In today’s blog, we share part one of a two-part true story written by a brave survivor of domestic violence who we will call “Brooke.” Brooke fell deeply in love with a man too broken to return her love. In her story, she shares the crazy-making covert tactics her partner used to maintain power and control over her. For years, she worked her hardest to make it better, she prayed hard and hoped eventually her marriage would reflect the dream she had of it. This week, Brooke shares about her relationship and the original abuse (mostly in the form of covert emotional abuse) that she endured for years. Next week, she shares what happened when she reached out for help, the Double Abuse® she experienced how The M3ND Project helped her to achieve the clarity she needed to begin her journey towards healing and freedom.
I was never heard …
It was less than 5 months from our first date to our wedding. Back then I believed that the accelerated timeline demonstrated God’s will that I marry him. We were older and both had previous relationships, he was so attentive and charming, so the short engagement seemed appropriate.
In retrospect, I saw some red flags while we were dating, but I didn’t think any of them were “red enough” until our wedding rehearsal. On that night, my charming fiancé’s mask came off. Something happened during rehearsal making him so angry that he screamed at me nonstop during the ride from the church to the restaurant for our rehearsal dinner. When we arrived, he parked the car and walked into the restaurant by himself, abandoning me to fall apart and pull myself together all on my own. I thought it was an isolated incident so we wed twelve hours later.
I cried almost every day on our honeymoon, as he regularly left me to meet to hang out with other people on his own. When we returned from our honeymoon, he moved into the condo I owned and quickly took over the second bedroom making it his personal space. He didn’t want me in “his room” or touching “his stuff”; pictures of old girlfriends, letters, and other memorabilia. He would get angry when I asked why he kept those things, but his anger wasn’t limited to that; I couldn’t even make simple inquiries about when he would be home for dinner without him becoming very angry, defensive, and accusatory of me. He seemed to feel entitled to his independence and freedom, and he shut down anything I said or did that he thought inhibited him. For example, when he traveled a lot for business and I wanted to know if he’d be home that night, he refused to answer and told me to figure it out by seeing if his toiletry kit was in the bathroom or not. If it wasn’t there, I would know he wouldn’t be coming home that night, although I would have to guess how long he would be gone. He was a master at keeping me off balance with his irrational principles and double standards. I learned to silence myself and live in isolation in order to manage his outbursts. I believed that marriage was a serious commitment not to be broken so I needed to see it through.
He lied about everything – even things he didn’t “need” to lie about– he refused to tell the truth about the most minuscule things. It was such a departure from the character he showed while we were dating that I was stunned and devastated by his behavior and cruelty. I had trusted he was good for me, because a pastor at our church, who I respected, had introduced us believing we would make the perfect match. He portrayed himself so differently in public that I knew no one would believe me if I ever described how he was behaving behind our closed door. Within a few weeks of our wedding, he stopped going to church except very occasionally. He criticized how I prayed and dictated how our couple’s devotions would go, if at all. I was ashamed and so embarrassed by my “Christian husband” and my “Christian marriage” that I didn’t get help; I just prayed harder, needing to believe that God would fix this.
I did not know how to safely act within the marriage; if I expressed an opinion that differed from his, it would set him off in a rage. When I would try to explain my position, it made things worse. He would frame and then reframe our arguments making himself the authority on what actually happened or what was said, even when it wasn’t true. He was so adamant and convincing that I was left spinning, confused, or feeling completely wrong. There was little room for “me” and definitely no space for my anger, so I stuffed myself and my anger down deep. He was the only one entitled to be angry or have a bad day. He would turn all emotion off when I shared with him about a tough day I had at work or with the kids. At the time, I didn’t understand that his behavior was narcissistic and covert emotional abuse because I had never heard of those terms.
In addition to the confounding covert abuse I endured, he physically abused me on a few occasions, once in our first year of marriage when he pushed me into a wall, then he physically threatened me 3 years later and on with years in-between assaults. Since the physical attacks didn’t happen often I didn’t think I was in a domestically violent relationship. However, his non-verbal rage and anger were always simmering – if not on the surface, then just below the surface, like a dormant volcano ready to explode. I was always afraid he would blow up so I learned to walk on eggshells day-after-day. I wondered if this was what other marriages looked like behind closed doors. I doubted myself and whether or not I was loveable or maybe I didn’t know how to communicate correctly. The self-doubt was paralyzing.
I wracked my brain to understand what I had done in such a short time to cause such incredible rage in him. I had a professional career and was the initial breadwinner in our family, yet I could not figure out what had gone so wrong. I never saw him like this with other people, so I assumed I was the cause of his anger, and continually tried to shift my behaviors in the hopes I could manage his.
Eventually, I became desperate to get outside help and was willing to risk the embarrassment I felt. He refused to see a pastor or counselor because he said he wasn’t doing anything wrong. On our 10th wedding anniversary, I begged for marriage counseling “so the next 10 years wouldn’t be like the last 10.” He told me that I was the one who needed counseling and to shut up because he couldn’t stand to hear my voice. He didn’t like how things were between us either but he was incapable of taking any personal responsibility for the toxicity that existed or the changes that needed to be made. He played the victim claiming how much harder his life had been, how difficult his work was, and his playbook of excuses he used to justify his abusive behavior. He put the responsibility of our relationship problems on me, 100%.
