Please be forewarned that content might include
details of abuse and potentially triggering language.
1. Avoid denial / face truth about emotional abuse
2. Become more consistent in recognizing that his obstinate/defiant stance is about him
3. Distinguish between need for solitude and desire to not be around him, and own it
4. In the moment-by-moment, what do I want to do? (not “what will he think”)
In writing a list of steps to take to climb out of a toxic relationship, I realized how stuck I am on number four. Although I occasionally consider, determine, and act on “what I want to do,” the problem is that I unintentionally spend an inordinate amount of energy focusing on my spouse and what he might want of me. During shelter-in-place orders, I’m doing everything I can to stay out of his way. Workouts shifted to the now hot, humid garage. Television off, no music played. Kitchen use, laundry, cleaning timed around him.
It’s not as much about “what I want to do” as it is about unhealthy patterns and mindsets enabling a controller. I micro-manage what I say—measuring words to not upset him. Trying to keep the peace at any cost, I avoid conflict and appease, appease, appease. Just like my father, he bullies me into pretending that I like him and want him around. Just like my father, he punishes me if he perceives the opposite.
In childhood, my abusers trained me to comply. But in adulthood, I, the victim, have trained my abuser. The psychological slavery I practice is chain-hugging fear of what might happen if I am not subject to someone else. I did not intentionally plot how he would abuse me. Instead, I unconsciously exhibited behavioral clues that baited him to maneuver, like a mouse seeking cheese, through a labyrinth of tighter and tighter constraint. And like a lab mouse, he learned that repeat action would produce the anticipated reward.
His reward? Power and control to feed his insecurities. What do I get out of it? Perhaps the comfort of the familiar — being abused — keeps me from facing the tough task of changing my own patterns. His putdowns, criticism, and cruel mind games are real, the emotional abuse is real. But how we got here is not entirely his fault. In some ways, he is a victim of circumstance just as I am. I did not consciously seek out an abuser, but here we are. I isolate myself partly out of shame and somewhat from depression, but also to please him. This dovetails with his desire for control; I placate him by remaining isolated. In turn, having me as captive — as a planet orbiting in a solar system where he is the center — makes him feel more important.
At least I’m beginning to recognize what I’m doing. It’s truly exhausting to not only censor what I say, but to have radar out for what I need to do to keep him happy. Over the last few years, I’ve backed off of most of the intentional kindnesses I used to do: baking brownies, writing loving notes, complimenting him. I still do some things like checking his personal care supplies and favorite groceries and shopping for him. But even that is a holdover from trying to anticipate and meet the needs of my young children. He has fought to retain some of the overflow benefits that came from my mothering them. It actually turns my stomach when I feel the tide of him trying to pull me into mothering mode. I’ll encourage myself by saying at least there’s a growing boundary there.
Because my first-floor office is no longer a safe haven, I’m writing in a spare bedroom upstairs. I hear the padding of footsteps down the carpeted hall, the gentle clicking of two doors closing as he checks the other rooms. To conceal the sound of my presence, I stop typing, keep my head down, and stare at the screen, holding my breath. I’m not sure if he peeked in through the open door, but he did retreat. Again, I’m trying to be more concerned about my reaction, about recognizing how I respond. I shouldn’t have to run and hide and pretend I’m not here. And it isn’t okay that he needs to know where I am at all times. Although it would be nice for one spouse to see that the other’s hiding in a back bedroom probably means that they need some space, the bigger issue is how I can stop enabling emotional abuse. Going forward, I’ll continue to try to break it down into small, manageable steps. If I remain overly focused on the objective of being free – the proverbial forest – I’ll never find my way out of the woods.