Trigger Warning: descriptions of verbal, mental, and emotional abuse.
This is a guest post by Laura Brangan.
I recently listened to a story that discussed turning points in our lives. These moments that tear people’s lives in half, leaving them with separate lives before and after a distinct occurrence. I found the same to be true of my own story. My marriage exposed me to verbal, mental, and emotional abuse. This was an experience I never thought possible, one that forever changed me. I want to share this not as an accusation of my ex-husband, but in hopes that women who are in similar relationships can see there is hope.
There are many forms of abuse in relationships. I was well educated about physical abuse. I knew what it looked like and knew that I would never be the victim of abuse. However, my first marriage taught me that abuse is not always obvious to the victim, nor those closest to her/him. It begins with love, dreams and promises of a happy life together. Slowly this changed, and after giving in to a series of outbursts, I found myself in a position that I had never dreamed of.
I was raised in a Christian family and wrapped my life around my religious beliefs. I volunteered for my church, abstained from drinking and dreamed of marrying an equally devout man. At the age of 21, I married the man of my dreams. He shared my passion for working with youth and striving for a Godcentered life. Although our wedding day was perfect, our honeymoon revealed another side of my new groom. We chose an active honeymoon, thinking snowboarding would be a fun, shared pastime. I envisioned sleeping in, wandering onto the slopes by noon, enjoying romantic dinners and spending most of our time in bed. In contrast, we were on the slopes by 7 am and stayed until my tears convinced him to go back to the hotel. I cried every night. After returning, I did not know how to respond to my family’s excited inquires about our trip. I felt guilty, what kind of wife did not enjoy a week away with her new husband?
Our next two and a half years together consisted of grey areas for me. The first thing that I noticed was he did not care when I cried. Moreover, it angered him and often caused him to verbally lash out at me. He disapproved of me spending time away from him. Even a few hours at a friend or family’s house resulted in a guilt trip. Although he never told me that I could not go, he stressed that I was leaving my husband alone while I went out and had fun without him. I slowly grew afraid of him. Telling him something that he did not want to hear or even failing to help him locate his keys would end with him yelling and me sobbing on the floor. One of our worst moments occurred after I was admitted to the hospital for appendicitis, I was scolded for waking him to tell him I was being sent to a room and prepped for surgery the next morning. He further reminded that this inconvenienced him greatly for work the following day.
I began to lose myself. I developed gastrointestinal issues from stress, lost weight, became depressed. I cried myself to sleep more often than not. My family watched as I became a shell of the person I used to be. I began to lose interest in hobbies and withdraw from normal activities. My family never observed the cause though. In public, my husband was the ideal Godly husband. In private, his actions were completely different.
In public I only got a nasty look if I acted in a way he was unhappy with, it wasn’t until after we got home that I was scolded for embarrassing him. He was careful about not acting out in front of friends or family. My ideas were not validated, because he knew best for everything from restaurants, to vacations, to life plans. If I challenged him, he would ask, “don’t you trust me?” He also had high standards for my appearance, on several occasions before leaving the apartment for a night out he asked me to apply more makeup. On one occasion, we fought over changing my hairstyle, he didn’t want me to cut it short and in the end I conceded.
Our fights always ended in the the same manner; with him standing over me and yelling, going through all the ways I have failed him. I would be curled into a ball on the floor sobbing, asking him to stop, and saying anything he wanted to end the guilt and yelling. All the while his anger only growing as my tears continued to flow, sometimes progressing to him throwing an object across the room. I tried talking to him about how I was afraid to bring up certain subjects because of his explosive anger, the hurt I felt by his increased anger when I cried. Once I even said there is no reason for me to be crying on the floor and him standing over me. This, of course, ended exactly as I feared. I asked for counseling several times, he was offended I thought we needed it, and refused. But I started going on my own because of my “uncontrollable crying.”
Counseling was the single best thing I did for myself. When I began my sessions I wasn’t talking about my marriage. I was talking about other things, not even realizing my marriage was the largest piece to the puzzle. I learned tools to take care of myself, to stop panic attacks, and I found my selfworth again.
I started having dreams of leaving him, I would have a moment of absolute peace, security, relief before I woke. When I realized where I was, that I was still lying next to him, I started to cry as all the fear and anxiety rushed back. Then I cried harder for the confusion of what all this meant. What kind of wife is relieved to leave her husband? My dreams started to change, I would watch my husband standing over me, yelling at me, telling me I was being a bad wife, me in hysterics on the floor, and I’d look over to the doorway and see my (future) daughter watching this unfold. I realized she would see me as this weak, shell of a woman, and she would learn that this is how daddy loves mommy, this is what love looks like.
I was horrified by my recurrent dreams, but was not able to put it all together. I was in school at the time and one of my professors lectured on the cycle of abuse, the fear that builds for the victim, the characteristics of the abuser. In short, she discussed my marriage. I was sick. I barely made it through the class. This was my lightbulb moment. I was the victim. I used this new information to watch my marriage through a new lens. I continued to try to talk to my husband, continued to ask for couples counseling. I watched the cycle of abuse unfold before my eyes sometimes faster than others as we would go through happy periods, watch the tension and anxiety build, until it finally peaked and everything exploded. At the end, he would apologize, but point out my shortcomings that would help prevent this in the future. I started to share some concerns and examples with close confidants in and out of the church, some confirmed that it was, in fact, abuse, others declared it could not possibly be the case.
