Someone who read my blog post about my recent divorce and the verbal and emotional abuse that led to it said that there was a kind of “hole” in the narrative.
He said that while the piece illuminated a lot of things about my situation, it sidestepped the actual experience of the abuse. He’s right. I did this on purpose, because I know both from the complexity of my unfolding recovery and my time in the writing business that these stories aren’t finished in a few thousand words. You can’t tell it all at once.
Now, I can’t decide whether a follow-up piece focusing on the experience of abuse is needed because of the number of people who don’t understand it, or if it’s needed because of the number of people who already understand it perfectly and deserve to see aspects of their lives reflected in a safe, accessible way. (And remember: while the majority of abuse victims are women, people of any gender or sexual orientation can find themselves in this scenario.)
By a quick count, not including many people who discussed it in public forums including social media and the comment thread on the blog, about twenty people wrote me messages right around the time I published that post, and about half of those people said they had experienced some kind of abuse in their own partnerships or families.
They’re all extended family members, friends, acquaintances, or friends of friends. In all but one of the cases, I had had no idea that the person had been through an abusive relationship.
Is this a scientifically selected, controlled, and replicable sample? No. Are we now going to talk about the official statistics of abuse in America perpetrated by partners or family members? No. I’ll save that for a broader, more journalistic endeavor.
I’m still healing and there are things I’m not ready to tell, and judging from my experience so far, there are things I’ve suppressed whose effects I’m not even aware of yet. So of course there are holes in the story. But now I have a new sense of the urgency of telling what there is to tell, even if I can’t define exactly why yet — it could be that more people need to understand the realities of abuse; it could be that people who have experienced abuse benefit from reading versions of their own story. It could be people like me: I didn’t realize what was happening in my own life until I read what other people had written about it, and recognized the patterns there as surely as you recognize the symptoms of a disease or injury that goes undiagnosed for a long time, and is suddenly pinpointed by a perceptive doctor.
People who have not experienced the dynamics of severe emotional manipulation by a partner, once they hear what happened in my life, often ask why it took me so long to realize what was happening, and leave. I’m a smart girl, aren’t I?
The reasons behind that could be a whole book. A whole shelf of books. They already are. All I’ll try to say about that right now is that when you’re in an abusive relationship, including emotional and verbal abuse, you might feel like the fence that is stuck in this tree.
I also feel like it’s important to say here that in my experience, a lot of people define the breaking point of an abusive relationship — or the point at which you are truly justified in leaving — as the day the perpetrator’s behavior becomes physically threatening. But extricating yourself and healing from a toxic relationship that leaves no physical marks can be just as terrifying, if not more so, than fleeing a physically abusive relationship. The often invisible, intermittent nature of verbal or emotional abuse makes it all the harder to define and admit — and all the easier for the abuser to continue hiding his or her behavior from the world.
What does verbal or emotional abuse look or sound like? The stories other people have recently told me are their own. But if there’s a hole in my original narrative about the divorce, maybe I can begin to fill it by explaining what it’s like to be afraid of going to the doctor with your spouse.
You worry because the way your spouse behaves when other people are present is not the same way he behaves when alone with you. Quiet, respectful behavior in front of a doctor or others is later transformed into acid frustrations at your failure to achieve full mental or physical health (“You know you’re going to fuck up my kids, right?” or “if I’d known you were going to get this sick, I never would have married you.”). Sometimes you’ve invited your spouse to accompany you to doctor or therapy appointments in hopes that it’ll help him get a better understanding of your illnesses, and be kinder about them at home, but your spouse usually expresses no interest in going.
So when your spouse is driving you to the doctor one morning and you mention that you’d prefer to see the doctor privately, you’re a little nervous, because the things you ask for somehow have a way of turning out to be exactly what your spouse hates to give, but you think it won’t be too big a deal because of the number of times he has shrugged at the chance to go with you.
But you’re wrong today. While looking for a parking spot at the medical complex, your spouse suddenly becomes furious. Other family members have accompanied you to the doctor — why not him? He should be the most important person in your life, privy to everything before anyone else. What are you hiding?
His voice rises and rises. “I am your fucking husband!” He yells. It’s like ice water in your guts and you shrink in the passenger seat. “I am your FUCKING HUSBAND!” He yells it over and over again.
You apologize and backpedal and apologize and say he’s right and it’s fine for him to come into the appointment after all (anything to make the shouting and cursing stop before you get out of the car). Your spouse does stop yelling when the doors open, but refuses to come to the appointment after all, and broods in the waiting room. You walk into the consulting room feeling exhausted and bruised and guilty, blinking back tears.
