I never realized I was in an abusive relationship until several months after it ended. Our first ten years together were the happiest years of my life; the changes happened so gradually, I never understood. How long does a cucumber soak in the brine before it becomes a pickle? Does it matter? You can tell which is which by the taste.
Trying to understand the transformation from bliss to abuse intellectually is, in some ways, impossible – because there isn’t any logic behind certain choices & events; just emotion. And behind those emotions, there is pain, and there is fear. Fear of loss. Fear of rejection. Fear of change. Memories float to the surface unbidden, like bubbles of methane gas from long-dead, decomposing bodies of pre-historic creatures entombed in the black, noxious mud of a lonesome bog, flares of hope like will o’ the wisps luring me away from solid ground.
“But, she loved me, once…” No. She loved what I did for her. She loved my vision of her. And I allowed what she did to me, because I was in love with vision I had created. The good memories come on their own (why are those still the most painful?). I have to struggle to resurrect the corpses of the traumatic engrams. When she broke down the door, missing the head of our newborn baby by inches as I tried to shield him from her rage, I insisted upon counseling; we spent several weeks in the counselor’s office discussing my masturbation habits. Her temper was hardly mentioned.
When I told her that honesty & faithfulness were my core values, and she lied and said she’d never had sex with our mutual friend at the time, I should have known he was to be only the first of many mutual friends with whom she would betray me. When she lied to the detective investigating the rumors of her inappropriate sexual relationship with her high school teacher, it was a dark foreshadowing of how she would manipulate the local police department during our divorce, culminating in the loss of my professional license for the crime of my acquiescence to her demands. Yet I listened as she lied, I knew the truth, and I stayed quiet. When she threatened to leave me, she knew she was violating a boundary that was very important to me; I knew how these threats could be used as a form of control & manipulation and had made sure it was well-understood since the beginning that this tactic was forbidden. I moved her belongings outside my apartment building and locked the door.
Through the window I watched as she stood there, sobbing in the rain. I had grown up in a world of loneliness, isolation, withdrawn affection, & unpredictable rejection; I knew that pain, and I could not stand to see another suffer in its freezing, desperate despair. I didn’t hold my ground; I let her back in. I participated in my own destruction, every step of the way. By the time we got married, I had shown her she could lie to me, cheat on me, abuse me, and threaten me, and I would forgive her. To keep her from hurting me again, I would offer her whatever she wanted. My core values were sacrificed like offerings to a false god, burned to ash in desperate & futile attempts to appease her and avoid the pain of the betrayals that never stopped.
As her secrets multiplied, I strove to be a model of transparency, honesty, and integrity. In quiet, private moments, I wanted her to see me – but I soon noticed that every vulnerability I had revealed to her eventually became a target for her psychological abuse. What could I do? I wanted true intimacy; true friendship.
I did not want any barrier between her and knowing me fully. But her alcoholic, abusive rages were becoming more & more devastating to my sense of self-worth, and I could no longer continue enduring her attacks without some form of protection. Feeling I had no other option, I built a wall — but a wall made of glass — and I placed it around my heart. I was not happy. But leaving her was unthinkable. I bargained and rationalized and denied, and in so doing, I lost my identity. As her toxicity became my own and the damage to my personal & professional life elevated, I naively trusted in the truth to be my shield, little realizing the extent of the contagion growing inside me at that time; a mistake which would soon cost me dearly.
Trying to separate her abuse from what I am responsible for is like trying to wash the blood from clothing that has been fused to my skin by an atomic blast. When the bomb went off, the glass wall around my heart imploded. The pieces went everywhere but on her. I lost my finances. I lost my career. I lost my dignity, and my privacy. Most of all, I lost my innocence.
This is victory, I remind myself, as I pick shards of rose-colored, blood-stained glass out of my heart, wash them off with my tears, and re-assemble them into a beautiful mosaic. I won. I beat the odds. I survived a sixteen-year marriage to a narcissist, and its aftermath. I escaped. I’m free. And I will heal. Stronger, wiser, and happier than ever before.