Friday, May 18, 2012

But He Never Hit Her: An Anonymous Guest Post

So many people think that abuse is hitting. I thought so growing up. Now I know better. It is one form of abuse, but not the only one. For years, I watched and listened as my dad abused my mom without ever laying a hand on her. He never cussed her out. Even if I had understood the concept of verbal abuse, I probably would have said what he did wasn't *that* bad.

Now I see that he didn't need to do that. He held her hostage emotionally, spiritually, mentally and financially to such an extent that he never needed to cross those tangible lines of physical violence.  He controlled her in other ways.  His put downs and sarcastic barbs, his raging silences and a host of other tactics battered her spirit without the discomfort he would have experienced from bruising her body.

She walked on eggshells all the time, fearful of failing him yet again and triggering another freezing withdrawal or scornful tirade.  He talked and talked and talked until she would have given in on just about anything.   Even though he was the one in control of the finances, it was always her fault that there was never enough money for her needs--those always had to be put off just a little longer.  But he still got his computer stuff. 

It wasn't bad all the time, though.  There were enough good moments to make her feel crazy.  Maybe it really was her fault.  It had to be.  He wasn't a bad person--in fact, he had the respect of the people around him who were convinced that he was a wonderful, Godly man.  If only she could just try a little harder and not set him off with her stupidity, her slovenliness, and all the ways she hurt his feelings.

The good times would last just long enough to convince her that it really was getting better.  The previous explosion was a low point, but she was probably exaggerating it a little, and anyway, he wasn't going to do it again.  We would all hold our breaths for a few days, and then, just as we started to relax, something triggered him again.  It was enough to give us mental and emotional whiplash.

That is the lesson I learned of what marriage looked like. And that is the filter through which I interpreted my own husband's actions, even when his motives were entirely different. I took in my dad's control tactics as the way to "win", but at the same time learned to feel helpless like my mother, because that is what I saw and felt then. Those lessons are hard to unlearn.

It could have been worse. I know that, for both her and for me. I didn't repeat the cycle of marrying an abuser. But my mind was still locked into playing out some of the same scenarios. To ascribing the same motives to my husband, and of myself alternating between the roles of aggressor and victim. I've spoken with the same contemptuous tone of voice that my father used. I've reenacted her passivity. Most of all, I've come to the realization that I have no idea what a healthy marriage looks like. I haven't spent enough time around one.

So now I'm trying to figure out how to teach my daughter differently. How do I model a healthy marriage? How do I help her to know what an abuser looks like? How do I navigate relationships with my parents now when the abuse continues unacknowledged?

No, he never hit her. But the scars are still there, for all of us.


Amy Phoenix said...

Abuse stems from the carnal drive to control. It is rampant and runs deep. Through awareness and diligence, cycles can and are broken. I appreciate the honest account also.

There are answers to the questions asked, healing is possible. Change is inevitable when we are willing to look within ourselves and pave a new path.

Julie M. Wilson said...

Next week my husband and I will have been married for 8 years. We have three children. When I first started to read this article I thought, "who is writing about my life?"
My husband too has never hit me, but I am realizing his maltreatment and un-loving behavior more and more.

Anonymous said...

My marriage was like this. It was awful and made me question my own sanity. Everyone else thought my husband was a great guy. But he was controlling and mean, using silence, withdrawal, and my most painful moments in life to illustrate what a bad person I was. He threatened me on numerous occasions and did become physical on two occasions, though minor in the scheme of physical abuse. But now, a year after the divorce was final and more than two after we split, he is still trying to control me. He still has that need and as the father of my children he succeeds more often than he should because while I have my children's best interest at heart, he still prioritizes control of others over everything else.

dulce de leche said...

Loving hugs to all of you who have experienced this. It is never your fault, and you are not imagining things or exaggerating, regardless of how well liked he is by others.

One of the best resources I have ever read is Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft

All love and healing to you, and I will be praying for you and your children to be safe and free.

