Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Emotional Abuse in Marriage

I entered marriage believing that it was my job to be selfless and to put my spouse’s needs and desires ahead of my own. I’d heard plenty of talks describing that very recipe for a successful marriage. It took me over a decade of misery to realize that the “successful marriage” recipe works only when both partners follow it.
I had an emotionally abusive relationship.
In the early months of our marriage, my husband gradually showed a different side of himself—one with new problems that hadn’t shown up during our courtship. I had a long list of red flags, but I never saw any—and l looked for them. The changes were subtle at first, but my marriage turned into a classic bait-and-switch.
Soon I no longer recognized the man I married as the one I fell in love with. I naively believed that the problems were because I wasn’t a good enough wife. I must be doing this marriage thing wrong. If I could just be more loving, more supportive, if I could fulfill his every whim, I could solve his—and our—problems.
Surely then he’d be happy. Surely then he’d overcome these new beasts haunting our marriage. If only I could find the magic combination of words and actions, I would be enough to fill up the holes in his spirit.
This belief turned into a vicious cycle: He expected me to fix him. I expected it of myself. I ran on a hamster wheel, frantically seeking a solution, getting nowhere.
It took well over a decade to realize that happiness is a gift impossible to bestow, and that nothing I could do or say (or not do, not say) would ever fill the gaping voids inside him.
We’ve been married nearly two decades now. He still believes that if I were “nicer,” as he puts it, he’d be happier, and all our problems would be solved. One of several snags: his definition of “nice” changes daily, and if I fail to meet today’s expectations—whatever they may be—I face mean and ugly repercussions.
For years I spent my days slaving to soothe him, walking on proverbial egg shells to avoid his anger and punishments. His behavior only grew worse. Although I worked harder—at times hanging on by fingernails—everything was still my fault.
He has an addictive personality, something I didn’t grasp and understand for years, largely because his addictions aren’t in the classic forms. They aren’t drugs or porn, but they’re just as destructive as any other addiction. I’d become his enabler, and he demanded I keep that role.
After about fifteen years, I finally recognized his manipulative and controlling behaviors for what they were: classic emotional abuse. It took me another year or two to get up the courage to approach Church leaders and my husband about it.
When faced with the term “emotional abuse,” he balked.
Wait a minute, he said. He never yelled at me or called me names. True on both counts. He never raised a hand against me.  
But most of all, he said, he never intended to abuse me.
Which I knew. Which is why I didn’t recognize the behavior for what it was for so long.
If intention were the only requirement for abuse, many abusers would be innocent. Any kind of abuse—physical or emotional or any other kind—is rationalized in the mind of the abuser. Of course they don’t see their behavior as abusive.  
At times, they may see their words and actions as loving: his wife has the power to create his personal happiness! She can make up for any insecurities and voids in himself. She’s that powerful. And it’s her job.
All lies.
The truth: constant criticism, trivialization of my problems, guilt trips, silent treatments, control, manipulation, patronizing, belittling, physical and emotional withdrawal, and so much more were abusive. Classic emotional abuse.
To his credit, while he maintained that he wasn’t abusive, eventually he agreed that maybe he should change some behaviors. Within a few months, he complained he’d “tried hard” to change, but it didn’t “work.” The barometer he used to base his success? My behavior wasn’t “nice” enough in return.
I wanted to weep.
We were back at square one. He wasn’t doing anything for the sake of becoming a better person, for making up for almost two decades of emotional abuse. He wasn’t repenting. He wasn’t trying to be better because that is what Christ would want of him as a man, husband, disciple, and priesthood holder.
No, he changed a few specific behaviors for a short period in hopes of getting a specific reaction from me. As I could never predict what that expected behavior should be, of course I failed in being “nice” enough. Therefore, he was justified in being depressed, withdrawn, critical. Abusive.
It’s been nearly two years since I first used the “A” word with him, and just as long to come to grips with part of my role in all this. An emotionally abusive relationship becomes a complex web that’s hard to unravel. I’ve had to step back and think, hard. In spite of his logical arguments that made me believe that, “Whoa, I am evil! He’s right! Why would I do such-and-such?” that no, he is wrong. He is manipulating me.
I’ve done nothing wrong.
Most importantly: No matter what he believes, I cannot fill the holes in his spirit. No matter how hard I try to give, give, give, his spirit is like a sieve—any offering drips right out, and he remains as empty as before. My efforts are like a fix for a drug addict. He feels better for a few moments, but when the pseudo-happiness passes, he blames me for the feeling going away.
If only I were a better, nicer, kinder wife, then he’d be happy.
I’m in a new stage now, one he finds disturbingly painful: I will not allow myself to be abused any longer. After being mentally manipulated for so long, figuring out what is normal, where boundaries should be, is surprisingly harder than it sounds. I have to analyze every situation, figure out when the moment requires calling him out on his behaviors or staying quiet—either could be engaging in unhealthy behavior, depending on the situation.
I must learn to not take his behavior personally, because it’s not about me, even though he thinks it is and will try to make me believe it is. As it turns out, I’m not unworthy. I’m not a bad person.  His unhappiness and addictions are not my fault. And I cannot fix him.
Best of all, I’m not crazy for thinking that something was wrong all this time.
I’ve given everything, but it’s never been enough for him. My best is, however, good enough for the Lord, and He is the only one I need to satisfy.
I must constantly remind myself that being a good wife does not mean being a victim. It does not mean carrying his burdens to the point that I’m suffocating. It does not mean taking on guilt when I am innocent of wrongdoing. I still struggle with self-worth and doubt. I’ve been beaten down mentally and emotionally for so long, I hardly know what a normal reaction should be anymore.
The irony is that almost no one has the slightest inkling that anything could be wrong. People often assume my husband is the Mormon ideal and tell me how lucky I am. So I live in silent pain.
If nothing else, this trial has taught me to never judge another person’s life. I cannot know what they’re going through, just as they have no idea what I’m dealing with.

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