You Might Also be a Victim of Domestic Violence
and may not even realize it
I remember very clearly when my therapist said to me, “What you’re describing is emotional abuse. How does it feel to hear me say that?”
Actually, it felt fine. Once I had begun repeating my husband’s words outside of our house, it became very clear that the words and behavior that were somehow normalized in my house were quite the opposite.
The knowledge that my husband was emotionally abusive didn’t send me into a defiant outrage. It didn’t indicate to me that it was time to file for divorce.
Sure, he raged, and he yelled. He could mean. This wasn’t news. Just because it now had a “clinical name” — it didn’t feel any different.
What it did do was prompt me to talk to him about it. I didn’t use the phrase “emotional abuse” (because I didn’t want to make him angry). Instead, I told him that his anger was damaging me. I told him that it wasn’t okay. I told him we needed to do something. I was actually kind of nice about it.
This still made him angry.
He immediately went on the defensive with, “Where’d you get that idea? Your therapist? What are you going to do? Divorce me?”
It was a rhetorical question, of course. But then he laughed. . . which in retrospect, was a kind of a sinister, knowing laugh. He continued with, “What do you think your life will look like if we get divorced? You will be living in an apartment with the three kids and two dogs!”
His response stunned me. None of this was what I expected to hear. I thought maybe what he was saying might be true.
Then he spit out the words, “You think you’re so smart.”
I was scared, but I did think I was a little smart.
I realized that I needed to know the truth. I mean, maybe he was right. I needed to know what I could possibly do if nothing was ever going to change. I didn’t think I’d really do anything.
My mom gave me $250 cash, and the name of a lawyer. She was scared too.
It still took me three phone calls to this lawyer before I even had the courage to leave a message. It’s hard to say your name aloud to a divorce lawyer, and admit that you’re looking for advice. It makes it real.
On the day of the appointment, I took a day off from work, and didn’t mention it to my husband. Since I had never before taken off from work without him knowing, it made me feel independent and confident. As I strode into the lawyers office in my jeans and boots, I was thinking, “I’m kind of a bad ass.” I thought, “Well, at least I’ll learn the truth. He can’t scare me if I know the truth.”
I sat with this lawyer for over an hour. He asked me questions, and crunched numbers. He asked me why I wanted to get divorced. I explained how we met when we were young, how we were different. I sugarcoated the bad parts, and emphasized the fact that we simply grew apart. The lawyer nodded and took notes. He was kind and compassionate. I was feeling more confident by the minute. I was in control now.
I boldly asked him if a divorce really meant I was going to be living in an apartment with my kids and dogs. He smiled and shook his head. I was elated and breathed a sigh of relief. . . that is until he uttered the words I’ll never forget:
“Oh, you have a very good case. What you’re describing is domestic violence.”
I began to choke on that sigh, and could barely catch my next breath let alone answer him. The phrase resounded in my head, “domestic violence”.
His mouth was still moving, but I didn’t hear many of the words he spoke afterwards. My ears were throbbing, and I was frantically looking around for the door. I wanted to run outside, dig my hands in my hair and shake my head around until the words spilled out of my head. I stumbled out of his office in a post-apocalyptic haze, and knew there was no going back to my life as it was.
I could somehow live with a husband who was emotionally abusive, but I couldn’t be a victim of domestic violence.
I could live with a villain. I just couldn’t be a victim.
There were so many questions, and it was so hard to believe. It’s still sometimes hard to believe.
How did this happen? How did I let this happen? How did I let it go on for so long?
I thought I could love him enough to heal him. I thought I could soothe him enough to calm him. I never did.
I didn’t know I was a victim of domestic violence. I didn’t know it for over twenty years.
I’m starting to think there are likely a lot of women who also just don’t know.
I’ve learned that you can try to help someone with everything that you are, but if they choose not to accept your help — there is nothing you can do.
I’ve learned that if your husband is emotionally abusive to you, your children are suffering too. There is no amount of intervening or consoling that can erase the damage already done.
I’ve learned that just because you found out that you’re a victim, you don’t need to remain a victim.
I want to tell you that if you leave it will be over. In some ways, it will.
You will be able to start becoming the person you always wanted to be. . . the person you hadn’t even realized you left behind.
But if you leave a man who thought you were his, for whom you were a receptacle for his anger, he will not be finished with you because you had the audacity to leave. You will need to repeatedly set boundaries. You will need to continually break away.
It can feel impossibly difficult, but it is not impossible.
Each one of these words can be a step on the path to your freedom if you need it. I am here, as are others. Take our hands. Take as many hands as you can, and begin walking.