“If I could only make him happy…” That was the phrase I would say over and over to myself every time I was left sitting on the bathroom floor, wracking my brain trying to figure out what I had done wrong and could change while crying so hard I would throw up, after one of my ex-husband’s “conversations” with me over something he felt I had done wrong.
It all started innocently enough. We had a whirlwind, long-distance romance. When I visited Idaho to help him move with me to Wisconsin, I noticed that there were holes in the wall of his bedroom and in his bedroom door. He had gotten angry with his parents a few weeks before over a high phone bill and “because they didn’t understand him,” he had punched the wall and the door in anger. I thought that was kind of extreme for a 22 year old to act that way, but I loved him and didn’t think twice about it.
After moving in with me, he threatened to leave me every few months. It was always during one of his conversations, which consisted of him expecting me to sit in silence and listen while he yelled at me. The threats were always for the same reasons; I didn’t spend enough time with him. I didn’t understand him. I spent too much time with my family and he didn’t feel comfortable around them. I spent too much time with my friends and he didn’t like them and didn’t want to be around them. I didn’t love him as much as he loved me. Each time he threatened, I begged him to stay and he would agree but only if I changed, often telling me that things did not happen as I remembered them and that I was being over-dramatic.
Over time, I spent less and less time with my family and friends and more time with him. Eventually, I had no contact with my friends, I saw my family very rarely and I spent every waking minute that I was not working or in class sitting in our bedroom with him because he liked it when I watched him play video games. I also began to doubt my memory and often wondered if I had some sort of mental disorder that was causing me to incorrectly remember what had happened with him.
After graduating, I took a position with the company that I had interned for. Although it was stressful and demanding, it was very rewarding. He hated my career aspirations. He continuously told me during our “conversations” that I was too driven and career-minded and I was lucky to have him because nobody else would put up with me. He told me that I would never understand him because he didn’t have a direction in life and his parents were never supportive of him (unlike mine who built me up every chance that they had) and that I should consider myself lucky that he stayed with me.
We eventually married. On the night before our first anniversary, he left me and didn’t come home for two days. To this day, I have no idea where he was or who he was with. I don’t remember anymore what had made him so angry, but I do remember sitting on the couch on my anniversary evening and crying, wondering what I would do if he had left for good because nobody else would ever want me or put up with me. I was lucky he had stayed with me this long and if I could just figure out how to make him happy, he wouldn’t have to threaten to leave me.
During that time, he had also joined a hockey league. He would go to his games and then go to the bar with his teammates after, drinking until he was very drunk. Many times, he would either pass out in his truck in the parking lot of the bar, or drive home and pass out in his truck in our driveway only to get sick all over the truck and himself. My biggest fear was that he would get into an accident and hurt himself or someone else. I would beg him to call me to come get him when he left for his games, only to be met with him yelling at me that I was overbearing and that I treated him like a child. I would stay up all night worried that my doorbell was going to ring and it would be the police with horrible news. When he would finally come home the next morning, he would immediately go to bed and I would be left to clean the mess he had made out his truck.
I hid the put-downs and bouts of yelling from my family, friends and co-workers. I would make up excuses when he refused to come to get-togethers, work and family events. I always had a smile on my face and would rave about how wonderful my husband was and how lucky I was to have him. But inside, I was dying a little every day.
Knowing how unhappy he was in Wisconsin and thinking that maybe a change in scenery might motivate him to settle into a career and calm his mood swings, I found a job in Oregon and we moved. There were so many new and exciting things to explore in and around our new home and life was calm and wonderful for a little while.
Eventually, everything fell back into the same pattern. He would get in horrible fights with his parents and sister. They would come to visit and the yelling matches would start a couple of days into their visit. His family didn’t love him, they didn’t treat him as well as they did his sister, they didn’t understand him, they didn’t spend enough time with him now or when he was a child. The visit would abruptly end with them packing their bags and him following them out the door as they loaded the car, kicking bushes, hitting walls, hitting their car, yelling at them all the way. I didn’t dare do anything but be sympathetic to his position or that anger would be directed at me.
We had our first baby and things continued to spiral. I was the sole caregiver for our son because he was too busy watching sports, playing his video games or going out with his friend. One evening, he and his friend had gone out and he returned home extremely drunk and started yelling at me. I was holding our one month old baby and he backed me up against the front door of the house. After punching the door right next to my head, he told me again that I was an awful excuse for a wife and that I was lucky he stayed with me. He told me to go to bed, which I did because I didn’t want to make him any angrier because I was afraid that if I did, he might hit me for real. He climbed into bed next to me, passed out and proceeded to get sick all over the bed and me in his drunken unconsciousness. The next morning, I cleaned up the mess while he played his videogames because he wasn’t feeling well. When I told him that he had scared me the night before when he backed me up against the door and had hit the door, he told me that it never happened and that I must have dreamt it.
