Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Start Somewhere

For a long time I've been wanting to write about my experiences with emotional abuse in a long term relationship but I didn't know how I wanted to write or even what exactly I wanted to write.  I knew it would probably be messy.

I don't need to write in order to heal or process what happened as I've done all of that.  I don't want to give the impression that I am wanting sympathy or praise.  I just want to be able to write about my experience so that perhaps it can help others in some way.  You see, as educated as I am, I didn't know anything about emotional abuse and how it was used or what it looked like so I didn't know I was experiencing it. 

I thought it was a more obvious thing than the kind I experienced was.  I thought it would have to involve yelling and overt name calling or put-downs to qualify.  I thought the person doing the abusing had to be doing it knowingly and with malicious intent.  I was wrong.

 And I lived in an abusive relationship for much longer than I should have.   With hindsight, the signs were always there and I should never have married.  I should not have had a child ten years into the relationship because I should have ended it sooner.  But hindsight is not overly helpful in solving or preventing problems, only in analysing them later.  Besides, I cannot fully regret this marriage because not having the wonderful son that I do is unimaginable to me, and I am able to look back on my time with my ex-husband and say that it was not all bad.  There were good times and I had some good life experiences and they all contributed to who I am today.  And today I am a happy person in a good place.

Having the ability I do, which is generally to look on the bright side of things and to recognise that there is always someone else in the world worse off than I am is a mixed blessing.  It's a great tool to have in your kit when you need to cope, when you need to come out the other side whole.  But it can get in your way too and trip you up.  Believing that I was generally very fortunate in life, being able to see the glass as half full and always make the best of things contributed to my staying too long in a bad situation. 

Being a strong person, as I began to see problems I believed it was my job to carry the burden of them. 

Eventually I was deeply mired in a situation where I had a partner who blamed me for well beyond what was reasonable.  He frequently became moody, sulking, brooding, miserable.  This was my punishment if he was responding to something he could blame on me, and if he couldn't get away with blaming it on me then he was at least going to take me with him to that dark and miserable emotional place. 

He was a moody person anyhow, and sulked and brooded over even those things that were clearly his own fault, like his golf handicap.  The environment felt toxic to me but I blamed it on my own sensitivity.  I was usually unable to cheer him up so I walked on eggshells.

In my head a voice told me I had privileged person problems, that I had a life of comfort, pleasure and luxury by most standards.  The voice told me it was my job to hold everything together and make it work.  The voice told me that being unhappy with my situation would be illogical and nobody would understand.   In the name of making a marriage work I became his accomplice in the war against Me.

Increasingly there was another voice.  It wasn't in my head it was in the pit of my stomach.  It was moaning that something was wrong.  The process of paying attention, understanding and responding to that voice took a few years.

As I began to analyse the situation, once I was out of it, I kept asking myself what had I done wrong, how had I gotten into this situation.  Therapists of a certain type might not want me to go in that direction because it's still playing the game of blaming myself.  I didn't see any therapists after the failed marriage therapy we eventually did try so I don't know for sure but I do know that there are different approaches in therapy and I know that if much of my problems grew out of what might have been too much responsibility taking, then it seems possible that one strategy might be to go in the other direction.  I didn't think it overly useful to spend all my time blaming my ex, though in order to learn about and understand emotional abuse and the truth about why the marriage had failed I did have to examine his behaviour up close and see it for what it was.  The fact is that while no individual is perfect and I am certain it's inevitable that I contributed to the situation, I married a man whose response to his own insecurities or emotional distress was to blame it on me.  And I married a man who had controlling tendencies which increased over the course of our time together.

He would tell you that he married a woman who is irresponsible, couldn't manage money, didn't work as hard as he did though he knows it's not her fault due to illness but still he'd had expectations and he would be right about one thing: I do have an illness.

What confused me for a long time is that he really believes the things he accused me of.   He is the one who has a victim mentality and I do not, yet I ended up the victim.  I'm going to repeat this because I think it's crucial: I thought it was my job to fix things.  I lost sight of it being a partnership because it was a sinking ship and I had to rescue it at whatever cost to myself.

My ego was tied up in this and I know that is another of my own contributing errors.  Despite not having grown up with any religious beliefs that would have lead to this thinking, I believed divorce, while not a sin, was a very bad idea.  I believed it was always bad for the child(ren) of the marriage.  I believed that people just gave up too soon or didn't try hard enough.  OR, that they had been stupid and chosen badly in the first place and it's THAT belief that really did me in.  I attempted to hold my marriage together out of inability to face the shame of failure and I was not fully aware of this until the point when I was able to walk away from it.

I still didn't really know what I was running away from when I first left, I could not articulate it because I had not yet dealt with the shame.  And doing what I knew how to do best, I told everyone that it was all because of me.  I said I seemed not to be a person cut out for marriage, that maybe I was meant to be alone.  I said it was all my fault.  My ex was telling everyone it was all my fault too.  Though first he tried to stop me from leaving.  He tried blame, guilt and shame as strategies.  When friends phoned up because they'd heard the rumour we were splitting up and they wanted to know if we were okay and could they help, he told them it was not really  happening because I was just depressed and would get over it.  He begged me to stay, and for a month told me that he'd take me back any time.  When none of that worked the divorce got nasty.

