Sometimes the things that make us strong and define our value systems in our youth can also cement a foundation that acts as a springboard for unhealthy life choices. While it may not be clear why this is the case, in my experience the retrospective 20-20 view of hindsight evaluation allows me to identify the means by which I justified, forgave, and enabled abuse in my life at the hands of men I was with for many years. The culture of my early childhood and young adulthood gave me many things, but it also contributed in a significant way to my acceptance of verbal and emotional abuse at the hands of my husband.
I grew up in a conservative Christian community and a very religious home. The church taught many good things and we learned from wonderful role models, but it also gave strict standards on extrabiblical issues. For instance, we were taught from a young age that dating was sinful; that holding hands, kissing, intimacy of any kind should be reserved for your wedding day alone, and that our “role” as a wife was to submit to, defer to, and respect our husbands. Making a home and having children was idolized: the majority of young women in the church, when questioned, would say their greatest goal and good in life was to be a wife and mother.
While I remain grateful for many of the positive influences, role models, and standards set forth by the church culture I grew up in, I see a lucid and painful correlation between many of these standards and the choices I made in my three years of marriage (and in previous relationships) which I regret deeply. The impact on both my subconscious and conscious perspective of self, abilities, self-confidence, etc. is barely reparable and has left heavily obvious damages.
The most painful thing about emotional and verbal abuse is its subversiveness. It masks itself in concern, passive aggressive manipulation, derogatory comments, harsh words which are often quickly “repented” of, and intimidation tactics. Unlike physical abuse, which is clear and unmistakable, the very manipulation often confuses the victim and makes it impossible to ascertain what is going on in the moment.
The first time I should have noticed that something was “off” was when my husband was angry at someone else, and at himself, and took it out on me when we were dating. My first instinct was a rabbit-like fear, a desire for self-preservation; I wanted to run, but I talked him down. I thought it was love to stay. He admitted that anger came readily to him. Months later we were engaged.
The “fights” began weeks into our relationship but escalated in intensity after we were married. They were every few weeks at first, and then progressively closer together. They consisted of him yelling or clenching his fists as he spat out harsh words which were untrue and broke me every time, and my sobbing in corners of our home. A few times I snuck out and slept on the pool deck at our apartments out of fear and a simple desire to distance myself. I still saw this as normal; every morning I would be back inside making him breakfast and kissing him goodbye. Every morning he said “I’m sorry” or wrote me a note, but his words stuck with me all day, every day.
I began to doubt myself more and more. My friends noticed I would apologize constantly. As the incidents became closer together, I distanced myself from others. He asked me not to discuss it with my parents, and I agreed. I was “respecting him”, “submitting” to him, and I was forgiving him as I was supposed to do. This was love, right? Self-sacrifice, laying down my life for him. This was love, to give so much and never ask anything back. Wasn’t it?
Three months after we were married the fights were so bad I was having physical symptoms of illness. Only a few weeks later, we found out I was pregnant. Now we had to make it work, we made an effort to avoid fighting, but we didn’t resolve a thing. We didn’t address any prior issues and we regularly swept our problems under the rug. Two months later he left for school in the desert and I moved to my parents for the pregnancy. We were unable to talk 90% of the time and he returned the day before our son was born. Shortly after, he deployed.
During the deployment we talked less and less. I didn’t mention the hurt. Love meant not making demands, didn’t it? At homecoming, after a brief kiss he pushed me away. I was stunned, and whispered the question “why” into his ear. He informed me that my making out with him was embarrassing him in front of his men. The first of many small heartbreaks post deployment.
In the weeks that followed he was distant and easily irritated; I chalked it up to the transition. But then the comments and the physical distance and the expressions of anger escalated rapidly and began to destroy me as they never had before. In the span of weeks words were said that I will never forget. I’m in counseling to remove those scars. They are lies, but when you love someone, and are used to accepting abuse out of a heart to “love”, you wind up slowly believing them over time.
Clenched fists turned to hitting walls, couches, slamming his hands down on the counter, storming out of the house regularly… even at the end banging his head against the door frame because he believed I had done something to hurt his career. Coldly impassive stares turned to angry glares and clenched teeth. Harsh words turned to verbal assaults. Distant expressions of anger were closer and closer to my physical person, and compassion for my tears and panic was nowhere to be found. I lost seven pounds that last week, and would shake and throw up when I heard his motorcycle coming home. Our son was not sleeping, and neither was I. But between the episodes, which were often hourly or more frequent, he acted as if everything was fine.
Many of those moments are vividly burned into my memory and have imprinted on my subconscious so that I still flinch when a hand is raised, am destroyed by the slightest criticism, do not see a beautiful, strong, successful woman in the mirror. I second guess my choices, have a hard time believing I have a right to happiness or good things, and assume the worst of the men in my life, many of whom are good men with good intentions. I push myself away from people when I feel vulnerable, and I refuse to acknowledge when I am hurt because it makes me feel weak, and feeling weak makes me feel vulnerable… and being vulnerable means being scared.
These days I fight my subconscious insecurities on a moment by moment basis. I placed third in my very first fitness competition weeks after I left, and second a week later, qualifying me for national level competitions. I still don’t believe it happened, that I deserve it, or that I can do even better. I only knew I tried my hardest. It will take a long time before these wounds heal, and in the meantime I am only grateful that I had the courage to leave, and that my son is too young to know a mother who is broken, insecure, confused, and lives in fear of failure and hurt.
I often wonder how I would have handled this situation had I not been convinced that I was “called” to “submit”, and “forgive” and “love”; had my view of love had some small element of self-preservation. Had I realized that a doormat-oppressor relationship was not give and take, had I demanded respect for myself. Perhaps if I had forgiven a little less, and loved myself a little more, things would have been different. Perhaps if I had known my own worth, I could have realized sooner that his inability to see it did not make me any less valuable.