Behind a cut for emotional abuse.
This is a follow-up question to letter 1141. I’m not that letter-writer, but I’m in a very similar situation. My husband has become emotionally abusive and extremely controlling, we have young children together, and I do not have much of a support network. I’m working with a good therapist to fix things: crafting an ultimatum to my husband, getting my ducks in a row to divorce if that fails, and working on building up some support for myself.
For the support part of it, my first step is going to be to tell my mother about what’s going on. She’s not local but she does live within driving distance, and we have a positive relationship. However, I have absolutely no idea what to say or how to broach this subject.
- Things that are making me feel stuck:
I’ve been pretending everything is fine for a few years now (I didn’t even realize until therapy how much I was hiding things to try and appear normal). So, she has no clue.
- Also, my husband has been a part of our family for a long time, so she knows him and likes him (and I used to like him too – things weren’t always the way they are now).
- The abuse is not easy or quick to explain. He doesn’t abuse me physically. It’s weird things like…I’m required to ask permission to use the car (and not as a formality, I get turned down). If he tells me he doesn’t like an outfit, he expects I won’t wear it again. He is super messy, but I’m not permitted to touch any of his mess even to keep the house at a baseline level of clean. Related to that, he doesn’t let me have people over because the house is messy … and so on and so forth, there are a LOT of rules. The whole thing is just … weird and horrible and humiliating. It’s been REALLY hard to even talk to my therapist about it, honestly. (Overall, I’m not sure how to balance wanting a support system with desperately not wanting anyone to know about this).
- Talking about problems – even more normal ones – is not really a thing that is done in my family. My mom and I phone weekly and also email a few times a week, but it’s silly lighthearted stuff: how my kids are doing, recipes we liked, anecdotes from work, etc. I don’t know how one even broaches the topic of a serious, sad, shitty thing like possible marriage-ending levels of abuse.
- I’m scared that if I screw this up, and say it wrong or describe it wrong or use the wrong tone or something, she won’t actually be supportive. Like, she’ll think it’s all been my fault, or that it doesn’t really sound that bad or divorce-threat-worthy, or…I don’t know. Like I said, I’ve stupidly let myself get to a place in life where I don’t have a ton of support-system-people, so it’s pretty paralyzing to think about this possibility.
I guess that covers it. I’m not trying to rehash letter 1141 too much – your response was great. So my TL;DR is: Can you please give me some scripts of what to say and do when talking about my own emotional abuse with people who I hope will be supportive?
Thank you so much.
I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this, but I’m glad you are starting to reach out for support and build a path out.
There are two tasks here and they aren’t necessarily the same task and it might help to separate them.
1) Getting support from your mom b/c you are unhappy in your marriage.
2) Convincing your mom & other potential supporting people that what is happening is abuse.
Maybe right now you focus on the first one. Maybe the other part isn’t quite safe until you are free. That’s not fair, and it doesn’t make what you’re dealing with Not Abuse, but maybe reframing it can help you have some of the conversations you need.
When it’s “just” “emotional abuse” and it’s expressed as this weird list of rules and controlling behaviors, people who don’t have experience with that stuff don’t necessarily define it that way. It’s part of what’s maddening about it, like, you try to describe it to other people and your story comes out of your mouth like “He makes messes and won’t let me clean them” and “If he doesn’t like an outfit I feel like I’m not allowed to wear it” and it’s immediately “I KNOW, I KNOW IT’S SO FUCKING WEIRD, I ALSO DO NOT UNDERSTAND WHY ANYONE WOULD BEHAVE THIS WAY, BUT IT IS HAPPENING, AND I AM GETTING THE FUCK OUT, SO HELP ME PLEASE.” You’re the hysterical person in the horror movie trying to explain that no, really, vengeful ghosts are opening all the kitchen cabinets at night and your kid really is talking to her new Imaginary Fun Mirror Friend Who Loves Death who definitely is starting to answer back, and everyone is looking at you like you are crazy when you are telling the truth and…
…until people/you believe in the truth/the monster/the ghosts/the abuse…
…nobody is safe…
…And what happens in horror movies is that the people who tend to survive them get to the point where they’re like “Idc if you believe me, I am getting an old priest & a young priest/a real estate agent/a moving van/a giant fucking chainsaw and I am GETTING OUT OF HERE.”
This is where you are, Letter Writer. You gotta go, even if nobody comes with you. So you might do better (for now) naming it as abuse to yourself and your therapist and maybe your lawyer and friends who get it, but finding other ways to describe it when you talk to other people. This is unfair, but it is also survival.
Someone recently asked me something that I will probably tackle at length that boiled down to: In these sketchy situations like #1141/687/547, where there is no physical abuse and not necessarily screaming or things that easily check off the boxes on emotional abuse checklists, how do I know it’s toxic?
I’m still thinking about it (I’ll stay thinking about it) but the stuff that jumps out when I read a bunch of these letters in a sequence all together is this:
1) The Letter Writer is very unhappy in the relationship.
2) The Partner is convinced that they (he, in these specific cases) are An Authority on How Things Should Be: What is the proper amount & type of exercise (hint: It’s NEVER the one that LW #687 is actually doing), whether & when broken glass should be cleaned up from the floor (Thanks forever, #547), ethics around STI testing and disclosure (also #547, that dude is a GEM), the proper distance to maintain in art galleries and on sidewalks, and oh hell, let’s throw in “how long it takes to get places,” and “how much water goes in a teakettle” and then today we add “whether a fellow adult is allowed to use the car,” “what outfits can & can’t be worn” and “what things (mess) & people (none) are allowed to be in the house.
LOOK AT THAT LIST IT’S A FUCKING RIDICULOUS LIST.
Like, the Partners are claiming to be the boss of how their fellow adults navigate clothing, food, exercise, water, friendship, and the motherfucking space-time continuum. They are just that sure that they are right about everything.
3) And if you, the lovely Letter Writer(s) say: “Listen, you don’t have to like this sweater, but I’m still wearing it on my body” or “I need the car today” or “This is how much water it takes to wash dishes, which you’d know if you ever tried it sometime” it’s treated like a request or a negotiation. Like, over time, y’all feel like you’re “not allowed” to disagree, or there will be Consequences. Maybe not hitting consequences (at least not so far), but, sulking consequences. Yelling consequences. Silent treatment consequences. Another four-hour discussion that has to happen right now, even though you are already late for the thing you needed the car for or even when you’re exhausted and you have to be up early in the morning to do something important. Ruining an evening out – going home, making a big scene, embarrassing you in front of friends or family. A long recitation of his feelings and psychological wounds that ends with you apologizing and comforting him. Not doing something he promised consequences, like, he said he would watch the kids so you could go to your art class but now he’s just not sure he can. He finds a way to create enough friction around you doing what you want & need to do that it starts to get easier to just go along with whatever he wants.
There are consequences even when whatever it is is totally low-stakes and doesn’t really affect the partner at all. Like, no one will be hurt if you wear what you want on your own body, but it’s worth it to him to hurt your feelings about it.
4) And when you, lovely Letter Writer(s), take reasonable steps to deal with the conflicts, like, going to couple’s counseling or suggesting taking separate cars to events, you’re ignored (or straight up overruled). But the conflicts don’t go away. You’re never allowed to just say “Um, I’m not doing that” and consider the discussion closed. The discussion is closed only when he says it is (and when it’s decided his way).
5) It’s almost like the conflicts – excuses to have & create constant conflict – are happening on purpose. Probably the biggest takeaways from Lundy Bancroft’s seminal book about men who abuse women is that abuse is just not that deep. It’s basically a giant sense of entitlement. These people just think they deserve to be catered to in all things, they should never be inconvenienced, they should have the full attention & compliance of people in their lives, their feelings are the most important feelings, and when their desires and needs come into conflict with the needs of the other people in their relationships, they think their needs should always, always come first, and they will take steps to enforce that hierarchy even if it means violence or fucking with their partner’s self-esteem and sense of reality. Also, men who abuse women are universally misogynists (even, if in the case of “Mr. Sensitive”, they talk the talk of being feminists). On some basic level they just think that women exist to take care of them and that we count less than they do in the world.
These abusers take many forms. Sometimes they show up as Mr. Right:
(Note: Bancroft uses male identifiers throughout, because his research was based on studying men. Anybody can act like the people in these descriptions, so if you recognize somebody in your life but the genders don’t match up, it probably still applies.)
“Mr. Right considers himself the ultimate authority on every subject under the sun; you might call him Mr. Always Right. He speaks with absolute certainty, brushing your opinions aside like annoying gnats. He seems to see the world as a huge classroom, in which he is the teacher and you are his student. He finds little of value in your thoughts or insights, so he seeks to empty out your head and fill it up with his jewels of brilliance. When Mr. Right sits in one of my groups for abusive, men, he often speaks of his partner as if she were in danger from her own idiocy and he needs to save her from herself. Mr. Right has difficulty speaking to his partner—or about her—without a ring of condescension in his voice. And in a conflict his arrogance gets even worse.
Mr. Right’s superiority is a convenient way for him to get what he wants. When he and his partner are arguing about their conflicting desires, he turns it into a clash between Right and Wrong or between Intelligence and Stupidity. He ridicules and discredits her perspective so that he can escape dealing with it.”
…When Mr. Right decides to take control of a conversation, he switches into his Voice of Truth, giving the definitive pronouncement on what is the correct answer or the proper outlook. Abuse counselors call this tactic defining reality. Over time, his tone of authority can cause his partner to doubt her own judgment and come to see herself as not very bright. I notice how often I am speaking with the intelligent-sounding partner of one of my clients, only to have her say to me: I’m not that smart. The abuser wants her to doubt her mental abilities in this way, so that he can control her better.
Besides knowing all about the world, Mr. Right is also an expert on your life and how you should live it. He has the answers to your conflicts at work, how you should spend your time, and how you should raise your children. He is especially knowledgeable about your faults, and he likes to inventory what is wrong with you, as if tearing you down were the way to improve you. He may seem to enjoy periodically straightening you out in front of other people to humiliate you, thereby establishing his unquestionable intellectual superiority. When Mr. Right’s partner refuses to defer to his sophisticated knowledge, he is likely to escalate to insulting her, calling her names, or mocking her with imitation. If he’s still not satisfied that he has brought her down low enough, he may reach for bigger guns, such as ruining evening plans, leaving places without her, or saying bad things about her to other people. If he is physically assaultive, then this is the time he may throw things, raise fists, or attack violently. In short, Mr. Right finds some way to ensure that his partner regrets her insistence on having her own mind.” – Source, Lundy Bancroft, Why Does He Do That?
And sometimes they show up as Mr. Sensitive:
Mr. Sensitive appears to be the diametric opposite of the Drill Sergeant. He is soft-spoken, gentle, and supportive—when he isn’t being abusive. He loves the language of feelings, openly sharing his insecurities, his fears, and his emotional injuries. He hugs other men. He may speak out about the absurdity of war or the need for men to get in touch with their feminine side. Perhaps he attends a men’s group or goes on men’s retreats. Often he has participated extensively in therapy or twelve-step programs, or reads all the big self-help books, so he speaks the language of popular psychology and introspection. His vocabulary is sprinkled with jargon like developing closeness, working out our issues, and facing up to hard things about myself. He presents himself to women as an ally in the struggle against sex-role limitations. To some women, he seems like a dream come true.
So what’s wrong with this picture? Nothing obvious yet. But this is exactly the problem: Mr. Sensitive wraps himself in one of the most persuasive covers a man can have. If you start to feel chronically mistreated by him, you are likely to assume that something is wrong with you, and if you complain about him to other people, they may think you must be spoiled: You have the New Age man, what more do you want?
The following dynamics are typical of a relationship with Mr. Sensitive and may help explain your feeling that something has gone awry:
1. You seem to be hurting his feelings constantly, though you aren’t sure why, and he expects your attention to be focused endlessly on his emotional injuries. If you are in a bad mood one day and say something unfair or insensitive, it won’t be enough for you to give him a sincere apology and accept responsibility. He’ll go on and on about it, expecting you to grovel as if you had treated him with profound cruelty. (Notice the twist here: This is just what an abuser accuses his partner of doing to him, when all she is really looking for is a heartfelt I’m sorry.)
2. When your feelings are hurt, on the other hand, he will insist on brushing over it quickly. He may give you a stream of pop-psychology language (Just let the feelings go through you, don’t hold on to them so much, or It’s all in the attitude you take toward life, or No one can hurt you unless you let them) to substitute for genuine support for your feelings, especially if you are upset about something he did. None of these philosophies applies when you upset him, however.
3. With the passing of time, he increasingly casts the blame on to you for anything he is dissatisfied with in his own life; your burden of guilt keeps growing.
4. He starts to exhibit a mean side that no one else ever sees and may even become threatening or intimidating.
Mr. Sensitive has the potential to turn physically frightening, as any style of abuser can, no matter how much he may preach nonviolence. After an aggressive incident, he will speak of his actions as anger rather than as abuse, as though there were no difference between the two. He blames his assaultive behavior on you or on his emotional issues, saying that his feelings were so deeply wounded that he had no other choice.
Many people reject the possibility that Mr. Sensitive could be an abuser…
…This gentle man style of abuser tends to be highly self-centered and demanding of emotional catering. He may not be the man who has a fit because dinner is late but rather erupts because of some way his partner failed to sacrifice her own needs or interests to keep him content. He plays up how fragile he is to divert attention from the swath of destruction he leaves behind him.
The central attitudes driving Mr. Sensitive are:
• I’m against the macho men, so I couldn’t be abusive.
• As long as I use a lot of psychobabble, no one is going to believe that I am mistreating you.
• I can control you by analyzing how your mind and emotions work, and what your issues are from childhood.
• I can get inside your head whether you want me there or not.
• Nothing in the world is more important than my feelings.
• Women should be grateful to me for not being like those other men.” – Lundy Bancroft, Why Does He Do That?
Or check out The Water Torturer over here (he sucks real bad):
“The Water Torturer’s style proves that anger doesn’t cause abuse. He can assault his partner psychologically without even raising his voice. He tends to stay calm in arguments, using his own evenness as a weapon to push her over the edge. He often has a superior or contemptuous grin on his face, smug and self-assured. He uses a repertoire of aggressive conversational tactics at low volume, including sarcasm, derision—such as openly laughing at her—mimicking her voice, and cruel, cutting remarks. Like Mr. Right, he tends to take things she has said and twist them beyond recognition to make her appear absurd, perhaps especially in front of other people. He gets to his partner through a slow but steady stream of low-level emotional assaults, and perhaps occasional shoves or other minor acts of violence that don’t generally cause visible injury but may do great psychological harm. He is relentless in his quiet derision and meanness.
The impact on a woman of all these subtle tactics is that either her blood temperature rises to a boil or she feels stupid and inferior, or some combination of the two. In an argument, she may end up yelling in frustration, leaving the room crying, or sinking into silence. The Water Torturer then says, See, you’re the abusive one, not me. You’re the one who’s yelling and refusing to talk things out rationally. I wasn’t even raising my voice. It’s impossible to reason with you.
The psychological effects of living with the Water Torturer can be severe. His tactics can be difficult to identify, so they sink in deeply. Women can find it difficult not to blame themselves for their reactions to what their partner does if they don’t even know what to call it. When someone slaps you in the face, you know you’ve been slapped. But when a woman feels psychologically assaulted, with little idea why, after an argument with The Water Torturer, she may turn her frustration inward. How do you seek support from a friend, for example, when you don’t know how to describe what is going wrong?
The Water Torturer tends to genuinely believe that there is nothing unusual about his behavior. When his partner starts to confront him with his abusiveness—which she usually does sooner or later—he looks at her as if she were crazy and says, What the hell are you talking about? I’ve never done anything to you. Friends and relatives who have witnessed the couple’s interactions may back him up. They shake their heads and say to each other, I don’t know what goes on with her. She just explodes at him sometimes, and he’s so low-key. Their children can develop the impression that Mom blows up over nothing. She herself may start to wonder if there is something psychologically wrong with her.
The Water Torturer is payback-oriented like most abusive men, but he may hide it better. If he is physically abusive, his violence may take the form of cold-hearted slaps for your own good or to get you to wake up rather than explosive rage. His moves appear carefully thought out, and he rarely makes obvious mistakes—such as letting his abusiveness show in public—that could turn other people against him or get him in legal trouble.
If you are involved with a Water Torturer, you may struggle for years trying to figure out what is happening. You may feel that you overreact to his behavior and that he isn’t really so bad. But the effects of his control and contempt have crept up on you over the years. If you finally leave him, you may experience intense periods of delayed rage, as you become conscious of how quietly but deathly oppressive he was.” – Source, Lundy Bancroft, Why Does He Do That?
There are more in the book. ‘Cause, of course, there are more. But these three are the ones I meet over and over in the letters I get, and the story is all the same story: They feel entitled, so they belittle and manipulate and control and you end up questioning your sanity and worth as a person (but they never do)(unless it’s to manipulate you).
Which leads me to 6) One way I smell abuse or at least a very toxic situation is when the Letter Writer(s), have tried all reasonable-person sorts of things like talking it over and speaking up and suggesting reasonable normal fixes to the problems, and it’s not working, even though their Partner is the World’s Most Rational Being, so they start to wonder if they themselves are the problem. They write to me wondering if there isn’t some secret sub-basement of emotional labor they could do to fix their partners and the relationship. The “Is it me?” thing. The “did I just not give them enough chances?” or “I know I’m not perfect” or “Maybe my ability to people is just broken?” thing. The “am I allowed to leave this person?” question.
Which, if you want to picture me reading emails in my office, this is the part that always makes me start yelling at the computer screen. These motherfuckers have rules-lawyered you into questioning your own reality and it makes me so very angry on your behalf.
Because: You don’t have to be perfect in order to want kindness and consideration from your romantic partners! You also don’t have to tell the story perfectly or be able to define what’s happening perfectly or convince everybody of what Abuse is to deserve support from people who love you! You’re allowed to just want your relationship to be relaxing and happy and not a giant source of stress in your life!
Edited to Add: Lots of people want to try to diagnose these people further, but in the end “why he’s doing it” isn’t as important as the fact that it’s making you unhappy. If this pattern exists, where you’re being mistreated and overruled and talked down to, and you feel trapped and miserable, you’re isolated from friends & family & possible support networks, you’re ashamed of what’s happening and feel like it’s your fault sometimes, if you feel like you’re not allowed to break this person’s dumb rules or yell back or be happy & comfortable in your own house or life, if you’re not really “allowed” to say no or have your own preferences or boundaries, if you had to describe your relationship and all the words that come to mind involve eggshells or quicksand, his mindset/mental health history/emotions/reasons/history of attachment issues/possible narcissism don’t really matter to me except in that I have no expectation that he will ever get it or change or try harder (except the exact amount necessary to keep you around to abuse more). I have no scripts for talking to him or fixing it or convincing him. You are a smart and good person and you already tried all the reasonable and kind and loving shit and here you still are not allowed to [drive your own car][wear certain clothes][snap photos of cool stickers on the street][walk next to another person][make tea][chop vegetables in the way that suits you][have friends] and it doesn’t really matter why he does it (though he would really love it if you spent a bunch more years trying to suss it out), it just matters that you know that you deserve freedom and safety and kindness. Just think of me as the sidekick in the horror movie who, when the weird shit starts happening, is like “I’m not sure if that’s demon possession or a poltergeist, but when do we do the exorcism/flee for our lives?” because I BELIEVE YOU and IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT.
