Self-Reflections at the End of an Abusive Marriage
I am getting divorced. Looking back on my marriage, I wonder are there warning signs we can observe? Are we capable of observing them?
My marriage was more work than I ever thought it would be, and I can’t tell if I should have seen this coming. Before we were married, she was uniformly cheerful and happy. After we were married, her cheerfulness waned — at least at home. At work or otherwise in public, she maintained the same outward happiness that originally attracted me to her. But when we would get home, it was apparent that she was bottling some frustrations. Our time alone was characterized by emotional meltdowns, usually over things that would otherwise be completely insignificant.
In my weariness from observing her put on a happy face for the outside world and then consuming most of our private time lamenting things (or expressing ugly anger towards people), I once asked her, “Why are you crying about that?” I asked this in what could rightfully be characterized in a not-so-supportive way.
Ever since, there has been a lot of anger thrown in my direction, all about little stuff, incessant nagging and infrequent sex (not none, but can-count-on-one-hand-in-a-year). This would lead to fights, something she “never thought would happen in her marriage.” My behavior would revert to the worst aspects of my personality — including the yelling and name-calling that I grew up with. When we discussed that anger (alone or in counseling), from her perspective, mine was simply wrong and must stop, but hers was justified because she had lost trust in me.
Over the years, I have noticed the following things about my wife:
1. The need for praise. My wife has LOTS of friends. None of whom she sees on a daily or even weekly basis or live anywhere near us. They all love her . . . for that time they spent together in college (more than 15 years ago). She is a prosecuting attorney who focuses on victim-crimes, and she is very good at her job. She loves to repeat stories of the praise heaped upon her by judges, colleagues, opponents, supervisors, etc. She is very, very nice to people and has carefully cultivated her personality so that even causal acquaintances are fascinated by her and drawn to her.
That said, in the confines of our home, she was absolutely vicious in her criticism of certain people. Her grudges against people are deep and the things she will say about these people (only to me, I think) were rather disturbing. She hates. I didn’t see this until we had been married for a couple of years. I’m personally pessimistic about things, but in a practical way. I don’t actually hate anyone, not even my wife. Imagining holding on to the kind of hate I saw my wife display privately was very upsetting to me.
There is a small group of people who criticized my wife after witnessing small glimpses of her bad behavior. She either let these people go as friends (including people who she were very good friends with for more than 10 years), or suffered them at family holidays (because they are my relatives). There is a third group of people who have seen her bad behavior, too. These people are her immediate family.
They don’t discuss any of this with her. Her mother exhibits the same behavior, as does her grandmother. The bad behaviors are discussed in hushed voices and acknowledged with askance glances, but nobody actually approaches any of these three about their behavior. Strangely, my wife will be critical of her mother’s behavior, her mother critical of the grandmother’s behavior, the grandmother of my wife’s behavior, etc. But nobody ever addresses the person acting badly. Ever. It’s like they are afraid.
2. Correlating her job and my alleged responsibility for her emotional well-being. I’ve heard my wife complain that she can’t understand why I argued with her at home, for example, about how I was not cleaning something “the right way,” because I told her that I admire and support her career choices. It made no sense to me or anyone else I’ve asked, but it apparently made sense to her.
3. She is always right. After years of experience, all I can say is, yes, she actually believes this. I’m firmly in the camp that this makes her somewhat unbalanced. They were right in kindergarten — nobody’s perfect. Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise.
Therapists suggested she needs to believe that she is always right because it’s a coping mechanism for some unknown early childhood trauma. That may be true. But my wife was not the least bit curious about digging through the alleged defense mechanism to get to the trauma at her soft gooey center. So I was married to the defense mechanism who thinks that she’s right all the time. So, really,it became a question for me about whether I was ever going to married to the person I thought was my wife, rather than this alleged defense mechanism. Like I said, I’m getting divorced.
4. Good time cycles. I went to counseling (marriage and individual), grew my backbone back, and started voicing my opinion about my own wants. It quickly became a simple numbers game. The frequency of our minor disagreements about things like which movie to see increased, and since I was not automatically capitulating, friction increased. The Good Times quickly dropped to zero.
5. Transactional. My soon-to-be ex viewed our relationship in a very transactional way. She also frequently mentioned how, as she was growing up, she intentionally copied her father’s skill at salesmanship, and how she combined that skill set with a careful and conscious adherence to her mother’s advice to “always kill them with kindness.”
It all sounds so harmless on the front end, at least to people like me. And, if one was going to be killed, what better way than by kindness?