What I hadn’t been taught or didn’t realize back then, was that God did not want me to remain in a violent marriage. I believed then that divorce was almost never allowed for a Christian couple. Leaving him wasn’t an option that was available to me, as a Christian. It took me years to realize this was not true; that God’s intention for me in marriage was that it would be safe and loving; one of mutual respect and care. I had never heard a pastor speak against abuse in a marriage or communicate that emotional or physical abuse was a proper reason to leave your spouse.
My husband used fear to hold me captive in the relationship. He would tell me he was about to get fired, or that we were going to go bankrupt any day causing me tremendous anxiety for our family. He’d say, “tomorrow will be a better day to commit suicide…” so that I would not leave. It worked. I was terrified most of the time; frozen by my fear. So, I stayed.
He was a master at lying and also a master of “magical” thinking. He magically thought that if he did nothing, things would get better on their own without any effort or change on his part. His magical thinking included what I call “geographical thinking”, meaning he would promise that things would be better in the next place we would move to. After multiple cross-country moves, I discovered that there is no such thing as a geographical promise in a destructive relationship. Anger and control were so embedded in him, he carried them every place he went. He told me that he loved me, but in reality, he defined “love” by the amount of “control” he had.
If I shared something confidential or personal about my life or my family, he would ultimately use it against me. He would go on to betray that confidence with others, exploiting my vulnerability. Although he liberally exposed the things I entrusted to him, he refused to be authentic or vulnerable with me about himself. He shared almost nothing about his past or his family with me.
The complicated nature of the type of abuse I experienced was because much of it was “covert.” He rarely called me names or engaged in overt, obvious behaviors that would help me see it as abuse. Instead, he withheld approval and appreciation constantly, and then I would wonder if I was just being too needy. An example of this is one time I asked him how I looked in a new pantsuit, and he told me he liked the pantsuit, specifically emphasizing the suit instead of me. I asked him, “But how do ‘I’ look?” – I really wanted him to see me and how I wanted to look good for him. He leaned in, stared right through me with an ice cold glare and repeated that he liked THE pantsuit. He consistently refused to see me, affirm me, or give his approval of me in any way. And it effectively broke me down.
I asked him to communicate more with me and to tell me why he was angry all the time, what he was thinking and feeling, but he had me believing those “expectations” of him were too high and unreasonable. He repeatedly told me that I made his life miserable, but never once gave me a reason how or why he felt that way. As a rational person, I kept trying to make sense of things and that is what kept me in his irrational spiral.
After our biggest cross country move for his job, I was having a hard time adjusting. One night, crumbled in tears, I told my husband that I was hurting and really needed him. He looked at me, said he had nothing to give and walked out of the room. He actually put into words what his behavior had been saying since our wedding rehearsal dinner- he had nothing to give and no intention to change that. Zero empathy. I started to see what I was living in at that time.
Much later I came to know and understand that my husband had many extramarital affairs with other women throughout our relationship starting shortly after we first wed. One of the few times that he confessed, he told me to “get over it” and that it was more devastating for him to admit the affairs than it was for me to endure them. He would become untethered when I found emails from other women or letters or texts. Somehow, he would turn it around onto me, accusing me of cheating and putting me on the defense. What I was doing all day? Who I was with? How could he trust me? It’s hard to explain, but caught in the whirlwind of these tactics, you get misdirected, confused, and all effort toward resolution and clarity is thwarted. He could make himself look like the victim even though he was the one who was caught cheating.
When I confronted him about letters I found from other women, he would have them call me to lie and tell me they were only fantasizing about being intimate with him and to deny any affair. My suspicions only heightened his efforts to hide his affairs so he never made the same mistake twice. He abused Christianity by saying that he could never be unfaithful to me and although he “made mistakes with women”, he would NEVER actually cheat on me. Quite honestly, I was afraid to not believe him because I desperately wanted this to be true. I was so broken down and in my desperation, I chose to believe him. I didn’t know how to set and enforce boundaries with such a force as his anger.
Early on, I reached out to my best friend about the pain I was living in. What I was not prepared for was how utterly harmful and destructive her responses were to me; she exacerbated the traumatic effects of the abuse I had already endured. Her “godly advice” consistently guided me into learned hopelessness and despair. This is when the trajectory of my marriage changed and I knew I would not survive if I didn’t get professional help. I had lost all faith in our own ability to make this work and even though I wanted to believe that our marriage could survive, I knew the only hope I had was in reaching out.
Please join us in congratulating Brooke through your comments for being brave and courageous enough to share her story. Our hope is that by hearing her story you begin to see and acknowledge the reality of covert emotional abuse. That through hearing you will gain your own clarity about your past or present situation or the situation of others in your life who may be battling this form of abuse. Being within an emotionally abusive relationship is very confusing and, oftentimes, the individuals within it are not even aware that they are dealing with abuse. Through education and sharing our stories, we hope to bring awareness to this critical issue.