So, back to you, specific Letter Writer, when you think about talking to your mom. What if you didn’t use the A-word right now, but you described a) your feelings b) your actions & decisions c) what you need and d) (if necessary) his specific behaviors. Like:
- I feel really unhappy with him.
- I feel really down and depressed when I’m with him.
- I feel like I can’t breathe in my house.
- He has a lot of rules for how I dress, when I can use the car, when I can have people over, I feel very constricted by this, I don’t think adults should have rules like that about each other.
- He keeps the house very messy and fights with me when I try to clean it. It’s very stressful to me to have a gross, messy house.
- He yells at me and I feel like I’m not allowed to every yell back.
- Yes, that is very strange behavior, I know. I don’t have an explanation as to why he does any of that.
- He makes it hard for me to have friends. I feel isolated when I’m with him.
- I think I would be happier without him.
- I am unhappy enough that I am considering divorce.
- I am not looking for advice on fixing the marriage, I think it’s unfixable and my best shot is to leave.
- I think I’ve tried everything I can safely do and it’s time for me to go.
- I’ve been pretending everything was fine for a long time in the hopes that one day I would wake up and it would be fine. But I don’t think it will be, so I gotta go.
- If/when I divorce, I need [specific help] with childcare/housing/money.
- I know you love him, and I love him too, and it’s scary to think about things changing, but I believe I will be happier when we aren’t married anymore.
- I never told you how unhappy I was because it felt disloyal – I wanted us to work it out if we possibly could. I don’t think that’s possible anymore.
- Yes I think it will be very hard to be a single parent, so, imagine how much harder I think it would be to stay in that situation.
- I don’t think we are capable of modeling healthy relationships for the kids anymore.
- I don’t need you to agree with or understand my choice but I do need you to [keep our conversations confidential][have my back][help out with childcare], and if you can’t or won’t help, I need you to tell me now.
As a blogger, as a community facilitator, I am very interested in naming abuse when I see it so that other people can name it when they need to. But you can use other words if you need to. You are the expert on your own life, your own needs, your mom (& whether she can be trusted), your own story (& how much & when to tell it & who gets to hear it). You. Only you. “I am just really unhappy in my marriage and I think this is the right decision for me” is a good enough reason to leave, you don’t have to give more reasons than that if you think you are talking to someone unreasonable or someone who won’t get it. The world is not your shitty husband, you don’t have to make an airtight case to drive its car, even though the world can break your heart with how many people will make excuses for or minimize the things he does or try to tell you that it’s not really ABUSE-abuse if you don’t have to go to the emergency room.
Wishing you a future of riding in your own car when you want to with your music on the radio wearing clothes that you like on your way home to your nice clean house that you fill with friends and laughter and love and only people who are kind to you. I hope your mom can be one of those people. ❤ & courage.
255 thoughts on “#1143: “Talking about emotional abuse and leaving my marriage with my potential support network.””
When I had to tell my parents that I was divorcing, I wrote – like, hand wrote, on paper – a letter and snail mailed it. A couple reasons – one, I knew I could say what I wanted to, and take the time to get it worded the way I wanted to, before sending it and without interruption. Two, by snail mailing it, I didn’t find myself going back into my sent mails and second guessing myself about how I should have said this or that once it was too late – it was sent and out of my hands. And three, once it was gone, my toxic ex didn’t have any way to get hold of it and use it against me. (He tried. He was LIVID that I hadn’t typed it or somehow saved a copy because I owed it to him to let him know what I was saying about him, he felt. I disagreed.) in my case, my parents lived across the country, but it’s still an option as to literally how to begin the conversation. What to actually say in the letter… that’s the harder part.
A takeaway from my own experience: be prepared for your mom to express dismay that (in her interpretation) you didn’t trust her enough to tell her what was going on. You cannot stop her being bummed by that. But you didn’t do anything wrong and you don’t have to let her blame you for handling your personal business in the way you felt most comfortable. Jedi hugs.
It’s not unreasonable — or generally even untrue in these situations — to say “Hey, Mom, I just recently told ME.” If you have to say it more than once, that’s its own thing.
I don’t have any advice that hasn’t already been offered but I’d just like to chime in on “Dearest LW, *YOU* are not the person who should be ashamed or embarrassed here, and the thing where you are is a thing he did to you.”
After my relationship with The Person Now Referred To As The Gaslighting Sack Of Shit exploded across the landscape I bottled everything up for quite awhile because I couldn’t think of a way to talk about any of it without making him sound like a terrible controlling person.
… yeah I eventually realised there was a reason for that and it wasn’t my communication skills.
You get to feel how you feel, dear LW. But it’s worth remembering that you’ve been living with someone who fucked with your head a lot, and give the feelings more time AFYER you’re away from him to settle and get sorted into “accurate”, “partly accurate” and “ah-heh-heh-fuck-that-asshole-NO” than you think you need. It’s hard. But you will get there and you’ll be able to trust your brain again someday not too far away.
I think it’s possible that the LW’s fears about her mother’s reaction are unjustified. Her horrible husband has been gaslighting her and effing with her mind for so long that *I* think she perceives her situation as much murkier and harder to understand than it actually is. Sure, her mother might be startled or disbelieving, but it’s also very possible that her mother’s reaction will be “Oh, honey, I wish I’d known! I wish I’d helped you earlier!”
So by all means, take it as slow as you need to with your mom, LW. But you actually may be surprised at how ready to believe you she is. I hope so, anyway.
This, also. Her Mom’s response may well be “Oh THAT’s why you’ve been so unhappy!”
Yes. When I left my abusive ex, I was terrified people would be disappointed in me and think I was a terrible person who gave up on their relationship at the first sign of trouble, because I hadn’t opened up about how bad things were previously. My parents really liked him (he always showed them his best side) and our friends thought we were a really solid couple who were going to be together for ever. I told my mum and other people the full truth in dribs and drabs over the next couple of years, but when I ended the relationship, every single person whose reaction I’d feared responded with love and support and practical help. In retrospect, it breaks my heart how much that astonished and overwhelmed me – but I wasn’t used to living in a world in which my feelings mattered, or where I was believed to be capable of making good decions, or where I was allowed to do things without justifying everything to infinity, even if it meant breaking up with someone who seemed nice. LW, I can’t promise people won’t be jerks, but I hope it’s the same for you as it was for me.
Yes, this. When you subltley get entrenched in an abusive relationship, it’s like sliding, unaware, into a dream world. You don’t know that you are there and are already on another planet, in full survival mode. I was there, and hit the point that I eventually reached out to family after it was unbearable but I was still in dreamy Hell-Oz. My family was expecting it, to my surprise, and literally flew our four immediate relatives to pack up my stuff and get me out with witnesses. However, in retrospect I was so deep in the abusive relationship that it was not obvious to me despite my fundamental being crying out every day, while it was to people who were close to me. Maybe your mother observes more than you know? Maybe it is worth being honest with her, whilst feeling it out? Shame keeps so many of us in abusive relationships. Eff shame and her horrid, smarmy face. Life and happiness are so much more important!
And make back up plans to back up your back up plans. You are not crazy. There is an alarm going off in you, saying you aren’t okay right now. You can evaluate your relationship later, when you are by yourself and free to think clearly. Who can you talk to that you trust, as a sounding board for an exit strategy, even if it is temporary? If there isn’t anyone, there are domestic violence hotlines. In this case, it’s okay to be sneaky, and by sneaky, I mean, your partner sounds alarming potentially not safe, so you shouldn’t tell him your plans. You can assess things after you are away. It is okay to ask for help. More people than I ever, ever expected had gone through the need to leave asap. If there is no help, quietly plan. Jedi, Jedi master hugs to you. Please update.
I agree! We all believe my BIL is abusive emotionally and mentally. We see bits and pieces even though my sister and him always seem So Happy. We see the way she can never come visit alone, and how they had to move in with his parents where she is expected to support his entire family with her income while he hasn’t had a job in 2 years (not even looking btw), and how she has no say over what she wants at any given time, AND how anxious she gets when you hint at it! But to his face and hers? We are all smiles. When he is not around, we all talk about. We know that we cannot step in because my sister WILL hide from us for a while. Not everyone is like that, but we know her well enough to know that she will. This way, we have her still in our lives and can monitor the situation. She may also be worried and then surprised if ever she comes to us that we Already Know.
That thing of feeling like she could either win or lose her mother’s sympathy depending on how she puts things, that’s very typical of someone who’s been in a codependent relationship. Whether the original codependent relationship was with her husband or her mother… I mean, she says they get along OK, so maybe it is OK. But if I were her I’d make sure I had some sort of plan that didn’t depend on her mother, just in case this crisis is what reveals to her how shallow the relationship was and maybe how much it was dependent on her playing the part of the successful married daughter (but I’m projecting here, so I’ll stop).
This is what I was going to suggest. LW, if you decide you want to tell your mom the full extent of what’s going on–and like CA said, you don’t have to, you can stick to “I’m unhappy and therefore I’m leaving” if you prefer–writing it all out and giving/sending your mom the letter might be the easiest way to do it.
It lets you get all of it out without interruption. It lets you explain in as much detail as you want. (For the record, if you’re wondering how these things sound to people outside the relationship–“I’m required to ask permission to use the car (and not as a formality, I get turned down). If he tells me he doesn’t like an outfit, he expects I won’t wear it again” sounds INTENSELY controlling and INTENSELY not good; regardless of whether it would occur to someone to label it ‘abuse’ or not, it definitely illustrates a bad, unhealthy relationship that would make anyone miserable.) It means you don’t have to sit there and relive it to her face; you can write it, send it off, and let her read it without you watching. It means you don’t have to hear her immediate reaction (which may be more about shock than about supporting you)–you get to skip until she’s processed it and chosen how to respond.
It also lets you set the stage for how you want things to go from here on out. You can say something like “I spent a long time telling myself everything was fine, so it feels like things getting this bad has snuck up on me. Now that I’ve finally acknowledged to myself how awful it’s gotten, I’ve realized I need to get out of here. I could really use (hugs/a comforting shoulder to cry on/somewhere to stay/help with meals and chores/whatever you actually want from her) while I figure out how to do that safely.” That tells your mom what’s up, and also tells her exactly what you need from her at this time. That latter bit is especially important because a lot of people do want to be supportive when a loved one is suffering–but don’t necessarily know how to help, or think they know how but actually their loved one needs the opposite of what they thought. Telling her what you need/want gives her the option to jump straight to doing it.
TL;DR: Letters are great. Email is great but actual snail-mail letters are even better when a little distance is useful in getting the words out. You don’t owe it to anyone to have this conversation face-to-face or in real time if that’s not what’s best for you right now. And don’t be afraid to explicitly say “this is what I need, please do that”–a lot of people actually appreciate it.
LW, you said “I’ve stupidly let myself get to a place in life where I don’t have a ton of support-system-people,” but I don’t think that’s stupid. It is a crappy situation to be in, especially when you really need support, but it’s a thing that happens sometimes — *especially* when your partner doesn’t let you have company over, etc. If you can, try not to blame yourself.
Right, instead of blaming yourself for that, reframe it as “My husband makes it difficult for me to maintain friendships – he has contributed to an environment where I am very isolated from other people.”
That sentence, where LW says “I’ve stupidly…” just… breaks my heart. This discomfort with talking about the things that your husband does isn’t a personal problem, it’s a feature of the abuse. The lack of support system, again, a feature of the abuse. Like, isolated from friends and family is there on the ticky-box list.
LW – it’s not your fault. You’ve not stupidly done anything. This is all hard, and scary. I think CA got it right when she said that you wanting to name what’s going on, and you wanting support in ending your marriage, do not *have* to go together. You can do one, or the other, or both. You can tell some people everything and some people get the “I’m getting divorced, it wasn’t working, here’s what I need,” talk. It doesn’t necessarily make it easier, but hopefully it makes it a little less scary.
Hugs from afar, if you want them.
Oops, got nesting wrong. Sorry!
This!!!! Abusers are so good at emotional sleight of hand. If I’d KNOWN mine was intentionally driving away my friends, I would have run, of course–so he did it subtly, by insisting that he wanted to hang out with my friends/family too, and then making himself so unlikeable that THEY stopped wanting to hang out with me. It looked like my people drifting away from me, when really, it was my awful ex doing the world’s worst “now you see them, now you don’t!” magic trick.
(Gods bless the ones who stuck it out despite him, and the ones that got a little distance but were ready to catch me the instant I got out)
Right – just because he hasn’t said the words “I am isolating you from your support system so you’re dependent on me and it’s easier for me to control you” doesn’t mean that isn’t exactly what he’s doing. He’s limiting who you can have over; he’s limiting when you can leave the house; I’m guessing some of his rules also have to do with how long you can stay out and how much attention it’s “okay” to give people who aren’t him.
(But this doesn’t mean you’re stupid for not having noticed what he was doing sooner or “fought back” or whatever the mean part of your brain might tell you, because he didn’t say those words, and you trusted him, and it’s his fault he’s an asshole.)
So true. It’s not stupidity to be manipulated by a manipulator. And it’s not stupidity to have a less-than-robust support system. It’s just the circumstance you are in, which is being exacerbated by an abuser.
LW, you’re not stupid. Neither are you perfect. But you do not need to be perfect and do everything ‘right’ just the ‘right’ way (and also been a mind-reader and future-seer) before you’re allowed to say “You know what? I’m unhappy, and I don’t want this anymore.”
SO true. It is not stupid to be manipulated. Abusers are very good at what they do, manipulation being their primary tool.
And the fact that abuse is so common an issue here on CA is further proof that it’s not stupid women who experience it. All of the stories I’ve read about emotional abuse here on CA come from intelligent, kind, deeply thoughtful people. None of them are stupid. You are not stupid. GIANT Jedi hug.
This isn’t a sign of stupidity. Believe me, the majority of women I’ve known (including myself) who have been put in this situation by abusive men were far from stupid, and were often very successful ass-kickers in their professional lives. What this is a sign of is that you are a normal person, who is intelligent enough to be introspective, and reasonable enough to want to treat your partner fairly. And that’s exactly how they get you. Because your husband is not reasonable, or kind, and is probably not more intelligent than you. My abusive ex was thick as pigshit; the only thing he was good at was manipulation. Describing yourself as stupid is your husband’s voice talking, and he knows you’re nothing of the kind, and he fears you realising that.
Chiming in. No, it’s not stupidity. You loved (or love) him, and he told you he needed you, and somehow that always came first.
Been there, done that.
In some ways what we traditionally think of as “smartness” makes us MORE vulnerable. We fill in the gaps in narratives. We make patterns. We second- and third- guess ourselves. We put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. We look for where we can improve the situation. All of which are great skills! But they can make it easier for someone to roll us, because we’re used to how those things work when everyone is acting in good faith.
A dear friend once said to me that at the end of the day there are no certain defences against abusers, because their personal menu of “possible and acceptable actions” contain behaviours that most of us wouldn’t consider using against our actual enemies, nervermind our partners. So we aren’t looking for them and we’re not well-equipped for defence, and certainly not for retaliation.
This is very perceptive and well-put. To paraphrase a common CA refrain, being reasonable is for reasonable people, but it can take time to realize you’re dealing with an unreasonable one, especially with someone who once passed as a good partner to you.
I’ve also heard the tactic referred to as Trunchbulling (a la Matilda), wherein behavior that is audacious enough can make the victim question their own perspective (because something this ridiculous can’t really be happening, so they have to be interpreting it wrong), not to mention make it harder to seek help because it feels too bizarre to talk about. I’m seeing a lot of that in the LW’s account.
“No certain defences against abusers…” Absolutely true, because manipulators turn up the heat slowly and constantly adjust their techniques to match our rational reactions. Even if we are on constant guard 24 hours a day, there is no way to catch everything they are doing. And that makes it especially hard to explain our situation to other people who haven’t gone through that themselves.
“…manipulators turn up the heat slowly…”
Frog, pot of water…heat to boil. Sloooowwwly.
Isolating their victims is a hallmark characteristic of abusers. LW, considering your husband 1) won’t let you have people over, and 2) won’t let you use the car (aka leave the house) without permission, I think it’s very safe to say that he’s isolating you.
And it is such a part of abuse. A slow slide towards isolation.
One thing I want to reiterate from the Captain’s excellent advice is that you do not need your mom’s permission to leave him. It might feel like you do–it sounds like you have to get permission to do a lot of things in your life, and it’s possible that’s become so ingrained that you feel you need permission to do almost *anything.* But you do not. You are an adult, in charge of your own life, and if you want to leave that is all the permission you need.
Your mom might have feelings about it, she might disagree with you, and that’s okay–she’s an adult also. But she’s not in charge of you. You are. I wish you all the strength-building hugs in the world, LW. You can do this.
Could you print this post, CA’s reply, and send (or email) to your mom?
Your confusion, desire for help and support, and concern over whether you make enough sense to warrant a response, touches me deeply and if I were your mom I’d help you however you needed.
This. Print and give to your mother. “Mom, I wrote this.”
I wouldn’t email because I would assume your husband is checking your mail.
Also, LW, if part of you needs permission, *we give you permission*. All of us, right here in the Captain Awkward commentariat, we are an outside perspective who have seen a lot of shit and *we* say this is more than bad enough for you to go. You are unhappy. You have good reason to be unhappy. You are *allowed* to be unhappy, and to be done, and to go.
I really hope OP starts to believe that she doesn’t need anyone’s permission for anything. If I could know that she would be physically safe I’d advise OP to just take the keys, take the car, go wherever she wants for however long she wants and refuse to justify/engage in conversations about what she’s doing.
I mean sure, I tell Husband I’m going out and usually where…out of courtesy, but do not require his permission. Likewise OP doesn’t require her husband’s permission, he has just managed to manipulate her into thinking she does.
OP You are an adult. Adults do not need permission to live their lives as they see fit.
I’m going to float the balloon that your mom may have an inkling of how hubby really is. Maybe not, but if he’s as ‘rulesy’ as he is, he might not have been able/been bothered to hide it in front of her. Or you might have off-handedly mentioned something during one of your conversations that you weren’t even aware was problematic behavior. I mean, you know her better than I do and should prepare accordingly, but maybe she noticed something that you were ignoring and will be on Team You. I hope so, anyway!
I don’t know. My sister dated a guy who was an abuser and my mom never suspected a thing. She’d been dating him for nearly a year before I met him. My first impression of him was based on who he really was…because he didn’t see me standing there as he lit into my sister with a torrent of hate filled words. I still remember his face as she stood there taking it. He enjoyed it. He didn’t enjoy it seconds later when it became clear to him that the random stranger witnessing his abuse was actually his victim’s sister. He tried to hold onto the image he projected to my mom, but I quickly revealed the truth to her. Still…it took my mom about a week to fully believe me.
In my experience, cuz I have tons (my bio dad is a VERY scary version of the “terrorist”), is that people who are not educated on abuse or come from places where misogyny is common, don’t see abuse when it is flashing in their faces. You hear a lot of “thats just men” or “i never let Bill get to me the way you let Todd get to you. You just gotta ignore it” all the while they are sitting there sweating bullets trying to get their husband an emergency doctors appointment at the time he says he wants on that very day or “I will have to hear about it later”. This is very common in the community I live in. I am not from here and it just happens to be the place we landed when we had to escape my father when I was 5. It is a nasty evil place, and you cannot build support networks here for abused women – because the education on abuse is not only lacking, but the abuse itself is acceptable as part of the misogynistic community. You see it in the women you work with who cower to even their male peers. You see it in the grocery store while couples are shopping. You see it at back to school night. The cowering women are everywhere!