But then you get to the back end — the place in a marriage where, on whatever small issue, neither person is going to get the precise outcome he or she wants. I had been *told* that these are the places for compromise. I had been *raised* to see that one person expresses a desire and the other acquiesces as he disassociates himself from whatever independent desire he may have held. Of course, I wasn’t around for the early years of my parents’ marriage, the years when friction may have occurred, the years before the pattern was set. I also failed to fully appreciate that my in-laws’ relationship was, from my perspective, vicious. Not overtly, but passively. Being around them remains one of the most uncomfortable feelings I have experienced.
So, in my own marriage, my wife and I mapped out our first areas of compromise by my wife expressing her preference for things, and me agreeing to it. I learned my role so well that, in those early days, I always thought each little thing wouldn’t be a big deal. I always assumed that, eventually, there would be some reciprocity. I would want something, and she would agree even though she didn’t necessarily agree.
But that didn’t happen.
It took a couple of years for me to recognize that my marital happiness was within my control, just as long as I could choke down my disagreement with a multitude of little, petty things. Everything would be fine if I expressed agreement to her desires, even if I did not agree. Nothing was fine if I expressed disagreement.
During those early years together, I was only intuiting the problem with this arrangement, and then I was acting out on that feeling. In those instances where I expressed my disagreement, it was typically met with passive aggression, and we would begin to argue and fight. In those arguments, we would each run through our full arsenals of persuasive techniques. Hers is a variety of passive-aggressive techniques that eventually evolves into a cross-examination against the transcript she prepares, in real-time, in her mind. I would engage in that for a while, but I would always end up shouting, which is how we resolved things in my household growing up.
We would exhaust each other, both figuratively and literally. Hostilities would cease when I submitted to her wishes about whatever inane, pedestrian thing it was that we were arguing about in the first place. For years, I defined the end of our arguments as the point when I would offer an apology, always for my shouting — that was the thing she (rightly) took issue with. But, now, I suspect that my thinking was incorrect.
She never offered her own apologies, nor would she reciprocate after I offered mine. She also never accepted any of my apologies. Rather, her approach was to claim the need for time to process her feelings. Now that things are over, I can also say that she never let me know when that process concluded. Honestly, and even though it is a strong word — never. It seems to me that, for her, reconciliation was not a factor. My apologies meant nothing. I doubt that she even heard them.
In my experience, my wife can control herself, but only when she wants to. Her desire for self-control seems to exist only as a means to an end; that is, if she wants something. And, in that regard, part of controlling herself included letting herself loose on me at appropriate times. She only seems to lose complete control at the moment when it becomes clear that her sales pitch is not going to get her what she wants. Then it’s just all-out war.
Throughout all of this, she is not even negotiating. She is selling. Compromise is just not in her vocabulary.
6. Rage when she doesn’t get her way. Towards the end, I stopped shouting. This, amazingly, seemed to cause her to shout. I pointed this out, but she had an argument for that,“You taught me how to do it.” The first time she did that, I told her it was wonderful that she had only recently picked up the habit — because that meant she should be able to kick it in no time at all. After all, I was raised to be a shouter, and with just 6-8 months of work I had gotten it under control. I thought that was the end of her shouting. It was for that evening.
But it wasn’t the end of her shouting.
The second time I heard her tell me that I taught her to shout, I just stopped arguing with her. About everything. If I disagreed with something she wanted, I told her so. When she started in with whatever fighting technique she wanted to employ, I just calmly insisted that we needed to find a compromise. This invariably pushed her alarm button, and the raised voice and shouting would begin. When that happened, I calmly told her that we could discuss it when she could stop shouting, or being rude, or calling names (or all of the above). This invariably pushed her nuclear button. Then I would walk away. This invariably pushed her global-thermonuclear-war button.
For a while, I was confused about how doing what I was asked to do (stop shouting) could make things worse. I focused on the behavior, and quickly found that (a) I gained a better understanding of her objection to being shouted at; and (b) I won’t put up with that crap. So it only took a couple of months for me to ask for a divorce.
7. Blame shifting and abdication of personal responsibility. It wasn’t until very recently — and in no small part because of the Shrink4Men website — that I noticed in our arguments in the waning days of our marriage, we never came to an agreement on the things we were disagreeing about. Or, to state it more precisely in terms of our original relationship dynamic, I didn’t cave.
That’s when things started to get really bizarre. I recall her mentioning at one point, with a small degree of self-awareness, that I needed to understand that I had established a pattern of acquiescing to her wishes, and therefore shared in the responsibility for her emotional outbursts now that I was changing the dynamic. Again, she had a chastened tone when she said this. But she still said it, and she stood by it.