It took me over a year to even begin telling my friends the truth and it was difficult because as all couples do we had mutual friends.  We had couple friends where I was friends with the wife and then we all socialised as couples and the guys might go golfing together. Many of these were people we'd met because our children were friends. So for these friends it was difficult for people to hear me begin to say things that are uncomfortable.  If I'd said he hit me maybe nobody would have doubted me, but because I was describing emotional abuse it was possible that I was just nastily defaming him, running down his character, picking him apart because we were going through a divorce.  And I knew that I only had myself to blame for this because for so long I'd refused to tell them the truth.  I had lied.  I had said, well I just don't want to be married anymore. 

There were times when I wished he had hit me.  Bruises are easier to believe, there is evidence and maybe it makes it easier for friends to take sides.  Maybe, I think, I would have gotten out sooner because it would have been harder to deny.  Maybe others would have intervened.  Maybe I wouldn't have felt so alone. But maybe I am just fooling myself.   Emotional abuse can be invisible and it is your word against the abusers but people who are physically abused go to great lengths to hide it too and have just as much or more difficulty leaving.  Abusers can be convincing and charming and well liked.  Emotional abusers perhaps more so since they are not always people with tempers.  It is their intention to make their victims feel unsafe to report them, unable to tell the truth, ashamed or frightened or convinced they must cope with it alone.

My ex was so against tempers he would not allow me to raise my voice with any emotion, or disagree with him with any vehemence because he called that fighting and that was intolerable.  He was passive-aggressive but I didn't really know what that was then either.  He stonewalled, sulked, removed himself, accused me of being difficult or aggressive or too loud or too argumentative, I must not disagree with him or express any emotion ( which he called a fight ) in front of our child.  He told me I was mistaken when I recalled anything he'd said or promised that was in my favour or supported my argument. I had never heard of gaslighting but it would have helped me to know more about it. He created a narrative where he was the calm one and I was volatile.  If I convinced him that we should privately discuss something it became about how he was so hurt by whatever the issue was I brought up.  A discussion might have begun with my having a concern but it would quickly become me consoling him.  He never said sorry.  I always said sorry.  I was sorry for upsetting him, sorry for being difficult, sorry for being such an emotional disastrous mess.  I was sorry for disappointing him and sorry for intimately and emotionally withdrawing from him-obviously I must have a problem and need help.  I ended up on anti-depressants. 

It took me over a year to begin telling my friends but I did tell family sooner.  It began to unfold a few months after I left and I am grateful for the support and understanding.  A few close friends also eventually fully accepted my story and have been supportive and cheering me on, even when their own husbands have remained social with my ex.  To be fair, at this point I am amicable with my ex too.  He's another woman's problem now and he is still the father of my son.  He's a good father too. 

This was confusing at first. How do you process it if roughly half the time you are treated with kindness and the other half treated with  little respect,  manipulated emotionally and controlled financially?

That's the thing - emotional abusers are  as complex as any human being and my ex has some good qualities.   I have read that abusers will do this to throw you off but I have also read they may not do this consciously and I believe that is the case with my ex. He did and probably still does need to see himself as a good man so just as he had to make me think he was one he also had to convince himself. I believe that in the end each victim of emotional abuse makes a personal decision about whether or not to forgive or have further interaction with the abuser once it's over.  It should never be expected but it might be what works.  When you are ready to heal you need to make your own decisions because you need to reclaim your power over yourself.

If I had seen all of the articles I've read by now on just what emotional abuse looks like, what gaslighting is, how a narcissist behaves, and if I had read examples of manipulative and controlling behaviour I may have figured it all out sooner and with much less guilt and self blame.  What I experienced was pervasive, relatively subtle, it grew over the course of years though I can certainly look back to our very early days together and see red flags.  But you don't call off a marriage or return from a honeymoon all set to divorce over the kinds of apparently small things that now look like red flags.  Part of the problem is that it is an accumulation of behaviour that looks normal or innocent until it has become an obvious pattern and piled up.  By then your own perspective and behaviour will be altered.  You will be coping, hiding, unsure of what you are experiencing.  By the time I reached the last years of my marriage  I believed I was difficult to love, difficult to live with, a burden on a partner because I couldn't pull my own weight and that my partner was a saint.  Except that a little voice inside me kept telling me this wasn't so.

It feels to me as though I literally woke up one day and had an epiphany and since my brain actually does seem to work that way, perhaps I did.  In the course of a few months I realised I needed to get out, I made a plan to do it and I felt stronger than I had in decades.  It has now been nearly seven years and I have a new and happy life.  I've attempted to write something here that might help, but I've also made an effort not to air all my dirty linen.  There are details that are too personal to share in a public space even though it's tempting to use them to make my points.