But just like abuse doesn’t always mean a punch, verbal and emotional abuse doesn’t always mean yelling and swearing.
For your birthday, your spouse gives you a pair of tickets to see one of your favorite performers, leaving them on your pillow for you to find. You’re touched and delighted. The afternoon of the show, while you’re resting up for the evening, your spouse sits on the couch with you for a long time and dispassionately explains how he never would have married you if he had known your health problems would become so severe — in fact, because you used to be healthier, you’re a liar and you tricked him into a marriage no man would want. Just admit that you’re a liar. A sick wife and a liar. Your desperate guilt and misery rise and rise until you can’t hold back your tears. He says to stop trying to shut down the conversation — that’s all it is, a simple conversation anyone should be able to have — and manipulate him by crying, the way women always do.
You regain your composure in time to go out, but you feel so raw on the inside that it shows, and your spouse gets irritated because you’re not having enough fun. Afterwards, he says your bad attitude ruined the night.
There are resources to help people who are experiencing this kind of behavior. But the bottom line I would offer, for now, is to pay attention to whether someone always makes you feel like what you’re doing and saying is wrong.
Over time, this pattern goes deep. In my case, it extended all the way into avoiding cooking, typing, brushing my teeth, washing my face, or brushing my hair while my ex was in the room, because he would often find something wrong with the way I was doing these things: I scrubbed my face too vigorously, I brushed my hair too fast, I typed too loudly, that is not the right way to cook an egg.
My dread must have shown. Sometimes he’d watch me silently for long minutes, with crossed arms and narrowed eyes.
“Why are you looking at me like I’m some abusive husband?” he’d demand at last. “How do you think it makes me feel when you look at me like that?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.”
“Do I hit you?”
“Do I punch and kick you?”
“Then I don’t know why you’re looking at me like that. I would never hurt you.”
One night something about the way I was cooking dinner suddenly made him furious. He began shouting in my face, fingers jabbing my collarbone. I asked him not to yell at me. He said he needed to yell to make his point and he was entitled to talk to me in whatever way was necessary for him to be understood as my husband. I felt the kitchen towel rack against my back. I was cornered between the wall and the hot stove. I was so startled, I remember the big plastic ketchup bottle dropping out of my hands and hitting the floor.
So what’s the point?
Poor, poor me? Look what I’VE been through?
The point is that what happened to me is happening and has happened to people all around you, whose partners seem friendly, engaging, and loving in public. It seems so prevalent, once you peel back the secrecy and fear, that I’m fighting with myself about whether to believe that abusive behavior, from people of all genders, is simply human nature and some of us are just bound get caught up in it.
I don’t want to believe that.
Talking about the problem more may not prevent abusers from wreaking their havoc (in their own conscious or unconscious layers of trauma, pain, malice, or desire for control), but it may help their victims recognize what’s happening, and get out. I wish I could speak to abusers too: that maybe they’d read this, recognize themselves, and work to change. Unfortunately, while it’s not impossible, this kind of self-awareness and desire to halt toxic behavior is rare for people who are already engaging in abuse.
If you haven’t experienced this treatment, someone you love probably has, whether or not you know about it. You’ve read the beginnings of my story. Can you listen to others’? Can you tell your own? And throw the lights on a safer space for everyone?
So sad you had to endure this in silence for so long. I’ve cried many tears for you. May your healing bring you new happiness and health. xo
Thanks for the support!
For anyone else who’s STILL enduring it — you don’t have to do it in silence. You may keep quiet b/c you’re scared and you don’t realize you have any other option. Connect with your loved ones/supporters or a doctor or therapist. You do have options.
This post made me sick to my stomach and my heart pound. I have so much fury against him for abusing you, against anyone who would act this way.
I feel ridiculously lucky that I’m in the half of commenters who haven’t experienced this. I’m so glad you’re writing this for the world to see. Keep it up, brave woman.
I hope the bad effects weren’t long-lasting. Thanks for your support. I do often feel angry and try to give myself permission to feel it when it comes up, but mostly I try to look forward. I do feel pretty rage-full on behalf of other people who are still going through this.
I’m very glad you haven’t been through this! May nobody EVER have to go through this. It’s scary to write this but worth it I hope for anyone who needs to hear it.
So powerful. I relate to so much of this post. My experiences were different, but similar. I cannot even bring up touchy conversations if I am in a moving vehicle or confined space as the panic over the other person’s possible reaction strikes hard and fast.
