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When Abuse Hides Behind Love

After 18 years in a controlling relationship, she realizes that her marriage is abusive and that she has lost herself. She still struggles to share her story-- it doesn’t paint the typical picture of abuse. Her greatest wish is that the fight against domestic violence will be won so that our children will never have to go into battle.

I am afraid to tell you my story. Afraid because in my story, I am a victim, and I have never seen myself as a victim. Afraid because – even in the thick of it – I didn’t see the abuse, and I’m afraid you won’t either. The abuse hides. Afraid because I will have to relive the pain, the fear, the emptiness. I will have to see those parts of myself that I have tried to forget and hide and bury. And I am afraid of crying when I tell my story because I’m not sure if I will be able to stop the tears from falling.

Hides in Love

The abuse was cloaked in love and longing. In logic and rationality. In silence and distance. I spent so many years normalizing and excusing the abuse. Even now, I find it difficult to call it abuse. His love hid the abuse – and he had no idea.

We met at a Christmas party when I was 19 years old. Our eyes met across a crowded room, and a passionate long-distance romance began. We wrote letters to one another on carefully chosen stationery. I spent hours crafting my thoughts into words in the hope that they would make him love me. We moved in together when I was 22, and so began the first signs of control. We discussed our finances, and he expressed the need for all of my income to cover our living expenses. I agreed and only later realized that this left me with no financial autonomy. When I over-spent, I don’t remember there being angry words or shouting—just the shame of his disapproval and disappointment.

This was to be the pattern for the next 18 years of my life: subtle and insidious control slowly eroding my sense of self and my place in the world.

Hides Within Family Pain

My greatest sadness lies in my family’s pain in watching my story unfold and knowing that they were powerless to intervene. Early on, they had tried to tell me that this man was not right for me and that there was trouble ahead. He himself had told me when I first met him that he was “not nice.” My family warned me, one of his friends warned me, and even he warned me… But I felt loved and in love. I couldn’t reconcile the warnings with my reality. 

The years that followed brought us both successful careers, amazing travel adventures, and upper-middle-class wealth material trappings. I had come to accept that my husband didn’t wish to spend any time with my family and didn’t like most of my friends. I let his feelings guide my own actions in distancing myself from those who loved and cared about me.

His Loss of Power

We had never planned to have children, but as I approached 30, I longed to start a family. We talked about trying to have a baby and agreed that it was something we both wanted. But it quickly became obvious that I suffered from subfertility, and we were advised to commence IVF treatment. My husband understandably felt like an observer most of the time, powerless to influence any outcomes and bewildered by the many unsuccessful cycles. One night, we discussed what to do if we didn’t fall pregnant the next time around. I suggested donor eggs or adoption. He adamantly refused to accept a non-biological child. At that point, I realized for the first time that we were two very different people. But all of our differences were quickly forgotten when we fell pregnant the very next cycle.

The pregnancy was high-risk and downright hard on my small 5-foot frame. But nothing phased me. I was ecstatic to be pregnant finally and took it all in stride: the constant sickness, gestational diabetes, and the “house arrest” from 20 weeks onward. I think all of this likely made my husband feel powerless and afraid. Outwardly, he seemed calm and supportive, but he could also be very distant and even mean. 

Hiding Behind Parental Struggles

Caring for babies is hard. My husband and I struggled as new parents and struggled as a couple.

I returned to work, and life moved forward. My husband became increasingly stressed. There were financial pressures. He was drinking more. We didn’t talk much, and if I tried to discuss my concerns, he would shut the conversation down. He would only touch me in the context of sexual intimacy. We were both becoming increasingly socially isolated.

At this point, my mother had entered into a wonderful new romance and was getting married. My sister was flying her family over from Europe for the wedding, and my brother was flying his family over from Australia. We hadn’t seen each other for several years and knew that it would be several more before we all met up again. With this in mind, my husband agreed reluctantly that we could attend the wedding.

