My Dearest Sister,
I use that term endearingly, both because we are in the broad sisterhood of being a woman, and because you are likely also my sister in Christ.
I think of you often, and wonder what I would have done, if anything, if I heard from an ex at the cusp of my “relationship” with your current boyfriend. He’s so charming and sensitive and deep, and has told you many-a-story of his lunatic, abusive ex-wife whose primary goal is to steal his daughter and destroy his life. She sounds like a MONSTER. Obviously, she isn’t capable of truth, so reading something like this shouldn’t hold even an ounce of weight in your whirlwind romance. Or should it??
At the end of my “marriage” to your current boyfriend, shortly after our church kicked him out of my house and asked him to get help so that our daughter and I could be safe again, I was speaking to my sister-in-law, his brother’s wife, on the phone. She’s amazing. If you stick around long enough you’ll meet her I’m sure. Truly one of the best people you’ll ever know. She was telling me that her husband, your boyfriend’s brother, told him before we got married that he wasn’t healthy enough to be getting married. When I heard that, I was angry for a while. I thought, “why wouldn’t they have told ME!? I AM the one who should have been told – of course someone not healthy enough to be getting married won’t listen to a big brother!!!” I’ve thought about it a lot since then. I’m not sure I would have listened either, to be honest. And now that I have the most amazing tiny human out of the “marriage,” I’m grateful for it.
You know what else I’m grateful for? Every abusive minute of my miserable six year “marriage.” It brought me to the exact place I am in today – empowering and loving survivors of domestic violence and abuse. I have even more empathy and grace than I did before your boyfriend got his claws into me. More power and resilience. More. . . FIERCE. I didn’t know fully what I was capable of before. I knew I was strong, beautiful, independent, and capable. Yes, I knew all of that. Those qualities and my confidence in them is what compelled your boyfriend to choose me. Conquering that, as it turns out, is much more satisfying for your boyfriend than someone already meek and submissive. Incidentally, the man that I didn’t choose while your boyfriend was pursuing me hardcore in 2006/2007 told me recently that his memory of me during that time was that I was: “all joy, and strength, and downright fun.” I was JOY. And STRENGTH!! And. . . FUN!?! By the time your boyfriend was done with me, I was. . . nothing.
So when, after a few years in the “marriage,” I was a shell of what I once was, he had won. He had broken me. Not just once, but into a million teeny tiny pieces that I never believed would have been put back together. Not ever. But by the grace of God, good therapists, and amazing friends and family, I went from believing I needed to be institutionalized I had gone “so crazy,” to being the fiercest advocate for survivors that I can be.
I remember one of the first times he successfully got me thinking that I didn’t know what I know. We had just watched a movie, something about hideous men. Ironic, I know. He asked me what I thought of the movie. He was a super deep, sensitive guy – something that drew me to him while we were dating. Even more ironic, I know. I didn’t have much input but could tell he REALLY wanted to talk about something having to do with the movie so I told him I’d be happy to discuss what it made him feel, since I didn’t have a strong opinion about it one way or the other. He declined, telling me that I might as well not exist as a human being if I didn’t have a strong opinion about everything. This was pretty confusing coming from my husband, but he insisted it was for my own good. And that I really needed to consider my position. I tried to explain that it didn’t matter and that I would love to hear his take on the film. I tried multiple times in many different ways to explain that my position was simply neutral, and that it was okay that we didn’t agree on everything. This was exceptionally confusing to me, since it wasn’t even like I had a DIFFERENT opinion than him on the movie. I just didn’t have one at all!
When I couldn’t help him understand, I just redirected and opened up my computer to review some pictures that one of my best friends had taken of her family for her Christmas card or birth announcement – I can’t remember which – and she wanted my opinion on which photos to use. Your boyfriend told me very calmly that if I didn’t close my computer, he would, “throw it off the fucking balcony.” I will never forget that moment or that feeling. How did he turn what I thought was a benign conversation about a movie we watched on Netflix into something so angry but so creepily calm, and somehow make me feel guilty about it?! It was like magic.