Thankyou for sharing a little bit of your story. When we are in the midst of these experiences, our whole grasp of what is normal becomes so skewed. My hope is that the more we share our experiences, the more people will begin to understand that 1) it doesn’t have to be physical to cause harm, and 2) others have experiences like ours and made it out.
For me, as well, I hid so much for so long, that there was something cathartic about revealing what had happened. Not for pity, but as a part of healing, a part of reaching out to others still stuck in it.
Thanks for adding your experience. I can relate to the fear of discussions in small spaces. There is something so terrifying about being roundly criticized by someone who’s behind the wheel, for example, getting angrier and angrier in unpredictable ways.
Very true that when you’re in the middle of it, you have no concept of what’s normal or healthy. You have to claw your way out to a new perspective and it’s agonizing work, but not as agonizing as continuing to suffer the abuse. I agree talking about it can be a part of the healing and a possible tool for others.
I too have suffered emotional abuse, from my parents. I realized later in my life that I had issues, and only after a year realized that the way they were treating me was not right.
Had I read this article I might have recognized it sooner. Thank you for sharing your story, as I know it must have been hard to type out. It truly is a way for others to see things through the eyes of someone who has been there, and overcome to tell about it.
Thanks for your response. I’m sorry you’ve been through an abusive situation. This is a tough story to tell and I have a lot of fears about it, but I hope the telling will be worth it. Onward!
What leaps out at me from this is, “Why could I not get out earlier?” and “Poor me”: beating yourself up for not being able to endure, not really having that much to put up with so why complain, and not getting out- you are attacking yourself both ways.
I want to be someone else. I want to be cleverer, have a lot more energy, want to do the things I ought to do- that person does not exist and gets in the way of any enjoyment I can have of the person I am. Oh, and I want to deal with any problem immediately, so that as soon as it is seen it is gone, and not doing that is not good enough.
Creative loving listening can allow others to speak and tell their story and understand it for the first time. Listening together can help us celebrate the real people we are, not the fantasy superhumans.
I have my own problems, but have never endured or overcome anything like this, so I come here as a Listener: that enables me to say, without any irony at all- Oh wow! How cool are you? I mean you, not any fantasy.
Thank you! Very true that we need to live in our actual self, not the self we think we SHOULD be, and I really like the phrase “creative loving listening.” We need a bunch more of that in this world.
Good morning dear. You are helping so many people, including me and my students, who will have the benefits of many experiences you have shared.
Thanks Dee! I do hope this helps other people.
God that kitchen story could be a page out of my book. I stayed long enough for it to get physical but the emotional stuff will always be what sticks with me. I still can’t believe I was strong enough to leave. So many layers, complex, complicated, crappy..abuse. You are right. You can’t fathom it unless you’ve been through it, unfortunately half the population has…thank you for putting it out there.
True that there are so many layers to this once you see the reality of the situation. And yes, the strength it takes to get out is pretty extraordinary, so I recommend anyone facing that choice to build up their network of friends and family as much as possible. Abuse can be isolating in so many ways. Fighting that isolation is one of your first and most important steps to getting out, I think. Thanks for reading and responding.
Deeply and painfully illuminating. Thank you for sharing this.
i love you Alaina. I am so sorry for your pain.
Thanks Gwen. I hope anyone in the same kind of pain can get help.
The fact that you aren’t being hit doesn’t mean that you aren’t being abused. It can take a long time (far too long) to recognize that. Therapy really helps.
Yes I wish everyone coping with this had a good therapist! It was essential for me.
This is absolutely awful. I can’t imagine what your life must’ve been like while going through all that. I wish you and the thousands of women out there who have suffered mental or physical abuse didn’t have to go through that. It truly leaves a permanent mark, whether it’s visible or not. If you don’t mind me asking, I was wondering how you and your spouse got your divorce? My spouse and I are planning our own divorce and we want it out of the court because of financial reasons. Is there another possibility for divorce to be done online? Does anyone have experience with online divorce? Any suggestions would be appreciated thank you.
I think it’s true that the mark is permanent, but it is survivable. Also, while most domestic abuse victims are women, people of all genders can get caught up in these situations.
My ex and I took a fairly traditional route with lawyers. Not a fun process and it took several months, but it got done. Unfortunately I can’t give advice about the best way for others to obtain a divorce, but if readers want to weigh in, that’s fine. Every situation is unique. Wishing you the best in your process.