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What surviving domestic abuse taught me

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  • #404652
    Jupiter
    Participant

    I never thought that I would be in an abusive relationship, let alone one that spanned more than a decade. I also never expected that the pain of it would stick with me for almost another ten years after it ended. I didn’t realise that the shame of those two things would build around me like a wall. I wanted to write about what I lived through. This isn’t a “blame the victim” story, but my relationship was a dynamic and one that it’s taken me a long time to face

    Being hopeful and damaged made me uncritical

    I was 18 years old and had already survived no end of trauma. I’d been homeless twice, the child of an addict, and was one of seven children spanning a variety of failed marriages — only one of whom was my biological sibling. I hadn’t graduated from high school but I was smart and hopeful despite all the mental health issues I was experiencing. I believed the universe was on my side.

    When I met my boyfriend, later husband, it felt like I had met my soulmate. I met him in a bar through mutual friends and asked if he wanted to go for a coffee. He replied with a 2000-word essay about having fallen madly in love with me. I was astonished, and was swept off my feet.

    If I hadn’t been a teenage pagan Buddhist who believed in soulmates and divine love, I might have asked a few more questions. What exactly did he love about me? What did love mean to him? How many other women had he written similar letters to?

    But I didn’t question any of it. I believed the universe was giving me my path, and I jumped in with both feet.

    Toxic behaviour doesn’t make someone evil

    In internet parlance, my ex was an abusive and controlling narc. But I’m skipping ahead to the end, which was ten years after the beginning. I think those words were unhelpful. He was extremely damaged, and believed that having a girlfriend would make everything better. I don’t think he cared which girlfriend. I think women were interchangeable to him, that there is some magic state that comes from the existence of a girlfriend, or a wife, or family, that you cannot get alone. He simultaneously believed himself to be unlovable… and desperate for love.

    So when I told him that I liked him, it created a perfect storm. Finally, someone might love him! It’s like catching a fish in a river, when you’re starving. It doesn’t matter which fish you catch, as long as you get one. He couldn’t take the risk that I would swim away, so before we even had a first date he was trying a heavy-handed approach to make sure I didn’t leave. It escalated quickly, with me feeling very raw and vulnerable and exposed within our first few weeks. But I also believed this must be true, this must be where I was meant to be.

    I want to be clear, these actions on his part were clearly abusive. They were confusing and destabilising for me. If you’ve experienced them, you know the hurt and anger they bring. But screaming at someone for being an abusive narc often doesn’t bring healing.

    What we were was a mess of traumas. We were both desperate to be loved. I was desperate to show love. I’d bake him cookies with terrible icing and make little gifts that fell apart. He lost himself in the relationship too. He thought I was going to solve all of his problems too. We were both working to a strange, flawed version of magic.

    My own beliefs masked the problems

    When it didn’t work, he would get angry and I’d get confused. But sometimes it was the other way around too. He would hurt me immensely by making sexist jokes and by relentless physical contact. Unfortunately, I think that the idealised woman in his mind had no capacity to be offended or hurt, because she wasn’t a real person. She was a mythical goddess of perfect happiness.

    Mythical goddesses don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed. They don’t get sick or menstruate or have fights with their family. They don’t need personal space and they’ll never reject you. Goddesses don’t feel stress or anxiety or fear. They don’t gain weight or self-harm or wake up with bad skin. Goddesses are perfect.

    The trouble with being asked to be perfect is that, for someone who is spiritually minded, it looks a lot like the thing we were striving for all along. If you have a passion for spirituality, you’re probably already trying to recover from trauma, overcome your negative energies, and bring a sense of beauty into your life. The critical judgement of another person can mirror our own. If someone mocks you for your acne and love handles, how easy is it to think, yes, if I was a good person I’d be 100% clean living. I’d stick to this green tea detox and I’d do five hours of yoga a night and I’d be entirely unblemished. I’m just not trying hard enough.

    It took me three years to even notice that there was a problem. I was so focused on my own need for healing that I took any pain I experienced as a personal weakness in me that I needed to fix. It was only the first time things became violent that I began questioning whether we really were soulmates. Even then, it took me another five years to find the courage to leave.

