Why Sara Evans Is Asking for 'Benefit of the Doubt' After Reconciling with Husband: 'People Are Going to Be Mad' (Exclusive)

The country singer opens up to PEOPLE after revealing on her podcast that she and her husband Jay Barker are back together after a divorce filing and his 2022 arrest

<p>Andy Baxter</p> Sara Evans

Andy Baxter

Sara Evans

Sara Evans is talking about the emotional music video for her new single “Pride” when she pauses, and her calm, cool demeanor cracks as tears well in her eyes.

The song is a searing ode to a woman’s strength and resilience in the face of a partner’s attempts at making her feel small. And for Evans, it’s a page ripped from her diary during a difficult stretch in her marriage to husband Jay Barker.

“He’s watched it with me many, many times. We show it to people when they come over, and my heart always… Oh, I didn’t know I was going to cry,” she says with a nervous laugh as she stops to collect herself. “People are going to judge me. ‘Why do you feel sorry for him?’ But I know what he’s feeling — he’s feeling shame. But he’s also being brave and being like, ‘Yeah, that’s the truth. I did that.’”

Such self-reflection is new for Barker, but it’s part of the reason Evans, 53, decided to give their marriage another go after filing for divorce in August 2021, as she revealed Thursday on the first episode of her new podcast Diving in Deep with Sara Evans.

Related: Sara Evans Reveals She and Husband Jay Barker Are Back Together After Divorce, 2022 Arrest: 'We're So Happy Now'

Taylor Hill/Getty Jay Barker and Sara Evans in 2019
Taylor Hill/Getty Jay Barker and Sara Evans in 2019

Their time apart was difficult and even led to a shocking arrest in January 2022 after Barker, 51, was arrested and charged with felony assault with a deadly weapon following an altercation involving Evans, her daughter and his car.

But now, speaking to PEOPLE for the first time since the arrest, the country star maintains that her husband has changed his ways, thanks to extensive therapy both individually and in marriage counseling. She understands that her decision to reconcile with Barker won’t be popular with everyone, but she hopes they hear her out.

<p>Andy Baxter</p> Sara Evans

Andy Baxter

Sara Evans

“My biggest fear is that people are going to judge me or be angry with me for staying with Jay and not understand the whole story and the whole picture,” she says. “I just want, more than anything, for them to understand that each marriage is different, each story is different.”

Evans’ story began in 2008, when she and Barker, a radio personality and former professional football player, tied the knot on a Tennessee farm. Fresh off a bitter and public divorce from ex-husband Craig Schelske, the marriage was a new beginning for Evans and her son Avery, now 24, and daughters Olivia, 21, and Audrey, 19, who took quickly to their new “Daddy Jay.”

Related: Country Singer Sara Evans Is ‘Beyond Grateful’ for Daughter's Engagement

But behind closed doors, things soon grew toxic. Evans says a lifetime spent chasing the love of her late, inattentive father and her contentious first marriage to Schelske had laid a foundation that did not serve her. Still, she kept quiet, and held off from telling her children and her inner circle about Barker’s “accusatory” behavior, which she says was “agitated” by alcohol.

“A lack of attention from men was all I’d ever known. If Jay was jealous, that meant he was obsessed with me, which meant he loved me,” she says. “I was so madly in love with him, and still am, that it took me forever to tell people. I was in denial. I thought, ‘I can change it. I can manage his behavior. I can just make sure that nothing ever upsets him.’”

By 2017, though, Evans had started reading books about toxic relationships, which in turn helped her sense that something was amiss in her own marriage.

“That’s when I started to realize, ‘I am in a toxic relationship, and I don’t deserve this,’” she says. “I shouldn’t be scared to say what I want to say or do what I want to do.”

Amanda Stylianou, an expert in the anti-violence field and CEO of the nonprofit HEAL Trafficking, says it’s actually common for victims of domestic abuse to not always realize the signs right away — and that it’s typical for victims to shield their loved ones from the abuse in order to maintain peace and avoid “embarrassing” stigmas.

<p>Frazer Harrison/ACMA/Getty</p> Sara Evans and Jay Barker in 2008.

Frazer Harrison/ACMA/Getty

Sara Evans and Jay Barker in 2008.

“It’s a pattern of behaviors that are really designed to gain power and control in the relationship,” she tells PEOPLE. “And because those are more covert in nature, and because they’re often wrapped up in between a whole bunch of love and promises and good behaviors, can be very hard to recognize for someone when they’re experiencing it.”

In the summer of 2020, Evans says she “just gave up” on her relationship with Barker. Court records obtained by PEOPLE indicate the couple first separated in April 2021, and she filed for divorce that August, citing inappropriate marital conduct.

“I just threw my hands up and said, ‘I quit. I’m tired of this, and there’s no reason we should be living this way, because we have everything. We’re so blessed,’” she recalls. “But at the same time, I was heartbroken because I felt like my hand was forced into doing that. I didn’t want to do that because I love Jay. We’ve been married for 16 years now, and 90 percent of that marriage has been very happy.”

Sara Evans
Sara Evans

After Evans’ divorce filing, the pair lived separate lives, with Barker moving back to his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. They tried to stay in touch, but more often than not, their talks would end in a fight. Evans says she lied to her children about being in contact with Barker during this period, something she says now was “the worst thing that I did.” (Her daughter Audrey tells PEOPLE it was a “complete shock” when she finally learned all that her mom had been through with Barker.)

Tensions finally reached a head on Jan. 17, 2022, a night Evans calls “rock bottom.”