The most harmful part for me was his yelling at me, talking down to me until I cried in the fetal position on the floor, only to be stopped when he got an apology he felt was heartfelt and meaningful. This was degrading, hurtful, disrespectful. It’s still the part of my story that brings me the most shame and anger. Shame that I allowed myself to be in that position in the first place. Anger that he never thought there was anything wrong with it. One day I decided I wouldn’t let him do it to me anymore. He had his last outburst, and I was done. I decided to go away for the weekend, work up the courage and the words for how I would confront him, and then tell him he had to get out of the apartment until his anger was under control. The night before I came home he called me and unloaded again, putting me right back where I promised myself I would never end up again: the floor. I was broken.
The day I left him was exactly one week before Christmas. I woke up and immediately started throwing up. I had slept for about three hours each of the two previous nights. My emotions were so powerful as I was driven to our meeting place that I blacked out several times from the stress and fear of what was to come. I held myself together as I gave him examples of his behavior in front of our friends (who agreed to be present to allow for a safe space) and stated each example as mental abuse, verbal abuse, or manipulation. I told him he had a small window of opportunity to show me he can change. I didn’t allow myself to cry in front of him that day. I showed my strength. This conversation was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, it is the single worst moment of my life. It is also my proudest moment.
The next few months consisted of separate counseling, of which he was now a strong advocate. There were phone calls where he would apologize, then say to me, “but do you understand what you did to me? How can I ever trust you again after this?” And promises that, “no one will ever love you like I do.” Our interactions were emotional for us both. He was angry, upset, embarrassed, but continued with his behaviors. What is important to note here is we have two completely different versions of this story. In each of our stories, the author is the victim.
The day I told him I was filing for divorce, he told me he never wanted to see me again. I haven’t spoken to him since. He signed the papers in a timely manner, although he threatened to drag it out, the paperwork took about three months to process. And the day it was finalized marked the end of our three and a half year marriage.
Leaving him was not easy, I wish I could tell you it was. Friends chose sides. I had a strong support system. I also had friends who told me “Godly women stay, we fight the good fight.” I was told I was making a mistake, I was moving too fast, women live in worse situations. The Bible was quoted from multiple sources reminding me God hates divorce, we are called to turn the other cheek, and my personal favorite God will fix my marriage if I pray hard enough. Some people could not imagine my husband doing and saying these things behind closed doors and thought I was, at best, mentally unstable, and at worst, an outright liar. My family stood by me, never doubted me because they could see the effects my marriage had on me, even though they had never witnessed the direct cause.
I haven’t attended church since my divorce, for many reasons, only one of which is my marriage. My spiritual journey has taken a much different course. But I grew up in the church, and for a moment, would like to speak to religious women. God may hate divorce, but he also hates abusive husbands. You are not the one breaking your vows, your partner broke it with the violation of the “promise to love, honor, and cherish…” And one of the hardest life lessons I learned is sometimes, despite your fervent prayers, the answer is “no.” What I mean, is sometimes God chooses to leave a situation as is. The cancer spreads, the job is lost, the abuser remains abusive. God gave you survival instincts, a gut instinct. If you are not safe, if your children are not safe, if your marriage is abusive, God understands. You can’t always sit and wait for a change, sometimes you have to take the first step and trust that God will provide the landing.
My new life began with me taking back control of my own life. That summer I learned to dance, cut off all my hair, bought a Jeep and drove it with the top down and the doors off to the beach and to visit friends and family. I got a tattoo, started checking things off my “bucket list”, I fed my inner child by going to the zoo and drawing chalk masterpieces on my parent’s sidewalk. I learned to laugh again. I decided that I would learn to trust men again, and when I started dating later that year I did it with a new perspective.
I don’t recognize the victim I saw in the mirror all those years ago. When I look in the mirror now I see a strong woman who took control of her life and changed her story. I see a woman who will be an awesome role model to my future children, who will teach them how to love and be loved in a healthy way so they can grow strong in their relationships.
I have decided to keep my ex-husband’s promise for myself that no one will ever love me the way he did. I don’t wish that kind of love on anyone, and I will not accept it for myself. I found a man who loves me in a healthy way, supports me in all things I aspire to be and do, and is the most gentle and kind man I have ever met. I’m not without scars. I have moments where I, for just a moment am in a situation that reminds me of a past one. I shake and cry hysterically in anticipation of an outcome that I have lived out so many times before. But the outcomes are different now. My partner gives me no reason to cry or cower, and has helped me learn to stand up for myself again. There have been several occasions he has held me, and reminded me softly that he is not that man, I am no longer that woman, and this is a different life.
That is what I want people to hear in my story, the hope. We have the power to change our fate. Fairytales don’t exist. But kind, loving, strong people who know how to love you are out there. Go find one. Do not waste one more tear on someone who hurts you. Don’t be afraid to be alone. Start taking care of yourself. Become a person you are proud to be. Fight for what you want. It’s never too late to take control of your life.
Note: Patricia Evans’ The Verbally Abusive Relationship was helpful to the author in processing what she was going through, and is recommended as a resource for readers. .