Isolation

But my husband did not want to see my family before the wedding, and I didn’t have any energy to try to do so without him. Following the wedding, my husband agreed to visit my mother’s house, which didn’t have any child safety measures. My husband and I were racing around trying to prevent any toddler accidents when he suddenly yelled that he’d had enough, picked up the twins, and said that he was leaving. I pleaded with him to stay – this was the only opportunity I had to spend time with my family. I also knew that if I stayed against his wishes, he would see me as disloyal, and a period of emotional distancing and silence would follow. I was too exhausted to protest and stay.

I will never forget my entire family begging us to stay and then standing on the driveway crying as we pulled away. I, too, cried silently as I waved them goodbye, knowing that I would not see them again for years.

Reflection

I recently asked my siblings for their recollection of events because I still don’t trust my own memory of what happened. And when I imagine looking at my story from the outside, like you are now, it doesn’t seem that bad. It doesn’t seem dramatic or damaging. But every one of these small, hurtful daggers added up to almost two decades of being slowly hollowed out, of losing myself.

I have since asked myself, “how did I actually let that happen?” I have looked inward and tried to uncover the psychological flaws in myself that could have led to this abuse. I have also wondered what motivated my abuser – he didn’t know then and doesn’t know now that he was abusing me.

Jess Hill, in her polarizing book, See What He Made Me Do, explains the complexities of being in the shoes of both the victim and the abuser. She highlights that the issues are societal and individual; the solutions demand individualized treatment through community-led, collaborative programs. 

By the time I turned 37, I understood why some people choose to disappear from their current lives – leaving their family, friends, and familiar surroundings. Not that I myself was going to disappear, I felt deep despair at losing myself. I knew that I had somehow lost my truth, my way, my light.

Saving Myself

When I was 39, my husband chose to take a 12-month overseas work posting on his own. As a result, I was suddenly set free and reveled in my newfound freedom. Over the course of that year, I reconnected with friends, family, and myself.  I realized that every decision I had made up to that point in time was my own. There were outside influences, but ultimately no one could save me but me. I was going to have to save myself. And so, I did. By the time my husband returned, I had decided to leave our marriage.

Thankfully, after the break-up, I continued to work full time and quickly established my financial independence. There was no requirement for child support payments, and I found myself free of my ex-husband’s financial control. I give thanks every day for this. I am deeply aware that this is not the case for many victims and that financial autonomy can remain an ongoing source of trauma.

But my ex-husband’s pattern of emotional distancing, silence, and control continued despite the divorce. He hasn’t spoken a single word to me in 8 years, even though we have 50:50 shared custody of our children. Without any in-person dialogue, we initially agreed to communicate by email. Predictably, my emails would frequently go unanswered, and I often found myself pleading for replies. After a while, I gave up begging and waiting for responses. 

Seeing the Control

I didn’t realize it at the time, but we had begun a system of “parallel parenting.” Parallel parenting allows parents to take charge of parenting decisions while the children are under that parent’s care without the need for the other parent’s approval. It is often the chosen parenting method for high conflict ex-partners.

Withholding of information has been my ex-husband’s dominant strategy of control over the past 8 years. Luckily, now that the twins are teenagers, they can message or call me with any important updates. We have also moved from email to a parenting app called “Talking Parents,” which has facilitated much better communication when needed. 

My ex-husband remarried several years after our divorce and now has another child. He enjoys great success professionally, and I find that I am still immensely proud of him and all that he’s achieved. I truly hope that he is happy and doesn’t repeat the abuse pattern in his new relationship.

My New Story

I have now written a new story: one based on love, kindness, generosity, joy, and the simplicity of being. I give thanks every day for my two beautiful children, an amazing family, wonderful friends, and work that I love. In just over two years, my children will turn 18, and there will no longer be any need for regular communication with my abuser.

I know that I am one of the lucky ones and that for many other victims, there can be no such happy ending. Many will tragically die, and many will be irreparably damaged; as Gloria Stein points out, in many societies, “most women are one man away from welfare.” My greatest wish is that our children will not have to continue the fight against domestic abuse. That with this war fought and won, they themselves will never have to go into battle.

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