The kind of abuse I experienced was so hard to explain. I had done or said something that set him off. My intentions never mattered. He had already assigned enormous meaning to whatever it was and my attempt to clarify, explain, empathize, or talk through, had no bearing on what happened next. In his mind, I blew it. Therefore, I caused him to attack me or ice me out, and I was now to be punished for an undetermined amount of time, or until he decided I had “learned my lesson”. Sometimes I could feel his whole demeanor shift out of the blue – a dark coldness would grow until it seemed to consume him. Those were the days I really had to walk on eggshells because one misstep on my part could catapult him into an angry flurry of condemnation toward me. Panic would set in. Had I vacuumed today? Was everything in its “proper” place? Did I shower too long? Were there dishes still in the sink? Did I leave him enough room in the driveway to fit his car? Were the children playing too loud? If I go to the store, will he accuse me of abandoning him? It was almost as if I had to hold my breath while in his presence because he would interpret even a glance from me in his direction as disrespect or hatred toward him. Yet I knew, deep down, that no matter how hard I tried, the storm would hit. Because in his world, everything was always my fault.
As a Christian woman, my heart was always for my marriage. My prayers were not just for my husband to be more kind and loving. I prayed the same for myself, begging God to make me into exactly what my husband needed. I sought out support from my church and through counseling. Over the course of our marriage, we saw 5 different marriage therapists for extended periods of time, met with 3 different marriage mentor couples and 2 different pastors, all for the purpose of helping us in our marriage. When he refused to go anymore because he did not like what the therapist was saying to him, I kept going. The advice I often got, while well intentioned, usually had nothing to do with my husband and everything to do with me. Actually, the advice was usually for me to model the words, actions and heart I wanted from him. They never felt he was “ready” to be confronted. Essentially, I was encouraged to be his “teacher” and while waiting for him to change, I was told to just be patient and keep praying. Yet the abuse continued. The crazy-making, gaslighting, character assassinating, name-calling, and regular berating continued. Over 7 years I waited.
It was confusing because he presented like such a good guy to people. His generosity and over-the-top kindness to the outside world laid the foundation for his “good guy” persona. But at home, he was someone entirely different. I lived in a war zone of landmines I would inadvertently trip with just a word or a look. In his mind, I was always failing. For example, I made a home-cooked meal from scratch almost every night. He would “offer” to do the dishes. However, this was not a genuine offer because if I took him up on it, I was sure to be punished later. I can recall several times he insisted on doing them, only to later attack me for being so selfish as to make him do the dishes after he worked so hard that day. The name-calling would follow, calling me selfish, unloving, and ungrateful. It was the same story if he took out the trash, came home to any sort of mess in the house, if I was on the phone when he returned from work, if I sat down to watch tv, if I spent too long in the boys’ room putting them to bed, if I spent any time at all with friends, or if I did something for myself. I never knew what would set him off and I never knew how long it would last. I did, however, know it would always involve him attacking my character and calling me names.
I can recall one incident where we had gone to lunch with a couple he knew through business. During our 3 hours together, I left the table for 5 minutes to use the restroom once, and again for 10 minutes to say hello to a friend. Both times, I returned to our table with smiles from my husband and immediately reengaged in conversation with his friends. As we walked out with the other couple to leave, he held my hand. I was feeling so grateful for a good afternoon together without any blow-ups. He was happy with me… at least until we were alone in the car, where he proceeded to berate me for “abandoning” him for “over an hour”. Then came the character attacks, telling me how selfish and unloving I was, how I humiliated him, how his friends looked at him with such “sadness” that he had me for a wife, how awful I was, and on and on and on. These insults cut me to my core and hurt more than any physical punch ever could. Of course I defended myself, thus engaging with his lies, trying to convince him he was wrong about me. What a waste of my breath because defending myself only gave him more ammunition to launch at me about what an “ungodly wife” I was, “listen to how you’re speaking”, “you have no business being on the prayer team,” “God is not even in you”, “I feel so sorry for your children,” “they will grow up to hate you.” Having those curses and character assassinations screamed over you daily, it changes you. It robs you of your true identity and you cannot help but start to believe them.
This is the crazy-making.
The only way I could bring “peace” back to our relationship after an episode like this was to grovel, beg for his forgiveness, promise to do better, and come into agreement with his abusive words. So that is what I would do. It’s what I HAD to do in order to stay and survive. But every time I did that, I sacrificed a piece of my heart and soul until eventually, I was a walking shell of who I once was.
I was desperate to have a healthy marriage. I was willing to own every part of me that was broken in order to stay married. The problem was, I also owned all of his brokenness. Unfortunately, some Christian leaders or therapists we sought out for help enabled me to continue that. I was told to “love him through it”, “model it for him”, “be the example”, “keep praying”, and “just be patient”. Most therapists were too afraid to call out any of his narcissism or covert abuse in front of him because they said he just was not capable of hearing it; that he would just end therapy. So in private with me, they would acknowledge this was his diagnosis. However, that did me no good because they continued to meet with us as a couple and kept treating us for a “broken marriage” when the root issue was his narcissistic covert abuse.
