11/03/2011 02:20 pm ET Updated Jan 03, 2012

How Do I Know It's Abuse?

Several years into my second marriage, one of my friends gave me the book "The Verbally Abusive Relationship" by Patricia Evans. I didn't read it for four years, despite the fact that I understood why she had given it to me. I didn't believe his behavior was abusive. It was very unpleasant, yes, but I was much too smart to live with abuse. When I finally opened the book, we had moved to a different state to try and save the marriage, as if geography could fix what was wrong. Of course it didn't. Within a year of the move, we were no longer together. I cried my way through that book, chapter by chapter. When I look at the notes now that I scribbled in the margins then, the words I see most often are "that was abuse!"

For someone who prided myself on my psychological acumen, I was amazingly naïve. We had been having horrible, loud, endless fights for years. Often I had no idea what we are even arguing about, but he would accuse me of something or take a tangent I felt I had to respond to, and the fight would continue. In the book that is called "blocking and diverting," and he did it all the time. Eventually I learned to leave the room at the first change of subject to end the fighting, but I still felt confused by what these battles were about. It was odd to learn they weren't about anything; that wasn't the goal. He didn't want to talk about whatever issue was the topic to begin with, and this was how he forced me to back off. It was horrible every time.

My first husband would make fun of me, tease me in a way that didn't feel teasing at all, and then say I didn't have a sense of humor. He also discounted my opinions, and did so in a very derogatory manner. Even though I spent hours laughing with my friends about almost everything, including my own behaviors, I worried that I didn't have a sense of humor. Having jokes told at my expense, and then being derided for not laughing at them was extremely debilitating. I burrowed further and further inside, until, by the end, I had no idea who I was, what I believed, or most important, what I felt. Verbal nastiness disguised as joking, undermining and trivializing were all defined as abuse in the book

There were other behaviors I accepted as well. I remember one of my husbands towering over me and yelling as I sat on the couch, and can still feel my fear all these years later. He didn't touch me, so how could it be abuse? Years later my other husband stood up and towered over me in a joint therapy session we were having with a substance counselor, who also stood up, towering over my husband because he was so tall, as he asked him, "Don't you see that you are frightening her?" He must have. Wasn't that the point? Over the years I'm sure I talked about these behaviors in therapy, but none of those therapists put a name to what I was enduring. Is it cynical or wrongheaded of me to think that was because they were male? Unfair, certainly, since the substance counselor was a man as well.

For me, the most disturbing part is that I allowed two different men to treat me this way. I knew that the threats, the judging, the trivializing, the discounting, and the repeated change of subject felt awful, but I had no idea what to do about any of it. What feels the saddest is that the second time around I had no excuse. If I had read the book my friend had given me earlier, I would have suggested counseling and forced the counselor to call the behavior what it was. Who knows if my husband would have been willing to look at his behavior and then alter it, but I would have given him the chance. The lesson for me has been to not avoid looking at anything, though it came too late to save either marriage. To understand my own behavior, own it, and work on changing what was dysfunctional about it became my mantra. I was also determined to name the behavior of my partner, if not immediately to him, at least to myself. I have since learned that if I admit my own issues, I am much more clear about his, and much less frightened about bringing them up. The book was a catalyst for me, and the beginning of the path I took to arrive at my life partner's door.