Upside-Down & Inside-Out: A Blog About Abusive Relationships

Living with an abusive person means learning to live in a topsy-turvy world where normal rules do not apply. It is like the movie the Poseidon Adventure where the ship gets turned upside down and the floor is the ceiling and the ceiling the floor. Yet, somehow I did break out of the invisible cage my first wife had built around me even though it was the hardest thing I've ever done. So this blog is about how we learn to live with abuse and then unlearn; it's based on my personal experience.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Staying In An Abusive Relationship: Why Did I Stay?

This Is Part Of The Website

After reading this blog and my related site, you might ask, why did this guy stay with his first wife for so long? Why didn't he just leave?

When battered women finally go to a shelter or seek help from police, people ask them the same question and it is hard to answer.

So here is an attempt to explain my behavior both as an aid to others and as a help to myself to understand why I could not break away from a person who was so destructive.

To begin with I loved her passionately. I had never felt that intensity before. At one point we were inseparable both physically and mentally. During our first year together I was as happy as a person can ever be. Plus when I met her she was in dire need of someone to help her. She was severely depressed and could barely function. I saw myself as her white knight who could rescue her, which I did. Just a year after being with me she was smiling, happy and sure of herself.

Yet she let me know from the beginning that she was moody, fragile and in need of help. Part of our unspoken agreement was that I would always be there to help her, that I would not criticize her moods, and that I would respect her fragility and not demand too much of her. But this was a bad deal and held the seeds of her later abusive behavior.

Abuse happens slowly, slower than paint drying. It is a glance here and wink there or an impatient remark. In the beginning these little things seemed like nothing, but they began to build and after seven years, I found myself married to a woman who corrected my way of speaking (I was an English major), who became angry and resentful when I was successful, who discouraged my efforts to get a Master's Degree even though I was the bread winner and who often made fun of me at social gatherings.

While I had helped this painfully shy person break out of her shell, the woman who emerged was not grateful or loving or supportive or sympathetic instead she was the wife from hell.

When I confronted her, she often reverted back to being the weak, frail helpless girl I first met and became angry that I would even question her. Also since I knew she was moody, she insisted that I accept her abusive behavior (she, of course, did not call it that) as part of her moodiness and as something that I agreed to accept from the beginning.

Finally when I was fed up and did think about really leaving, she knew how (like all abusive people) to thwart my efforts. She told me that my perceptions of her were incorrect, and that she really was a loving and caring wife. And to seal the deal, she often became affectionate and we would make love like we had in the beginning. But these moments of peace and communication were rare. Her best skill was to convince me that these moments were the fundamental truth of our relationship, and to forget about the disagreements and arguments we had the rest of the time. In other words, the 10% of the time we got along was worth much more than the 90% of the time we did not get along.

Part of our unspoken agreement was that I would be loyal no matter what, and that if I did not I was betraying her. Since she counted on my loyalty and still presented herself as basically weak and fragile underneath, I felt that I had to stay because I had made this promise to her.

As our marriage progressed I found that my body was sending me all kinds of signals. My stomach was constantly upset. I found that I could not sleep but would wake up agitated early in the morning with anxiety attacks. At one point I fainted for the only time in my life. I had dreams that I was drowning in the middle of a river while she stood on the banks and could not/would not help me.

And while all this seems clear now, none of it was clear at the time. All the issues I have described seemed like separate unrelated things.

I realized later that I was stuck in a permanent 'fight or flight' mode which is very stressful, perhaps one of the most stressful states a person can be in. I was constantly wanting to flee but could not because she needed me. So I was stuck dealing with her abuse and wanting to confront her but I could not say critical things because she was 'too fragile'. As a result I withdrew, became quiet and hardly expressed myself because I did not want to set her off. But then she became angry that I was not more demonstrative. I was damned no matter what I did. This made me feel helpless and helpless people are not good at freeing themselves from capture.

So how did I leave her? At the time I never saw her for what she was; I never understood the nature and depth of her cruelty. But at the end she did a number of things that were simply unacceptable no matter what the reason: she almost burned down our house by putting up Chinese lanterns with lit candles that caught fire (and then refused to take responsibility); we had a clear agreement during our last six months (when we were separated) about what we would and would not do, and she broke everything we had agreed to more than once.

In a sense I had finally revealed who she was; by getting her to agree to clear conditions, I could see that she clearly broke them.

Leaving her was still the hardest thing I have ever done, but at that point my own survival was more important. It was only twenty-five years later that I realized there was so much more going on, that she was cunning and ruthless and did not care how much damage she did to me.


Blogger Professor Zero said...

Sounds familiar in many ways - and I'm glad to see this:

"I found that my body was sending me all kinds of signals. My stomach was constantly upset. I found that I could not sleep but would wake up agitated early in the morning with anxiety attacks."

I had this exactly and did not understand it. Well, actually, I did understand it at the beginning and I realized what kind of warning signal it was, but I felt guilty about leaving and thought I might, in fact, be interpreting certain behavior incorrectly. After going to that level of denial, I stopped understanding the anxiety symptoms.
Which went away when I left, of course.

7:57 AM  

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