I am stuck here for now as my son is wrapped up in special services regarding his mental health, but we will leave in the next few years. I am currently working on finding a job outside of here just to get that ball rolling. I have no friends, because women aren’t allowed to have friends here outside of who they grew up with. And even if I make a friend, their belief system is so warped, I cannot even relate to them or them to me. If the OP or anyone finds themselves in this situation, just know that no matter what, this is not normal! And know that there is a community of us out there willing to help.
OMG this makes me want to go full scorched Earth on your community and CHANGE THINGS ™!!!
Ya know it actually took for me to work at a couple different companies in this area, work for one outside of it, and then come back to working here for me to realize that it is a full kn cultural thing here. Its not like abusr victims walk around with black eyes. No. But all the women are exactly the same. All working lower paying jobs than their husbands. All doing all of the emotional labor and a lot of the actual labor in the home. All cowering to their commands. All making excuses for the men. All have their girls enrolled in some local competitive team geared towards gendered norms (think boys playing whatever sports and girls only in cheer). And I mean
Every. Last. One. And I’m over here like I have two kids with no contact with their father, I own my own home I bought on my own, I’m chronically single (imagine trying to date here), and I have a son with mental health issues. Lol and I will call out the misogyny in the work place all the time. These women think and treat me like I’m a freak! You can always tell who in generationally from here as opposed to those who are not. Cuz even being born here can make you an outsider if your parents weren’t. Most of the rest of country at least tries to hide holding women back professionally or lol not being emotionally abused at home. Women here speak of it like its a way of life.
Kudos to you
LW’s mom very well may. My mother and stepfather knew (without specific details that would have required being physically present for events at which they were not) that my ex-husband was abusing me.
For me, one of the hardest things was admitting my parents had been right about him. My mother saw some traits in him that in my youthful ignorance I did not notice (I was sixteen when I got married, because I was pregnant with my awesome Kiddo, just past eighteen when I left, and nineteen when the divorce was finalized), and I’m pretty sure she and my stepdad had some conversations about the parallels between the end of my marriage and the end of Mom’s marriage to my bio-father.
Of course, LW knows her mother better than we internet strangers do, but assuming her mother is an Ordinary Decent Parent, she will be on Team LW, even if it takes Mom a little time to adjust to the reality of Darth Husband’s behavior.
I could see the abuse and manipulation in my sister’s marriage before she could. She made every excuse in the book for her ex. She was like a frog in that metaphor about the boiling water. If a frog were to jump in a pot of boiling water, it would jump right back out. But if it were in a pot containing a perfectly comfortable temperature of water and it slowly heated up, so slowly you didn’t notice really notice it, you might stay in that pot until you were cooked. Things got so bad so slowly that by the time he was hospitalized in the psych ward and we were taking loaded handguns out of their bedroom (there were 7), I was fully prepared. I was ready and willing to roll her up in the nearest Ikea rug and carry her to safety, firefighter-style over my shoulder, while she was still weighing the idea of temporary separation as a possibility. She felt loyalty and enmeshment to him, so I had to keep my thoughts to myself somewhat, even though those thoughts were blaring klaxons screaming “GO! YOU GOTTA GO! PUT THE DOG IN THE CAR AND DRIVE TO MY HOUSE RIGHT NOW OH MY GAWWWWDDD.” Your mom might be waiting for you to say the word. I hope she becomes the captain of Team You.
Here is the thing. I know abuse. My father is The Terrorist. He is a very scary dude who hails from a very scary family (uncle is serving 10 in prison for shooting up my father’s house – and he is 70 years old!). My mother and no woman on my father’s side of the family (we still had to maintain contact through court orders now not legally allowed with that side of the family) always told us that this guy was wrong in every human way possible and trust nothing with him. They were right. Nothing was ever sugar coated. I know my father stabbed my mother with a fork IN HER HAND because he didn’t like the corn. I know he held guns to her head. I know he beat her every day. I know the price you pay to stay. I Know It All. Yet, when I found myself with a terrorist who only reared his ugly head after I became pregnant with his child, I still felt those same feelings of just maybe. When he hit me the first time is when we left – there was weeks of emotional abuse building up to this. We went right to the women’s shelter (my son and I), and then onto my sister’s house in another state where he couldn’t find us. And for MONTHS i still felt that “well just maybe” and would literally do battle with my mind over it ever single day. Me. Someone who knows all about it and the dangers. Someone who has written and given speeches on it! Even I was not immune to the psychological effects of manipulation and abuse. It is impressive how they get into your head. You can barely even describe that feeling of insanity.
“… and when their desires and needs come into conflict with the needs of the other people in their relationships, they think their needs should always, always come first…”
After almost 8 years, my ex flat-out told me that he believed that his needs/wants/goals would always come first because they were just more important than mine. And that finally gave me the courage to end our relationship. I never realized until today what a favor he did me, because up until that point I I spent a lot of time wondering if there was something wrong with me. Too bad not every Darth can be so explicit.
Sometimes, when we’re lucky, they screw up and try to move the shit along a little faster than they’ve manipulated us into accepting.
I’m glad you’re out!
I had a weirdly up-front Darth (at least stuff he said to me), and while it was an ugly experience, it’s darkly amusing in retrospect. Like “you realize you just said that. Out loud.” Slow clap for the bleeding-obvious Darths, may they be even fewer and further between.
It also made me appreciate all the more how hard it is to get your head around the more subtle stuff LW is dealing with. I believe you, LW! It’s real. You deserve better.
Haha my most recent ex said finally “… I will concede that I am a selfish person, but …” And who knows what he said next cuz I was like “ehhhh selfishness is like That Thing no one wants another person. Ever.” Haha baffling. A couple weeks later he told me I gained too much weight (15lbs) and I was like thanks Mr Abuser. Have a nice life. Still tries to contact me too. Like if you reach that level of self awareness where you can literally define yourself as “selfish” and still you are like “but its cool”, how does that even work? Like what conditioning makes a person believe that selfishness is ever good to the point where you admit it and think its a totally cool characteristic? Or even an excuse?
I take it you’ve never read Ayn Rand, who published a book literally entitled The Virtue of Selfishness. Which, to be fair, is like many philosophical ideas in that it would work if it didn’t have to be implemented by these pesky humans.
I tend to avoid Ayn Rand hahaha. She is a case study in the consequences of removing emotion from an argument. Assigning humans totally logical attributes is pretty dehumanizing. And I am saying this as someone with some major logical clout! I have a gifted IQ, I work as an analyst which I taught myself, and often have to consciously consider emotions of others as it is not intuitive. But I am intuitive and logical enough to state rationally through observation that people (while espousing otherwise) cant and wont like someone else who is wholly selfish hahaha. So Ayn Rand can cram her philosophical theories up her pretentious bum!
LW, I’m so sorry. I had a similar situation with my abusive ex, where the abuse was hard to explain and it was incredibly easy to manipulate me into thinking I was selfish/oversensitive/clingy. It took at least a year and a half in therapy to realize that there wasn’t anything wrong with me, and that he’d been the unreasonable, selfish one. Because for a while I was blaming myself and paying more attention to the rare voices that said, “it’s about his feelings, not yours” and “you just feel like you were wronged because you were dumped, you need to reflect on what *you* did” instead of the overwhelming majority of “what he did to you was absolutely fucked up, and you deserved to have your needs/feelings considered just as much as his.”
I wish you the best of luck in building that support network, because you deserve more love and kindness than you’ve been getting from your husband.
When we were in our 40s (we’re 55 now) I realized my husband had been abusive for the entire time we’d been together. It was emotional and cloaked in love-and-reason. Completely surreal, I honestly doubted my sanity and was the mom who blew up for no reason. Our marriage was a series of my being half-bucked in countless subtle ways. Then he — so softly! — bullied me into the four of us (we have two sons) living with my emotionally controlling parents for a few weeks while our house was built. We got through it civilly, but once we left their home I completely lost it. We had a couple of years’ worth of me trying to explain what was hurtful about his behavior, and him wondering why I was so completely unhinged, and then . . . I detached.
I stopped worrying whether he was supportive of me, or whether he was able to engage with whatever our kids and I were enjoying, or whether he “got it.” I just started taking care of myself and letting myself be happy, and I pushed his destructive, self-indulgent worldview aside. I freed myself from feeling I had to figure him out or make his world better and I felt SO MUCH LIGHTER.
To his credit, DH looked in the mirror I had handed him. He started to examine, then question, then change, the way he defined himself and others and everyone’s role in his life.
So, yeah, we’re still married, over thirty years now. All of us are much healthier and happier than we used to be. But LW, please please know and believe: the Happy Ending for me isn’t our marital outcome — it was when I made what I believed about my life more important than what anyone else did.
Sending strength and joy.
“the Happy Ending for me … was when I made what I believed about my life more important than what anyone else did.”
I am gasping for oxygen because of what you just said. It hit me that hard. What I believe about my life is more important than what anyone else does?! CAN I REALLY GET PERMISSION TO THINK THAT?
Yes. Yes, you totally can. There’s no one who knows your life better than YOU do, and there’s nobody who is better equipped to decide what to do with it than YOU are. You’re the expert on being you, and everyone who’s telling you something to the contrary is lying, simply because they are not you.
You don’t need anyone’s permission to think that but your own.
Your life is yours. It’s as simple as that – you own your life.
What you think and feel about your life is more important than anyone else’s opinion.
It is corny, but what brought me to this realization was a book called “You are a Bad Ass”.
You don’t need permission to think that. You don’t need anyone’s permission to value yourself. The Awkward Army can’t give you permission – because we have no rights in the matter – but we can give you a cheering section – go for it! Own it! It’s yours.
LW, your husband has gas-lit the hell out of you. That paralysis you’re feeling, that’s his B.S. working on you to make you so confused and uncertain that you’re afraid to move.
The Captain is right about concentrating on the fact that you’re unhappy in your marriage and need out, rather than trying to convince people “it really is that bad.” Manipulators like your husband can and do adjust their behavior around others so they seem like nice, reasonable people. As a result, the image of him that everyone else reflects back to you is that he’s “normal,” so if something is off in your marriage, it must be you. It’s a sort of reverse fun house mirror, one that makes the distorted and twisted look straight, and makes you seem wrong. It distorts your perception so badly you almost literally can’t think straight and every path before you looks terrifying.
And it really sucks because you can’t convey to others what’s happening to you, because from their perspective he looks okay. Only someone who’s been in his “fun house” can understand.
So don’t waste energy on trying to convince people. Just get out of there. Maybe others will someday experience the real him and believe you, maybe not. Ultimately it doesn’t matter. What matters is getting you out of there. Once you’re out, anyone who aligns with him is telling you they’re not safe for you, so who cares what they think.
There are plenty of people who think I’m wrong and horrible for cutting off my toxic family member, who is so nice, and kind, and charming. I don’t care if anyone thinks I’m a Darth Vader. My sanity is infinitely more important than outsiders’ perception of me.
You can do this, LW. Good luck.
I *adore* your comparison to the fun house. A lot of us have spent more time trapped with the weird mirrors than we would like.
“Only someone who’s been in his “fun house” can understand.”
This. Also even well (some say overly) educated people who kinda sorta know what to watch for get caught up in being controlled sometimes.
In my situation with the (bad) ex the conversation with my mom went like this: “I want to leave, here’s my plan…”
Mom: “What do you need me to do?”
I could give a rather long laundry list of all the ways my mom fucked up as a parent, but this was one of the things she did right…because she’s been there. She never doubted me for a second. OP’s mom hopefully hasn’t been in this situation but will nevertheless just believe and be there for OP.
Rock on, mom! It sucks that she knew where you were coming from, but thankdogs she got out and was able to help you.
This is good general life advice. It took a long time but I’ve gotten to the point that when some guy (always a guy) wants to rules-lawyer me, calls me a feminist as if it’s a bad thing, a bitch, a whatever…tells me how wrong I am/I just don’t understand, etc., etc., etc. I say “ok” and move on. Their opinion means zero. My opinion is the one that matters. I really hope OP can get to this point.
About 10 years ago I left a relationship like this, and the ugly truth was that far too many people have the “If you aren’t bruised you haven’t been abused” mindset. I wish I’d known then that being unhappy in the relationship was enough–I didn’t have an obligation to stay there until it met their personal definition of too abusive.
Also, LW, be wary of using people who don’t GET that you had ample reason to leave even if it wasn’t physical as a support system as you leave, especially if your husband gets stalkerish/potentially violent. I made that mistake and still haven’t forgiven the family members who helped me out but tried to put me back in contact with the man I was desperate to get away from because “he needed closure” or “he will want to see his kids too” or whatever else.
Kudos on that last paragraph! That says it all. Who needs to question their own reality and emotionally labour their way into things that should be givens? I’ve been in an abusive marriage. When it’s the water you swim in, it can be hard to know that it doesn’t have to be this way, but it doesn’t. Wishing you all the best, LW.
I wish that we, as a society, could be OK with the idea that if being around someone makes you feel sick and gross (or weak and crummy, or stressed and on edge, or, or…) that’s enough! It’s OK to go! You don’t need to be able to articulate what or why or how stuff is wrong about their behavior–it’s enough to trust your own feelings. It’s OK to go.
The vast, vast, vast majority of this situations are the woman feeling these things because of the male’s actions. Our wondrous patriarchal culture has a vested interest in keeping women ‘in their place.’ There is still a prevalent, even if not directly stated out loud belief by males that women are chattel.
No way are they going to amiably give up on the idea that women have no right to leave these situations without convincing all the males that they are justified.
I left a similar situation recently. You may be surprised at how supportive your friends from before will be, the friends who have not been to your house for a while and whom you have not seen because of your husband. Don’t feel bad or guilty or needy about asking for their help. Especially the divorced ones. They get it.
And you rock on! You got this. It’s a tough decision but once you have made it, going back seems ridiculous.
I say something similar downthread – it was great not having to explain why ex wasn’t along on a visit, or try to “apologize” for *his* rudeness was amazing! Seeing people I hadn’t seen much of because they didn’t like him or he didn’t like them was delightful! Even *his* friends had my back.
LW, as I’m working on processing some of my own abuse, I’m learning that all these things I’ve been carrying around for decades that “weren’t that bad” or “were just sort of weird little things that added up” are (to reasonable outsiders) completely horrifying.
CA is right that not everyone will see it this way, but here are the things in your letter that I (a reasonable outsider) found absolutely horrifying:
This isn’t okay. And I know how hard it can be to tell family that things aren’t okay when you’ve been pretending they’re okay (see: my divorce). I can’t promise they will ‘get it’ or support you right away – and maybe not ever. But don’t let the fear of not having their support stop you from doing what you need to do. It will suck not to have it, but you can do this with or without them. I have faith in you.
One of the smartest things I did was to start a file of “did they ever?” that listed each little incident that made me uncomfortable, feel unsafe, pissed me off. That way, if anyone had asked, I could have handed them the list of 83 items. Nobody ever asked, btw. But it was invaluable for me, whenever I had a niggling doubt that maybe I was overreacting, to go re-read that list and remember, oh yeah, it’s not just this one thing today, it’s all these things, over the years, and none of these 83 items was a one-and-done, they were all recurring.
Oh, wow, that’s a good idea. I have to remember horrible things done to me whenever I wonder “did I deserve that? maybe I was wrong?”
Similarly — I myself, and several friends, over the past few years have recognized and escaped horribly toxic family situations, and (properly locked and filtered) social media has been so unequivocally helpful in this regard.
It is so, so good, when the “maybe it’s just me, maybe i’m overreacting, maybe *I* hurt *them*” thoughts come, that there is a written record of what was happening and how badly (I/they) felt about it at the time, and also likely a wall of outraged friends reaffirming how terrible and horrifying it all is. Date stamps that prove these things happened over and over and over. Transcribed verbatim quotes of abusive things shouted through doors.
Since time and the brain’s coping strategies like to patch over the bad stuff, it’s so valuable to be able to re-read that and remember. Like letters from past you trying to keep you free.
My mother did this and credits it with helping her see her divorce through. 99% of it was insidious emotional and verbal abuse; she wrote down every major (or lingering) incident she could think of on a legal pad and kept it in her room to read whenever she started to feel like my dad deserved another chance. She also started keeping a journal of day to day things that happened, so she could really see how *constant* it was and pick up on patterns.
I once was debating on whether I should quit a job I hated but paid well. A friend knew I kept a journal and suggested that I take two highlighters and highlight all the good things I said about my job in one color and all the bad things in another color. Seeing that bad stuff highlighted helped me see the pattern of toxicity at the workplace. I put my notice in the next day. I do this every once in a while still, just to pick up those patterns. Your mom is a smart cookie!
I kept a notebook with me for a while. In it I noted every type of mean thing he did as he did it. (That is, I’d note date and time and whether it was name calling, contemptuous tone, threatening gesture, breaking something, raging randomly, or other lousy thing.)
My intention at the time was to shame him into kinder behavior by demonstrating how often he was mean.
Well, I was also trying to convince myself to leave.
You see, I loved him very much, and I knew he was abusing me. So I knew I needed to get myself out.
I felt this too. If your mom doesn’t, then that is on her and you don’t need her permission. But I hope she sees that list and is shocked and supportive, especially if she had no idea. Just seeing that list my head is screaming to leave.
“I’m learning that all these things I’ve been carrying around for decades that “weren’t that bad” or “were just sort of weird little things that added up” are (to reasonable outsiders) completely horrifying.”
Two of colleagues were lightheartedly complaining about their husbands being bad at returning texts. I told them a ‘funny’ story about travelling to another city for work, having my flight cancelled and needing to spend the night. I called & texted my then-husband in tears (I’d promised the kids I’d be back that night) and heard nothing back. When I got back, he told off for being upset that he didn’t call/text since I hadn’t said in my messages that he should. Ha ha ha, what a bad texter …
They were horrified. And I remember thinking wow, and that’s a story I’m *allowed* to tell. It was a crucial moment in my journey toward leaving him.
It is truly truly truly a horrifying list. Reading it just breaks my heart.
LW, I am just here to say: you are doing a courageous thing by trusting yourself in the face of what you are dealing with, and you have got this. I was very recently in a similar situation, with a husband who is well liked by everyone and whose abusive behaviors were often weird and hard to describe (although there was some overt abuse like screaming and berating…). I found that when I started to be honest about what was going on,1) it was a huge relief, 2) the more honest I was in talking to people about the easier it was to get clear in my own head about what was happening, 3) most of my friends and family were incredibly supportive and believed me, 4) the ones who did not believe me – well, I did not need them to get out of the relationship, no matter who they were. I am here to say: just keep trusting yourself, keep moving forward, and you will get where you need to be. This week, for the first time in years, I have gone to bed and woken up in a house where I know for a fact no one will yell at me; if I clean a thing it will stay clean; I can have normal things like a bedtime, quiet time, physical boundaries and a basic amount of orderliness in my living space and no one will try to make me think there is something wrong with me for needing the things I need or put up a million little friction points for my requests; I do not have to walk through a bunch of scenarios and game out whether it’s worth the potential yelling/gaslighting/passive aggression before making a request or initiating a conversation; I do not have to worry that a normal interaction or conversation is going to go haywire on me. I don’t think I fully appreciated how much the relationship was draining me until it got free. It’s like my world is changing from black and white to color -now-. You have the strength inside you to turn the color on in your world again. You can do it; you -will- do it. You have something inside you that is starting to light the way forward. Keep listening to it and following it. It won’t let you down. You’ve been trained to think the reason you’re unhappy is because there’s something wrong with you, but the real reason you’re unhappy is because there is something -right- with you. You’ve got this, you’ve got this, you’ve got this. So many people are rooting for you.
