Waking Up to Emotional Abuse: My Journey

The swan in Lakeland FL

I’ve been wanting to write about this for awhile, but I’ve not had the guts to do it.  For a variety of reasons, it’s come up in a couple of conversations this week, and this blog is talking to me. I think it’s time.

Every relationship has a dance. And, when I tell this story, I want to say first that I don’t think my second husband realized what he was doing. He was not a bad person. He was reacting and living the only way he knew how…..as was I. Emotional and verbal abuse are not against the law. They are not morally wrong. The behavior is usually a way of living that feels normal to both parties. And, the victim has responsibility in the abuse as well. I didn’t get there by accident. My dance partner in our marriage was an out-of-control man who was really struggling with career dissatisfaction and loss. It was really hard on him, and his world was falling apart since he was a workaholic for 20 or so years. Now, work wasn’t working to build his self-esteem or make him feel better about himself. He was lost and probably afraid. I was also in a career and life transition and had very little self-confidence. My value depended heavily on having a successful relationship. I was so dependent on it working that I ignored a lot of things. We were two very fearful people doing the best we could at the time.

I’ll spare you the details, but I’ll tell you that we argued a lot. There was a lot of chaos due to job losses, moves and career crisis. And, I would try to control the situation to keep any more chaos from happening. I wanted to talk about things and problem-solve. My problem-solving was a healthy thing. My control issues were not. And, my controlling behavior included angry outbursts. My ex continually told me that I had an anger problem, and I knew I did. I was constantly trying to work on it. In fact, the last couple of years of my marriage, all I did was work on myself. I told that if I just would “get better”, he would stick around. I was the problem, and I believed that. If I was the problem, I could at least control the situation. It was just easier.

One day after a particularly bad argument where I was accused of being angry, “always bringing up problems,” and being “crazy”, I called our EAP at work. I spoke with the counselor and told her that I was really scared because I had this anger problem, and no matter what I did, I couldn’t seem to get better. I was very afraid, and I didn’t know what to do. I had gotten to the point that I was afraid I couldn’t function in a relationship. She interrupted me at one point and said, “It sounds like you are being verbally and emotionally abused.” “What?” I asked her. I was calling for help for my problem, and she was telling me I was being abused. That was the beginning of my education about emotional abuse.

I thought that emotional abuse was name-calling. There was some of that but not a lot. What she was picking up on was that I was being told that I was the problem. I believed I was the problem. Now I realize how distorted that was, but at the time, I needed to be the problem. Apparently, in healthy relationships, problems are relationship problems. The failure of the relationship doesn’t become the fault of one person. The extent of my belief in my responsibility for the relationship problems told her that I had lost all self-esteem. And, she was right.

She sent me a list of examples of emotional abuse, and all of them were happening to me. Out-and-out name-calling was a minor part. Discounting me and my feelings and telling me what I wanted, what I thought or who I was were the biggest offenses. I had lost the ability to speak for myself. When I tried to explain myself, I would be told that my explanation was not what I meant. I would continue to argue my point to no avail. He would tell me what I meant; I was not allowed to speak for myself, or, if I did, it was twisted in some fashion. He denied reality, a technique I call “crazy-making.” If I repeated something he said to me, he would often tell me that he never said that. He would actually deny that things he said or did never happened. I would walk away feeling “crazy” because I knew it had happened. He minimized my feelings and minimized problems that were occurring in our household. He employed the “silent treatment” or withheld affection from me frequently. After an argument, it was a common occurrence for him to go sleep in the other bedroom as a punishment for my having dared to be a person with my own needs and desires. From what I understand, most emotional abusers use all of them.

The therapist recognized my pattern of being misunderstood on a routine basis. In a verbally or emotionally abusive relationship, the “victim” is not heard or understood. And……guess what.….it makes them very angry. Being abused pisses you off. Interesting how abuse makes people angry, and then their anger becomes the problem, isn’t it? It was a vicious cycle, and I had to get out of it for my own emotional health.

The key to dealing with emotional abuse is to stop putting up with it. I had to set boundaries on it. I had to walk away. I had to tell him to stop. I had to quit arguing about what I meant. I had to recognize the tactics as distractors and abuse and ignore them. I needed to just keep re-stating my position. It was not easy. I didn’t have the most solid self-esteem. I had to rebuild that. When I got into my 12 step program, I started to build a much stronger core,  and it was easier to stand up for my own needs. He was willing to learn about emotional abuse and even recognized it in his behavior. But, he was unable to change it. Ultimately, the marriage ended. And, I’m glad it did. I was never able to be who I am in that relationship. I was invisible to him. Today, I recognize when someone does not “see” me, and I recognize that they will be abusers. I will never tolerate that again.

