Debbie sat, quietly crying in my office.
"I don't think I should have left. The boys miss him. They blame me for the divorce."
She had been the wife of a very popular and well-liked coach.
And a victim of constant, pounding verbal and emotional abuse.
It had been a little over two years since Debbie's chaotic divorce. She and her two boys had moved in with her family, and now were living in a garage apartment behind her parents' home. He had made noise about wanting the children, but had not fought for custody. When they met to exchange the boys, he barely spoke to her, focusing only on the kids. She was working full-time at a small insurance agency, whereas before the divorce she had had a part-time job and could be home more. He had gotten on Match and Tinder even before the divorce was final. Now his Facebook account was full of pictures of his arm around a new woman.
Her weight was up. Her life not at all what she had hoped for. And she was lonely.
"Maybe it wasn't all that bad. It's not like he hit me."
Todd was a man in his early 50's, who worked in administration at the local University. He was a quiet guy, gentle in his demeanor. He had been married for over 30 years.
"We married young. And I loved her so much. I still do in a way. I'm not going to leave - we've been through so much with the kids. We've done a decent job with them. But I get so tired of her screaming at me that I'm doing everything wrong. Or just nit-picking me to death. She has to be in control. I don't know what's happened to her over the years. I get mad back sometimes, but it does no good."
He looked up, a little ashamed. "One time she slapped me."
Abby was a well-dressed woman in her early 30's. A junior executive at a huge corporation, she was a rising star. She had recently separated from her husband, and was getting a divorce. No kids.
She was outfitting her own apartment, something she had never done, as she moved straight from her parents' home into one with her husband. She went to Pier One to buy pillows.
"I got in the store, and realized I had no clue what I liked. I bought all three colors because I couldn't choose. For ten years, I have been told that my taste was terrible. He wouldn't like what I had on and make me change. He said what I cooked wasn't worth eating. If I did bring something home that I liked, he would talk badly about it, and sometimes would make me take it back."
'He didn't hit me, but he would hold my arm behind my back or push me up against a wall. He would get in my face and mock me when I would try to get away."
And then slowly, with a new look of sadness in her eyes, "He would make me have sex, when I didn't want to."
You don't have to have bruises and broken bones to be abused.
There are far too many people who are far too aware of violence at home, every day of their lives.
And there are children, who are watching the screaming and contempt. They are learning by the actions of those around them.
How did I try to help the three people above?
I asked Debbie to have her girlfriends or family over for a night when her kids were with her husband. She was to ask them what they remembered - names he had called her, particular instances of how she had been terrorized. She came back with a four-page list, and tears of recognition and relief.
"I had forgotten so much of this. I needed to forget - but I also need to remember."
We began working on her grief that her marriage had ended, that her boys were having to cope with two separate homes, and that she and her ex-husband might never have some kind of fair closure of their relationship. Although she was willing to take responsibility for her part of their difficulties, it didn't seem he ever would.
She needed to start living more in the present.
I worked with Todd on responding (versus reacting) to the deep insecurity and emotional instability his wife apparently was suffering. (No one who needs that much control is really secure.) We focused on building more positive experiences between them that had been absent for years. Both of them had felt demoralized, trying to keep their now adult children away from drugs. The kids were finally getting their act together, but it had been extremely rough going.
We worked on building friendships and more of a life for the two of them. We worked on how he could assert himself more with her, certainly not accepting being slapped or harmed physically. She needed to understand that he could leave, even given he didn't want to do that.
They both got better.
Her first assignment was to decide what color pillow she liked. And take the rest back.
The other grieving she had to do was immense. She worked on letting go of many demeaning messages that she had absorbed. Working through sexual abuse that occurs within a marriage can be tough, because often it is shrouded in confusion and secrecy. She was at times unsure whether she should even call it "abuse."
Let's be clear. Having sex as a gift? Maybe you're not quite in the mood, but you do it anyway? Fine.
That's sexual abuse. It's an act of violence.
Some of you who are reading this are in relationships just like the above. I have recently written on how hard it is to leave, as well as my own experience with abuse. You can get help, and sometimes the relationship can get better.
Sometimes it cannot.
Please talk to someone who will not judge, but can give you support and perspective.
Domestic violence shelters usually run groups that are open to the public. Find out the number for the shelter in your area. Call and attend a group. If you can't do that, call the local abuse hotline or the National Abuse Hotline, 1-800-799-SAFE.
You can read more of Dr. Margaret on her website. Just click here!
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