You are very brave and I am so glad you’re in a place you feel safe now.
“You’ve been trained to think the reason you’re unhappy is because there’s something wrong with you, but the real reason you’re unhappy is because there is something -right- with you.”
Brava, jennthemighty! Enjoy your new-found freedom. You are awesome!
Omg, what truth!
The reason you’re unhappy is because something is RIGHT with you.
Your unhappiness is an indicator; it is an accurate, correct response to something being very wrong in the way you’re being treated.
He doesn’t have to agree with you. And you don’t have to have tried EVERYTHING before you leave him; you don’t have to make an airtight case. You not being happy is ENOUGH. You don’t have to have a reason that’s good enough for anyone. You don’t have to articulate it clearly or with confidence. I understand that this can be important in situations like you describe, gathering Team You where you mag need someone’s understanding in order for them to provide the support you need. However, I just wanted to re-iterate that you don’t need to prove that you tried hard enough. You don’t have to be nearly dead, or totally drained, before you leave. You don’t have to wait till you have nothing left, as proof that you gave it your all and he still didn’t respond – before you can leave.
You can leave. You can protect your peace. I am so glad I left my gaslighting ex. I don’t have to hate him. I just am wonderfully free of him, so happy he’s not in my life and all this goodness now IS. I get to make my own choices. I get to have (and keep) things that are precious to me. I don’t have to worry about unpleasant surprises.
Congratulations on your freedom. This internet stranger is so happy for you.
I’m so glad you’re out.
Thank you for the well wishes, kind commenters! I am like so many here, in that the CA blog (including insight and personal stories from commenters) was a major factor in figuring out the stuff going on in my relationship was super not ok, and gathering the courage to kick free.
“I don’t think I fully appreciated how much the relationship was draining me until it got free.” Oh YES YES YES! I feel a hundred pounds lighter, emotionally. The sense of freedom is staggering. And like you, this forum helped me gather up the courage to leave, and helped me understand that simply being unhappy was enough…I didn’t have to have to provide an ironclad justification to him, or anyone, for why I wanted to leave.
Isn’t it amazing to suddenly be able to live your life without waiting for the other shoe to drop.
You’ve been trained to think the reason you’re unhappy is because there’s something wrong with you, but the real reason you’re unhappy is because there is something -right- with you.
Quoted for truth.
I’m so glad you’re out.
You just described how I felt when I moved out of my parents’ home and away from my abusive father. That was in 1997. I haven’t lived with another human being since. My home is my sanctuary of peace, where I never have to monitor anyone else’s emotional weather, ever again.
I……I just want to thank you for your list of “normal things.” Bedtime, quiet time, physical boundaries, and orderliness. I don’t know why (no that’s not true, I really do know why) but that list just drove home for me in a very concrete way some of the things that were missing in my life when I was with my abuser.
He didn’t allow me to have a bedtime. Even when I was pregnant. I could give you a list a mile long of all the things he used to do to interrupt or disrupt my rest but those were just tactics. The ultimate goal was to deny me the right to have a bedtime.
It’s so simple when you say it like that. I wasn’t allowed to have order and peace in my home. I wasn’t allowed to meet my basic bodily needs. The how doesn’t even really matter so much as the what. I’ve spent all this time trying to explain the how. How he stopped me from sleeping. How he would do things that would make me think “is he trying to kill me and make it look like an accident?” But the point is the same. I was being controlled in a really extreme and abusive way because of what he was doing, not how he was accomplishing it.
I feel a million pounds lighter right now. Thank you.
LW, the Captain’s advice is brilliant and actually quite scary for me personally, because some of the behaviours she’s talking about are exactly what my ex does. I have a child with this ex and yes, single parenting is HARD. But I am so glad I didn’t try to make a relationship “work” with this guy. I know that’s a fraction of what you’re dealing with, but you and your kids will be fine. Maybe better, even, when you can breathe again. All of the jedi hugs to you.
HC, do you share custody? I have my kids 60% of the time and he gets them 40%. I struggle *a lot* with guilt about my kids having to live with him. We negotiated custody before I fully realized how toxic and abusive our relationship was and I wonder if it’s worth attempting to get full custody when 50-50 is the default where I live & I could end up with less access than I currently have. I just have this gut feeling that he’s abusive-but-not-abusive-enough-to-win-in-court, you know?
When I was a kid, my grandparents got visitation rights. My father lost all his rights because he is a monster. I true monster. But he also grew up around some very abusive people I got to bare witness to. My father had documented abuses as my mother never lied all the times she went to the hospital and it was well easy to prove he kept her captive for the five years of their marriage too. But, abuse is not always that outward, and courts these days like the 50/50. What my mom did with us was tell us facts and stuck to facts. She told us the signs of abuse. She told us to keep our eyes wide open when visiting our grandparents. She made our home the safe place to land after the visits. She validated us all the time. Since we were grandkids that were almost lost, everyone handled us with extreme caution while there, but you still saw All Those Things. The biggest down side of baring witness to this side of the family was growing up knowing that people can be very evil and not everyone can be trusted. We developed a level of street smarts, but also a heavy level of distrust. The upside though was that we saw how our father was (he only was allowed supervised visits with the grandparents that he rarely took advantage of) so there was no love lost or wonder on how things would have been if my mom stayed. So if you feel stuck? God knows my mom did. Can you even imagine her terror sending us off there every other weekend? But she made us a safe place with her where she validated our feelings and gave us words on what we were experiencing on an intuitive level. My mom did end up remarrying a verbally abusive man (PTSD is a hell of a thing), but she at least gave us validation and context and understanding of the banana cracker stuff that went on at my grandparent’s house.
+1 watching my mom be independent and happy alone is what made me realize you don’t put your life on hold just to make a relationship work, even for “the kids”.
It was BETTER for me to see my mom stand up for her boundaries as a growing girl.
One thought I had was, might it be helpful to involve existing Team You in growing Team You?
As in, could you (subject to therapist’s approval) ask your mum to come with you to a session, so the therapist can support / mediate / validate what you need to communicate to your mum?
LW, I strongly hope that your mom is supportive but also that you won’t feel like it’s not permitted to leave if she’s not or if she doesn’t know how to express that support in the way you need right now. In my own experiences with this, sometimes we have a sense of what our loved ones are going through and sometimes we don’t. And sometimes we mean to be supportive but go about it entirely the wrong way. I’ve made that mistake in the past and hope that your loved ones are able to navigate it better.
Whatever happens, I wish you all the best as you work for a better future for you and your children.
I think it’s excellent advice to lead with how his actions make LW feel, instead of a laundry list of those actions (which are purposefully designed by him to make an unimpressive list anyway). When people say, “I feel this way,” then other caring decent people are predisposed to empathize even if they simply don’t understand abuse, and are predisposed to consider how the examples of actions would in fact make the person feel that way.
LW, you said in the letter that you felt humiliated. I think “Mom, he humiliates me” is pretty clear. Maybe talk with your therapist about some more of the simple outcomes of his behavior? You’re losing confidence in yourself? You feel like you have to ask permission for everything? You’re too embarrassed to tell others what your relationship is really like? You’re lonely and isolated from your friends? You don’t feel at home in your own house? When you’re mired in the individual problems and the way the abuser has framed them, it can be hard to take a step back and re-frame them in this way, so it’s worth thinking it through ahead of time. The way it makes you feel might not flow forth spontaneously with perfect fluency in the moment if you’ve been so isolated and embarrassed that you’ve kept it habitually all bottled up.
My family is also very much “we don’t discuss serious problems and feelings! Quick, someone make a joke we’ve all heard before!” I unilaterally decided to act differently because I didn’t want to have that kind of relationship with my family. It was scary and I think I surprised people, but several family members immediately opened up to me, too. They do it in weird ways and at odd times, but hey, we’re not great at this stuff. It was worth it.
I should clarify what I meant by “a laundry list of those actions (which are purposefully designed by him to make an unimpressive list anyway)”– I am shocked and horrified by what LW listed above! That stuff is totally “enough.” I simply meant the knack that abusers have for creating situations that sound downright weird, even comical to outsiders and that the target of abuse knows or has been convinced will sound weird. Where there’s so much exposition it isn’t easy to tell, or where it is an abusive situation that is designed to sound like a normal situation when you name it, that kind of thing. I’m sure LW’s experience is full of things not listed in this letter that feel strange or futile to repeat. It’s very frustrating.
There was a commenter here (I sadly can’t dig it up) who described a family situation where they would get enough lox & bagels for five people, but then her brothers & dad would jump in and take almost all of it, leaving just a tiny bit for the commenter & her mom, so if she took a normal amount, or even *any*, they would make the story all about how she ate all the lox and didn’t save any for the mom.
I will never forget that story. And if you live inside that family/that story, “the lox” is a sign something abusive & weird is going on. They did it over and over again, always on purpose, and like, OK, JUST GET MORE LOX was never a possibility, because it wasn’t the point. But it’s so hard in the moment to be like “but YOU ate all the lox!” or to explain what happened when you’re flustered.
Everybody who’s survived something like that could put together their own list, like “the lox” or “the ski lift” or “the birdfeeder” and it would sound like we’re just really, really into holding onto every grievance.
And yet…the list is true.
Gahhh! That is so frustrating! My mother went through a phase when I was a teenager where if I went through something really devastating or was obviously Really Not OK about something, she’d pick some element of the situation and spin it into an amusing anecdote, then reveal her cute little story in front of all my relatives over Christmas dinner or something similar. Counting on me not to make a scene or even be able to explain why it was not cute. The real successes were when something entered the canon of Family Jokes. She eventually stopped doing this as mysteriously as she started. But yeah, getting other people to unwittingly join in makes you feel like you REALLY can’t talk about what’s going on.
Star Wars: Attack of the Clones for me. Despite its terribleness, I will always have an affection for that movie because it’s the reason I broke up with my (ha!) Darth Vader ex.
You know, this summarizes why my mood’s dropped around Christmas, because what went down looks like a small thing from the outside, but for me, it was the event horizon of sorts, where I realized things were horribly wrong and unfair. I mean, sure, it could have easily been chalked up to a misunderstanding or some other benign thing, but it was the first clear sign that my ex was deliberately mistreating me.
Idk about you, but Christmas holidays for me used to be the “fly home at great expense to be screamed at” time in my life and my mood always freaks out around then, even though circumstances are very different now.
Ran out of nesting. In response to Jennifer – my emotions do the exact same thing. I’m closer in terms of years to it all, but my partner’s family is totally safe and their gatherings have boltholes for everyone who might need to leave for a while, and I’m not seeing my mom at all, and I’m still anxious starting around the beginning of November. I expect this is going to last years or decades from now.
@CaptainAwkward: I think, for me, I feel sad whenever I see the commercials of couples being ridiculously happy with each other while my ex unceremoniously canceled our Christmas date the morning of because he didn’t feel like it, despite hanging out with friends/family the week beforehand. I won’t talk about the aftermath of excuses and guilt-tripping he gave me, since he basically expected me to have telepathy and zero feelings.
It’s the sort of thing that looks small from the outside, and maybe like I was overreacting, but his flippant attitude with canceling was the last hasn’t gone away. I’ve never felt so unwanted and worthless from someone who ostensibly cared a great deal for me.
I’ve spent the holidays with family and intellectually know I’m loved, but God, that horrible feeling still comes back.
Augh, I meant to write “his flippant attitude with canceling was the last straw.” My apologies!
@codenameminali Some abusive people candidly tell how they purposefully do hurtful things on recurring holidays so that the target will think of them on all successive recurrences of those holidays. It makes them feel important.
I believe it. Especially if they follow it up with guilt-trips and excuses designed to make the target feel terrible for bringing up their hurt feelings.
@codenameminali also fuck that guy. Geez, why is my brain saving the most important part of a comment for after I’ve hit “post” today??
Thanks. It's certainly where I am now, after almost two years of therapy.
One of the biggest “Oh, my family abuses me. This is abusive. I am being abused.” moments in my life was realizing that my rules for staying safe during family holiday visits were:
1) Keep your mouth shut (but not too much)
2) Stay out of arm’s reach (but not so they notice)
And then I started screaming internally because I’d finally realized how not-okay that was. It was a painful, necessary epiphany.
Oh my goodness, reading these comments is so healing. This is it, this is exactly it. It’s a pattern so any one instance in isolation makes you seem like the crazy one. And if you repeat the whole pattern you sound petty.
Many years ago in a social scene where GSFs run rampant, I ran afoul of a young woman who did this to me. She cozied up to my social circle and then started doing a lot of tiny but horrible things–she was a pot-stirrer, so she liked to make very leading statements in a way where you would nod and say “mm hm” noncommittally (because she’d already hit you with the “I am horrible to disagree with” stuff), and then run straight to someone else and attribute the most inflammatory version of whatever she’d said to you. She always prefaced these weird lies with “I don’t want to cause an issue, but…” or “I felt like you ought to know that [person] is telling everyone…” She liked to neg other women, and she’d also start a blatant lie going about you and then tell you that everyone was saying whatever it was, and if you reacted at all she’d tell everyone how unstable you are, and if you didn’t react, she’d tell everyone it must be true.
When I started putting it together, I realized how fiendishly brilliant it was–if all you care about is watching everyone around you slowly lose their shit.
Yessssss, thank you!
I googled ‘site:captainawkward.com lox’ and got this post:
And jinxed, pardon the duplication.
Hi Captain – I know exactly what you mean about the nasty little stories being told about abuse victims. It’s an odd thing that I have noticed about scapegoats in any situation – marriage, family, workplace, wherever – that they get lied about much more than most other people. And the bystanders buy into the abuser’s lies, and those lies pass into “common knowledge”.
My Mum used to do that to me – she’d tell brazen outright lies about me, about how I was so evil/stupid in X situation, and any listeners around her just lapped it up. She’d repeat these stories over and over again for years. If I tried to say “no, that didn’t happen”, she’d smile and chuckle and SHUTMEUP.
What you say is absolutely right – that so often these cute little family stories are all about “Do your remember the time when [scapegoat] was so fat/greedy/selfish/stupid?” and everyone else listening chuckles indulgently and feels all comfy and contented because the family hierarchy has just been strengthened that little bit more, with the abuser as the wise elder at the top and the scapegoat firmly at the bottom. Even worse in situations like the one you describe, where that LW was deliberately set up by the rest of her family. And the scapegoat knows that telling the truth and fighting lies with logic will get him/her nowhere.
These days, just the existence of little scenarios like that is a red flag to me that the group dynamic is seriously wrong.
Another important thing to remember is that all the “weird, comical” things are cumulative. It’s not just that he does (i) or (ii) or (iii) . It’s that he does (i) AND (ii) AND (iii). Any one thing he does could by itself be “eccentric.” Put them all together and it’s abusive.
I think that’s partly another way they get you. Because it sounds almost too silly to be anything other than innocuous, and you kind of rehearse how you would explain it to someone else, and realise you couldn’t. And then the next time it happens, you feel silly saying anything because you already let it slide once, etc.
But also your body continues to internally tie itself in knots as it reacts to the moment and you start to ask yourself why you’re so sensitive and why this “little silly thing” bothers you so much.
Yeah, it all piles up. For me, it wasn’t the initial Bad Action, it’s how he reacted to my absolutely normal, reasonable unhappiness at said Bad Action that made things abusive. Otherwise I would have been able to really give it the benefit of the doubt, even after the fact.
This. With my mum it’s usually not the initial action that’s the worst, but her reaction to my saying no/setting a boundary/asking her to stop doing something. It’s then that she starts spraying gaslighting and projections everywhere.
@Kitty: That’s what set my abuser apart from me–when faced with someone being unhappy with my actions, I still had the guilt and defensiveness, but I realized that they were my responsibility to manage. Meanwhile, my abuser would talk about how it made him uncomfortable to have hurt someone, or that he wasn’t “trying” to be mean to me. Nothing but deflection and blame-shifting.
That was a lot of it with my Toxic Family Member. They would do inconsiderate* things and then be baffled at your reaction. Individual incidents that standing alone could be given the benefit of the doubt, but the cumulative weight is crushing.
*I am lucky that my TFM is not malignantly abusive. Merely an Olympic-class manipulator of emotions with a fluid concept of truth and no concept that their actions affect others, much less how. Rabbit hole and black hole sucking up all emotional energy within its reach.
I read through your abuser descriptions, and I realized that my sister is a Water Torturer and this explains SO MUCH. So thank you.
Oh duuude mine too.
Oh, thank goodness I’m not the only one. Water Torturer is such an apt description. I’m planning to show it to my therapist because trying to explain to her what I and my brother went through at the hands of my sister is sooooo difficult. Solidarity!
I admire you for beginning the process of taking back your life.
A few thoughts.
– Your friends and relatives may already know. Some of mine knew. (Some didn’t.) They’d kept schtum so that they could still be around and available when I finally left.
– The list of things he does is terrifying. To expand on just one item, my ex used our messy home as an excuse not to entertain. I love entertaining. Not being able to have friends over was isolating.
– Some friends may reappear. They will be overjoyed to have you back in their lives.
I’m rooting for you.
Yes. I agree with all of these. I can think of examples of all three from just my friends and family.
My mother’s family is very much about not talking about difficult things – there’s a fair amount of dysfunction and abuse in my extended family that’s papered over with a thin layer of politeness. And you know what, my mom figured out that her sister was in an emotionally abusive marriage and she stayed quiet so that she could be there when her sister needed her.
Many years ago, I did the same with my sister. When we lived in Texas, I volunteered at a woman’s shelter and went through the volunteer training. I remember making mental checkmarks on the list about my sister and her then husband. A couple of years later, she flew to my state along with our (totally awesome) step-mother and told me she was planning on leaving him. I was so happy though also worried because I know abusers become more dangerous when the woman leaves. Years later, I asked her if it would have made a difference if I had talked about the situation with her earlier and she said not.
LW – I too am an escapee from a decade+ relationship with a very abusive man. He could be very charismatic, charming, creative and funny – and this was the face he showed to the people who were useful to him. He infiltrated my friendships and violated and broke them.
I was really inexperienced with such a malevolent manipulator. I spent many years treating his overblown reactions to – whatever- as having come from some deep seated or sincere place of hurt. Now I recognize these hateful dramatics as just another way to control and manipulate.
Getting fully away from him took YEARS. We owned a house together, which I lived and worked in. Even after the relationship ended, his stonewalling infiltrated the legal process to make it much more drawn out (ie expensive for me)than it needed to be.
Along the way, two things really helped me. One was getting my own copy of “Why Does He Do That ?” by Lundy Bancroft. I read and reread that and STILL reread that even though I am not in a relationship now, nor do I plan to be in one again. Just reading the descriptions of how abusive men operate – that abuse can be completely covert and non-physical – helped me more than anything. The second thing was I contacted the local resources for women in abusive relationships. I went to a (closed) support group for three months. It was very eye opening to actually meet other abused women face to face. The most shocking thing was that they all just looked like normal women ! Like I had really internalized all the things that I had been abused about to assume that the damage I suffered was really visible and obvious. The women were from a wide range of backgrounds, ages, with different levels of education. We didn’t explicitly talk about traumatic incidents so much as we focussed on ourselves, learned exercises for emotional regulation and other self help type things. I liked some of the women more than others, but every single one of them contributed good things to the group.
