The Responsibility Works Both Ways
Katie’s Klabusich’s wonderful story got me to thinking about how, being in a relationship with a serial abuser can have a strange two-way type of responsibility. My situation had odd similarities and even odder differences. My ex is also an alcoholic, though at last report he is what is known as a “dry drunk,” someone who fails to acknowledge or deal with his drinking, and tells himself that not drinking now somehow absolves himself of the title of alcoholic. And he also not only cheated, but used the same deflection techniques — the number of times he was ‘caught’ and got out of it by way of drunken threats of suicide still makes me cringe. We also had this strange friendship+ situation at the time that I got pregnant, though after I told him I was pregnant he pressured me into resuming our former engagement - at least for a week or two, after which point he left me for the person who he was cheating with at that time. But the biggest difference is that I — for a lot of other personal reasons that have little to do with him — chose to have the baby.
Which is where things move in the other direction. My ex ultimately married the woman he left me for while I was pregnant. Also at last report, they are still married. My son is now a 21 year old man, who has no relationship with his father, because of the continued abuse that I tried and failed to shield him from. I feel a sense of responsibility for that, but at the same time, I wonder what more I could’ve done. More than once I tried to get the family courts to make my ex be evaluated by a mental health professional. I fought to get them to acknowledge that he was still an active alcoholic, based on knowing first-hand that he’d continued drinking after his last court-appointed rehab stint. I took out restraining orders when his behavior would move into harassment. I did everything I could think of, to limit my ex’s ability to hurt my son, but the court’s never cooperated or aided me — in fact they made things easier for him, never holding him accountable for his behavior or his lack of financial support for his child.
But my son’s stepmother, as far as I’m concerned, also needs to take some of that blame. She didn’t just fail to come forward and talk about the abuses her husband was heaping on my child, she supported them. He never could hold down a job for any length of time, so her job provided any financial support and insurance that he used to claim he could provide a better home than I could. And when he tried to take custody — which he actually did more than once but all subsequent times he self-represented — her family paid for the lawyer. She also, by all reports from my son, never told him the truth about those hearings. My ex would swear to my young child that he was not trying to “take him away from his mother” while actively suing for custody. He would make false accusations of abuse by me, and his wife would back him up. Basically she was the enabler in my son’s abusive relationship with his father, and yet she regularly claimed that her home was a better place for my son to live than mine.
Now I won’t claim to have had many conversations with the woman — she never could grasp the concept that her being complicit in her husband’s continued abuse of both me and my son, gave me no reason to treat her with any civility. She would gaslight me herself, acting as if I had some obligation to get along with her simply because we were both in my son’s life, when just dealing with my ex’s lies and violent outbursts was more than enough crap for me to handle, and I refused to wedge her own crap into that. She would claim I was the one being unreasonable, holding grudges, treating them like the enemy when I should’ve let them “help” in raising my child; I think on some twisted level she even believed my resentment of her was still traced to my ex having left me for her. It was true, for maybe a month or two after we split up — in fairness to myself I was 20 and pretty stupid at the time — I even wrote a rather pathetic letter about those feelings. But those regrets were instantly swept away when, during my pregnancy, my ex demonstrated how utterly unreliable, thoughtless and selfish he could be, and I ultimately counted myself lucky as hell to have been so dumped. By the time my son was born, I didn’t just understand that I’d never really loved him — I’d only been manipulated into thinking I needed him — but I was already feeling the relief of realizing that I was totally justified in hating him. Every promise he made about helping to support me during my pregnancy and child birth he broke, and he even tried to force me to include his new fiance (they got married after my son was born) in my birthing experience despite my absolute refusal to allow it.
The fact is, I don’t know if my ex’s wife ever figured out that she’s spent 20 years married to abusive narcissistic who will likely never change at this point. But I obviously don’t feel like it was ever my job to enlighten her. Maybe she does still believe his lies, maybe she feels justified in her behaviors because she still thinks I’m the jealous harpy ex, trying to “use” my child to get back at him. Though I do know, that if she still thinks that way she is deliberately burying her head in the sand. My son has told me about the behavior that went on in that household, and I don’t give two damns if she tried to be the gentle ‘parent’ to my ex’s abusive parent, and soften the blows (most of the abuse was verbal and mental so I mean that word mostly metaphorically) from his father. If she’d really cared about doing what was right for my child, and been the better ‘mother’ she made herself out to be, she‘d have fought to take my son out of that environment, not to make it his permanent home.
I admit, that I feel there came a point where she had some responsibility to me, to admit to all the times my ex lied and made crap up to try and smear my name to the courts, the police, school officials, etc.. But mostly it’s the responsibility to my son where she really failed, and where she really failed me. The stories my son told me, after he was grown enough to decide his wanted nothing to do with his father and felt safe to share the abuse, make me want to scream. I never once tried to completely take my ex out of my son’s life, even though I knew for many years it would probably have been the best thing for my child. But he loved his father then, and I didn’t know just how bad things were at his dad’s place. But I did fight to get the courts to evaluate my ex and his household, to be sure that my son was being protected — and all I got for it was to be treated like a crazy, unstable custodial parent, being continually verbally and mentally abused by not just my ex and his wife, but the courts as well. And if she had ever owned up to what her husband was doing to my child, if she had even just stopped backing him, things would’ve been different for my son and I both.
There was a time when I felt I had some responsibility to her, where I even envisioned the day she would need the emotional support of both me and my son to walk away from her marriage. And I was genuinely prepared to give her that support, for many years. But she burned that bridge to the ground all by herself, when she continually put the desires of her husband above the needs of my son. And now, I owe her nothing but an equal measure of the contempt I have for my ex.
In my struggles to understand and overcome the abuses I and my son endured, I’ve become an avid follower of the people who have openly and vocally left destructive cults — in particular the cult of Scientology. People who have endured abusive relationships can learn a lot about the tricks and traps abusers use to control their victims, by listening to the stories of the cult survivors. In fact the first time I watched Jason Beghe interview he did 8 years ago, I felt like I was having a revelation. The language, the manipulation, the gaslighting — it was like he was talking about my life. Which is why abusive intimate relationships are sometimes called one-to-one cults.
This past year, Leah Remini and Mike Rinder helped to produce an amazing series on A&E, called Scientology and the Aftermath, which explores personal stories of people who have escaped the church and family members who were disconnected by loved ones within the church. The show is an amazing light shining on this destructive organization, but what I found so fascinating was how forgiving each of them could be of those people who had abused them within the church, once that person had come to see the truth and walked away. Mike alone had done abhorrent things to people in his role as a church leader, and in the name of those higher than him. And yet they could sit and talk to people he had caused great harm to, and now that he was out and honest about what he’d done, no one seemed to hold his past behavior against it. Rationally I get it, because even those who are violent and abusive arm of Scientology are themselves being manipulated and controlled.
I find myself wondering if I could ever be so forgiving, should my ex’s wife ever recognize the cult she’s been under the thumb of. And I feel some sense of guilt in thinking the answer is no. But I also cut myself some slack, because I’m sure there are people who don’t and can’t forgive Mike, Leah and others, even if rationally they understand they themselves were victimized. We all have limits to the amount of forgiveness we can give, and I hit mine years ago.