good idea to keep people and ministries off pedestals is a healthy way to live in reality. Have a blessed day.

  13. Lisa M

    Thank you SO MUCH for giving her the platform to tell her story. These survivors need to be heard. There are so many scary things happening in the world right now but it is WONDERFUL that the men in power can no longer control who gets heard and who gets silenced.

    I very glad for the commentary at the end. This is not about doing patriarchy in the wrong way. You cannot not do it any other way– it’s always wrong– even without arranged marriages, even without this level of parental control. It’s always wrong. It’s always harmful.

  14. Julie

    Yes! What Rebecca said at the end of the podcast about there being a scale!
    Alyssa’s experience may be a 10 on the awfulness scale but there are plenty of us whose experience is a 2 or a 3 and it’s still not fair! Thanks for calling us onward and upward to a healthy faith devoid of misogyny and patriarchal abuse!
    Lord, they kingdom come, they will be done…. 🙏🙌

  15. Boone

    I’ve seen some weird stuff come out of fundy churches in East TN but aside from Joe Combs keeping a child as a slave this story takes the cake.

  16. Laura

    This is exactly what happened to my friend! We helped her out of a forced marriage. She had been married for 12 years and had 3 kids. She filed for annulment and won. Her case can be used for other cases like this. Please find Knots the Documentary to see her story!

  17. Tabitha

    I am super fortunate to have been spared that level of damage. I was homeschooled, steeped in purity culture, had a crush on Josh Harris, the works.

    My mom will tell you there’s no such thing as a compliant child, that even the most outwardly submissive kid is secretly rebellious in their hearts. I believed her because she was my mom – but the truth is, I was the most compliant kid on the planet (probably partly because I’m autistic and crave rules and order).

    I remember BEGGING my parents to arrange a marriage for me. I desperately wanted someone else to make the decisions and make it easy so I could know I was a good Christian. I used to be so mad at God for not calling me to be a missionary because I wanted to be able to prove to myself that I loved him.

    My parents refused. They were gung-ho homeschoolers, never even considered sending me to the (quite excellent) public elementary school we were zoned for that my children currently attend (well, my oldest will be moving on to middle school next year…). We listened to Adventures in Oddessey and Moody was pretty much on all the time. So the whole culture was the dominant influence in my life.

    But my parents refused to make decisions for me – even when I begged them. They advised waiting, trusting God to provide a husband, if he so choose, when the time was right. I think they actually trusted him for the most part (maybe not completely – Rush Limbaugh was on almost as much as Moody when I hit high school), and that protected me from the worst of the damage of this culture i was raised in.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That’s wonderful, Tabitha! Yes, some parents are in a church culture that is toxic, but they themselves are not. It does sound like you were spared the worst.

  18. J

    Alyssa, Thank you for sharing your story. I’m so impressed by your bravery both in sharing it with the world and in breaking free of your abusive marriage. I cried during many moments listening to you speak. I also grew up in the purity culture, although not to the extreme like you experienced, and still struggle with the trauma. Praise God that you and your children are free.

  19. JH

    My story is similar to Alyssa’s story! I currently am divorced but my children and I are still experiencing emotional, and spiritual abuse from my ex. I want to thank her for speaking up… for the courage that it took!!!!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m sorry for what you’re going through! I hope you’re in a good place!

  20. Jill

    I am so deeply saddened by your experience, especially because Got hard has impacted my extended family and the ripples have impacted my own life, marriage, theology and beyond. In listening to her story, I recognize so much more in my own story that I still need healing from and has brought the abuse I have experienced in my own marriage to the front again to heal. Thank you for your courage to recognize Abba’s voice calling you out of what is evil yet done in his name and to share your story bravely so others might find healing too

  21. Claudia

    Thank you so much, Sheila, for bringing Alyssa to your (new to me) podcast! I cannot stop thinking about Alyssa’s story and her COURAGE!!! I remember the first time I went to the store not wearing a skirt and how scared I was even about running into a certain family. This was not my background, as I did not know Jesus until I was 31. I clung to the super-conservative teaching I heard among homeschoolers I followed as if it would save my children from what I experienced. I remember going to one of Norm Wakefield’s sessions at a homeschool conference and walking away feeling so sad and dark. Something didn’t sit right in my spirit and now I know that was the Holy Spirit but I just assumed I was lesser-than spiritually. I had been a teacher and completed my masters degree years earlier, but I still fell prey to all the VF propaganda. It was my husband, praise God, who protected me/us. I am SO THANKFUL to God for my husband. In spite of the challenges we have faced raising our sons, they are nothing compared to the hurt and abuse Alyssa experienced, and I am so thankful they were spared. Alyssa, I admire you so much and I know, if not now, one day your children will be so overwhelmingly grateful for the freedom you won for them! You are a warrior mama, and I pray the Lord will order your every step and bring godly, full-of-grace-and-love people into your life and the lives of your children. I am praying for you, Alyssa!


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