If you haven’t yet, contact your local assaulted women’s helpline. I called several times. It felt good to speak with a stranger to help to unload this awful burden, particularly when I was feeling overwhelmed or triggered.
Getting away is a process, and recovering is a process.
Towards the end, my ex became a seriously frightening person. He had broken some small things and did a lot of threatening, swearing and shouting throughout the relationship. Near the end it was like a switch was flipped and I began to seriously fear for my life.
A piece of advice that is repeated over and over is to make a safety plan. Have all your ID and banking stuff together, as well as any medications, address books, etc. If you can – have them in a safe spot he does not have access to. If you can set up your own separate bank account he does not know about, that is really important too. Abusive men really panic when they sense they are losing control, so a verbal abuser may become a batterer or worse.
I had mixed reactions from friends I disclosed the abuse to. There were some people I thought I was close to who treated me as though the abuse I suffered was contagious. There were other people who I didn’t know that well who were majorly supportive, helpful and kind. My family is really dysfunctional, so I already knew how they would be.
Looking backwards, I wish that I had been taught about the dynamics of abuse. My ex wasn’t abusive because he was extra sensitive, disrespected, overworked, a recovering alcoholic, had food allergies, etc. He was abusive because abuse was an effective tactic for him to get HIS needs met, at my expense. The abuse wasn’t about his feelings – it was completely about his thinking.
LW, you say your husband’s emotional abuse is not easy or quick to explain, and then proceed to explain it very clearly and concisely. I think you might be in that gaslit-place that we sometimes find ourselves in, where we’ve gotten so used to minimizing abuse that we don’t think it would really seem like abuse to an outsider. But as a stranger on the internet, let me tell you that your descriptions of your husband’s controlling ways, dictating what you can wear, isolating you, making you ask permission for things you shouldn’t need to.. all of it is very plainly abusive.
As Captain said, you don’t have to convince your mother or anyone that the abuse is real, but I just wanted to tell you that what you said actually IS very convincing. Good luck to you.
That was *exactly* my reaction, too. It sounds so clearly abusive and manipulative and just…just…AWFUL to me, and I’m sure it will sound that way to some of the people in the LW’s real life, too.
YES! The last relationship I left was not abusive, per se (and I know that sounds silly when you read my comment, but really) but it was not…normal. And I remember going through the shame of telling people about “why” I was leaving, after years of convincing everyone I had the Perfect Relationship…. But once I really got into details–he hadn’t had initiated or reciprocated an invitation for sex for a couple years, but had a very active life of posting pornographic drawings online, for example–people were like “No hon, that’s not a situation you should stay in” and I was FLOORED. Sometimes we get so used to a behavior or set of behaviors, we start to lose sight of the fact that other people would identify it as not-ok if we just share our truth.
LW, you have my very best wishes on this. That said, I deliberately took a job 1000 miles away from my family of origin to get away from a variation on that crap, so I would definitely suggest getting your ducks in a row and keeping that arrangement very quiet. He can’t sabotage what he doesn’t know.
Re your mum: you might want to find the Law and Order episode about a husband who did this. An ex-wife described how the hyper control of towel folding, shoe tying etc was strangling. Watching it with her might help the communication.
Do you know the name of the episode, or when it aired? Was it an SVU episode?
I don’t remember the episode name. It was in the original series . Lenny was one of the detectives.
The abusive husband pushes an ex-wife off a train platform to get crunched by the train.
“Tabula Rasa”, Season 9. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0629448/
One of my favorite chilling episodes. That actor went on to play the Captain on L&O: Criminal Intent in later seasons, which amused me greatly.
Not feeling like I could call my ex-husband’s behaviour “abuse” was what kept me from leaving for a long time, like being miserable wasn’t a good enough reason. Even now I struggle to name it as abuse, because it never seemed to quite reach the levels of what I see described in “typical” abusive relationships and it felt like maybe I was just poor at communication and negotiation or gave in too easily or something. I can completely relate to the LW’s description of it being small weird things (my ex is “bread in the freezer guy” who I’ve talked about in the comments section of other posts – while we were both on 6-figure incomes insisted we keep all bread in the freezer and defrost it slice by slice so none of it went stale and got wasted). He would insist on having input into all decisions but would stall endlessly on actually making those decisions because the options never quite met his standards and then when I would finally do the thing or get the thing without him because I really needed it NOW and couldn’t keep waiting I would be portrayed as rash and impulsive, uncooperative and “going behind his back”.
The veneer of reasonableness in our relationship led me among other things to not involving lawyers in our divorce, which was a big mistake. I kidded myself into believing that we could work it out amicably. Of course we could – as long as I gave way on every negotiation and let his definition of what was “fair” and “right” prevail. But yay! 13½ years now since we separated, after endlessly having my hopes raised and then him ghosting on the process for months or years at a time, I’ve finally got the last of the financial settlement sorted (by accepting less than we initially agreed and being paid out in a way that has tax disadvantages for me, but I eventually decided that it was safer to just take the money and be done with it than risk him changing his mind and simply not paying, or him being hit by a bus without having finalised the arrangements).
TLDR: 1. there is no magical “abuse threshold” that you have to reach before it’s legitimately okay to leave a marriage, and 2. protect your own interests especially where money is concerned, get a lawyer involved early.
I will NEVER forget “bread in the freezer” guy. ❤ to you.
Thank you 🙂
The ending has a lot of bizarre little touches. The cheque he paid me with was drawn on his current wife’s account – signed by her, but with the payee and the amount in his handwriting (it didn’t occur to me until just now that this could have a less than innocent interpretation – I am so used to mentally switching off from his convoluted explanations of things that I never stopped to query this. I guess it’s good that she at least has her own account? We always had joint accounts). And then, as he was leaving my house after dropping the cheque off he turned and sort of mumbled an apology for “messing up our marriage”, and before I knew it I was going “no, no it’s fine, it was my fault too”.
I’ve learned that if people have not had experience with abuse/emotional control/entitlement, they may indeed have no idea what we are talking about. (I am not in an abusive relationship, but a close family member was.) My husband & I realized we needed to educate ourselves about what abuse is, and how it works.. Fortunately, people crossed our path who knew, and shared, which helped us “do it right” to support and finally enable our family member walk away.
There are a lot of good books on this, but I agree that WHY DOES HE DO THAT? is one of the most accessible and useful.
Captain A’s advice, and that of readers, is spot on. You won’t be able to share your truth with everyone, especially not at first. But you will always, ALWAYS find others who have been/are going through what you are. And someday, your truth may help someone else escape.
Sending you good wishes in addition to the courage you’ve already shown. Because you saw yourself in someone else’s truth, and spoke yours today. And someday, what you’re doing will encourage someone else, too.
You’ve got this.
LW, if it helps, my parents’ liking of my husband was contingent upon how well he treated me. When he stopped being good for me, they stopped liking him.
I have the converse: when I first got divorced and was on good terms with my ex, my family had nothing good to say about him.
When our post-divorce friendship came to a rather painful end, they all went on following him on social media, liking his posts, and asking me every time I see them how he’s doing, even though I’ve told them he and I aren’t on speaking terms and haven’t been for two and a half years.
So LW: Morticia and I are proof that regardless of what support you do or don’t get from your family, YOU will survive… to tell other strangers on the internet how you survived. 🙂
Maybe someone above covered this: Please be careful about who you confide in BEFORE you’re safe. Maybe even AFTER, too. Please make sure the person you tell doesn’t tip off your abuser in an effort to “help” or “fix it”. Your physical and emotional safety might depend on it. Maybe the only 2 people who know before you escape are your lawyer and your therapist. I hope your mom is a safe person. Some moms are not.
Wishing you success and peace.
Yes, 100% this. Some people do stupid things when they think they can help.
Anyone else thinking about Mr. O’Neill on Daria when reading the profile of the Sensitive Man?
Oh gawd I screamed at the TV every time that boundaryless pile of jerkwaddery came on the screen!
Apologies if this is repetitive to someone else’s comment, but after reading your letter I felt compelled to skip right to the bottom and say this:
I can’t speak for your situation, so I can’t say what will happen. Yet we had a similar dynamic between my parents (I was the young child) and I hope that it provides you with insight.
My mother’s family didn’t agree with her at first about her decision to divorce. There was also the typical mentality at the time of divorce being bad, and the importance of staying with one’s husband to be a good religious person. But starting the divorce made it really fucking clear that my father was controlling. He could no longer hide who he was behind the wall my parents had built up around them.
I can’t know if your mother will be supportive, and I also can’t know if your husband will be able to hide his awful behaviours to everyone else, but please keep in mind that there is a reasonably good chance that he won’t be able to stop himself and eventually your mother will have a better idea of who he is now.
Best of luck, and please know that 40 years later my mother is so much happier, as am I!
I’m so sorry you are going through this – it really sucks. It’s really abuse and you will feel so much better on the other side.
I went through something similar and the one thing I would add to the advice above is that if you have any inkling that your husband would respond badly to separation and that your mom might try to intervene (aka “fix” or “help”) with your relationship/divorce make it crystal clear to her she should not. My mom meant well but was concerned I wasn’t telling my wife I had actually decided to divorce. She did not know there were physical safety concerns for myself and my son or that my lawyer, who was very low drama, strongly recommended leaving town when the papers were served. I finally had to tell my mom that if she said anything to my then wife she could be jeopardizing my safety and her grandson’s safety.
Best of luck. We’re here for you.
LW, my ex husband acted the same as yours in both the same ways and more. It was a hellacious year after I fled (international marriage, kids), but if I knew then what my future held, I would have run gleefully, fist-bumping the universe into it instead of regretfully, sadly, painfully dragging my sorry ass away from him. I know you can’t see it now, but you will have an awesome future and you will later let a tiny part of you wonder just what in hell took you so long to reclaim your power and GTFO.
LW, I am the woman who in wrote to the Captain about her secret laundry adventures in letter #1020. I’m doing much better now, and I really hope some day you get to write a “I’m doing much better now” comment too. I know how different these sorts of situations can look from the inside as from the outside, but you sound really brave and like you’re doing all the right things. Good for you for naming this as abuse (because it DEFINITELY IS, holy cow), and I’m so sorry you’ve had to go through all of this.
Anyway, just popping in to say two things:
1) Some people just…aren’t going to get it. I really hope your mom’s not like this, but at some point I told my bio-mom that I had left my boyfriend, and she freaked the heck out. If you have to do things to prepare yourself for conversations where people are going to tell you that you’re doing the wrong thing — role-playing with your therapist, straight-up never telling people you think will take it badly, whatever — that’s okay. Survival is the most important thing here; take care of yourself first!
2) That being said, though, I 100% believed that everyone was going to side with my boyfriend over me. Including my childhood friends. Including my work colleagues. Including people who had never met my boyfriend. And, it turns out most people aren’t horrible? Like, I would say some version of whatever script I prepared, and no matter how much I mangled whatever I intended to say, almost everyone was really super-nice? I didn’t even have to give details: I only had to say something along the lines of “so, Boyfriend and I have split up,” and the other person would immediately jump in with “oh my gosh that sounds so awful are you okay how can I help?!”
I know what you want is emotional support, and that’s harder, but if you also, I don’t know, need someone to watch the kids for a day or to store a few boxes at their house or whatever? Lots of folks will do concrete logistical things like this, no questions asked.
Good luck with everything, LW. You’re in my thoughts.
I am very glad to read this comment & that you no longer have to buy back your own clothing from charity shops. ❤
Thank you for writing in. How wonderful that you’re doing well!
Strength and solidarity LW.
All I have to add to this is that I’ve found using vague but honest language to be very useful when talking about surviving abuse with people who may not get it (or if I just don’t feel like getting into it). The captain’s scripts are excellent examples of this.
The other thing I want to share is that it took me a long, long time to admit to myself that I was sexually abused as a child. I said a lot of things to myself that sound like variations on what you’ve been telling yourself (I criticized myself from both ends – I was making too much of it but I should have also done more to avoid it and to heal). I think it’s a very common defense mechanism. So be gentle with yourself as you bravely lurch forward towards safety and healing.
sending you lots of love and hugs (if you want them). i’m letter writer 954. after more than one attempt, i was finally able to end my relationship. a lot of what you and lw 1141 wrote reasonated with me. i was talking with a girlfriend the other day and nonchalantly telling her about how i would write down my conversations with my ex after the fact because he gaslit me so often i was starting not to trust myself. it takes a lot of strength but i know you can do it and i promise you it’s worth it. as i type this i’m on a trip with my girlfriends, not tethered to my phone, not worried about what i’m “allowed” to do. free to come and go as i please. if you had told me last year that this is where i’d be, i would never have believed you, that’s how stuck i felt. the captain has given you really beautiful advice and as someone who has been there, i promise you it is even more beautiful than you can imagine. love is real and it is out there, but the price of admission should never be your personhood. i’ll be thinking of you and i believe in your ability to make it out and find your way back to your lovely, brilliant and worthy self.
These updates from past Letter Writers & commenters are making it all dusty in here.
I’m glad you’re free.
Thanks for sharing your story, then and now.
Yeah – it’s great to know that people get out and go on to be better and happier.
How wonderful that you’re out and living a better life!
Congrats! so glad to hear!
Both 1141 and this one sounds like the guy has obsessive compulsive personality disorder. A double edged sword as for the partner it’s an explanation and validation the threat aren’t mad, don’t communicate well enough etc but at the same time the partner may feel if they can encourage them to get treatment things will improve. But OCPDers rarely seek treatment. So see this as validation to work towards getting out!!
Hi, I don’t know if you are new here, but it’s against the site policies to diagnose strangers through the internet or suggest diagnoses as explainers for abusive behavior. An explainer about why this is extremely unhelpful is here.
Even if you were correct (which we cannot know), people with OCD can make choices that don’t involve abusing their partners. Like, you can have weird unhelpful feelings that fuck with your quality of life and like, go to a therapist! Or take medication! Or google OCD symptoms! Or just fucking deal with it on your own without making a bunch of weird rules your partner has to follow or taking it out on them. To further your point: In 1141 the spouse had already been told by their couple’s counselor to go to therapy. He hasn’t gone. There is no psychiatric disorder that is treated or cured by having one’s spouse comply or obey with all one’s weird rules.
When someone says “I’m being abused” and you look for a diagnosis that explains it all, you are validating the narrative that there is some secret work the abuse victim can do to “cure” their abuser. There isn’t. So stop this, on this site (definitely) and elsewhere in life (please).
I just want to say that the explanation post really helped me at the time, so thank you very much. It cut away the false guilt and false blame my abuser heaped onto me because of his issues.
Exactly this! My therapist used to say to me all the time ‘does it matter why he does x?’ And ‘if you could figure out why he does x, what would that change about his behavior and how you feel about it?’ Etc. She was trying, thank the lord, to get me to realize that ‘why, how, etc’ aren’t the issue. Does he have a diagnosis? Yes. Abusive a…hole. Is it in the DSM-V? I doubt it. Is whether he was abused by his parents, had a bad childhood, someone shot his dog, are these ever an excuse for abusive treatment of me? Nope. Nope. Nope. But i was programmed to look for ‘but he only does it because’ and ‘he’s so miserable because his parents were awful’ and all the other things that are code for ‘it’s not his fault he’s abusive and you should put up with it and try to help him.’
“Why does he do that?”
Asshole syndrome (i.e. misogyny+entitlement).
“There is no psychiatric disorder that is treated or cured by having one’s spouse comply or obey with all one’s weird rules. ”
Yes. And that goes double for OCD – following the rules just makes more and stricter rules.
I suspect DJ never meant to imply such things, in which case, well, intent ain’t magic.
OCD and OCPD are two different conditions with different symptoms and treatments. As you say, whether or not he has a mental illness, he has other choices than abusing his partner, and strangers diagnosing him in absentia is unethical and unhelpful anyway. I’m just mentioning the difference because conflating the two hurts people with both conditions and makes it harder for them to get help. If someone has OCPD, telling them to google OCD symptoms would not help them at all.
Thanks for the clarification.
Thank you for this, and for not sugarcoating it.
I am so sick and tired of the whole “maybe he/she/they have X, Y, Z to excuse their asshole behavior because they can’t help it” narrative. Sometimes people are douchebags, no psych disorder/diagnosis needed.
Ya know what I love about that book the captain references? She doesn’t sugar coat over The Victim and Nice Guy abuser. She also doesnt stray from the fact that a lot of dudes who go through AA or NA use those things they learned to continue to manipulate and abuse. Like this guy I work with. I know that while he was on drugs he threw his fiance down the steps, psychological tortured his kids, and verbally abused everyone frequently. He on my went to rehab because the school noticed how badly thwir youngest was acting out and called social services. The court made him go to rehab. He had no choice. And guess what? He still gaslights the hell out of people. Lots of people get addicted to drugs and don’t do that to their families. Its because being abusive in already IN him. The drugs didn’t make him do it. He did it. Yet you will see these dudes running around like “but drugs”. But nothing. You’re still abusing the shit out of your family. And now youre using the 12 step program to try to justify it.
i really appreciate that you answer these letters. they honestly give me a little PTSD about the marriage i left and am still trying to work through all my fucked-up feelings about, but they are very good to read even at this point in my life. it helps a lot.
1. When I broke up with my ex, I said to him, “Let’s go together to see my Mom (in the same city) and tell her we’ve broken up.” (We’d separated one time before and told her together.) Then, he called Mom’s house to speak to my brother and assumed Mom already knew. So, Mom was upset (not that we’d broken up, that she’d learned this way), and Ex didn’t understand why she didn’t know. I reiterated “I said ‘let’s go see Mom together’. Had we been to see Mom together? NO!” One of my main complaints was that he’d tune out and I’d have to repeat myself, and that incident bore it out.
2. No one was surprised about the breakup, and even his friends were sympathetic to me. Even our kid (who was about to turn 11 years old) understood. My mother was my staunchest ally.
As a mom, I have always been able to tell that my daughter, “B”, was being controlled by her husband. However, she loves him, and is fiercely loyal, so I have feared for fifteen years that if I opened a conversation on the subject I would be ejected from her life. So to the Letter Writer, maybe your mom is just waiting for you to say something so she’s not the one starting the conversation. Last week B did start to share her situation with me, so I was ready….
What a hard and heartbreaking situation! I’m glad your daughter has started sharing her situation, and I’m glad you are there for her if and when she decides to leave.
>> The “am I allowed to leave this person?” question.
You are allowed to walk out of ANY relationship EVEN if things are going great. You don’t need an excuse. If YOU DON’T WANT to be in that relationship anymore, that’s your excuse right there. It’s not even an excuse; it’s a VALID REASON.
This letter and the previous letter really spoke to me, as a survivor of abuse. I sometimes feel weird about saying I was “abused” because I know it makes people think I was beaten or physically abused, even though that never happened. In fact, it was that thought pattern that kept me in an abusive relationship so long: “This can’t be abuse, he’s not hitting me, etc.” I too had soooo many rules. He would hide heels from me, I wasn’t allowed to wear hoop earrings, changing my hair was bad, skirts or shorts was bad, makeup was bad, touching other men was bad, etc.
I try to write a lot about emotional abuse, or sexual abuse because I think those aren’t as easily recognizable forms of abuse by others and I wish that when I was stuck in my former relationship, I would have stumbled upon a source that told me what I felt and was experiencing was abuse.
I get the fear of not telling others because you worry they won’t “get it.” I have that fear too, but I have found when I’ve opened up to other people in my life with the descriptions of what was happening, they totally get it. Sometimes because it happened to themselves too. If I ever feel like I can’t “claim” my abuse, I just remind myself that a trusted therapist has told me I was correct, it was abuse. The result of which was PTSD. Part of emotional abuse is making you think their words don’t “count” as violence when they do.