An arrest affidavit reportedly says Barker allegedly reversed his vehicle “at a high rate of speed attempting to hit” unidentified people in a vehicle as they left a party around 1:30 a.m. — “but missed.” The passengers in the vehicle and witnesses told police that Barker “intentionally” tried to strike them with his car. He was charged with felony assault, but later entered a best interest plea and traded the charge down to a misdemeanor reckless endangerment charge and was put on probation.

In the immediate aftermath, Barker asked for privacy on social media, saying news headlines didn’t “adequately capture the full context and complex fabric of our lives.”

Today, Evans says she still does not understand Barker’s arrest, as she does not believe he was trying to hit the car she was in. On her podcast, the singer explained that she’d been with her daughter, and that her daughter had been the one to call police after getting into a verbal altercation with Barker just before the incident.

<p>Jason Davis/WireImage</p> Audrey and Sara Evans at the CMA Awards in Nashville in November 2023

Jason Davis/WireImage

Audrey and Sara Evans at the CMA Awards in Nashville in November 2023

“To this day, I think that he was backing up to see if I was in the car with somebody,” she says. “To my child, it looked like something different altogether. My child had never seen him in that light, and I think that was very shocking.”

She continues: “I just would encourage people not to just believe [it] without him ever speaking about it. I never spoke about it, that, ‘Oh yeah, he tried to kill her with his truck.’ I don’t like that rhetoric because that’s just what happens, too much bulls--- being said without the facts to back it up. I just felt that part of it should’ve been more private because I never spoke to the press. I never said a word.”

Two or three months later Evans received an out-of-the-blue text from Barker that led to their eventual reconciliation. The text opened up a conversation, and before long they were talking again — but not without a new set of ground rules.

First and foremost, Barker would enter therapy, both on his own and with Evans. The star says the couple will remain in therapy “for the rest of our lives,” as she’s aware their issues “need professional help.”

Related: Sara Evans' Estranged Husband Jay Barker Addresses Arrest for Alleged Aggravated Assault with Car

<p>Jason Kempin/Getty</p> Sara Evans at the CMA Awards in Nashville in November 2023

Jason Kempin/Getty

Sara Evans at the CMA Awards in Nashville in November 2023

Next up was earning back the trust of the children. Barker moved back into the family home three or four months ago, and Evans says the daughter who was involved in the January 2022 incident has healed her relationship with Barker after “two major, major talks.” The divorce was officially dismissed in February 2023, according to court records viewed by PEOPLE, and Audrey says now that she’s seen substantial change in the man who raised her.

“When he came back into our lives, it was a complete switch, like he altered his brain chemistry almost,” Audrey says. “In past times, you could see something that would trigger him or make him mad, and all of a sudden he was quiet, and you could see little looks around the room. Now, he’s completely switched his overall energy. When somebody’s teasing him, instead of getting mad about it, it’s more of a laugh or like a, ‘You’re right.’ I’ve seen tiny steps like that throughout the past year of seeing a totally different man as a fatherly figure.”

Evans sees change, too. She points to her song “Pride,” the first single off her upcoming album Unbroke, which is her first record of new material in seven years (out June 7). The lyrics of the song don’t exactly paint her partner in a pretty light, and Evans says she offered to rewrite the track so that she’d sing it in third person instead of first, “out of respect.”

She says Barker balked at the suggestion, insisting she sing it as is, no matter how it portrayed him, as it was her story to tell. Then there’s his reactions to more mundane situations, like Evans deciding to go on a spontaneous trip to Mexico. Before, Barker would have told her not to go, she explains, while now he’d simply say, “OK."

“It’s like 180 degrees. He’s not ever going to be perfect. I’m not ever going to be perfect. But we’re in love. We’re going to do everything we can to stay together and be healthy,” she says. “Now he treats me like a queen. I would not be here if that wasn’t the case. I want people to know that. I filed for divorce. I was serious. I don’t want people to think that I’m minimizing anything having to do with toxic marriages or abuse in marriage or any kind of addiction. I’m not downplaying any of it. I’m just saying, for me, my choice was to stay and put in the hard work but also lay down boundaries and ground rules.”

Stylianou says change is in fact possible, and that at the end of the day, survivors know what’s best for them and just how severe their situation is. It’s up to them, she says, to make the best decisions for themselves and for their children.

“Individuals who acknowledge their abusive behavior, take accountability for their behavior, and actively seek support can transform their actions,” she says. “It’s essential to acknowledge for that individual who has caused harm, their own humanity to understand the possible traumas they’ve endured while simultaneously holding them accountable for the harm that they’ve caused. It’s really through recognizing someone’s humanity while holding accountability that provides that avenue for growth.”

<p>Andy Baxter</p> Sara Evans

Andy Baxter

Sara Evans

For now, Evans is focused on her future. Daughter Olivia announced her engagement in December (“We could not have handpicked a better son-in-law,” she says) and she’s also ready to share Unbroke — which will chronicle her difficult journey back to Barker — with the world.

“This is my marriage. It’s my situation. I’m married to a wonderful man who did imperfect things. I’m a great person who is also imperfect. That was our choice to get better and heal. No one should make their decisions based on me,” she says. “This is very scary because, again, people are going to be mad. [But] I hope that most people will give me the benefit of the doubt and give Jay the benefit of the doubt and just take me at my word that this is the right decision for me.”

If you are experiencing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or go to thehotline.org. All calls are toll-free and confidential. The hotline is available 24/7 in more than 170 languages.

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