By William Plummer
April 29, 1996 12:00 PM

CHRISTIAN-MUSIC RECORDING star Susie Luchsinger and her husband, Paul, a rodeo steer-wrestling pro, are curled up by the fire in their modest Chockie, Okla., ranch house, talking about a defining moment in their marriage. It happened just before Easter last year. They were in the barn, and Paul told Susie to hold down a 300-pound calf while he castrated it. Susie was concerned for her safety and refused. “It made him very mad,” she recalls. “But at least I had the gumption to say I wasn’t going to do it. I went to the house and started cooking supper, and Paul came in and busted some furniture up.” Ironically, to Susie that was good news. “In my mind I knew he wasn’t going to hit me,” she says. “I knew he’d crossed to the other side.”

For years, Susie Luchsinger, 38, chose to keep quiet about a tragic fact of her life: Paul, now 40, had kicked, punched and verbally abused her throughout their marriage. When angry, he would attack her, he says, until she “crawled up in a ball.” Sadly, that doesn’t make the couple unique: according to the U.S. Department of Justice, more than a million women a year are battered by husbands or boyfriends. But the Luchsingers differ from many such couples. They sought counseling, saved their marriage, and are now willing to talk about the experience.

In hindsight, Susie regrets that she never told her sister Reba McEntire, the country star, about the abuse and never contacted the police. (Paul also admits spanking their children—Eldon Paul, 12, Lucchese, 9, and Samuel, 6—too hard.) “I’ve been labeled a dumb Christian-martyr wife,” says Susie. “But I’d like to come past that. I love my husband. I thought we could work through the problem. Now I confess I was wrong. I should have separated from him and let him go and get his life straightened out.”

Paul agrees. “If she had left, it would have probably got healed a lot quicker,” he says. As it was, the situation took therapy, commitment and time. “I’m no longer the Paul Luchsinger that beat up on Susie,” says Paul. “Today we’re remorseful of the past, but not afraid to share it.”

Paul and Susie met in 1980 at the National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City. Susie was singing backup for Reba, and Paul was wrestling steers. “When I first met Paul,” she says, “he was very gentle, just a joy to be around.” They married 11 months later. Then, six months into the marriage, Paul put on a show of rage that terrified her. “He was getting ready to go to a rodeo, and something made him mad,” she says. He didn’t hit her then. “But,” says Paul, “I tore a door off the hinges and threw a stereo across the room.”

Born in Montana, Paul, who grew up in New Mexico, won’t talk about his childhood. “The Bible is very clear,” he says. “The sins of the fathers are passed from generation to generation until someone says, ‘Whoa, stop this and repent.’ ” Paul says he was a “major macho guy” all his life: “I was drinking, doing party drugs and chasing women.” He says he fought all the time but had never hit a woman—until 1982 at the Albuquerque [N.Mex.] State Fair. “I slugged Susie in the hotel room,” he says, “and she got a black eye, which she had to hide under makeup.” By that time, intensely jealous, Paul had begun tracking Susie in his car when she was on the road with Reba. “It was very scary,” says Susie. The abusive episodes that followed took place three or four times a year when Paul couldn’t handle his frustrations. “Something insignificant, like not balancing the checkbook, would trigger the abuse,” says Paul. Usually he would kick Susie. “I knew that if I kicked her,” says Paul, “she could cover the injuries up.” No one, he says, suspected the kind of man he was. “I went to church, and the outside of me looked good,” he says. “But the inside was in turmoil. I tried for the first six years to do something about it, but I lacked the strength.”

The turnaround began in 1988 after Susie confided in friends, who urged the couple to consult a Christian counselor in Idaho. “That was the beginning of our healing and of people getting involved in our lives,” says Paul. For the last two-and-a-half years the Luchsingers have been receiving instruction from the Rev. Ken Hutcherson, pastor of Antioch Bible Church, near Seattle. Hutcherson says his method is to use the Bible as a “guidebook.” (Initially, though, the 6’3″, 270-lb. pastor says he once warned Paul, “If you hit her again, I’ll come over and show you how it feels.”) It took time, but eventually it worked. Says Paul: “God has helped me establish priorities in my life. Today, when I make a mistake, I ask for forgiveness.”

On her latest album, Come as You Are, Susie cowrote a song called, “I Don’t Love You like I Used to, I Love You More.” The accompanying video depicts a rodeo rider and the ups and downs of his life. “It was perfect for us,” says Susie. “I not only love Paul now, I like him. When you come through fire like we have—and I mean it was hell on earth for a long time—you appreciate each other a lot more.”