I hope you do get out and I hope you do so safely. People can escalate very quickly, so if you need help or an escort, don’t hesitate to ask. The man I was with never once hit me, but the next woman he dated, he tried to kill via an intentional car accident. That isn’t meant to scare you, that’s just to let you know it’s not “silly” to fear your partner or need help getting away from them. All that is fine.
I hope you find many allies! You have many here ❤
A) Your mother wants you to be happy. You don’t have to persuade her it’s abuse, you just need to tell her you’re miserable.
B) I found the best way to describe the emotional abuse was to describe the punishment rather than the ‘rules’. Describing rules like he doesn’t want me to spend too much money, or to socialise with his male friends, or wear a particular thing can come across like garden variety requests. But when I said “He told me I wasn’t smart enough to own and operate a smart phone” or “He named the pub quiz team ‘Indie Should Stay At Home’ ” or “He blew hundreds of pounds from our joint account when I didn’t check my own lunch budget with him”. Without punishment, it’s just a request.
True. Otherwise the response to telling people about the things could very well be “so just take the car and tell him you don’t need his permission,” “wear the sweater anyway.”
“Without punishment, it’s just a request.”
Yes, this. If I explained why I’m not talking to my mother right now, saying “she asked me to send her photos during my holiday” would sound ludicrous. But it wasn’t the request, it was her reaction when I said no I’ll tell you about the holiday when I get back. She threw a tantrum and sent messages berating and insulting me, calling me “ungenerous” and “mean spirited”. Because I wanted to just enjoy MY holiday paid for with MY money, without constantly narrating it for her.
EXCELLENT point, and critical.
The problem isn’t so much that he asks you to do/not do X, it’s his reaction if you don’t comply.
Love and hugs to you, LW. I have been there, too, and I thought it was normal. Ugh. Good for you for building your support network and making your plan. You got this! We are all cheering you on!
I feel for you, LW. Definitely read Lundy Bancroft’s “Why does he do that”. It may be difficult at times but I think it’s good to hear that this is a real thing that’s happening to you and you are not crazy or too sensitive or whatever else. It is real. And it is crap. It is not okay. You have every right to leave someone who doesn’t treat you like you’re a queen and fucking magical. And you can do this, if you need to. It may seem impossible now but you will live in a place where your entire life is up to you and you will be SO RELIEVED.
I believe in you.
Here’s another thing that my ex did: after a “fight,” even if the fight was completely him “not understanding” – for an hour of cross examining – why I wanted to volunteer at our kid’s events (let alone go back to work) … anyway, now to convince him I still loved him, I had to have sex with him. Shudder. When I started saying no to sex after he made me feel like complete crap for doing something as normal as volunteer at our kid’s events, it was only about six months before I got the strength – with therapy – to divorce.
Oh wow, this rings so familiar to me. I used to be required to explain why I felt or wanted something for hours because he was “just trying to understand.” The logic being that he wasn’t obligated to respect my feelings about something until he fully understood them, which of course he never managed to do. And then, yes, if I didn’t want to have sex after a “discussion” like that, then I was “holding onto my anger” and “punishing” him by “withholding affection.” (however, his use of the silent treatment was apparently totally okay)
[horrible full-body shudder]. God, I’m so glad you’re away from that.
LW, I just wanted to let you know that this is not your fault that you have become isolated. This is by his design; it’s what abusers do. You’ve done the best you could in a toxic situation, and I really hope that when you do reach out to people you trust, that they step up for you. ❤
My situation was very similar to yours. I felt like I couldn’t call my ex abusive, because… I dunno. So I started talking about it as neglect:
– he neglected my emotional needs (shut himself in his “home office” and removed the handle from the door so nobody could “interrupt” his “work”)
– he neglected his contributions to running a house (“doing the dishes” = stacking dirty dishes on the bench and expecting me to wash/dry/put away; “cooking dinner” = buying dinner for himself, feeding kids sandwiches, leaving me to feed myself when I got home from work at midnight)
– he neglected the special needs of his children (he would have unreasonable expectations of them – expecting a 4yo to clean their room unsupervised!!! – then get angry with them when they couldn’t fulfil them)
That’s what did it for me. Neglect is just as bad a abuse but for some reason it is easier for people to accept than “my husband is controlling and abusive and I want out”. Because he was controlling and abusive AND neglectful. And he was all those things to his kids too.
If ANYBODY tries to use your children as a lever to keep you in this relationship THEY ARE NOT SAFE. Your kids – no matter how old they are or where they’re at developmentally – know what’s going on. If it’s not good for you then it is also not good for them. Use that against unreasonable people if you think it will help. But also leave it out entirely if you’re not comfortable.
My boys were 4 and 8 and they were both devastated when their dad moved out. But at the same time, as soon as he was out – it was like all three of us collectively sighed with relieve. The drop in stress as palpable. They visibly brightened. I couldn’t believe it when I saw it – I’d grown so accustomed to their stress reactions/coping mechanisms and it was so easy to pass it off as ‘it’s their age’, ‘they have special needs’, ‘it’s that time of year’ (except it was all year?). I’m pretty sure even the dog was happier when he left.
Unfortunately the behaviour doesn’t change once you live separately. When you have kids you’re expected to “try to keep things civil” and “be careful not to alienate the children” and a lot of other nonsense. But your interpretation of “being civil” and “alienation” will be VERY different to his, and I’d bet my liver that he will use that against you any way he can. I strongly recommend working with a lawyer on child custody and get everything rubber stamped by a court (or whatever is legally enforceable). Keep it about their health and wellbeing and your knowledge and experience raising them thus far. I fail to comprehend people who expect 50/50 after a relationship ends when during said relationship it was more like 90/10. Some people can make that work, and in some circumstances that is ideal. But that is not always the case – it most definitely wasn’t the case in my situation. Do not feel ashamed for fighting for what you and your kids need – and he will try to shame you for it. Be prepared for emotional blackmail, legal shenanigans and other nonsense. If he can’t control you directly, then he will try to do so via the kids. There are non-profits in my area that have counselling programs for kids whose parents are separating. If there’s something near you it would be worth checking out.
I’m so very sorry you have to live with this, and now you must shoulder the mental/emotional/financial burden to extract yourself. It sucks and will likely suck for some time. But there are people who want to help and support you and we all think you’re smart, capable, loving, loveable, beautiful human being.
Good luck and may the odds be ever in your favour.
I second the caution around how he will use the kids as a level for control. I could have written your letter or letter 1141 about 12 years ago. Ex-HB was a master manipulator and an exemplary Mr Right as described above. It got 10 times worse when your son was born. Fortunately my mother saw what was going on and helped me to leave, when son was 8 weeks old. We spent years in the courts fighting over all kinds of bullshit, but the end result is we live on the other side of the country and haven’t seen him for 6 years in person (we still have to do webcams and I get occasional email tirades, but it’s much easier to ignore or delete). Your abuser may or may not actually care about the kids, but they will ALWAYS come second to his desire to control you and he will view them as nothing more than useful pawns to try and achieve this.
All this to say, please don’t issue an ultimatum in person and then try to exit. Take the kids when he is out, don’t leave a forwarding address or phone number, and have him served immediately with your divorce and custody application. Do not see or speak to him. He can direct all correspondence to your lawyer. The courts will handle any visitation schedule until the matters are finalized. It’s going to be a frustrating process but you need to shield yourself from direct contact with him. Best of luck.
“I fail to comprehend people who expect 50/50 after a relationship ends when during said relationship it was more like 90/10.”
Because the 10% side is utterly convinced that they were the 90% side. Goes hand in hand with why the relationship ended, in my observation.
LW I used to have nightmares that I was running through a party and all the other people were standing around making small talk and my husband was chasing me with a knife but when i tried to tell people they just looked at me, annoyed that I was interrupting them. I was younger and without benefit of therapy then, so I didn’t realize this was a very specific dream that was spelling out what was happening in my life. Your story sounds so very much like mine! My now-ex (you can do this, it’s doable), would tell me to return sweaters if he didn’t like them. He wasn’t a screamer or yeller, he didn’t beat me or hit me. But he would very passive aggressively or else very calmly tell me how I couldn’t work because it would be unfair to our very young child, but that since I didn’t work, he was allowed to decide how the money was spent. What car I drove (the beat up one that kept breaking down with me and an infant vs him with the nice new safer one). Whether I could be allowed to look for work, go to school, etc. I finally escaped, and he kept tormenting me and our children, by using the child as a pawn. My family defended him because they didn’t see it and I pretended all was normal. When he would quietly rage at me for not cleaning the house 4 days after I was home from the hospital after giving birth, and his dinner wasn’t on the table (child was literally one week old), I cried and realized something was very wrong. Took me 2yrs to finally leave for good. Family didn’t get it and it made it harder but my child deserved better, not to think this was a good marriage or that people stay when they’re miserable. He did the same with his second wife, sadly. One thing I wish I did differently: I wish i set much more firm hard boundaries during separation/divorce. I was so programmed to placate him and so pre-programmed by my abusive family to accept gaslighting, I didn’t properly protect myself from future harm and my child. Protect yourself, set firm boundaries, stick to them like glue no matter what. Placating a controlling person will encourage them to keep trying. Document everything. I mean everything. Save every nasty rage filled voicemail. Because my ex did get loud and nuts after I left. The rage kicked in big time once I made my escape. Prepare for the worst after hoping for the best. Good luck, you’ve got this and you sound like you are smarter about preparation than I was, for what it’s worth. And don’t feel you owe ANYONE your story about why you are divorcing. You don’t need permission from anyone, including him, to leave. You aren’t happy: that’s it. Only tell safe people your story. People who won’t get it, or who try to play devil’s advocate may be well-intentioned but they aren’t safe for this subject: plan accordingly. Jedi hugs. So many Jedi hugs.
Good point about the harm post-divorce. A friend of mine is doing much better since she stopped trying to co-parent and does parallel parenting now. He punished her just as much post-divorce whenever a decision wasn’t his way.
on the subject of abusive jerks, I just found an amusing sarcastic internet comment: “Nobody understands the pain of the man who cannot be happy unless everyone else bows to his every whim.”
LW, I recently ended an almost-20-year marriage and I had a lot of the same struggles and doubts that you do. (Was I really trying hard enough? Did the behavior really count as abuse? Would anyone else believe it was abuse?) I also have a positive relationship with my parents but we are not the kind of family that talks about feelings or marital troubles. With that in mind, I have a few pieces of advice.
1. Strengthening your support network doesn’t automatically mean sharing all the details of your marital problems. You’ve identified your mom as someone you want on “team you,” but that doesn’t mean you have to confide in her now (or ever) about your problems or discuss your options. It could simply mean continuing to make those weekly phone calls and emails, or even bumping things up a little–like visiting for a weekend or something. And perhaps asking for specific needs, like extra child care help. For me, I didn’t tell my parents anything until I had firmly decided to divorce. They weren’t the right people to help me come to that decision (my therapist and a close friend helped me through that process), but they ARE a source of support in that they love me unconditionally and want me to be happy. I still have not shared many details with them about why I had to leave. I just told them that I was unhappy in the marriage and while I tried my best, we couldn’t make it work. They are sad that it didn’t work out, but they love and support me. If you want more than that with your mom, that’s fine too. But just know it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
2. I second the Captain’s advice to separate “I’m not happy” from “I’m being abused.” It’s important and good that you are able to recognize and name the abuse. Your therapist confirms that this is abuse. You have an entire community here saying, “yes, this is abuse!” But some people will want to argue with you about what does and doesn’t constitute abuse, and you do NOT need that. “I’m not happy” isn’t something anyone can argue, because it’s your feeling, and feelings are inherently subjective. It took me a long time to realize that I was “allowed” to get divorced even if I didn’t have an ironclad justification that everyone would unanimously agree with. That was a function of my ex messing with my head. You don’t need any justification to leave–your own unhappiness is enough. My ex used to like to lecture me about how “normal couples do this” and “this is part of what marriage means.” But “normal” couples didn’t have to live in my marriage–I did. And marriage means whatever the two people in it decide it means, nothing more. If this is not what you want out of a marriage, then you don’t have to be in the marriage, no matter what anyone else thinks.
3. In terms of leaving–do your research, make a plan to take care of yourself, and don’t share your plans with anyone you don’t trust 100% not to tell your husband. I consulted with a divorce lawyer, gave some money to a friend to hold onto just in case, and packed an emergency “I have to leave the house tonight” bag before telling my ex I wanted a divorce. It turns out we split up amicably and I didn’t have to worry. But I wasn’t sure how he’d respond, and in the end, no harm was done from being extra cautious. Err on the cautious side and make sure you have control of your important documents, a place you can go, and a financial plan for yourself BEFORE you tell him you’re leaving (or even that you are thinking about it).
4. This one is less advice and more morale-boosting. It took me a long time (almost 20 years!) to leave a marriage I was unhappy with pretty much from the start. I second-guessed myself the whole way (with encouragement from the ex, of course). I wondered if I was just the kind of person who couldn’t be satisfied. I wondered if I wasn’t trying hard enough. I wondered if I was selfish. Now that I’m out it’s like I’ve emerged from a fog. I feel lighter and clearer. I like myself far more than I did for literally decades. I feel more generous, more patient, more trusting than I felt in years. Emotional abuse–or even just chronic unhappiness–wears you down to an extent you can’t even fully realize until you are out of it. Oh, and while I did work to strengthen my social support network while I was in the process of leaving, let me just say that AFTER I left my social life EXPLODED! When you don’t have to feel guilty about (or ask permission for) inviting people over or going out, when you aren’t ashamed of your messy home or your sullen, disapproving partner, when you yourself aren’t exhausted and bitter all the time, it’s amazing how much your social life can blossom!
“let me just say that AFTER I left my social life EXPLODED!”
Oh, my, yes. And I didn’t have to make excuses as to why ex wasn’t there, or ‘apologize’ for *his* rudeness, or ANYTHING!!
Plus, my mood swings happened FAR less often.
On this: a relationship can be deeply dysfunctional and abusive without malice. You can be so, so fucking unhappy because the fundamental structure of your partner’s life is unbearable.
LW, there is no magic words. You not describing your abuse clearly enough isn’t going to change her mind from whatever her preset is about the situation. Your mom will largely have your back or she will largely not. Lay your cards out—I am not happy, he actively makes me unhappy, I need to get out, can you support me in this? And watch her response.
LW, I left someone who was a shitty person, and Team Me dropped the ball hard. There are people I once loved like family that I will never speak to again. But guess what?
I’m still here. I built a new Team Me. You can do this. I believe in you. Hopefully, your mom does too.
I am so glad to see all the alumnae giving awesome updates.
LW, I couldn’t get through your list. The car was horrifying. Then the clothing? Whoa! Please, please know that your examples are clear-cut abuse and that most people with working normal meters will see them that way.
One of the most satisfying events in my life was kicking my abusive ex off my phone plan and getting his crap out of my house. He got free storage and free cellular for a year after he dumped me (I am a slow learner and it just wasn’t worth the hassle). Right after he left, I cried for a day or so and then felt immediate relief and lived in the 3 bedroom townhouse by myself since I had just renewed the lease. And it was like I had dropped this anvil I was carrying around everywhere. I was so much less stressed and it was like I was printing money because I wasn’t spending money entertaining and supporting him. I could get a dog! I could retire in my 60s! You really don’t realize how bleak your world has become until you get out of your bad situation. You absolutely get acclimated like the frog in the simmering water that keeps rising in temp.
So a year goes by and I decide to buy a house so I can get a dog. So I call him and tell him that he needs to get his stuff and that the freeboat is sinking so he’ll need to get on his own phone plan. And he asks how much he’d have to pay to stay on mine. And I said “well, I paid 100% for a year so you can give that a try” and of course he said he’d get his own. And he wants to meet for dinner. So we meet up at some restaurant and arrange a time for him to come get his shit. And he starts talking about some vest and a thermos he left. And I am sitting there thinking “it’s been a year” but I say “if you left the vest in the coat closet then it could be in the back of my car so you should check right now because it’s going to charity tomorrow morning” and … he doesn’t want to check the trunk of my car for his precious vest. He picks up the tab for dinner. I try not to roll my eyes.
So the morning he is supposed to get his stuff comes around. And we pack up his car and then pack up mine because he has so much crap. THEN he starts in on the vest and thermos. And I ask “if they were that important, why didn’t you take them with you?” And he explodes in anger that he was just asking and tells me he doesn’t need this shit. And I saw red and then purple. And my bitchy inner voice said “Hey Liz, you know who else doesn’t need this shit?… YOU! Dumbass, YOU!” And I raged. I yelled at him and told him he had some balls bitching at me when he’s getting his cell phone paid and I am moving his shit and everything else. And he’s going to yell at me? Nyuh-UH! He was shocked because while living with him, I would appease just so I didn’t have to deal with a constantly angry man. But after a year of living on my own, my normal meter reset and I wasn’t about to appease some asshole just trying to get a buck off me for a fucking thermos. So he stammers some stupid apology and then says “let’s just get this over with” and I said “my car is full of your crap so I will drive it to your apartment and drop the stuff off – make sure you have everything because this is it”. And I think he thought the 2 mile drive would calm me down but I got to his apartment complex and started unpacking the car and putting his stuff on the curb. And he asks if I want to come in. I finished unloading his stuff, looked at him like he was dumber than dogshit and said no.
So I had agreed to pay for his cell phone until about 5 days after this whole moving-his-crap debacle. It was about a month after we first spoke. So the very day he is supposed to transfer his number, I get a call from him and it goes to voicemail. He’s tried to transfer his phone but because of his crappy credit, Sprint wants some money up front. And he just doesn’t have $200 so we need to figure something out. I literally looked at the phone and thought “we??!?!?!” So I call him back and get no answer. So I try one more time and still no answer so I leave a message. “We agreed on today. You have until 9:00 p.m.” I cut off the phone at 9 and have happily not heard from him since. He does look me up on Linkedin occasionally but has not made contact.
The only person who was an asshole to me was my grandmother – I told everyone who asked where he was that I had traded him in for a house and a dog. My grandmother told me she’d have to see the house and the dog to know if I got a good deal or not. And I just looked at her and said “you’ll just have to take my word for it.” But everyone else was pretty sensitive about it. They either figured it wasn’t their business or were happy that I got a dog and a house. And assholesque was my grandmother’s default behavior so it was as expected.
I second the suggestion to check out your local domestic violence agency. Every one is different, and some have fantastic support groups with lots of people who have been in similar situations. And the staff can be helpful with practical advice or feedback also. And they can help you practice what to say to your mom, and other people. And the people you know (or meet) who have experience with abuse—they will get what you are saying (and not saying) because All These Abusers operate in such similar ways. (I’m only halfway through these comments, and while I do think CA’s commenters are a superb bunch, just look at how many people just *get* instinctively what you are saying.).
Also, if your mom hasn’t picked up on anything, and is completely blindsided, she might be upset—upset that you are unhappy, feeling guilty for not knowing or helping earlier, frightened for what your future looks like, worried about how you are doing, and possibly feeling loss for the hopes and dreams she had for you. Those are all fine for her to feel, but those feelings are all her responsibility to handle by herself and with other people she knows. You are not responsible for causing those feelings nor for managing them. And yes, echoing other commenters, tell her exactly what you need from her.
And CA, thank you so much for publishing and answering these letters, and the space for some conversation around them.
