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.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Dysfunctional Communication

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If my first wife and I could have communicated simply and directly, our marriage might have survived. But that is a bit like saying, if the patient had not gotten cancer, she might have lived.

If a couple cannot communicate, the couple cannot continue. It's that simple. Over time my first wife poisoned our ability to communicate and this poison spread through our relationship and eventually killed it.

When I met my first wife, she was very depressed, withdrawn, and at times could barely speak. I learned to listen to her and to not criticize so that she would open up. After we were married, we had to negotiate about a number of things but other than simple things, she was quite difficult. It was then that I hit a brick wall and was at a complete loss about what to do.

Initially she had three ways of responding to something she did not like: she cried (often for hours), she withdrew and pouted or she became angry. Having a reasonable discussion where we hashed things out and came to an agreement was not an option. While I was too young to understand at the time, her inability to cope meant big trouble down the road.

For example during the second year of our marriage, when I told her I needed some time to myself to do my art work, she cried for two hours. I was devastated. I was working a very difficult job, doing most of the work in our marriage (she was impractical and helpless), and desperately needed some quiet time. She stopped me in my tracks and I never got the alone time I needed.

In another example, her parents stopped paying for her college after we were married (although they had insisted we get married since we were obviously having sex -- it was the mid-1960s so people did not live together then), so I asked her to apply to the college for a scholarship which I knew she would qualify for. She became very angry and said absolutely not; she was certain the college would not give her the money and it was a waste of time. After paying and struggling for two semesters with her tuition, I finally insisted she apply. She became extremely angry but at last went ahead and submitted it. And, guess what? She got the scholarship. Now you would think that getting the scholarship would show her that I did know what I was talking about, but instead she was more angry. After that she decided that I was demanding and overbearing.

And in another example, the landlord to our small cabin hidden in the woods, insisted that we lock the door when we left. My wife hated to lock doors, but he insisted. He even made a special point of coming over and talking to us about it. After that I locked the door, but she refused. She would not discuss it; she simply would not do it. So it became one more small chore that I had to do when I drove us into work (I did all the driving) to my eight hour job (that really took ten hours). I did not try to insist that she lock the door as that would have been too much effort and it was simpler just to do it myself.

Now the above examples were all from our early marriage when we were getting along and still very much in love. So you can imagine what happened over the years. At one point in our later marriage I remember being in the kitchen as she screamed at me at the top of her lungs, "Shut up, Rick. Just shut up!" Another time she climbed under a table and yelled for ten solid minutes to make a point.

When we were in marriage therapy, I asked the shrinks about her crying when I needed to discuss something. I called it 'emotional blackmail' as I could not negotiate with her when she was weeping. In the early 1970s I do not think that counselors understood this kind of behavior. They told me to simply ignore it.

I often tried to tell her how I felt honestly and openly. I said that I felt I was doing all the work and that she did not seem to understand that at times I was on overload and that I really loved her but something had to change. Her response, "Oh, please don't feel like that," or worse "What's wrong with you that you feel like that." After a while I gave up trying to tell her how I felt.

When she humiliated me in public, such as announcing loudly to a crowded room at a party we held that she, "hated photographers" (I was a well respected photographer), she became quite angry that I took exception. She accused me of being too sensitive and that I should know she didn't mean anything bad and what was wrong with me that I would even think such a thing.

About this time she started to correct my English (I was an English major) in ways that she found more pleasing. She did not like me to use certain 'common' metaphors (such as 'what's the deal here?') and she added a new phrase that I was not supposed to say about once a month. Now this seems like a small thing, but it is the height of control. Instead of arguing with her (we already argued enough at that point), I found myself censoring what I was saying so that I did not use these expressions she did not like -- which meant I had to remember her list of hated phrases. It made me increasingly self conscious and lead directly to the collapse of our marriage as it destroyed the last bit of spontaneity in my communications with her.

Toward the end of our marriage, there was a point when I was stuttering and was almost unable to speak. And her reaction? "What's wrong with you, Rick? Just spit it out," she screamed while tapping her foot.

Because of her yelling and correcting and crying and refusing, I became more withdrawn. Then she criticized me for being quiet and less demonstrative and less spontaneous. About this time, I almost lost my mind (she was after all playing with my mind). It was one the darkest, emptiest, loneliest states of being that I have experienced.

I had been a teacher for years, who prided himself on easy, direct and simple communication. And she had struck at the heart of something I valued. I believe this was no accident; she liked to target things she knew I cared about so she could damage them.

It felt like she had placed me in an invisible prison because it existed in our home and went with us when we traveled together or visited people.

Fortunately soon after this low point, I met a number of people who liked me for who I was and the way that I naturally and spontaneously communicated. And because of this, I realized that the problem was not with me, but with her. So these people gave me the courage to say that to her. (Her behavior is a good example of how an abusive person tries to isolate the abused person so that he has no point of reference other than the abuser.)

Yet the damage had been done. We were never able to establish the open honest straight forward communication that a marriage must have. And our marriage ended.

Yet there is a happy ending to this story. I did met a woman whom I communicate well with and we have been together almost thirty years. I still love her, perhaps more than when I met her. And we have fights and disagreements and arguments. But after all is said and done, we communicate with each other.


Blogger bailee said...

I believe that "dysfunctional communication" is when one or more parties have a break down in their communicating. Communication is an art and that art being a good listener before we become good communicators. Active listening takes a skill which improves how one receives the information and understands the information. If their is no listening then we have this break down in communication. Everyone is taking and no one is listening.

5:13 AM  

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