Thursday, February 22, 2007
Dismaying Story #117: Escalating Verbal Abuse
I am at a loss of what to do about my marriage. I am 23 years old and I have been married for about 2 years. Right after we were married, I had a couple of horrible moments where I realized that I shouldn’t have married this man. He would be kind and attentive one moment and cutting and impatient the next. I told him that I thought I had made a mistake in marrying him. Because of our religion, we believe marriage to be sacred and eternal. I knew that I had to do everything that I could for my marriage. My mantra became this, “Maybe we shouldn’t have married, but we did, and I love him, so I will make it work.” I begged him to come with me to counseling, but he refused.
Months went by, with small incidents turning into huge arguments. I began putting everything I did or said into a pretty package for him, hoping there wouldn’t be anything he could pick apart. It really seemed that nothing I did was enough for him. He began treating me like trash, verbally abusing and controlling me. If something didn’t quite go his way, he would stand close to me with his face in mine and say “Can you be nice, can you be nice” over and over without letting me get a word in edgewise. I didn’t know where to turn. I didn’t want to tell my family because I wanted them to like my husband and get along with him. Meanwhile he was telling me that if it came down to it and I had to choose between him and my family that I would have to choose him.
Finally it came to a head after Thanksgiving. We spent the weekend visiting his brother’s family and my husband got upset over some really minor details. Like what type of pickles I had bought for the appetizers. He held most of his anger in, but moped around all weekend. Finally when we were on the 5 hour drive home, he exploded. Screaming at me for hours about how I am an embarrassment to him in front of his family, calling me a “Nazi” and a snot and many other horrible things. I couldn’t even say anything, I just cried and cried. When we arrived home that evening, we both kept to ourselves. The next day I went to work and I decided that I would go home and if he didn’t realize that how he had acted was awful, that I would have to leave.
When I arrived home that evening, he told me that “we needed to talk” and began to tell me how I needed to change. I knew what I had to do and began to pack some of my things. When he saw that I was serious about leaving, he became scaring, his moods changing like the flip of a coin. One moment he was begging me to stay, the next moment he was yelling at me to leave. He even stood behind the car so that I wouldn’t be able to leave. I felt like I was in a Lifetime movie or something! My heart was beating so fast. I finally got away and ran to the car to leave. I have been living with my parents ever since.
This is where things get trickier for me. I really don’t feel like I should ever go back and be with my husband. I am ready to get a divorce from him today. We have been seeing a counselor together, and he has undergone some major adjustments. Making promises of never treating me badly and being the husband of my dreams. I feel nauseous when he says these things and when I think of being with him, much less having kids with him. Because of my religion, there is a lot of guilt associated with these desires for a life without him. I feel like I should want to be back with my husband, but I really don’t. I am happier without him than I have been in a very long time. I feel like I am myself again after so much time trying to be who he wanted me to be.
My husband is saying that he will wait for me forever, and that he will never break the promises that he made to me at our wedding. This really concerns me for my future, wondering if he will ever let me be. I feel like I have time to be happy in my life and I don't know if he can be a part of that happiness ever again.
I am at a loss for what I should do.
Signed, Scared for My Future
I’m so sorry to hear about the abuse you have had to endure. It sounds like you have so far done the only thing you can. The situation you described was escalating. It’s not a big stretch from in-your-face verbal abuse to physical abuse. If you had stayed with him, I believe the chances are very high that is what would have started happening.
You are right to be leery of getting back together with him. The behaviors you describe are dysfunctional and extreme. He is controlling, lacks all empathy for seeing things from your point of view, and cares only for his own happiness rather than yours. The “can you be nice” routine is particularly scary. This is an individual with serious issues.
And when did his behavior change? Only when he was threatened with not having something he wanted -- that is, when you left and he faced the prospect of losing you. So he came up with a strategy to get what he wants again, which is to make nice, say the right words, and profess undying love.
Now what is likely to happen if you give in and move back together with him? Well, that would put the two of you back in the situation you were in previously. He would again have what he wanted. I suspect (and obviously so do you) that he would be nice for a while, and then the situation would eventually disintegrate back into the abusive relationship you had before.
This isn’t just skepticism on my part. Instead, I base my doubt on the fact that he has not gone through a process to change who he is. Yes, the two of you are going through counseling, but that is to talk about the dynamic between the two of you. That discussion centers around his behavior toward you. In other words, the focus is on one symptom of his problem, not the cause of his anger and controlling ways.
His behavior doesn’t just spring up in isolation. He is a seething, unhappy person inside. I don’t know the reason but there has to be one (or several). Something in his past has taught him to be deeply afraid or distrustful inside (or something similar), and his outward behavior toward you is the strategy he has developed for dealing with it. His internal belief system makes him feel justified in acting that way. For example, “I know I can’t trust anyone to really like me and that includes my wife so I will get respect the only way I know how, which is to demand it.” That may not be his mantra, but that is one example of how a fractured spirit can show itself to the rest of the world.
I doubt very much your couples counseling has done anything to address his individual issues. That means his internal dysfunction is still there. He may indeed have the best of intentions in terms of how he wants to treat you in the future. Unless he gets help healing himself, though, eventually he will encounter enough stress to trigger the internal pain, at which point the abuse will begin again.
My advice is to refuse to get back together with him until he has individual counseling to ferret out his own demons. He needs to gain insight into what is truly behind his behavior, and most importantly he needs to gain closure on whatever fears from his past are lurking in the corners of his mind. He needs to say more than “I am motivated to treat you better now.” He needs to be able to explain what was behind his old ways and why he is no longer affected by those emotional forces. You need to see evidence that he is happier and more content with his self-image. It should be obvious to you that his entire outlook on the world has altered in a good way. That should be a prerequisite for getting back together with him.
All of that depends on him developing a desire to heal for his own sake. At some point this has to become about him, just him, rather than simply an exercise he is going through to get you back. Again, I doubt very much your couples counseling has even come close to meeting that criterion.
I have no idea how willing he would be to put in the effort required to find the right helping professional (they are not all created equal) and go through that healing process. Even if he were willing, there is no guarantee he would succeed. And even if he made tremendous progress, there is no guarantee his old demons wouldn’t reassert themselves at some point. I wouldn’t blame you if you decide the personal risk is too great, that your future is too important to allow it to hinge on his willingness and ability to heal. His behavior is longstanding and you may come to the conclusion that he will never truly change. If so, you should not re-enter an abusive relationship.
I wish both you and your husband good luck in finding a happier place.
All the best,
Have you seen the Question of the Week? It raises the issue of whether couples can find ways to be happy together if they differ in some significant way. Check it out -- I would love to hear your opinion!