I never had broken bones, deep gashes, or ugly bruising on my back or midsection (those places not easily seen.) There are no police reports or emergency room records. Ours was the idyllic upper-middle class living-the-dream life in the pretty house near the beach. My husband was always ready with a back-slap and hearty “Come on in! Have a beer!” whenever we entertained, which we did a lot. He coached soccer, volunteered at church, did laundry.
The special hell – the angry tirades, the pushing, shoving, threatening, coercion, and so much more – he saved for us and us alone, when no one else could see.
Sometimes staying seems easier. Maybe I could fix it. Maybe I could make it better, make him happy, give him what he wanted. Maybe it really was my fault. No one would believe me. I’m the strong, successful one – with the business and the income and the big dreams. No one would believe I feared my husband, that he routinely lied, threatened, coerced, and manipulated. No one would understand how I had no control over our personal finances – I made most of the money, so how could I not know where it went? No one could comprehend that his complicated demands for how laundry be done or the dishwasher be loaded or the leaves be raked was an unattainable matrix that left our children and me failures, quivering in the wake of his tirades, accusations, slammed doors, and explosions.
When you’re living it, you believe walking on eggshells is just the way it is. It’s only after you’re out and safe again – after the nightmares fade and the fear-induced vomiting stops – that you realize feeling safe in your own home should be a given. For me, it took close to twenty years to figure that out.
Like all abusive relationships, mine followed the familiar pattern. Handsome, charming, and committed to me, he seemed too good to be true. Of course I should have ended it early, when he tried to wrestle the car’s steering wheel out of my hands and turn the car around on a dark freeway late one night because he thought I’d missed our exit. (My elbow to his groin saved us.) When he pinned me against a hot stove, the heat searing my lower back, his face inches from mine, his spittle spewing vitriol and hatred, I begged forgiveness, a chance to try again. I held on to the good times – the date nights, the holidays, the birth of our children. When breast cancer flattened me, my chemo treatments were a two-pronged event: first the injection of toxins coupled with sedatives and anti-nausea meds, then the late-night drug-induced haze of my husband on top of me, a ritual to which I’d not consented nor had the strength to recognize for what it was.
Perpetrators of abuse and domestic violence don’t look like monsters under the bed. They are every-day folks, maybe scraping to put food on the table, maybe living the dream in the nice house. The hatred, the violence, and the damage crosses all socio-economic and cultural boundaries. For the spouses and children impacted by these horrors, we can’t fix it – make it better, meet his demands – no matter how hard we try. And no matter how much we are blamed, it’s not our fault.
It took me almost twenty years to recognize my marriage for what it was, and another four years to find the courage (and the support) to extricate myself and start over. I loved my husband, but his demons were not something I could resolve, no matter how much I wanted to. This was the one thing I could not fix.
My teenagers and I don’t walk on eggshells anymore. We do laundry whenever and however we want, and sometimes the dishes pile on the counter before they’re washed. We’re safe now. The nightmares have mostly faded, and the vomiting mostly a distant memory. The Power and Control Wheel so often used by abuse centers and counselors says it all: “…physical assaults may occur only once or occasionally, (but) they instill threat of future violent attacks and allow the abuser to take control of the woman’s life and circumstance.”
I know. It happened to me.
If you think you may be a victim of domestic violence, you probably are. Contact The Domestic Violence Action Center or other shelter or safe house to learn how to protect yourself and your children. If you believe your friend or family member may be in a dangerous relationship, don’t think it’s none of your business. Keep the communications open; tell them what’s happening to her is not normal, and that they can find help. Just because it happens behind closed doors, it should not remain a secret. Speak up. Help out. Healthy families are depending on you.