    Shame drives daily abuse

    My ex was experiencing a huge amount of shame. He didn’t believe he was lovable. But on a daily basis this came out as being ashamed of listening to the ‘wrong’ music or wearing the ‘wrong’ clothes or was in the ‘wrong’ job. He was obsessed with the idea that I’d leave him for someone ‘right’, and he was also always trying to hide the things he was embarrassed or ashamed of. This meant he was angry all the time, and never open. It didn’t matter how open and non-judgmental I was, because deep down he believed that women were some kind of collective and that, in the end, I would laugh at him and leave him.

    This drove so much cruelty and abuse. The version of me he had in his mind was selfish, naive and easily led. He assumed another man would lead me off and he despised me for it. I think that, in his mind, the trauma of abandonment had already happened. So he was full of hate and rage, and jealousy, and insecurity.

    The sad truth is that the intimacy that would have held us together was on the other side of his wall of shame. I spent all of my energy trying to prove to him that I was trustworthy, and none of it made any difference.

    When nothing you can do can change a situation, then it has nothing to do with you (no matter how much the other person is blaming you).

    Escalation comes from contempt

    I believe that his shame caused him more pain than he knew what to do with. I also believe that my attempts to defuse the situation and prove my trustworthiness made him more angry over the long term. Why? I suspect that he was frustrated by them. I suspect that, deep down, he could see the pain I was in but that something was blocking him from feeling empathy. I think he felt guilt, without feeling enough to overcome the deep-seated shame and hate that he clung to.

    Deep down I believe that he thought his anger kept him safe. I suspect that the fear of humiliation, of trusting in a relationship that wasn’t what he thought it was, was too much for him to cope with. That he was so afraid of being wrong that he tried to force me into a situation where it couldn’t possibly happen. That in itself created a situation of extreme control, constant belittling, and daily taunting that in the end I couldn’t survive in.

    In the end, I feel like he pushed me on purpose into a situation I couldn’t cope with. Trusting me meant letting go of his pain and suspicion, accepting that I might not be the idealised Goddess who would fix all his problems but that I loved him and was there for him. He couldn’t let go of his fear and shame, so he chose to take all of it out on me, all the time.

    Abuse isn’t what you think

    Talk of narcs and psychopaths and the like often make us more vulnerable to abuse, rather than less than. My ex-husband was traumatised and sometimes acted more like a wounded child than a grown-up. He didn’t act like some Scooby Doo villain. Incidents of unambiguous violence were rare. In fact at the time there was almost nothing solid I could point to that was wrong, except the fact that I was in pain. But I decided that was my pain, and I didn’t hold him responsible for it.

    It was an exact inversion of what was happening with him, where he blamed me for every negative thought in his head. I couldn’t even suggest any wrongdoing to him without him immediately believing I was accusing him of something toxic, something that called him unlovable and triggered his shame. So he could accept no criticism without anger. I felt like I had to be responsible for fixing both of our wounds.

    Leaving is traumatic

    Survivors are often asked, “why didn’t you leave?” It might be because you were threatened, or were afraid to. Maybe you had nowhere else to go or had been worn down so much that you didn’t trust yourself to survive. Perhaps you’d been cut off from family and friends and had no money so had no way of supporting yourself. Perhaps you really were in love.

    For me, I didn’t leave because I felt I’d made a promise not to. I promised over and over that I never would. I wanted to keep that promise. I believe he wanted to see how much I would take. He once told me I reminded him of a character in a movie who deliberately let herself be murdered just to keep a promise to her husband. I don’t know if he was taunting me, or thought I was stupid.

    But breaking my promise to him hurt me. In a way, it probably hurt me more than the abuse did. Because I believed in unconditional, permanent love, and he made me prove to myself that I couldn’t love him unconditionally.

    This made me believe that perhaps no-one would love me unconditionally either.

    Shame is almost impossible to heal from

    As a survivor of domestic abuse I experienced no shortage of my own shame. When I was at my most vulnerable I experienced dismissive actions on the part of police, managers, coworkers and my family. But I received support and understanding too. I remember a security guard possibly saving my life by quickly letting me into a locked building when my ex was chasing me, and letting me sit quietly in an empty room for the rest of his shift.

    Unfortunately, most people were cynical and judgemental, and tried to minimise the severity of my experiences. This further led to the belief that I was bad, I had caused it, I was perhaps just as ‘difficult’ as he was, and that I wasn’t worthy of love or respect.