Developing healthy relationships with my recovery partners showed me what a healthy relationship feels like. If I pay attention, I can feel the difference. After my ex and I split up, we were moving our belongings into separate dwellings. We had finished moving most of the things out of the apartment and were sitting in an empty room talking. We were really trying to get along and be kind to one another. I said something – I don’t even remember what it was – and he took it as an affront or something. Because I had been away from him for awhile, I had forgotten how powerful his energy felt to me. He started talking to me, and I could feel this powerful energy move across the room and figuratively slam me up against the wall. The impact literally took my breath away. Emotional abuse is physically painful and exhausting. Today, I can’t imagine that I ever lived with it as long as I did.

If you have any doubt about the power of emotional abuse, please watch the below Public Service Announcement. The pain is real. If you have questions on what constitutes emotional abuse, read this website. Emotional abuse happens to both men and women, and both genders can be perpetrators. This article from Psychology Today gives examples on how both men and women typically abuse their spouses. If you recognize yourself as the abuser, get help. If you recognize yourself as the victim, get help. You both need it. My healing started when I started setting boundaries and taking care of myself. That was my responsibility. It’s not easy work. But, I have a life of freedom now, and I know that I don’t have to let anyone hurt me like that ever again…. knowledge is power. Believe it.


10 Comments on “Waking Up to Emotional Abuse: My Journey

  1. I am a survivor of a mental and very physical abusive husband. Of course it didn’t start out that way and I was a very trusting and naive person. My abuse didn’t start until after the marriage and I never saw any warning signs…But I did survive and moved on….Thank you for sharing your story and many, many blessings to you…Robin

    • You, too, Robin. I know how painful it is, and I’m glad you survived. For us, too, it didn’t start out that way. It probably rarely does.

      • I agree. Thanks so much for your site and for the comment. Many, many blessings to you…Robin

  2. Sharon, thank you for putting this out there. We are kindred spirits in many ways, you and I. My first marriage was also verbally and emotionally abusive, and as painful as it is to look back, it’s empowering to know I managed to move on, grow and learn.

    “In a verbally or emotionally abusive relationship, the “victim” is not heard or understood. And……guess what.….it makes them very angry.” Oh that is so true!!

    Unfortunately, sometimes I feel as though I still “attract” this type of person – people who don’t hear me, respect me, or understand me and who twist reality to suit their own purposes. Guess I still need to learn how to define myself in relationship to others and set boundaries before they get crossed. It’s all a process!

    • Thank you for sharing your experience, Susan. I had some time to spend with Sarah when I was in Austin, and I realized how amazing it is that we have known each other most of our adult lives, and I still didn’t really know her at all. By sharing my experiences, I am meeting so many kindred spirits who have been on the peripheral of my world for long periods of time. It is the gift of vulnerability. I so appreciate your telling me and commenting on the blog. This one was a little more vulnerable to write than usual, and it took me awhile to overcome my reluctance. I have friend who is traveling the same journey right now, and when she shared with me so openly, I knew it was time for me to write it. There are a lot of people who endure this and, like me, really don’t know this is abuse. I really thought I just couldn’t seem to express myself, or there was something wrong with me that was “unfixable.” I still attract this kind of person, too. I like to think of it as God’s way of reassuring me that I can spot it now. When I get that familiar feeling of “being invisible” coming up inside me, I now know what it is. Knowledge really is power. I hope I can see you in person in the future. You are amazing, and I’m so proud of you for becoming a minister….and a bit jealous, too… 🙂

  3. I am so glad and thankful you wrote this – you’re singing my song, note for note. I didn’t know I was being abused either…things just didn’t feel right…so I left, and the violence occurred as I was leaving was confirmation that things just weren’t right. I’m just now beginning the difficult journey of starting over and reclaiming myself…the person I worked so hard to become before I even met my ex.

    Anyway – I just wanted to express my gratitude for your generosity in sharing your story. You’ve reminded someone not too far away that they’re not alone.

    • Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad that I shared this, too. I have had several women reach out to me with their own stories after I wrote this. Many I’ve known most of my life, and we never knew this about each other. I know this, when you are done with your healing journey, you will carry the torch for others. It builds compassion in us. We are powerful, impactful women when we “wake up.”

  4. This is exactly what happened to me too- except it took a much longer time for me to figure it out. Another term is gas lighting. Thank you for sharing your story

    • Yes, I have heard that term before, too. Thanks for reading and sharing with me that we’ve had similar experiences. Unfortunately, I think it’s all too common. I truly don’t think most people want to be that way. They were just raised in an environment like that, and it seems normal to them. But, I still don’t have to tolerate it, even if they don’t have bad intentions. The proof is in the pudding.

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