Scenario One: I’m scrolling around a website and idly remark to my husband*, “Someday I really am going to tour the Greek islands.” He rolls his eyes. “Oh, don’t be stupid,” he replies. “With your panic attacks? And where are you going to get that kind of money?”
I don’t answer. I sigh, and shut down the computer, and go to bed.
Scenario Two: I’ve settled in for an evening with the husband and kids. On the end table next to my chair are my drink, my glasses, the embroidery I’m working on, my cigarettes and lighter and ashtray.* Predictably, I eventually get up to go to the bathroom. When I return, my husband is now sitting where I’d been. Perplexed, I say nothing, just move my things and get comfortable in another chair. Later, when I return from tucking our daughter into bed, my husband has moved again and is now sitting in the spot I’d moved to.
There are lots of other scenarios. “If we didn’t have all your hospital bills, we wouldn’t have any money problems.” “When are you going to get it through your thick skull that I wear the pants around here and your job is to shut up?” “No, we’re not watching that show. You only like stupid stuff.”
Now multiply this, two or three or a dozen times a day, every day, for years. Just stop and picture that.
Or is already familiar, because you live it already?
It’s crap like that, that makes you think you’re going crazy, wonder what’s wrong with your life, what’s wrong with you. Until you realize it’s not you at all.
No, maybe he doesn’t hit you. But it’s still abuse, designed to manipulate and control you and keep you down, keep you in your place, keep you theirs. Their ability to tear you down to nothing is limitless, their tactics legion. When The Troll ridiculed my Greek islands daydream he was telling me I was incapable, not good enough, and that my dreams were pointless and stupid. When he kept stealing the place I was sitting, he was keeping me off balance, reminding me I didn’t have a place in the world beyond what he allowed. (And it wasn’t just me. I’ve read of other abusers doing this same thing to other targets. Astounding.) And they do way more than that. If you take exception to something they say, you’re oversensitive or you can’t take a joke. They blindside you with accusations that have no basis in fact, they tell you your opinions and memories are wrong, they convince you they’d treat you well if you only deserved it, they blame all their problems on you. Many abusers won’t even permit their victims to work outside the home. They control all the money, the transportation, the communication. Even if your abuser doesn’t go that far, you still may end up isolated from other relationships. The abuser may discourage your other relationships by guilt-tripping you or accusing you of disloyalty or infidelity. Or it may be that your friends and family just don’t like the abuser, don’t feel comfortable. Maybe they believe you have chosen the asshole over them. My mother would not even come to my house, two blocks away from my sister’s, for the years I was married to The Troll. Beyond family holidays at which my family grudgingly included him, our social life was confined to his family and his friends.
How in the world are you going to have anyone to turn to for help? How likely are you to believe you even deserve help, when you’ve been convinced you’re a worthless piece of shit and your friends and family don’t talk to you anymore?
See how this works?
Of course it’s not all bad, not all the time. Abusers can be loving and magnanimous. They make up for the latest outburst against you so you won’t leave, they put on a display for others, they use gifts and loving treatment like carrots on a stick. The Troll used to celebrate special days lavishly – my birthday, Mother’s Day, our anniversary, Valentine’s Day, Christmas. Expensive jewelry or stereo systems, flowers all over the house, once a brand new car. Their generosity is very visible. If you try to talk to anyone about your unhappiness, all you get is, “That wonderful guy? But he treats you like a queen!” Um, yeah. When you can see him. And what about the 360 days a year that aren’t special? Abuse has cycles. Typically there are three stages: building tension, the explosion, and the make-up or honeymoon, when the abuser promises change and the victim wants so badly to believe.
Sometimes I used to wish he would just hit me. He’d have it out of his system that much sooner, the injury would heal faster (“stick and stones” is bullshit; cruel words and constant tearing down can scar for a lifetime), and, perhaps most importantly, I’d have something visible to show, something people would take seriously. Sure, people close to me knew he was an asshole, but I couldn’t possibly be in such a position as to need help. Could I?
And the thing is, even if people do recognize verbal and emotional abuse for what they are, they still don’t recognize the debilitating effect, popularly known as Battered Woman Syndrome. If you stay in such a relationship, you’re still stupid, or you must like it in some sick way, or some other stupid shit rationalization that is still used to judge abused people.
