Last week I talked about the importance of choosing supportive people with positive energy for your inner circle. This week I want to go even deeper into that circle, the innermost circle. I’m talking about spouses, life partners, girlfriends or boyfriends…intimate partners.
Our intimate partner can be a source of all things wonderful…love, support, inspiration and much more. But sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes these relationships can be a source of negative energy. Or worse. And we don’t always realize it right away. Sometimes it can take a very long time to figure that out.
Several years ago, at a forensic nursing workshop, a speaker pointed out that abusive relationships don’t always involve physical violence. She gave the example of a successful, professional woman who was frustrated because she still didn’t feel fulfilled.
This woman didn’t realize the dysfunction in her marriage because, other than that one time many years ago, her husband had never hit her. But that one time was all it took to change the dynamic of the relationship. Power and control were established in that moment and from that point on, the woman began to lose herself. Everything she did was done his way. She was living his life, his way.
Her dreams and desires eroded along with her self-esteem and self-worth.
I had heard similar stories at other conferences and in my work. There are numerous types of abuse and seemingly endless examples. But that particular story on that particular day reminded me of a woman I knew.
The woman I knew had gotten married at the young age of 18. She wasn’t quite sure yet what she wanted to do with her life but she envisioned herself being of service to her community, helping others in some way.
One night during that first year of marriage, she and her husband got into a heated argument. It escalated to a point where she was afraid he would hit her. She could see it in his eyes and his body language. She decided it would be better to concede. After all, marriage is full of compromises, right? And it wasn’t worth getting hit.
She became very good at compromising.
He insisted she come along as he pursued hobbies in which she had no interest. She did because it was easier than arguing about it and she never wanted to see the look in his eyes again. The look that made her fear for her safety.
He discouraged her from pursuing any hobbies of her own. In fact, he laughed until he cried when she told him she was considering tap or jazz dance lessons. When he finally stopped laughing he told her it was the dumbest idea he’d ever heard and made all kinds of wise cracks about how stupid she would look trying to dance.
She spent her own hard-earned money on a gym membership because he repeatedly told her that her butt was getting big. Then he chewed her ass out big time because she had no right to spend his money that way. She had a job too but he refused to acknowledge her contribution to their finances.
She didn’t use the gym membership after 3 or 4 weeks because she got tired of trying to convince him she really was at the gym. He would imply she was out with another man.
She eventually stopped pursuing any hobbies of her own because he thought they should spend all their time together. And, according to him, her interests were stupid so he’d take no part in them.
On her days off he called her from his job a few times a day. If she had been out she’d have to explain why she didn’t answer when he called earlier. Then he grilled her about how long she was gone, accused her of lying and implied she was up to something sinister because it didn’t take that long to go to the store. This didn’t happen often, though, because by then about the only place she went was the grocery store since she was too depressed to do anything else.
She was a night person. He was not. So to keep the peace she would lie awake in bed for hours. It seemed less degrading than him scolding her for being up too late and telling her to get to bed, the way a parent might scold an adolescent. Then, if she slept too late on the weekend he would angrily wake her, tell her to get up, call her lazy and go back to the couch where he would spend the rest of his day, remote in hand.
Listening to music had always been a coping skill for her but it wasn’t an option anymore. He had the TV on every waking moment. Even if iPods had existed then, she couldn’t have used one in peace. He insisted she “sit your ass down” and watch television with him. So she did. And she got sucked into the nonsense spewing from the screen. But at least he wasn’t snapping at her, “Have you got ants in your pants? Can’t you just sit still?!” Chores went undone, making her feel useless. So he must be right, she’s just stupid, fat and lazy.
Of course, her self-esteem was gone by then. It didn’t help that she had distanced herself from friends. She still had friends, good people. She just didn’t let them get as close as she used to. Brunch with the girls and girls’ nights out weren’t worth the accusations of lies and infidelity. Even phone calls created friction. Any call longer than about 10 minutes brought on the angry “Are you going to be on the phone all night?” response. So she tried to keep the calls brief.
She had become a compulsive eater to cope with the depression and anger she didn’t even know she had. He called her fat in front of friends.
They had explosive verbal fights in those moments when she’d finally had enough and could drum up the courage to assert herself. At this point, that courage and the feeling that she was worth fighting for usually came from a bottle.
She suggested marriage counseling several times over the years. He refused. Several times she sought counseling for compulsive eating but she was always referred to someone who wanted to talk about diet and nutrition, things she already knew.
Finally, she found a counselor who got it. The subject of eating never came up past the first session or two. Instead of focusing on the symptom, they worked on finding the cause. What they slowly uncovered was the young woman that once was. The one who once had big dreams was found cowering deep inside.
With the support of her counselor she began allowing herself to experience her emotions. As she slowly began to lose weight, her self-image, self-esteem and self-worth began to improve. Her career was finally moving in the direction she wanted. She was expanding her inner circle to include more positive people.
But she couldn’t understand why she wasn’t happy in her marriage.
Their marriage looked solid to everyone else because almost all the verbal abuse and controlling behaviors happened behind closed doors. She couldn’t leave, what would people think?
Besides, the name calling and degrading comments had stopped years ago, for the most part. She didn’t realize the reason was because she had become someone she was not.
She wondered what was wrong with her. Why couldn’t she be happy?
The woman, the one who appeared to everyone else to have it all together, was now sitting in a forensic nurse certification class learning about the dynamics of domestic violence. She had heard the stories before and worked with survivors. But, until that moment, she could not self-identify as someone who was being verbally and emotionally abused.
So, she knew on that particular day, at that particular workshop, that she had learned too much to stay in a marriage in which she had been buried alive.
And, she knew she had the audacity to change her innermost circle.
In the US, nearly 3 in 10 women and 4 in 10 men have been subjected to physical abuse, rape and/or stalking at the hands of an intimate partner. It’s safe to assume the rates of verbal and emotional abuse are even higher since they can occur in the absence of rape, physical abuse and stalking.
How many people do you know? Probably a lot more than 10 men and 10 women. The odds are, whether you realize it or not, you know someone who is being or has been abused. Please take time to learn about it so you’re prepared should you ever have the opportunity to help someone. You can start with an overview here.
Many people are uncomfortable talking about domestic violence. Silence only perpetuates the problem. I encourage you to help break the silence by posting comments and questions below.
If your comments or questions are more personal than you want to share here, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are in an abusive relationship, please call the national abuse hotline at 800-799-7233.
Wishing you health and happiness,