When you combine two imperfect human beings in a relationship, there are going to be some challenges. There are going to be ups and downs, good and not so good times. I think we all understand that.
How do you determine if you are going through the normal growing pains in a relationship vs an emotionally abusive one?
My friend “Shelia” is my age, and has been married less than a year. She is very confused, doubting herself, and having doubts about her marriage. This was not one of those conversations about “He drives me nuts when he leaves the wet towels on the floor”.
My conversation with her today led me to tell this story.
While my experience was very painful, I have to say I am so thankful that it happened, and that I lived through it. It allows me to understand what women are going through if they are in an abusive relationship. It allows me to guide them to the realization that it is not all their fault.
I’m using the female pronoun because it’s easier. I know that many men are the recipients of emotional abuse also.
This is not easy to write about. I like to think of myself as relatively intelligent and strong. This story does not portray me as either of those. But it’s the unvarnished truth and if it helps someone see what is happening in their relationship then it is certainly worth telling.
I sailed through a lot of red flags a few years ago and found myself in what I can only describe as a toxic and emotionally abusive relationship. It didn’t last very long, but I will tell you that I felt like I had gone down the rabbit hole for those few months that we were together.
That relationship started my research into abusive relationships. It’s very easy to quantify a physically abusive relationship. If you are hit, choked, pushed or forced to have sex, that is physically abusive. My experience never moved into anything physical. I think he knew that I would fight back. Bullies don’t like to be hurt.
Emotional abuse can be very subtle. There is give and take. The “give” may be compliments, praise, gifts, or mind blowing sex. The “take” may take the form of criticism, anger, control, and lack of empathy.
I remember conversations where I would say “When you did this, and said this, it hurt me.” His answer would be “I didn’t do that. I didn’t say that”
At first I had no doubt that I remembered correctly. But as we had more and more conversations like that I would start to doubt myself. Finally I started making notes in my phone. With dates and times.
I thought that if I could communicate with him he would understand. If I could find the right words, he would change his behavior. I thought I could use logic and reason.
If you love someone, you don’t want to hurt them, right? So if I said “you hurt me and this is why” I thought he would be contrite, apologize, and try to change.
There would either be denial that the situation had occurred, or disbelief that I was feeling hurt. Total dismissal of my feelings. No apology, no attempt to change.
And then the list of everything I had ever done that offended him would start. I misplaced my phone. I left the lights on. I didn’t put the lid on the toothpaste. None of which had anything to do with the topic at hand.
He would get angry about the smallest things. I found myself not doing or discussing things that would anger him. It brought back memories of tiptoeing around the house when my dad was on a rampage. I didn’t like that feeling at all.
I had a big birthday party planned for him. He was agreeable to the idea until the day of. Then “it’s too much work” “I want to play my guitar and you have all these things you want me to do on my birthday”
I gave him one thing to do for the party. Go to the store, get the ice, and ice the drinks down an hour before the party.
He left two hours before the party. Arrived with the ice thirty minutes after the party started and the guests were already there. Afterwards there was no explanation other than he went driving around for a while and lost track of time. No apology. No understanding about why I might be upset.
The thing is, the trick is, it wasn’t all bad. He would tell me that I was the most important thing in the world to him. That he was changing because of me. We would laugh until we cried. Those good times would make me think there was hope, that there was enough good to build on. That is what kept me trying.
I didn’t talk to anyone about it. I was too embarrassed.
Eventually I got tired of the rollercoaster. I started to realize that the words didn’t match the actions. I knew that love was not supposed to make me feel bad about myself. I got tired of feeling like I was in a foggy maze when I tried to communicate with him.
I went to Barnes and Noble and got the book “Why Does He Do That. Inside The Minds Angry and Controlling Men” by Lundy Bancroft. As I stood in the bookstore and looked through the book I recognized phrases and patterns of behavior. I bought the book, took it home and started reading. I underlined sentences, then paragraphs, then circled whole pages.
What I read made me realize that I was not nuts, that I was not somehow “wrong”.
That was the night that I realized I was done. I couldn’t fix him. And if I didn’t get out, I was going to lose the person I was.
Leaving wasn’t easy. Especially since he was living in my house.
I had listened to him talk about having the head of the person that was responsible for him being fired in the sights of his rifle for a week while he considered whether or not he should shoot her. I had laid in bed while he chambered a round in and out of his pistol, not knowing if he was going to shoot me or himself. I knew what he was capable of. I knew he would never accept any responsibility for the failure of the relationship.
It took months to get out. During that time I met Steve, and he was my lifeline.
I was in Hawaii when the final straw hit. Angry phone calls and emails demanding I help him get the electricity turned back on. He wouldn’t try to find the breaker box. Seriously, this was a fifty year old man pitching a fit because it was hot, he was trying to sleep, and there was no air conditioning.
I sent him and email telling him I was done and to move out. He blew up my phone. A couple days later we talked calmly. He asked if he could stay in the spare bedroom for a week or two.
Stupidly I said “yes”.
That was in July. He didn’t move out until the day before the lease was up December 31.
There were confrontations. Telephone calls and emails. I would copy his emails to my sister Tracey (a police officer) and Steve so that if anything happened to me they would have evidence.
I got out.
My story is not as dramatic as many. There are so many stories where women go down the rabbit hole and never come back up. Many take years to make the break. Children and money are used to control them.
My self-defense classes always include a segment on abusive relationships. Many of my friends have lived through something very similar to my experience. Some of my friends may be in an emotionally abusive relationship and not even realize it.
So that is why I tell this story. Is this you? Someone you know?