Also, if your mom hasn’t picked up on anything, and is completely blindsided, she might be upset—upset that you are unhappy, feeling guilty for not knowing or helping earlier, frightened for what your future looks like, worried about how you are doing, and possibly feeling loss for the hopes and dreams she had for you. Those are all fine for her to feel, but those feelings are all her responsibility to handle by herself and with other people she knows. You are not responsible for causing those feelings nor for managing them. And yes, echoing other commenters, tell her exactly what you need from her.
Soon after I left the abusive ex I told my mother that I wasn’t able to help her process her concern and worry. I told her to read Why does he do that? and to focus on chapter 15.
She tried. She didn’t succeed until after the time she experienced my new PTSD sufferer’s response to loud voices : I ran away and threw up and cried for hours.
I’m sure she and her boyfriend have had conversations about my mother’s unhappiness at my abuse. But they’ve left me out of them.
I second and third everything that’s been said. I wanted to just address this: “I’m working with a good therapist to fix things: crafting an ultimatum to my husband, getting my ducks in a row to divorce if that fails…”
Obviously, you know your husband and your situation. But you might want to explore with your therapist some of the possible outcomes of presenting your husband with an ultimatum. Maybe he’ll have an epiphany and really change, maybe he’ll become physically dangerous – or maybe he’ll string you along for years and years, changing his behavior just enough to give you some hope, then backsliding, then legalizing the shit out of every conversation, until you have even less confidence in your perception and judgment than you do now.
Yes, that part stuck out to me, too. The problem with giving ultimatums to abusers is that they typically will change their behavior, just enough to keep you hanging in there, and then when you get comfortable again, they ratchet up the abuse again. This is an extremely common cycle.
You don’t actually owe him one last chance to be a decent human being. Frankly, anyone who needs to be told “Hey, you need to be a decent human being or I’m going to leave” probably isn’t capable of actually being one. Because if he was, he would have just DONE IT ALREADY.
This this this this this this….
My now-ex talked me back, wined me and dined me…and fairly quickly slid back into his old ways. It took me years (a couple of decades!) to realize that he was, in fact, abusive. After leaving him I got a university degree in midlife (all on scholarships and grants, zero debt incurred), built a new career (writing about personal finance) and best of all, found true love in midlife. I can’t imagine the life I’d be living if I’d stayed in my marriage.
Be as good to yourself as you can, dear LW, and avail yourself of the amazing advice from both the Captain and the commenters. I hope that in time you, like some of the other LWs, will report back in with regard to how you’re doing.
Reading this particular entry has been overwhelmingly frustrating, because I recognized, almost word for word, the behavioural patterns you’re talking. It still hurts how I tolerated being treated like this – but as you express again and again, it is difficult to acknowledge this kind of abuse for the reasons you very clearly explained.
So, again, thank you very much. This has unchained a very deep emotional response that motivates me to learn further.
The problem? That I’m a heterosexual male. And this text, like almost every other, is totally gendered. Inclusiveness shouldn’t be something exclusive for women. When I read this and find myself relating, I feel deeply shameful and unworthy as a person, questioning myself even further. Even if I try hard not to. And that’s because of how you refer again and again to the perpetrator as male, and females as only victims.
I understand that the ratio of male-to-female victims of this kind of abuse MAY be lower (we don’t really know). Still, I’d like to ask you, as humbly as an anonymous person on the internet can, that you consider using a more inclusive language, at least when talking about emotional abuse. Everyone can be a victim, independently of sex, gender, culture, skin color and orientation.
Thank you for reading me, and thank you for the hard work you put into this blog.
Hi Pablo, thanks for your comment. I’m sorry you’re dealing with this in your relationship, you don’t deserve it.
Women and nonbinary folks can abuse, too, and there is abuse within same-sex relationships. We have many letters about that here.
The examples people wrote in with this time and Bancroft’s book do involve men abusing women, and there is an aspect of that abuse that is rooted in misogyny and patriarchy. Men seeing themselves as “more logical” (and the million shitty Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus texts that affirm that), men earning more money on the whole and women shouldering more of the domestic & care-taking loads, religious & cultural traditions that say that men should be the heads of their families, the whole #MeToo thing finally coming to light which does have its male victims but doesn’t have the systemic practice of men being harassed out of and sidelined from careers en masse for decades. I don’t want to get into a statistics battle with you, but the cases of cis men escalating their abuse to the point of stalking, killing, & raping their wives and girlfriends or even strange women who say no to and ignore them is so very high that misogyny has to be part of the discussion sometimes. Everyone can be an abuser, so, why is violence against women so prevalent? (MISOGYNY)
You’re right that it doesn’t always leave us a lot of examples or language for talking about the other kinds of abuse. If people know good gender-neutral resources on emotional abuse that cover the same ground as Bancroft’s book, I want to read them and add them to our resources, but I am not set up to do that level of research or rewrite that resource in real time every time. I think it will be better for everyone when that vocabulary is expanded and we have more stories to work with. However, when I think misogyny is part of an abusive dynamic, I need to be able to talk about it in those terms and there need to be conversations where women can talk to each other about that frankly and by naming what is going on. Patriarchy hurts men, too, and this is one of those examples. I’m sorry you’re feeling left out of the conversation that way. I guess I’d add that women are very used to having to consume stories that don’t center them and glean what they can from those narratives – we have a lifetime of the world using “he” & “him” when it means “all of us.” If Bancroft’s designations are useful to you, then, extrapolate (and get yourself safe!). He’s the best resource we have right now, even if he’s leaving out some of the story.
Hi Captain, I went up and read your response again and I think that Pablo does in fact have some cause for complaint. You started out your response talking about abusers generally, and then jumped into:
abuse is […] basically a combination of misogyny & entitlement.
That conflation of abuse generally with male-on-female abuse specifically was probably just an oversight, but I could totally understand Pablo being upset by it.
I *don’t* think his suggestion of erasing all gendered language from discussions of abuse is reasonable. I do however think you could be a touch more explicit when you transition into talking about gendered abuse in particular.
In all other ways, a very good response as usual.
Pablo did and does have a point, and I will try to be more specific & thoughtful when I make those transitions.
However, I am going to close the comments now. Scanning the 50+ comment backup in the moderation queue, this derail is taking over the whole discussion, and the thread is not about Pablo or specifically when men experience emotional abuse at the hands of women. I think lots of people can extrapolate from the descriptions in Bancroft’s book, and the examples are useful even if he does use gendered language & mostly study men.
My deepest sympathy, Pablo. You’re right, society has a skew around abuse, based on visibility and experience. It makes it harder to see when the abuser is female. My roommates, cis/het couple – she was abusing him, and it took me a couple of months to realize it. If genders had been reversed, I’d have seen it by the second screaming session. I have walked that line of ‘supporting him but she sucks and can not live in my house’ , and their breakup was a big relief. I am frustrated that he still won’t let me say what I saw and heard to our mutual social group, so I still have to spend time in the same room as her in order to see other friends.
You are not alone.
Here, though, please look at the words the Captain actually uses – she consistently uses ‘Partner’ and ‘they’, and when she doesn’t, she *notes* that it’s “him, in these cases”. Reading her response, I don’t think it’s possible to be much more inclusive. The flood of stories are coming from het women; they are accurately stating their experiences. This does not invalidate your experience, or theirs. It’s just a reflection of who’s talking about this right now, here. I am sure this community will support you if you want to talk about it too.
I hope things get as much better for you as they have for my male roommate. In addition to just being happier in his work and social life, there’s a *line* of cool women interested in him (they keep asking me if he’s single), 3 or 4 at any given time, ranging from ‘really cute’ to ‘drop dead earth goddess gorgeous’.
I hope his ex and your abuser have permanent gas and stinky farts, at the very least.
whoops, sorry about the bolding, thought /b would work…
Also – having read more of the comments below, I am no longer satisfied with my comment. We could change Lundy’s labels to Mx. Right and Mx. Sensitive.
We could, and I am taking this to heart and thinking about this and will try to be more thoughtful in my language, too, but also: Misogyny is a huge part of the story sometimes. Bancroft addresses this in the intro to his book (and there is a chapter on how things adapt when it’s not a heterosexual relationship). There has to be space for women talking about emotional abuse & violence wrought by male partners, studying that phenomenon as Bancroft does, and discussing recognizable patterns of same when misogyny is part of the story. The entitlement specifically that men feel to women’s bodies, time, attention, deference IS a big part of the story of abuse between cishet partners. A lot of the time. It’s not the only part of the story and it’s not the only story, but I can’t look away from the fact that the people who set themselves up as authorities over others often get deferred to as authorities over others way longer than they should be because of the history of gender roles.
For a less loaded example, there is a reason that the kids in the letter about the mom trying to write in her home office take dad’s meditating more seriously than mom’s livelihood. Sometimes a post IS about sexism, and people in similar but not exactly the same situations can hopefully extrapolate what they need.
So, I’m not committing (for example) to neutralizing gender pronouns or depictions whenever I get a story like #1141 or this one or the many, many #ThisFuckingGuy stories. Why has nobody (or at least nobody where I know an easily accessible resource) studied emotional abuse in same gender couples or when women are the emotional abusers the way Bancroft has? I don’t know. One fucked up but probably true answer: The body count isn’t the same. Or even close. I hope someone does write that book long before we ever reach equality on that score. But for now, when I think misogyny is in the shit-soup-du-jour, I need to be able to talk about that, specifically.
Please yes do not back down in this. I am an abuse counselor/advocate.
There is abuse in many couple configurations but far and away it is male on female violence.
We need to not do anything the helps silence women. Patriarchy already does a good job there. Women need to feel safe saying “this guy” without being barraged by “but whatabout…” all the fucking time!
The only issue I take with this initial comment is that he assigns the idea that this happens a lot more to women than men as “perceived”. I work in a building of 300 plus employees. Almost all the women I speak to (about 50) in cis relationships are in some level of an abusive relationship. All of them are in a relationship with great inequality. I know ONE GUY who is actually abused by his wife (she makes him take an uber to work instead of “allowing him” to fix their one car and so on and so forth). In my personal life, I have met one dude who was actually a victim of abuse. I have met a ton of dudes who claimed it but turned out to be the actual abusers with the women just kind of losing it after a time. There are even statiatics to back this up. I can try to find them as the CDCitsef is a great resource. They even have stats on non het relationships as well. Spoiler alert: domestic violence and abuse is a lot more prevalent between men then between women couples. And are a lot higher between couples where one identifies as women and the other as male. Cuz. Misogyny affects us all. Its a part of our identity. And what actually sucks for men that are actually in abusive relationships ia that our misogynistic culture doesnt allow for there to be help. And a lot of time men seeking help only find other men who are actually misogynistic abusers hiding behind The Victim.
Thank you, Captain.
I sympathize with Pablo and know absolutely that women can abuse men, but a big part of the problem is that our culture tends to silence women, so the last thing we need in this conversation is to erase women by making the language gender-neutral.
Maybe I’m wrong, but it’s kind of like “all lives matter.” Yes, all lives matter, but let’s focus on the ones being gunned down in the street these days.
“I understand that the ratio of male-to-female victims of this kind of abuse MAY be lower (we don’t really know). ”
Actually we do know. That aside you are reafing real life comments and stories from women who have lived experiences being victims of males.
Sorry about what youre going through but by saying we shouldn’t be talking about women being victims at the hands of male perpetrators … because other can be victims, etc., when 90%+ of the comments here are about the commenters’ own lived experiences feels like males trying … again to silence women.
The abuse is due to entitlement part in the Captain’s response is 100% correct. I have had enough encounters and relationships with people who were abusive or who turned to abuse during difficult times and it REALLY is something people do who feel entitled to do absolutely no emotional labor. Recognizing this makes it way easier to call it by its name. It’s not something monsters do. It’s something people do who are just emotionally or humanly lazy: they don’t like apologizing, they don’t like listening to others, they don’t like changing their behavior. They know they can get away with it, so they do it. You are so confused by their emotional violence and gaslighting that you cannot see how sad and trivial their motivations are. That is part of what they want. You are not supposed to see the banality behind their actions. Until they can’t get away with it anymore. Abusers can escalate horribly but a lot of them also turn into the most pathetic beings when you see them for what they are. Specially when they know you know. You have the power of knowing, LW. Trust it and let it guide you.
I love the advice about separating the divorce into two chunks – the fact of the divorce chunk and the reason for the divorce chunk.
I’m also going to put myself into the Mom’s shoes for a moment. For many years, Mom has had a relationship with this man, and thankfully, has liked him. Generally, I think we’d agree that’s a nice thing when it works out that way. Mom doesn’t live inside the relationship and doesn’t know all the bits and pieces and specifics of what happens when she isn’t there. From a healthy boundary standpoint, we probably also all agree that’s good. So hearing from OP that she wants a divorce is probably going to come as a little bit of a surprise to Mom, because it’s going to be highly inconsistent from what she has understood to be the normal operating procedure in your relationship with husband for many years. It doesn’t make Mom “wrong” to have initial confusion or questions. You can’t control Mom’s initial reaction. You can tell Mom that you are going to need her support through the process, and that this isn’t something that’s getting “fixed;” it’s something that is happening.
Mom may very well immediately jump to your aid and say, “you’re my daughter, I stick by you no matter what.” If so, that’s great. But Mom may also need a little bit of a moment to process the fact that there’s a change and it’s inconsistent with what she has understood for a long time. If Mom decides she’s going to jump onto Team Husband in the matter, then you know Mom is not a safe part of the network. You keep Mom at arm’s length and find other helpers.
If, during the initial conversation, Mom doesn’t seem to be supportive or seems to be pro-husband, or wants to be Switzerland, then you haven’t shared the really hard stuff that could further drive a wedge or be told by Mom to husband (if she’s going to be awful about things).
There were several moments which made me realize my relationship was broken and Badness Was Occurring Within. But one was, yes, the clean house thing. I fell seriously ill, and once I was out of hospital, I was signed off work for TWO MONTHS and for the first month I was on bedrest, which was absolutely fair enough as I couldn’t even shower without having to stop and sit down for ten mintues half-way through. So tidying and cleaning our home was out of the question. Because my ex and I were naturally untidy people and because my health had been wretched for several years before this final collapse, the apartment was… ugh. Now, I was lonely and frightened and BADLY wanted friends and family to come visit me. My ex refused to let me invite anyone over, because he was ashamed of the state of the apartment, and, AND, he refused to clean the apartment.
Looking back, I now know I should’ve asked friends over ANYWAY – they all knew I was ill and like hell they cared if the place was grotty. I know now some of them would have done some of the cleaning for me, as they were all quite eager to be helpful. But Darth Grotbag the Ex by that point had me doubting myself and my friends and my family and their love for me, and I was far too tired and ill to argue and so… nobody came over to see me until I was well enough to a) have a blazing row with Darth Grotbag about it (spoiler – he still didn’t clean) and b) well enough to do a bit of cleaning myself.
Anyway, we are divorced now. So.
Holy shit, I dated a Mx. Sensitive. I’ve never seen it defined so clearly. In their case, they were Obviously Not a Bad Person because they weren’t a cis man; and the psychobabble was anti-oppression language (see: “When you say you can’t stay over because you need to get a good night’s sleep for work tomorrow, that creates an unhealthy power dynamic in our relationship. I’m not asking you to change your schedule, of course, I just need you to acknowledge that power dynamic and apologize for it.”)
See also: sulking nearly every time we hung out because I would inadvertently say something offensive to them, like “I identify a lot with my grandmother.” (Don’t even ask about the convoluted reason why me identifying with my own grandmother was personally offensive to them, but it was, deeply.)
They ended up becoming a social worker. I really, really, really, really hope they figured some stuff out before they became responsible for helping clients, but I worry constantly that they haven’t changed at all and have left in their wake a stream of people who now worry that by setting reasonable boundaries they’re oppressing everyone else in their lives.
Oh wow! oh no! That is so messed up. A good night’s sleep is a basic need!
I also dated a Ms. Sensitive who used anti-oppression language as a manipulation tactic. She was a trans woman and I am a trans man, so any time I did anything she didn’t like, it was ‘you are a transmisogynist/a TERF/subtextually misgendering me somehow’. She would twist anything and everything to be about transmisogyny or as proof that I thought of her as a man. I found it INCREDIBLY difficult to disentangle myself from this, because one of my most important principles is to listen to people about the oppression they experience that I do not. And 99.99% of the time I still believe that that’s right!
The thing that made it click for me was someone (I can’t remember who) saying that abusers will use any framework, good, bad, or neutral, and twist it to their own benefit. It could be kink, polyamory, social justice, it doesn’t matter- they will find a way to use that language for their benefit. She was taking good principles (‘don’t talk over people about their oppression’) and twisting them to her advantage (‘you can’t argue back at me, ever, about anything, because everything is somehow about transmisogyny and therefore you need to accept everything I say without criticism.’) And I would be like, ‘that doesn’t seem right, but since I don’t have lived experience of transmisogyny and she does I guess she must be right and I just can’t possibly understand.’
After we broke up, we kept talking for a bit because she seemed at first to be willing to admit that she had been abusive. But then she started low-key trying to justify her abuse, saying things like ‘I know I was abusive but think my reasons for being abusive were different than most abusers’. I said that actually, no, I don’t think her manipulating me because she was afraid of losing me is different than most other abusers, and she immediately accused me of misgendering her and being a TERF. Because obviously, most abusers are cis men = I was saying she wasn’t in some special unique category separate from other abusers = I was calling her a man = I’m a TERF. Obviously. That was the point at which I finally realised that she was never going to stop doing this, and we haven’t talked since.
That’s so rough, I’m sorry you had to go through that. Realizing what was happening with my ex made me start noticing this dynamic in a lot of the social justice circles I’ve run in. To your “abusers will use any framework” point, it dawned on me that nothing about social justice work precludes abusers from participating, our communities are just as likely to contain abusers as anywhere else–and that bludgeon of “You can’t possibly disagree with me unless you are oppressing me” is very hard to combat without looking like The Enemy. I wish folks talked about this more.
And as happened with me, there are things about social justice frameworks that are a positive gift to abusers. She was able to exploit me that way because being a TERF or a transmisogynist was (and still is) one of the worst things I can imagine being. It destroyed my self-esteem to even consider that that might be true about me. Even after we broke up, I found it incredibly difficult to talk about what happened as abuse, because I was acutely aware that there is a very real pattern of trans women being the victims of false accusations of abuse, or being painted as inherently abusive, manipulative or dangerous. So I thought ‘If I talk about what happened to me, I am perpetuating those ideas, and therefore I should never talk about it or call it abuse’. I was afraid that my story would somehow be used to perpetuate violence and bigotry towards trans women, like it would be used as proof that trans women universally use accusations of transmisogyny to deflect criticism. Even writing these comments now, years later, I feel some twinges of anxiety and guilt.
But my story is not a data point, it is just a thing that happened to me. If my life was a book, or a TV show, it would be transmisogynistic and offensive to portray a trans woman as manipulative, abusive, and using accusations of transmisogyny to mask her abuse. But my life isn’t fictional, and nobody is writing that narrative. I don’t have the right to accuse all trans women of abuse or manipulation based on this one experience, and I do, I think, have an obligation to make it clear that I’m talking about an individual, not a group, but I do have the right to talk about this one experience for what it was, just as much as anyone who’s been abused by a cis man.
“I am just really unhappy in my marriage and I think this is the right decision for me”
Is this enough in other relationships? I recognize a lot of my brother in “Mr Right”. Most of the time his wife/gf of the moment is the recipient of said behaviour, other times I am.