Emily said...

I grew up with a mother who was very abusive - without ever being physically abusive. Well, eventually she did do some "minor" physical things. She'd be so upset (enraged) and flailing that she'd "accidentally" scratch my hand or arm enough to make it bleed at least a little. She punched a hole straight through my electric guitar. She'd pull my hair hard and it'd knock my glasses off my head - usually they'd go flying. Sometimes she'd scream so loudly and so close to my face that it's literally hurt my ears at least a little tiny bit and when I'd put my hands over my ears to protect them, she'd pull my hands down hard to stop me from protecting my hearing. She spit in my face on 2 occasions. So yeah in some ways she escalated to physical violence eventually.

But... for years before she'd ever done anything at all physically violent like that, she was still abusive.

I found out later that she had (at the time when I was 17 and stopped living with her and she underwent a psychiatric evaluation so that the courts could figure out what to do with me and my younger brother) Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Dysthymic disorder, "Alcohol abuse", and "a personality disorder not otherwise specified" with borderline, dependent, histrionic, and obsessive compulsive traits. Also the psychiatrist thought, then, that she had a global functioning level of fifty. :P

Her mental illnesses caused her to be abusive to not only me and my brother but also to my father even after they had gotten "separated" when I was not yet 4 years old and were essentially divorced for most of my life. She was able to control him (my dad) in much the same ways that Anonymous from May 18, 2012 at 7:16 AM mentioned... she... she was horrible in so so many ways that are hard to explain.

I've been trying to chronicle it all in a series of tumblr posts because I just have so much to say.

But that was a huge thing. Growing up I thought abuse had to be physical. If someone wasn't raping me, or hitting me hard and leaving big bruises, or burning my skin with cigarettes, then it couldn't be abuse. I remember when I was watching a rerun of a 7th Heaven episode around when I was 12 or 13 maybe and at the end of the episode there was an abuse hotline number they suggested we could call. And I really kinda wanted to. I think I did call the number, then hung up, resigned to not thinking what my mom was doing counted as abuse. When I was 15 I had to have surgery on my foot and they asked me in private at some point something that they had to ask all children - I think it was something like "Are you being abused?" or "have you ever been abused". But the nurse or doctor asking the question was just going through the motions, expecting a "no" without even waiting for my answer, and I remember truly hesitating and thinking about it before answering "no". I was mainly scared that if I told someone I thought what my mom was doing was abusive, and still had to be alone with my mom at some point in the future after that, she would kill me. I don't think I was literally afraid she'd be that violent. But that was sort of the mindset I was in, that whatever psychological/emotional abuse she'd inflict on me as punishment for calling her an abusive mother would be so horrible that I couldn't take the risk and tell anyone who could actually do something about it just how bad it was.

I also kinda had a suspicion that what my mom did would be unprovable and therefore unlikely to be stopped anyway.

I wish we were taught that emotional abuse is real and horrible and that physical stuff wasn't the only thing people think of when they think of abuse. Because what my mom did to me was awful but mostly non-violent, non-physical. And 100% non-sexual of course.


Peter and Nancy said...

When our church hosted a speaker from our city's women & children's shelter, I remember one poster they had in their display: it said, "Why does such a God-fearing man have such a husband-fearing wife?" Truly this less obvious kind of abuse can be just as damaging -- I grew up watching some of this in my own home. Thank you for sharing your story . . . I'm sure many women will recognize themselves here.

Also, if you're living in a marriage like this (or repeating the pattern yourself), please call your local safe house/shelter. Often, they have counselors and groups you can attend even if the abuse is not restricted to physical violence.

Tali said...

My dad did hit us. But I have to say that was the easy part. I used to pray he would hit us and than leave us alone. It was the hours of screaming and repeating and justifying his actions I couldn't take.

I also struggle with my actions in my marriage. I did not marry an abuser or even a jerk. I am really the one that has no idea how to act and want to be a good example for my 2 year old daughter.