Recently, a well-intentioned kind human mentioned I should stop dwelling on these bad points in my life and move on to my brighter future (referring to several posts regarding my marriage and subsequent divorce).
The thing is–I have moved on. (Or at lest I’m well into the process of moving on.) The fact that I’m in a happier place, in a job I love, in an apartment I adore, with friends who know all my weird–because I am in this healthier frame of mind is why I’m finally able to share.
Taking this time to write provides closure. I’m not picking at a metaphoric scab (sorry for that sort-of-gross-mental-image). I’m finding my conclusion–it’s more like finishing a metaphoric puzzle. Some of the pieces will always be missing; the metaphoric cat knocked a couple off the table and slid them across the kitchen tile under the fridge. The metaphoric dog ate one because she got bored. Maybe I bought the metaphoric puzzle at a metaphoric thrift store, and a few pieces were missing to begin with? My point is, this isn’t about dwelling, and it certainly isn’t about sympathy.
It’s about expressing compassion and relating to those who’ve also been there. There’s an important vindication in knowing you aren’t alone, of knowing the whole situation wasn’t in your head. I want to create a relatable narrative–so people who haven’t been there can at least better understand. Emotional abuse and manipulation isn’t obvious. It doesn’t leave marks. It’s impressively slow and understated. It’s hidden among kind gestures and playful jokes.
The trickiest thing about being in that situation, is how it’s so subtle. Most of it I couldn’t quite put a finger on; nothing I could directly call him out on. And on the occasions I tried, his gaslighting worked stunningly to make me blame myself or unsure that I even interpreted the situation correctly.
My husband was hilarious (presumably, he still is). We teased as a form of flirting. (Which might’ve been indicative of his lack of emotional availability, but things are so much easier to see at a distance). So it was a stark disheartening realization that his joking wasn’t always joking. Not really. Given my obvious empathetic and accommodating character, a gentle jab veiled as a joke, worked very well to modify my behavior, drawing my attention to things I needed to fix or work on.
I don’t know when I received the nickname “Aqua-girl.” I know I thought it was a sign of endearment at the time. Although, he called me that because I dripped too much water between the sink and the towel rack when washing my hands, and I’d clumsily would knock over glasses when I got overly animated or distracted, and spill drinks that were too full when walking, and I dripped too much water when stepping out of the shower…
“Aqua-girl strikes again!”
But his disappoint was still evident.
His annoyance was evident in his eyes despite the smile.
Once my hand accidentally bumped over a glass of water, my stomach dropped and I just started crying. I think I was even alone at the time. And I was sobbing because I was so frustrated I couldn’t just pay attention better. I just wanted to be less of a clumsy mess. Who cries over that? (I feel like there’s some “spilled milk” joke in there somewhere? But it’d feel a bit phoned it.)
He’d tease me as jokes–but the underlying point was to affect my behavior to how he’d wanted me to act. Whenever he hurt my feelings and I tried to talk about it, it would always get turned around to “did I take my medication”, he “has said things like that before and it was a joke, why be upset now” and “well, but you do—–this, this, and this”. He didn’t hold himself accountable.
By the last couple of years, anytime I started a conflict because he had hurt me, I always ended up apologizing just to get it all over with and move on. I always had to apologize that I let me feelings get hurt by something he did or said.
For me, the really hard part was (and still is to an extent) that I didn’t even realize the full extent of his controlling nature and the emotional manipulation in our relationship, until I left. The more space that I get, the clearer the view becomes. Understanding this and getting to the point where I could forgive myself for staying and not seeing it sooner, meant I had to come to terms with some really difficult things-–
• I will never know the extent to which my husband lied to me. I realize now, talking to my family and a couple friends or coworkers that he would lie about things that didn’t even matter. Things no one would ever need to lie about. So I have absolutely no objective truth I can ever really know about anything that came from him, stories of his past, his friends, his family. I know impressively few verifiable truths.
• I gave that person 10 years of my life. I gave my husband a decade. My entire 20s. There’s odd (albeit understandable) sense of mourning for your own lost time. It’s easy to imagine all of the what-could-have-beens, and my mind would repeat over and over that I’d wasted too much time. I was too late to my own life. It took months to feel like I hadn’t missed out on all good career potential in my life. And I’m still working on not blaming myself for not leaving sooner.
• For the first 6 months after I left, my mind constantly shifted between beating myself up for how stupid I felt I was, and being so hopeful, excited, and scared I was starting my own life on my own terms (and no matter how bad things got, and they got pretty un-great, I was still so much happier to be on my own struggling than with him).
• Was it all in my head? Even knowing what I know and talking to my therapist, my friends, or my mom, I still don’t trust myself and my own account of things. I can recall reoccurring circumstances and conflict, and distinct details fairly objectively–like all the implied rules of our shared household. I know he was controlling and selfish, and neglected my emotional needs, but still. We still had date night, and ate dinner together. We still laughed a lot–so things couldn’t have been that bad? Right? Second guessing myself, my perspective, and his meaning had been second nature to me for years–because of gaslighting. Now that I’m dating again, and trying new relationships, my triggers and the extent of the damage caused comes into depressingly clear focus.
• I lost myself entirely. I know that sounds super weird or pretentious, maybe unless you’ve been there? I think that’s the only way to really describe it. It’s so tricky, because I feel like I can’t trust my own memories or judgement. I spent so long loving and trusting a man who, either intentionally or unintentionally, had been slowly working away to fit me into a mold more convenient for him.
• Reflecting back, I’m an intelligent feminist. Right? How did I end up there? My mom still has to remind me from time to time that controlling emotionally abusive relationships are like a frog boiling in water. It’s all very gradual and when I’d already committed so much time and effort into my relationship, I wanted to make it work, even when that effort felt one-sided. It became normal to rationalize things to maintain the ideal and expectations everyone around us had.
• I had a lot of anger and hurt to work through. I’m not an angry person, so that was a hard emotion to deal with, especially on that scale. I made art. I went to therapy. I wrote. I talked with a good friend I have made since who was also leaving a bad marriage, and once my settlement was finalized I could finally feel all that rage starting to dissolve.
• But lastly, and I think this is the worst and most lasting part; I can’t trust myself. If I was in that situation for so long, and didn’t realize the extent of how bad it was. (I decided to leave because I felt stagnant, I felt lonely and that I had lost where I wanted to go with my life, and if I stayed, all that would stay the same. Even when I was leaving I still thought I loved him, praised how funny and kind he was. I blamed myself for simply wanting more.) But in my mind I can still picture how his face would change, almost like a switch when everything would turn, and communication felt more like being trapped in a maze.
Ultimately, I could fall into that again. I’ve learned to set and enforce my personal boundaries (which I didn’t have then). I practice self care, mediation, taking time to appreciate being on my own. I know important characteristics I want to find in a potential partner–but still–it feels like I’m only slightly more equipped. I don’t really know what a safe and loving relationship looks like from the inside.
He’s left a huge part of me broken, that’s had lingering affects on every relationship/dating situation I have had since. And that also makes me angry. He doesn’t deserve to still have an affect on my life when he is no longer a part of it–especially since most people don’t believe me, because he’s just “so funny and nice” and we “just seemed perfect together”, and we “were that couple that other couples aspired to be like”.
Part of what helped me make sense of my choices, make peace with my past, and able to grieve the unexpected sense of loss–was relating to the experience of other women. Strong, clever, beautiful, progressive women. Women I admired. Women a couple decades older than me who had gone on to have healthy loving relationships, who have successful meaningful careers. They fell into that slow insidious figuratively boiling water–and they’re still strong, clever, beautiful, progressive women. That means, maybe I will be too?