This pattern continued over the next few years and through a move to Boise so that he could be closer to his family. I continued to juggle a career with taking care of now two children, nearly entirely on my own because he was always too busy to help or didn’t feel comfortable doing so.
He once again hated my employer. According to him, they didn’t pay me enough, they didn’t respect me and they were taking advantage of me. Although I loved my job and the company I worked for and was the primary provider for our family, he was always pressuring me to quit. Luckily, I was able to avoid that and am still working there today – and I could not ask for a more supportive place to work for as I went through my divorce.
There would be many nights where he would want to have a “conversation” right as I laid down for bed. These “conversations” would last all night long and would end with him going to get ready for work while I sat in the bathroom and cried myself sick, telling myself that “at least he didn’t hit me” and that if I could only figure out how to make him happy, everything would be fine. I had also started breaking out in hives on my scalp and neck when he would yell at me. I frequently ended up with horrible scrapes and scabs on my skin from scratching while in the midst of one of the “conversations.”
The kids and I lived life on pins and needles not knowing if it was going to be a good day or a bad day. The yelling periods would sometimes happen for no reason at all and anyone could be on the receiving end – me, the kids, the satellite dish customer service rep on the phone, cashiers at the store, his co-workers, his family. He would tell the kids after yelling at me in front of them that if I would just listen to him and understand him that he wouldn’t have to be so angry all the time.
As time went on, I found myself hating me. I didn’t take joy in anything that I once did – including my children. I was a numb shell of myself and people were starting to notice. My mom had overheard him yelling at me on one occasion when she called. He was angry because he wanted me to hang up on my mom and give him my attention. She asked me if I allowed him to talk to me like that all the time. When I didn’t respond, she told me that I needed to call her when I was not around him.
I called her on my way to work the next day. After telling her everything that had been going on and how I was feeling, she convinced me to see a counselor. My mom told me that the real me was still somewhere in there and that I needed a little help finding her. She also told me that despite what he was saying to me, I deserved to be happy and loved.
On my first visit to the counselor, she pulled out the Power and Control Wheel at the end of the session. She told me that what was happening to me was abuse and that just because he didn’t hit me, it didn’t make it OK. If fact, she told me that the damage that could be done and had been done to me by the emotional abuse I had suffered at his hands for over the last 15 years could be just as bad, if not worse than if he actually had hit me.
I didn’t believe her and told her that I was there to work on me so that I would be a better person for him. I will never forget the look she gave me. It was one of overwhelming concern. She convinced me to take a copy of the wheel with me, keep it at work and look over it before our next session. As I did, I began to realize that nearly every single spoke in that wheel hit just a little too close to home.
When I arrived home after my first session, he wanted to know what we had talked about and asked if I had found what I was looking for so I didn’t have to continue with counseling. When I wouldn’t tell him, he told me that I couldn’t go anymore if I didn’t go with him. He then stopped talking to me and the next morning, told the kids that I was a f*****g b***h who didn’t care about them or anything but myself and told the us that he was going to kill himself. As the kids sat crying and I followed him around begging him to let me take him to the hospital, he took off in his car. The police found him after about 4 hours. He had called nearly every family member and friend that we knew, telling them how horrible I was and that he was going to kill himself. He was combative with the police when they arrived and ended up in restraints in the emergency room and under an involuntary hold at Intermountain Hospital.
It was then that the lightbulb finally went off for me. I finally was able to see exactly what had happened and was happening to me. I filed for divorce while his verbal aggression quickly moved to constant physical threats.
After surviving a horrible divorce period, which included a protection order after he had chased the kids and I into our bedroom with the door locked and threatened to come in after me with a sledge hammer because I refused to dig through the trash in front of him to prove I hadn’t thrown anything important away, I finally started to find that me that was hidden inside for so long. It had been pushed far down and broken into a tiny broken shard, but it was still there. In the year and a half since the divorce, I have worked hard to rebuild me – the strong, independent, dedicated and happy person that I once was. Although his attempts to regain control have not ended, and I fear they may never end, I am at least aware now and have the opportunity to avoid him when he starts in.
I am a survivor. I am happy. I am strong. I am loved. I love. And I finally have realized that I deserve all of these things and more. Everyone deserves all of these things and more
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