Just as the pattern of my abuse was a thousand thousand small things all knit together, it was something very small that finally set me free. I’d been calling around to borrow an evening dress for The Troll’s fancy-schmancy work Christmas party. “Oh, no,” he said grandly. “You’ve worked so hard, lost all that weight since the baby. You deserve to buy a new dress.” So I did, a killer find, a beauty of a velvet LBD for less than forty dollars. We partied, he was complimented endlessly on his beautiful wife, he beamed, we danced, I glowed. Surely this time everything would be all right. How could it not be, with magic like this? About a week later, he saw the dress in a dry cleaning bag and just lost it, out of nowhere. Ranting and raving about all the unpaid bills, no food in the house, no money in the bank, and a useless stupid bitch of a wife who pisses away hundreds of dollars on a fucking dress. I stood there, feeling that stupid, dumbstruck expression on my face, again. Speechless. Blindsided. Again.
The only thing that made this incident different from hundreds of previous incidents was that this one was the breakthrough, the time the heavens opened and light shone down and a hidden truth stirred deep inside me. This was the time when bone-knowing finally happened.
This is your life. It was like a great Voice in my head. I finally knew that truth no one else can tell you, that I’d never be able to do anything right with this man because it wasn’t about me at all. It was about him. I also, finally, knew that it was never going to get better, no matter how much I tried, no matter how many things about myself I changed or hid or gave away, no matter how many eggshells I tiptoed across.That was the moment I knew I’d never be able to do anything right because it wasn’t about me at all.
Things were exactly the way he wanted them. And if I didn’t get out, this was how my life would always be.
His ranting was nothing more than another tactic, of course; more blindsiding whole cloth accusations on the tail of another honeymoon phase. The bills were indeed paid. Our cupboards and pantry were stuffed. There was money in the bank, too, and wasn’t he just furious when I took half of it as I left him.
I’d known none of the terminology when I figured out that I was, in fact, being abused. The only phrase that came to my mind was “mental cruelty,” a phrase I’d seen in various pulpy novels and that was not used in Nevada divorce law. A couple of years later, after our tortuous divorce was final, I chanced across The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans. I read it and marveled, wondering how the author had managed to hide a camera in my house, to read my journals. She was writing about me! I know now that book is a staple among counselors and therapists. Some excellent points taken from the book can be found here.
It is also important to remember that it is not just heterosexual domestic relationships where this kind of abuse occurs. It takes place everywhere. Years after I escaped that horrific marriage, I endured the most miserable three months of my entire professional life when I moved to Seattle to work for a woman who turned out to be the Boss from the Seventh Level of Hell. The dynamic is the same: one person wants a healthy and happy relationship, the other wants to exercise ultimate control, and the abuse target is harmed, with consequences up to and including suicide and a perpetuated abuse cycle. The control-abuse dynamic is found in same-sex relationships, platonic friendships, between parents and children, between caregivers and dependents, between bosses and employees.
If you are a target in this cycle, there are two things you need to know:
It’s not your fault. You’ve been operating under the belief that both of you want the same thing: an honest, give-and-take relationship that is good for both of you. Your abuser has been lying to you. You’re not to blame for operating with integrity and trusting that other person. You don’t deserve it, you’re not stupid, and you’re not to blame.
There is help. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline to talk with someone and get resources to untangle yourself from the web. If yours is an employment situation I recommend the work of Drs. Ruth and Gary Namie.
What is the most important thing you can do if you think someone you know is being abused? Let them know you see what’s going on. Let them know you’re there to help. Don’t assume they “just know it.” They have been beaten and worn down, with words and with fists, to where they are no longer their true selves. Don’t push them to do anything they’re not ready to; just be there. Promise you’ll help when they’re ready, and keep your promise.
There’s a saying: “Hurt people hurt people.” That’s one reason abuse occurs, sure. People who hurt others are usually lashing out against those who have wounded them. But it’s not a justification. The cycle has to end. Every time one of us stands up to it, we help it to end.
*The husband referred to here is now an ex I call The Troll. My present husband, the Tominator, could never be such a flaming asshole.
**Don’t start. I’ve quit since these days.