She followed it up with a comment about how, when we were starting out, she had told me that she had trust issues (she did tell me that, and it was obvious), and that she didn’t really trust me (she actually told me the opposite of that). Recently, she equated my request for a divorce with “[my] evasion of the consequences of my deplorable behavior.” In other words, she has decided that I am solely responsible for the unworkable state of our marriage, and therefore I am honor bound to refrain from asking for a divorce. This all seems nuts to me, but I digress.
8. Jealousy. I was regularly accused of having affairs with co-workers. This could not have been further from the truth. She freely admitted that her accusations were baseless, and were prompted by her own irrational jealousy. I asked her to stop. She shifted to making jokes about it. I told her they weren’t funny, and asked her to stop. She did not stop. We would fight about this. I eventually decided that I don’t need to put up with this.
9. Gaslighting. My wife has pushed me and punched me. Not often, but it has happened. I was never in any physical danger — she is smaller than me, and my head was cooler than hers when she was doing this.
But here’s the thing that is odd — she denied that these things ever happened. She is very emphatic in her denials. If I ever brought up these events (either in private or in counseling), her reaction was uniformly one of two things: (a) overly sarcastic and condescending ridicule, “Come on . . . you KNOW that’s not what happened!”; or (b) violent shouting, “I would never! And I can’t believe I’m married to someone who would accuse me of that!”
What is even stranger is that, normally, she presents a very calm, even, cheerful demeanor to the outside world. I have come to recognize this as a protective mechanism she has developed to keep others at a sufficiently safe distance and simultaneously give them reason to praise her, which is something she very much enjoys, and seems to need. However, she was incapable of doing anything but acting in an obviously rude manner or simply flying off the handle when I brought this up.
Oh, and I only brought it up to the counselor, and then by expressing my sincere concern that this type of behavior was dangerous — notwithstanding my statement above about not being in any serious physical danger, what if I did react? I was scared to death of possibly facing a criminal record because my wife came at me. My wife literally laughed this off. The counselor acknowledged that this was something to be worried about, but didn’t go very far beyond that (there were tons of other issues to deal with).
I know this stuff happened. I get the impression that my wife was trying to make me think that it didn’t.
10. Profligate spending. Before we married, my wife lived beyond her means, but told herself (somewhat reasonably) that she was doing good, low-paying work in a high-cost area at the beginning of her career, and she’d pay it off later. She got the better-paying job in a lower-cost area when we got married. Extravagances weren’t many, but $400 purses became a regular item on the Christmas list.
All of her friends’ children started getting regular gifts in the mail, because children like getting stuff in the mail. We had a budget, but agreeing on it was like pulling teeth, with my first attempt at discussing my need to live within my means quickly breaking-down to a fight about whether I actually loved her or not. We eventually compromised, but it wasn’t pleasant getting there. And, somehow, we always ended up spending the same amount over our budget each month. This didn’t put us further in debt, but it did ultimately delay us from getting into the black by almost a year.
While this was going on, I said almost nothing about it, which was my error. Because, when I did try to say something, I’d see flashes of that first fight when she found a way to steer the discussion from, “Husband really does not want to live in debt, especially when we don’t have to,” to “Husband doesn’t emotionally support Wife, because he’s not being sensitive enough about her bad feelings about her massive debt.” Or, “Husband is so unhappy with himself that he doesn’t know that it’s OK to treat yourself sometimes, and he’s not frugal, he’s cheap, and this is something that is wrong with him.”
I swallowed my own discontent, and pressure built. Money that I used to save or spend on my hobbies was consumed with household expenses such as makeup, boutique wrapping paper, nicely decorated tissue boxes, $6/gallon organic milk, etc. She would ask if each nickel ($5) and dime ($10) item was ok to buy with household funds (as opposed to our own allowances), and I’d always agree because disagreeing usually resulted in some sort of pouting, withholding, etc. At home, I was either (a) a grumbly jerk, or (b) emotionally inconsistent and unpredictable. But I didn’t realize this until I had been this way for quite some time.
We have been apart for a few months now, and I’m cooled off a little. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still blaming her (partially) for the pressure and frustration that I felt. But now the pressure is gone (we split up our finances), and, somehow, I’m saving more than I was when we were together, and I’m even paying proportionally more rent than I used to.
Oh, and I also saw her bank summary. She’s already got more on the credit cards than she has in the bank. I know it’s childish, but sometimes, when I’m spending a full Saturday on the golf course (and I’m not at a farmer’s market), I think about that.
If you are in an abusive relationship and don’t know what to do or where to turn, DAHMW provides a 24-hour free helpline (+1 888 HELPLINE ).
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD provides confidential, fee-for-service, counseling, consultation and coaching services to help both men and women work through their relationship issues via telephone and/or Skype chat. Her practice combines practical advice, support, reality testing and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Shrink4Men Services page for professional inquiries.