    The truth is I haven’t let go of those beliefs. I have internalised a belief system which runs the risk of being every bit as toxic as my ex’s. Deep down I believe that no-one is ever going to love me as a person, that someone only wants me to fulfil a role, that I am replaceable, and in the end I — like him — will always be too much for someone.

    Unlike him, I am still trying to overcome those toxic negative messages. But doing so feels harder than I am capable of achieving, sometimes. The fear and mistrust is with me every day, and so is the need to protect myself from threat.

    Just like he did.

    #404668
    anita
    Participant

    Dear Jupiter:

    Thank you for your valuable, comprehensive original post. There is so much in it. I want to respond to a few things:

    When I was at my most vulnerable I experienced dismissive actions on the part of police, managers, coworkers and my family… most people were cynical and judgmental, and tried to minimise the severity of my experiences. This further led to the belief that I was bad, I had caused it, I was perhaps just as ‘difficult’ as he was, and that I wasn’t worthy of love or respect” – I want to be careful in my reply, best I can: to indicate no doubt in your experience as you told it, to not dismiss or minimize it; to not judge, accuse or blame you of anything.. no aggression, and nothing else that would suggest that you weren’t- or aren’t- worthy of love and respect.

    In internet parlance, my ex was an abusive and controlling narc….But screaming at someone for being an abusive narc often doesn’t bring healing“- I agree and it has made me cringe whenever I read from women online using what has become a common and popular name-calling: narc.

    I’d bake him cookies with terrible icing and make little gifts that fell apart“- the image of a child wanting to love (and be loved in return) in such a simple, honest way makes me smile.

    He simultaneously believed himself to be unlovable… and desperate for love” – the combination of these two ingredients make for a disastrous recipe when it comes to love.

    He would hurt me immensely by making sexist jokes and by relentless physical contact. Unfortunately, I think that the idealised woman in his mind had no capacity to be offended or hurt, because she wasn’t a real person…  Mythical goddesses don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed…. (they) don’t need personal space and they’ll never reject you…  he was angry all the time… This drove so much cruelty and abuse” –

    – it happens that people hate gods: misotheism  means “god hating”. A related term is dystheism, meaning “bad god”: it is the belief that a god is not wholly good and is possibly evil.  Your boyfriend turned husband idealised and worshipped his goddess, but he was also angry at his goddess and was therefore motivated to hurt her. Young children idealise their parents, seeing them as gods.  But when a mother-goddess repeatedly hurts her child, the child gets angry at the bad-goddess and secretly dreams of punishing bad goddess.

    I am guessing that he inaccurately projected his real-life mother/ primary caretaker into you.

    I suspect that, deep down, he could see the pain I was in but that something was blocking him from feeling empathy. I think he felt guilt.. He couldn’t let go of his fear and shame, so he chose to take all of it out on me, all the time” – his fear and shame culminated in anger. Anger is the most effective empathy-blocker I know. It also blocks guilt after dishing out the abuse quite effectively, I think.

    My ex-husband was traumatised and sometimes acted more like a wounded child than a grown-up“- my mother too acted like a wounded child when she abused me, only she had the physical stature and strength of an adult, and the official authority of an adult parent (and therefore no one intervened on my behalf)

    I couldn’t even suggest any wrongdoing to him without him immediately believing I was accusing him of something toxic, something that called him unlovable and triggered his shame. So he could accept no criticism without anger“- same is true in regard to my mother when I tried, as gently as I could when I was a teenager, to suggest … some constructive criticism to her: all hell broke loose!

    But breaking my promise to him hurt me. In a way, it probably hurt me more than the abuse did. Because I believed in unconditional, permanent love, and he made me prove to myself that I couldn’t love him unconditionally” – I love the child that my mother was when she was actually a child unconditionally. I would have done anything and everything to help the child that she was, if I was alive and capable at the time. But the child that she was is gone and the leftover of that child, aka inner child is too repressed in her, to locked and blocked to be helped by anyone.

    “Shame is almost impossible to heal from… As a survivor of domestic abuse I experienced no shortage of my own shame” – I agree. To a large extent, healing from shame is possible.

    The truth is I haven’t let go of those beliefs… Deep down I believe that no-one is ever going to love me as a person, that someone only wants me to fulfil a role, that I am replaceable, and in the end I — like him — will always be too much for someone. The fear and mistrust is with me every day, and so is the need to protect myself from threat. Just like he did.” – I don’t want to rush a reply to this ending of your amazing original post. I want to reply to this part later. If you would like to respond to this post before I return to you, please do.

    anita

    #404677
    Helcat
    Participant

    Hi Jupiter

    Congratulations on leaving your abusive marriage. It takes a lot of strength to do that. Statistics show that often it takes 7 attempts to leave an abusive partner before this is successfully achieved. I’m sorry for the abuse you endured in childhood and during the marriage. I hope that your life is calmer now?

