This post is part of our True Life series where OKC moms are sharing real trials & tribulations they have gone through as mothers, as wives, and as women.
It’s been said that emotional abuse is like a frog in warm water that is being heated to a boil. You know that something is not right. You feel it physically. Your head tells you “Hey it’s hot in here! Too hot. Jump out!” But you stay because if you get out, then you’ll be cold. Freezing, even, until you can get warm again. Why leave the comfort of your nice, warm bath? So you have a choice: stay even though it’s a little (maybe a lot) uncomfortable and risk boiling to death, or hop out into the cold unknown. It sounds like an easy decision, but for me, and so many women tangled in the trenches of emotional abuse, it was not.
For years, I was that frog. What started out as a warm, inviting relationship, ever so slowly transformed into a boiling hot prison. Along the way there was confusion (is there something wrong with my husband? Me?), chaos (is it my fault?), and fear (what will happen if I leave?). Thankfully I found a way out. And if you are faced with a situation like mine, I’m here to tell you there is a way out for you too, and you don’t have to wait until the water is boiling.
I was a victim of emotional abuse. Or more specifically, what is defined as coercive control.
Coercive control involves repeated, ongoing intentional control tactics used by one partner against another. Those tactics may be physical, sexual, psychological, legal, or all of the above.
In my case, it was almost all of the above. My husband never hit me, although at times I think it would have hurt less than the things he said.
Whenever I pictured who I would marry, I always envisioned someone who would treasure and protect me. I was a confident, self-assured person when I married my husband. Everything in me lead me to believe he was the one.
For the first two years of our marriage, life was good. We struggled with the day-to-day issues most married couples do, especially after kids, but I never doubted his love and commitment to our family. He continued to be the charming man that he was, surprised me with gifts, left me sweet notes. We were living the life I had always dreamed about. But sadly this reality wouldn’t last for long.
The first time I remember realizing things weren’t right, I had just come home from going out to dinner with my mom for her birthday. When I went to open the front door, I realized I was locked out. Not having a key on me, I called to ask him to let me in, and he wouldn’t open the door. When I finally convinced him to let me in, he accused me of being somewhere else (I wasn’t) and told me I was a “bad mom” for staying out too late (it was 11 pm). When I tried to defend myself, he became so enraged that he threw my favorite vase across the kitchen, shattering it. The fight ended with me crying on the kitchen floor and him doing something to me that I never in a million years would have thought my husband would be capable of doing. He spit in my face.
I was in shock. What had started as a fun night of celebrating my mom has ended with me on the floor questioning everything I knew about the man I was to spend my life with. The man who was the father of my children. The man who had promised before God, my father, and our families to treasure and protect me. How could I even process what had just happened?
After a night of sleeplessness, I concluded that this was not the man I knew. This had to have been a one time thing. He was stressed at work, lost control. There is no way this would happen again. And after all, it’s not like he hit me. And maybe he’s right? Maybe eleven o’clock is too late for a mom to responsibly be out? After enduring the silent treatment for a day, I ended up apologizing for provoking the fight. Me. Apologizing. For my husband spitting on me. When I look back on that girl, I hardly know her. I wish I could tell her to do something NOW. But instead that girl went on for another five years watching the life she always dreamed of having slowly turn into a nightmare.
As time went on, the events became more frequent. I was constantly left in the dark when it came to our finances. He was impulsive with both his business and personal financial decisions. When I would question him, he would explode and usually tell me something like I “wasn’t smart enough” to understand it. At restaurants, he would get irritated if I didn’t order something he liked. He would find ways to sabotage me attending events that didn’t include him (showers, girls nights, my work events). Eventually I realized I had become that girl who RSVP’d to events, and ended up no showing. Before I knew it, a good amount of my girlfriends from college had stopped calling altogether. Isolation, control, insults. My life was slowly becoming a storm of unpredictable blows. And they were happening more often than not.
By the last few years of our marriage, things had started to take a toll on my body. I was physically shutting down. What I thought was the result of hormones being out of whack, I later learned was my body putting off excessive amounts of the stress hormone, cortisol. One of the biggest weapons of an emotional abuser is keeping his victim in a stressful state as much as possible; a tactic referred to as gas lighting. By constantly knowing how to trigger my stress response, he was able to effectively keep me questioning my own feelings, instincts, and sanity which gave him all the power. Although my mind wasn’t ready to get out, my body was telling me enough was enough.
It’s important to note that when things had reached a very low point, I suggested we try counseling. He refused, but insisted that I should go since I was the one who needed help. So I went to a marriage counselor. Alone. I was able to beg and plead enough to get him to come to a few sessions, but ultimately he would stop going. I was the problem, not him.
The final straw was when I started to see the toll it was taking on our children. My oldest had started to develop severe anxiety, and I realized the days at school he would struggle the most were the days following a big fight. Although I tried my very best to de-escalate fights in front of our children, he did not. During the last fight we would have before I left, my husband turned to our oldest and told him this was “all mommy’s fault.” That’s when it hit me like a ton of bricks:
This is never going to stop. And this is the only example of marriage my children will ever know if I stay.
They deserve better. I’m sad that it took me so long to get out. I’m sad for the torment my children went through and are still enduring. The important thing is that with the help of family, close friends, weekly counseling, and a lot of prayer, I am finally on the road to finding the woman I was before the boiling water of abuse had turned me into a helpless victim.
Since leaving, I have learned so much about my own strength. After getting out, my attorney and therapist put me in touch with the incredible women at the YWCA. They have a fantastic support system in place ready and waiting to help women who were in my shoes. In the months before I finally left, a friend also gave me this book which was an incredible resource that helped me make sense of everything I was experiencing. Her website is also full of helpful information for women enduring emotional abuse.
The days are hard and the road is not easy, but I would take my journey through recovery over the prison I lived in for so many years. If you are in an abusive relationship that is showing no signs of improving and getting out is your only choice, please know you are not a failure. Never discredit your gut instinct. Even if you don’t have a bruise to prove it, your body knows when it’s being mistreated. When something deep inside tells you something isn’t right about a situation, trust it. Nothing about leaving my marriage was easy, and it won’t be for you. Just remember that there is a beautiful life waiting for you on the other side of fear. Be brave and take that bold step out of the boiling water. I promise it will be worth it.