I am not an expert in psychology nor a trained counsellor so I can only describe my own experiences, what I have learned from them, and what I have read about which helped me understand my experience better.  If you see yourself in my story please inform yourself on how emotionally abusive people operate.  I hope you can find the courage and strength to get away from that relationship if you need to.  You don't fix these kinds of relationships.  I've left out many details but my ex and I did try counselling.  His inability to do what he'd been asked to do by the counsellor in order to demonstrate his commitment to our relationship, and his not even realising what it meant when he brushed it aside as unimportant and didn't follow through was at least one of my moments of awakening.  I can also say that at the point when I realised how obvious it was that I was not loved by this man I felt no hurt.  I simply had no ability to love him left in me, no ability to keep trying to hold together something that was not worth anything and it was time for me to walk away. 


  1. I have heard this is a good marker of a relationship ended, when you are not in pain about the relationship closure. When you don't care any more.
    When I was being counselled to end my marriage (!), I had such pain and couldn't go through with it. Now, I am glad. xo Jazzy Jack

    1. I am glad things worked out for your best happiness. I was in a great deal of pain at first, there is more to this story than I've shared, but yes when I was ready to see it was toxic and ready to move on there was no more pain. I suppose it's like that saying-you can't lose something you don't have. I'm so glad you found your way out of the pain. xoxo

  2. Thank you for sharing Shawna, it must have taken great willpower and strength to walk away, I am so glad you did though! I come from a more obvious, alcoholic Dad emotional abuse background, which in turn has made me sort of hyper sensitive/prone to shutting down completely when there is conflict, which my very "Let's sort this out now head on" husband sometimes doesn't understand. I think protecting our boundaries is so important, but also learning to trust those who mean us no harm can be very comforting. I have had friendships with at least one, possibly a couple more less true narcissists (I believe there are levels, and some people learn that they can take and take and get worse, whereas some people do learn how to be in a two sided friendship). But wow, do those go bad quickly if you are someone who won't be a pushover. Most especially proud of you for not giving in when he tried to manipulate and pressure you after the fact, I can imagine that must have bee very difficult indeed. A "fixer" would be tempted, but we cannot fix some things. So happy you becanme the Director of Awesome in your own life! xo

    1. Thanks for your sweet words, Steff. I'm sorry you had to deal with a toxic relationship in your childhood. I'm sure you and your husband are finding your way to a method that works for both of your instincts. I too am a let's sort this out now person but I know that my methods don't always make it better. Sometimes I have to step back and chill. As long as my partner is willing to trust and deal with things eventually and not after too long a wait, it's all good. Meeting half way is often the best we can do. I think I've encountered a few female-friendship narcissists too. Certainly some damaged people acting it out in harmful ways and more than one who dumped me in a rage when I didn't conform to their image of me. There isn't much we can do to fix relationships with people who need to sort themselves out. Sending you a big hug in Scotland! xo

  3. I've been reading this off and on for a few days, Shauna - first, kudos to you for your bravery in sharing this. It is very tempting (especially in blogland) to only present the best of our lives. Much of this rang true for me with my past 5.5-year relationship with my ex (fortunately, never got married or had kids). I am a people-pleaser, naturally introverted and shy; he was outgoing, gregarious, but many issues around his dad, who left his mom when she was pregnant with him. He was also mixed-race (half Japanese) which was difficult for him in "all white" Victoria back in the day. I think he had this vision of a perfect relationship (as did I!) and I realized that over the years, I'd kept trying to change myself to fit both of our ideals. The emotional abuse was in the guise of "improving" me. It finally got to a point where I was starting to resent always being the one who had to push down all my feelings - but of course, I didn't do anything about it. No internet to look these things up, and I didn't feel like I had any support at all - my own friends were cut out, and only his friends were around us. It finally reached a head when he had to confront me over something that could have risked my health (I am thankful that this was big enough for him to actually bring up with me), and that was it. After being apart from him for a few weeks, I started to realize how emotionally abusive and one-sided the relationship had been. That I hadn't actually loved him for years. When he came begging for me to come back, I stood strong. It took me nearly a year before I could even think of dating again, just working on sorting out who I was - I felt like I had lost me.

    I feel fortunate to have found someone (my lovely guy, L) who encourages me to speak out, speak up, be myself, do my own things, think for myself. Even then, I'm still a work in progress.

    Thank you for this article. Sending good vibes to you.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Sheila. I'm sorry you had to experience that. I know how it's a mixture of painful but also a growing experience. There is much I left out of my essay. I tried not to get too personal and specific with it as my main point was to pass on what I've learned that could be helpful. It does feel like a loss of self and I know that my blog has been very much about reclaiming this self. Focusing on the outer self-what should I wear-is the easier bit to do publicly. It's all quite symbolic though. Who am I and what is my personal style is all interconnected. I'm glad you found a wonderful guy. I did too. I don't write about him yet but eventually I will. We are all a work in progress. I think it's not a good thing if we stop and think we are somehow finished. Sending you good vibes too. They are purple. xo


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