    I have also experienced a lot of abuse and my take is slightly different on abusive behaviour. I think that it is very easy. I remember when I was a child. As a result of my abuse I developed similar traits, even becoming violent.

    Self control, being a good kind person is more difficult and takes effort.

    Abusive people when put in different situations such as in front of others react entirely differently in front of others compared to how they would privately (when they feel there is no repurcussion for their behaviour). This reveals that they have the capacity for self control. They are making a conscious choice to violate boundaries. Why?

    Well when I was a child hitting other children made me feel strong and powerful. I enjoyed hurting others, much in the same way I would imagine that my abuser enjoyed hurting me. Things quickly spun out of control. What started as beating up bullies, became assaulting my friends when they told a joke I didn’t like. At the age of 12 I decided enough was enough. I didn’t want to be like my abuser. I didn’t want to hurt my friends, so I had to practice self control, teach myself empathy and not hit anyone.

    You have a lot of empathy for your abusive ex husband. My concern is does your empathy for him overshadow your compassion for yourself?
    Sometimes it can be emotionally validating to say X was a B*!%# for physically abusing me.

    There are plenty of people who feel unlovable that don’t go on to abuse others. So I don’t believe that it explains the behaviour. You said yourself that you now share those feelings. Yet you are kind and empathetic. I doubt that you would ever harm anyone because of those feelings.

    You strike me as a very intelligent, emotionally resilient woman and I honestly believe that in time you can recover from this, especially with the support of a skilled trauma therapist. Don’t be dishearted by the length of time it is taking. These things are not easy or quick, but indeed, possible. May your pain grow smaller in time!

    #404696
    anita
    Participant

    Dear Jupiter:

    You wrote in regard to your childhood: “I’d been… the child of an addict, and was one of seven children spanning a variety of failed marriages — only one of whom was my biological sibling“- I imagine that growing up you felt very un-special. Maybe you were treated like a thing, not like a person. Maybe you were treated as if you were 2-dimensional, not like the 3-dimensional, complex child and teenager that you were. A deep craving was born: the craving to be treated special and to feel special.

    In a reply in another thread, you wrote to another member: “what you’re saying is that every woman is interchangeable… Women are people. Individuals, human beings. They have different standards, desires, interests and beliefs. Too many people think that getting a life partner is like fishing at the side of a pond, where the only thing that matters is getting a fish. It doesn’t matter which fish takes the bait, because they’re all fish, right? Finding a partner means finding a real human being“-

    – I think that while growing up you were treated as if you were interchangeable, as if you were a thing, not a person; as if you were not an individual, real human being with her own standards, desires, interests and beliefs, as if it didn’t matter who you were… as if you were just a fish like any other fish.

    Back to your thread, you wrote: “I met him in a bar through mutual friends and asked if he wanted to go for a coffee. He replied with a 2000-word essay about having fallen madly in love with me. I was astonished, and was swept off my feet… and I jumped in with both feet“- feeling that he noticed your specialness and picked you from the rest as the one worthy of his 2000-word essay quenched that childhood craving, for a while, left you eager for more of that feeling of special.

    But later events in the relationship led you to the following: “I don’t think he cared which girlfriend. I think women were interchangeable to him..  It’s like catching a fish in a river, when you’re starving. It doesn’t matter which fish you catch, as long as you get one” – he gave you the feeling of being special and then he took it away, and you were back to feeling interchangeable, a fish, could have been any fish.

    I will jump straight to the last part of your original post: “Deep down I believe that no-one is ever going to love me as a person, that someone only wants me to fulfil a role, that I am replaceable” – seems to me that you are yet to be treated special, like the 3-dimensional, real person that you are; yet to be treated as an irreplaceable, unique, special person. The craving is just as strong as always, isn’t it?

    I would like to tell you about my experience growing up feeling very, very un-special, but I need to know if you are interested in reading about it. I would also like to know what you think about what I posted to you so far. Maybe you will tell me, maybe you will not, but either way, I wish you well!

    anita

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