I am unhappy when I have to be around him. My other siblings & parents all have a lot of reasons for why it is the way it is. I grew up with him and know all about the struggles and the reasons. I am still unhappy and on edge when I have to be around him. How should I handle this?
This is a different question than being in an abusive marriage with Mr. Right, and we don’t have the same procedures (divorce) for asshole brothers.
You can decide you don’t like your brother and that you want to be around him less. People in your family may not get it and may push you to reconcile. They may not get it. And you can say “he treats me badly, I feel awful when I’m around him, so, I’m going to see him less.” Your family can feel how they want about that. There may not be one conversation or checklist that you can show them that will make them understand or agree that what he does is abusive.
I barely talk to my younger brother. He’s not abusive, he’s just an asshole and he’s tiring and he only contacts me when he wants something. My parents wish we were closer, but they can’t make us closer. You don’t have to be close to your family.
Jamie, I am sorry you are dealing with an abusive brother. It is really tough, especially if the abuser has become the Missing Stair in your family. My sis, mom, and dad sound like your brother. I have had to cut off all contact with my whole family, as cutting off just the abusers was ineffective. The rest of my family became Abuse Apologists and Messengers of Mean for the abusive ones, and thought I was the bad guy for cutting off contact. I hope you have more luck than I did with your brother and other family members. I don’t think any of the so called reasons your other family members give for your brother’s behavior can possibly excuse his abusiveness. Being unhappy or having tragic or difficult circumstances in his life does not give your brother a free pass to abuse you or his gf. I hope you have other family or friends to be a support system for you, folks who recognize that this abuse is horrible and wrong and *not your fault*! Please take kind and excellent care of yourself. Jedi hugs!
I’m so sorry you’re going through this. I can relate and strongly recommend limiting time with family members who constantly make you feel unhappy and on edge. If your other family pushes back on it, that doesn’t make them correct.
1) You don’t hang out with your brother one-on-one. Yeah, you’re siblings, but that doesn’t mean you have to sign up to deal with bad behavior on a regular basis.
2) You evaluate large family events that you know he’s invited to on a case-by-case basis. Maybe it’s worth going to mom’s birthday dinner even though you know he’ll be there, but you’re going to skip the annual family camping trip because it’s just too much Brother for you to handle. Maybe it’s fine to go to a giant family reunion where you can avoid him, but a small dinner at mom’s is too much togetherness. Maybe it’s not worth being around him at all, so you check to see if he’s RSVP’d before you decide which events to go to.
3) If your relationship is (or becomes) such that you feel unsafe in a room with him, you put your foot down and don’t spend time with him. You don’t go to events he’s invited to. If he shows up, you leave. Your parents and other siblings will be upset at this; they may try to tell you that you’re being unreasonable, that you need to patch things up for the sake of the family, etc. Your safety is more important than a vague facade of family harmony; if they want that facade so badly, they can pressure your brother to fix his behavior.
Jamie, my sister is a Water Torturer. Both my brother and I came to our own, separate decisions to cut off contact with her. I just kind of did the slow fade with Sister. I’m not sure how my brother did it. But it’s now a fact of life that he and I just don’t speak to or about her, and for the most part, our parents comply. If one of them does try to get me to talk to her or reconcile, I just politely decline and tell them it’s healthier for me to not have contact. You certainly do have the ability and right to “divorce” your sibling. My sister lives way far away from all of us, so that does make things easier, but even when she is in town, I only talk to her in a room full of people, preferably people she wants to impress (not family), and only about things like the weather. When things start to go downhill, I beat a hasty retreat and have stopped caring what anybody thinks about it. It works for me.
LW, I don’t really have anything else to add to these extremely smart comments. I just wanted to say that I am so sorry that you are in this situation and that I wish much happiness for you and your children in the future. Also anyone who demands more of a reason that I am unhappy from you as to why you are seeking a divorce is not on Team You. It is ok to want to be happy, and it is more than ok to want to be able to wear what you damn well want, drive your own car and to have your living environment be one you are comfortable in.
There are a lot of comments, with a lot of great ideas. I would just like to add, that one of CA’s options, I think, is a MUST, and it should be the first thing you say to your mom. “Please keep this between us. Don’t go talk to my husband.”
She said that he had been a family friend for a long time, that her mother loves him. If the mother and the husband have a good relationship, I could envision a possibility that the mother might try to solve the problem by talking to the husband.
I think saying that can also bring your mom around to realizing how serious you are. Like “Mom, I haven’t told you how unhappy I was because I was hoping I could work it out. But I don’t think I can. I can’t talk about everything right now – it is a lot and I’m just not in the right frame of mind to lay it all out. But I’m not doing this lightly and I need your help. Please do not say anything to Husband.”
Good luck. You deserve better. You are clearly a smart and thoughtful person and you’re already on the right path to taking care of yourself. Your mom will help you. I bet you have more friends than you realize. If one of my casual acquaintances asked for help, I would help them. I bet your network is deeper than you thought.
Thanks, Cap, you just helped me understand why my occasional marriage conflicts are ok, because *neither of us is the boss*. Neither of us has final say. We just have to keep working on the issues, even when the conversations are uncomfortable or lack resolution.
Me too. I hope this isn’t too “yay me” for a post about an abusive relationship, but. Sometimes I do find myself doing/not doing things because my husband would prefer that I do or don’t do them, and sometimes (mostly because of anxiety) I think “shit, is this the slowly boiling water of emotional abuse??” But it’s not. I do certain things the way my husband prefers because I love him and want him to be happy, not because I’m afraid of his reaction if I don’t.
Honestly, this makes me even more empathetic to OP’s question, because if that line is hard to articulate in my own generally-happy marriage, I can only imagine how much harder it is to explain to someone from the other side.
Good luck leaving letter writer!
“Probably the biggest takeaways from Lundy Bancroft’s book about men who abuse women is that abuse is just not that deep. It’s basically a combination of misogyny & entitlement.”
This is really interesting to read, my family member is in what seems to clearly from my perspective be an abusive marriage. Her parents refuse to believe it because they say the husband’s IQ is too low and he has an elementary school education. (They are very up their own asses about their education and intelligence.) I feel really bad for her but I’m afraid to talk to her about it because I don’t want her to get embarrassed and pull away. But it’s really unacceptable, and she has an above average number of children so leaving would be extra complicated. I’d host them at my house but my state has really bad social safety net. Anyone have ideas to help from afar? Also I’m basing this on things she’s said, things I’ve witnessed, and situations that come up. Is not wild speculation but the details are pretty identifiable.
From afar you are probably limited in what you can do. You can believe her and remind her it’s not her fault and put aside money. She’s the boss of when and how and what happens next. This article lays out a lot of how-to-leave steps. You (and she, especially she) should talk to trained domestic violence people where y’all live.
Hi Jijar, you asked an interesting question which doesn’t have just one answer – how to help someone who you care about when they are in an abusive relationship. The Hotline (the National Domestic Violence Hotline) and LoveIsRespect both have great resources on this. From my experience working with survivors of partner violence, I think that their recommendations are very helpful. Basically, though it boils down to: 1.) has this person expressed wanting help 2.) has this person labeled their experience as abusive? Depending on the answers to those questions, your response may be very different. Here are the steps that the Hotline recommends: https://www.thehotline.org/help/help-for-friends-and-family/ . You can also reach out to your local DV agency to see if they have more resources for you, in case your family member is actively seeking your assistance.
This letter and the Captain’s perfect response just helped me articulate something I’ve struggled with for a long time. I’m still in the process of leaving my Mr. Sensitive/Water Torturer husband and I also feel this intense need to perfectly name and itemize all the ways in which he is abusive so that the world perfectly understands and agrees with me that he is abusive.
I just now realized something. That need, that quest for just the right words? That’s his world. That’s the world he created in my mind. He instilled in me the expectation that I must, somehow, find just the right way to articulate all the things……or else. Or else he would continue to do dangerous things with the kids because he just didn’t understaaaaaaand how this new thing was similar to that old thing we had talked about not doing. Or else he would be grumpy and pouty and ruin special events because I had said something in a way that wasn’t sufficiently positive or praiseworthy and so he was able to twist my (entirely neutral) statement to somehow be an attack on him. Or else he would break my things or hide important items when I wasn’t looking to teach me a lesson about….whatever it was that he refused to actually say out loud but that I was supposed to understand I had done wrong. Or else he wasn’t going to stop flirting with the neighbor or looking at internet pictures of half-naked women in the delivery room 5 minutes after our son was born because I hadn’t yet made the case for why he shouldn’t do those things in a way that made enough sense to “convince” him that I deserved to be treated with more respect.
This belief that you must always make your case before you get the bare minimum of support is part of what he did to you. I know that what you experienced was abuse, even without your perfectly clear articulation of the abusive things he does, LW. I know because you have this same drive to articulate the ways in which he controls you in order to get him to stop. I am just now understanding (logically anyway) that this is not something that one needs to do in normal, healthy relationships. Because the secret of the abusive relationship, which I’m sure you know, is that there is no “right way” to explain anything. The goalposts are always moving to ensure that you are always wrong. But you get so used to fighting that fight, you forget (or like me, you never really knew) that you shouldn’t have to fight at all.
LW, I am so sorry you are having to deal with this. You haven’t done anything wrong. You aren’t stupid or weak or anything else. Abuse often starts slowly, and the abuser may wait until you are in the relationship for awhile, or tied together by marriage, kids, or shared housing/finances. Abusers can be sneaky like that.
You mention that you want to give your husband an ultimatum before you leave him. You know him best of course, but you might want to rethink that. Your husband is controlling and unreasonable, and your ultimatum might be his excuse for even more abusiveness. If you give him an ultimatum without any immediate way out, you will be stuck with an enraged abuser who now knows you might leave. Your husband will likely make life even more unpleasant for you, and he could become physically abusive. Is he really going to change if you give him an ultimatum? Has he been willing to change any of his behavior at all? I am not sure an abuser would change his behavior just like that. It could be my own experiences with abuse and trauma messing with me, but when I read that you wanted to give him an ultimatum my shoulders went up around my ears and I got very nervous for you. If you decide to discuss this with your mom using the Captain’s excellent scripts, she could be a good person to have on Team You and help you and your kids get out safely. If you aren’t ready to talk to your mom or friends about the abuse yet, is there a domestic abuse shelter you could contact in case you need a place to go?
Sorry, I know I might sound like the voice of doom. I am not trying to be scary. I Just don’t want anyone else to go through the trauma I did. I want you to be safe and happy. I want you to be loved, valued and respected by the people in your life. I want you to have freedom and control of your circumstances. I want you to know that you are strong and smart and capable. Jedi hugs!
I agree with you. The ultimatum is a bad idea for a few reasons. One the abuser will change only long enough for things to ‘calm down’ then it will go back to normal. Two it could escalate to physical abuse. And, third, without an out, somewhere to go right this minute it has no teeth but OP is stuck living with an angry abuser who will in almost every single instance escalate the abuse.
Here’s something that twenty-ish years of being a DV victims adovcate has taught me. The misogyny+entitlement thing is real and these guys do not want to change. They will do only as much as necessary to further manipulate or because they are complying with a court order to stay out of jail…gods forbid they have someone (jail) controlling their lives.
When I was dating a master mind-manipulator, it was really hard to see what was happening for myself. The relationship had started out well, with this guy behaving like the Sensitive dude described by CA. He had lots of friends and acquaintances who had great opinions of him, as he was very intelligent, well-spoken, and generally came across as very progressive and evolved. But over time, he started “explaining me” to myself more and more frequently. Like, suddenly he was my therapist as well as my bf, when I had never asked for that. When he indicated that he wanted us to start having sex, I found myself really uncertain. We both worked on the same campus, and part of my job was sometimes performed in the building where he worked. When I got to where I didn’t know if I was hoping we would run into each other, or hoping that we would NOT, then I realized that something was wrong. I wanted to be excited to see my bf, not dreading it. So when I told him I wasn’t sure I was ready to have sex with him, he was initially angry, then smoothed his expression over and said, “well, it’s not surprising. You know, because you’re so emotionally unavailable. It will probably take awhile for you to get over that damage.”
And the sad thing is, I really took that to heart, and started to wonder if he was right. Then I told this story to a good (male) friend of mine, and he snorted and said “That’s asshole-speak for ‘I’m mad you won’t sleep with me so I’m going to try to make you feel like shit to get you to sleep with me’. Seriously, this guy is a nutcase and you should dump him.”
I did dump him, and my next relationship was wonderful (and still is, as it ended up being with the person I married). The real solidification of how effed up that first relationship was came with the huge amount of relief I felt after he was out of my life. Then I got a taste of a healthy relationship, which further drove home how exhausting and hurtful the Ex was.
Love to you, LW. Get yourself out and make your life lovely.
THIS. My ex would routinely gaslight me – “you think I’m cheating on you because your dad cheated on your mom and you’re emotionally damaged/you’re unable to trust anyone/etc.” SHOCKER: she was totally cheating on me. When confronted about it (again and again and again … I took a minute to finally get out of there), it was the cherry on top – “I *had* to lie/hide things from you/CHEAT ON YOU because you’re incapable of knowing things because you’re damaged and you’ll just freak out.” It took me YEARS to trust myself and my instincts again.
Yup. The whole “you’re so broken, and I’m the only one who understands how broken you are and will put up with your pathetic brokenness” became a common tactic for my ex. So infuriating to look back on, but at the time I was young and not relationship-experienced at all, and I wasted way too much time believing his manipulative statements.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot the last day or so – I hope a second post in this thread is not too annoying. Anyway, I have a couple of proposed additions to the captain’s awesome list of how to smell abuse / toxicity. One, if your arguments and conflicts never or rarely seem to have real content but instead seem to be about (or get turned around on) your communication and behavior. Eg. you aren’t arguing about something discrete, like how much you can afford to put in joint savings each month, but rather you’re engaged in conflict about what you said or did vs what he seems to have heard you say, what he believes your motivations are, or how he is interpreting your actions. Obviously abusers often find concrete things to pick at too, but some don’t try to overtly exercise control or take on that Mr Right attitude. If there never seems to be anything substantive underlying the conflicts, your partner is probably trying to manipulate you. Two, and I guess this is closely related, if you find your disagreements are rarely about different methods of resolving a problem, but instead your conflict is about trying to get any resolution to a problem at all, that’s toxic. How-much-time-it-takes-to-get-places guy is a good example of this. On the surface it seems like the conflict was about different ideas of how far in advance they needed to leave for events, but really it boiled down to one partner trying to find workable solutions, and the toxic partner blocking every attempt. When it’s impossible to solve very simple non-problems, bees are in the house. I guess the captain covered related warning signs in nos. 4 and 5 in her answer. Maybe this is expansion on how facets of those warning signs she already identified work.
If you regularly have fights and afterwards you’re not even sure what you were fighting about, that’s trouble.
I just want to give everyone here Jedi Hugs and good vibes and lots of love. Y’all are awesome and I am so grateful for Jennifer and for this community.
(Overall, I’m not sure how to balance wanting a support system with desperately not wanting anyone to know about this)
Gosh, LW, does this ring familiar. I’m seven years out from my terrible ex, finally going to therapy about it, and I still can barely manage to talk to anyone about it. The other day I managed to squeeze a few words out to a friend who had been around (and supportive) at the time, and who knew some of it already–and still, the whole time I was talking, my brain was yelling “SHUT UP NOW SHE’LL KNOW HOW STUPID YOU WERE FOR LETTING IT HAPPEN.”
I know, logically, that this is not true. I would never think that way about someone else who told me a similar story to my own. But somehow, when I try to share with people and reach out, this is what my brain does. I feel like people will see me differently–even though most of the strength/badassery people compliment me on these days is from stuff that happened after (or even in reaction to) the end of that relationship. Heck, I can talk about times I was ACTUALLY dumb in my youth (say, college) with no embarrassment at all.
But abusers get their claws in your shame cortex for sure, and it’s hard to decouple that. I’m still working on it, but even so, my life is exponentially better now than it was with him. I hope you get to experience the joy of being free soon.
“You’ve been trained to think the reason you’re unhappy is because there’s something wrong with you, but the real reason you’re unhappy is because there is something -right- with you.”
This so much. If you fell out of a tree and broke your arm you would feel pain. That is your brain telling your body that you aren’t ok as is. Your unhappiness is the same thing…you brain is telling you that things aren’t ok as they are.
Oh Captain, I needed this letter today. Out of the blue I’ve been contacted by an emotionally abusive ex (think, we haven’t spoken in ten years) and maybe it’s because my birthday is coming up and it’s a Big One but I’ve been feeling so nostalgic for the past and I started to think “well, maybe it wasn’t that bad/maybe it wasn’t abuse/maybe it was in my head/etc.” and then your line of “I don’t care if you believe me, I’m getting a chainsaw and getting the hell out of here” just hit me. YES THIS THANK YOU. Letter writer, you didn’t ask for this, and I’m an internet stranger, but I believe you, what you are experiencing is abuse (god, if someone could have said this to me a decade ago!), you have the strength to get out (you’re already doing it!) and you will THRIVE.
LW, keep in mind that your mother has known you longer. When I left my abusive partner of five years, a number of people were skeptical about it. My mother wasn’t one of them, even though I didn’t tell her about the abuse until much later. It turned out that she had been harboring reservations about my partner for years based on how I talked about him and our relationship. It’s hard to imagine anything but the worst case scenario in this moment before you leave, but remember that other people are paying attention too. Moms, even ones who don’t like to talk about the hard stuff, even when they act like they like your crappy partner, can have a way of surprising you. In my experience, abusers will tell you that no one else can see the red flags because they aren’t there. But people can! Other people can see the red flags too because they are real and there. Tell your mom as much as you’re comfortable with, and good luck!
Be careful out there, my friends. Some families (and friends) are NOT safe as confidants, regardless of pledges to keep secrets. Heck, some parents/families started sending you down these paths before you even met Mx. Wrong. (Just some)
We can heal. We can do right by ourselves. We can have good lives.
Longtime reader/lurker but this letter could be me a few months ago, so I feel like I actually have some advice to share! LW, I don’t know your mom, but your situation sounds very similar to mine. I have a good relationship with my mom who lives out of state, and I have been pretending for years everything is fine with my husband, but it.is.not. I’m in therapy working on it and working on being more open with people in my life about it. I recently started just telling my mom specific things that were happening. “I came back from a work trip and he left a whole sink of his dishes for me to clean.” “You know what mom, he actually hasn’t been employed for 4 years. I think he’s embarrassed so he doesn’t tell anyone.” “He expects me to do all the cooking and cleaning, even though I’ve been working all day and he’s at home not working.” “He won’t let me spend time with my friends because he thinks I should be with him all the time.” (I haven’t told her the really bad stuff, like he has rage issues, calls me a b*tch on a regular basis, and has hit me multiple times, but you have to start somewhere.) I said them all to her very matter-of-factly and tried to remain calm. And you know what? She not only was supportive, SHE identified it as emotional abuse and asked if I had thought about a divorce. So I guess my point is all you really have to do is start telling the truth and any reasonable person will be responding about how unreasonable the behavior is. So you don’t need to convince her that it is untenable or “abuse”, you just need need to tell her what is actually happening. Like “well you know yesterday I wanted to take the car to the grocery store, but he said no.” And just let it sit and see what she says. (Mostly likely, some version of “WTF?”) And if she doesn’t respond that way then she is not Team You anyways and you shouldn’t waste your time trying to convince her. But based on your letter I’m optimistic that she will be in your corner.
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