He was so good at keeping me off balance with the cycle of abuse. He would never apologize, but when I did and we came back to together, meaning he started talking to me again and treating me like I existed, I would be lulled back in. Desperate for connection and intimacy with him, I would think each time might be the one where I could open up and be vulnerable. But he would always eventually use any information I shared in vulnerability with him against me, wielding my fears and insecurities like a sword. If I were struggling with how to connect with my son and how to discipline him, he would initially listen, leading me to believe we were partnering to find a solution together. That is, until it served him to use against me with… “You’re a terrible mother, he doesn’t feel safe with you, he’s afraid of you, your children will grow up to hate you, they only tell you they love you because they fear you, you are evil!” When I shared my childhood traumas with him, mistakes I had made in my life, regrets I had, they would always be thrown back in my face whenever it served his ego. He used it as evidence against me in order to condemn me. It was his way of keeping me in a state of shame for my past. I was easier to control and manipulate then.
Until I heard the word ENOUGH! It was in my head, out of my body, perhaps a voice from heaven. But it was loud and clear and it spoke to the core of my being. ENOUGH!
I had lost my father over the period of a summer, riddled with hospitals, convalescent homes, and eventually hospice. My mother was shut down and the decisions for his care were solely on me. I was emotionally and physically exhausted. I recall the day I had toured 4 hospice homes and the brokenness I felt knowing I was about to place my dad in one of these homes for him to die in. I returned to my home that night, my husband playing his guitar. He had been home all day and knew what I was doing. He never offered to go with me. He never even asked me how I was when I returned. When we laid down to go to bed, he finally said something to me. He said, “So, should I just start masturbating since we don’t have sex anymore?” My father died 12 days later. Not only did my husband never once ask if I was ok or how I was doing after my father’s death, but he got angry and attacked me for being “self-absorbed and selfish”. As a punishment, he did not even stay with me at my father’s memorial because he had a hair cut that day and in his words, “someone needs to work and look good in this family.”
In the rawness of my grief, I finally saw that his brokenness had nothing to do with me. I could not pray him in to a different being. He would never stop berating me. And my love for him would never be enough. His sick value came from making me feel like nothing, from breaking my spirit. I had waited longer and worked harder than I ever should have. Something in me snapped. My eyes were opened for just long enough to see that he was the selfish one and these were his issues. I could not keep living this way. I wanted to die. I had sacrificed every part of my self worth.
I finally left because staying would have killed me. It was enough… enough of the verbal and emotional abuse. It was ABUSE. Whether anyone saw it or not, no matter what he told people, the smear campaigns he would launch through emails about how evil I was, how I did not belong on any ministry teams at church because I was so cruel and unloving to him… ENOUGH! I had finally started letting friends into my truth, pulling the curtain down, and sharing the ugliness with them. I was breaking free from his isolation. That was how he kept me under his control, telling me I was not allowed to share our “issues” because that would make me an unloving and non-submissive wife. Those I shared with spoke truth in love to me and called it what it was – ABUSE. Pastors, therapists, mentors, all well-intentioned professionals, struggled with calling it actual abuse. Because he didn’t hit me? Because I would engage in the fighting, trying to protect my heart? Because they did not want to condone divorce? True, there were no stitches or black eyes to give way to my broken spirit. No, the bruising and pain I endured went much deeper than surface wounds. It cut me at my core. It left me exhausted and paranoid, questioning my value and worth constantly, battling voices in my head that tore me down, lies he spoke over me for years, which became my sick truth. Oh, this kind of abuse is the most insidious because it eats away at you from the inside out and only those you are vulnerable with can see how deeply damaged you are. It is covert abuse at its finest. And its perpetrator maintains a calm, smiling image, playing the victim card, gaslighting you, often a do-gooder to the outside world. My husband has proceeded to join multiple non-profit organizations where he gets accolades galore from acquaintances on social media, feeding right in to his narcissism. Ironically, or more expectedly, he is now accusing me in court of perpetrating the very abuse he lobbed at me our whole marriage.
I left my 4 bedroom home 2 ½ years ago with no job or income, moving my children and I into a single room in someone else’s house. Leaving him did not stop him from being an abusive narcissist. But it stopped me from being on the receiving end of his abuse. It gave us the space we needed to start processing and to gain perspective. It allowed actual healing to begin and growth to happen. I had to rewrite 8 years of verbal assaults spoken over me. I had to practice healthy communication and conflict resolution. I had to heal. None of that could have happened while living with him. I had lived in a constant state of survival, never knowing what would set him off and how I would be assaulted. My children had learned to live in it too, having to run to their rooms to hide or jump into the car to flee at a moment’s notice. Two weeks after we had left, as we sat in the little room we were renting, my then 8-year old son said to me, “I like it here. My stomach doesn’t hurt here.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, confused.
“My stomach hurt all the time at our other house, but it doesn’t hurt here. I like it.”
Those words ripped the air from my lungs. I had tried so hard to protect my kids from the abuse, to have plans in place when he would start in on me about something because when he started, he would not stop. Perhaps because the insults were not being hurled at them, I didn’t see my kids as victims. Perhaps because I had devised escape plans, which we learned to execute quickly and I had tried to make it more “fun” than flight, I thought they were fine. In this moment, my 8-year old destroyed the façade I had been operating in and showed me the ugly truth. I needed to hear that.
Not long after I left, I decided to reach out to his ex-wife. He had painted her out to be everything he had accused me of being and I realized, perhaps her experience with him was similar to mine. I was still searching for validation that it wasn’t my fault, that I hadn’t somehow caused him to treat me this way. My conversations with her brought validation to both of us. When we talked, I learned that he had done the exact same things to her. He tore her apart and condemned her with the very same words he used to condemn me… to a tee. It was no more her fault than it had been mine. I was not crazy. I did my fair share of unhealthy things, but the abuse was not my fault.
It was never, ever my fault.