It only got worse from there, and more confusing. I was constantly yelling and angry and crying and defending myself. And he was so. . . calm. Emotionless even. While leaning back in his chair at the kitchen table with his arms crossed and a smirk on his face he would say, “I don’t know what your problem is, I’m just trying to have a conversation with you. Why are you being so crazy??” And just like that, with a lot more words, I was the problem and he was the loving husband who was trying to gently correct my sinful heart.
Two years in, I got an e-mail from him that I must have blocked out until searching through e-mails during the beginning of our “custody battle.” This wasn’t a new thing – I got a LOT of e-mails from him during my work day. He didn’t work, of course. He was very busy building a music career while I made six figures without a college education working 70+ hours a week. After reading the e-mail again years later, I quickly recalled the scenario. The night before, we had a fight when I got home from work. This was very common – he had been brooding about something all day and immediately picked on me for it upon arrival from home after working a 12-hour day. I’m bright, and have a sharp tongue, so while he was picking on me, I’d fire back with venom. Don’t worry – he’d spin it by the end of the night to make sure I understood I was the problem and he was the victim. One particular night he accused me of being in a “blind rage.” I assured him that there was no such rage – that I was very clear headed in my anger. He pounced on that opportunity the next day, and sent an e-mail that today gives me chills up and down my spine. In it, he outlines the very specific way in which he abuses people. Lundy Bancroft calls it the “water torturer” and I concur. I’ll lend you his book, just ask me.
Anyway, by the end of the e-mail he is telling me that he understands how I am clear in my anger, because he used to be the same! It was only a few years ago – magically, exactly when he met me, upon further calculation – that he learned to control his tongue. He talks about love, and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, and blah blah blah. It is very convincing. He is a new man – but he can understand my dark, sinful heart. Do you see what he’s done there?? He brings himself down to my level. Explains the ugliest abuse one could ever imagine, which is THE EXACT THING HE’S DOING TO ME IN THE E-MAIL. Attempts to get me to believe he understands which means I can feel safe and confide in him, the same man who admits that only a few years ago he would poke and poke at people until he could get his opponent to explode in a rage, and that he should be trusted to help pull me out of this ugly, ugly sin that I am so obviously struggling with. The head games make my head spin today – it is hard to imagine myself back in that place of believing he was good and I was bad. He could help me and I was useless without him.
Within a couple years, I forgot who I was. I forgot how to think. That I was valuable – and that my opinion and feelings were valuable. Ironically, I’d still fight for who I remembered me to be. I’d yell and scream and cry and try to get him to SEE ME. To hear me? To know that it was okay that we didn’t agree on everything. Or whether or not having an enlarged (16” x 20” canvas) wedding photo hanging in our home should be prohibited. Sidebar: He kicked me out of the house that night, because I begged him to seek input from his mentor Luke, or his older brother. I remember very often begging him to seek input from others, because I just couldn’t fathom that they would hold the same hard and fast position as him, and maybe if someone else held the same position as me, he would actually consider it. I now know that was an empty pursuit. I ended up staying at my best friend’s house that night.
I spent years and years trying to fix me. Maybe if I wasn’t so fill-in-the-blank, he would be able to hear me, or would care about me. Maybe if I was more fill-in-the-blank, he would be able to hear me, or would care about me. Maybe if. . .
We did a lot of marriage therapy. A LOT. Turns out victims should not enter therapy with their abusers – ever. In relationship counseling, the relationship is the client. The therapist, especially the Christian therapist who mistakenly puts the marriage above basically everything else on the planet, works with both of you to encourage change and growth. You end up revictimized because NO YOU SHOULD NOT HAVE TO CHANGE ANYTHING TO NOT BE ABUSED. It is like telling the rape victim that had she not worn such a short dress he wouldn’t have raped her. Uhhhh, how about you JUST NOT RAPE SOMEONE!?!
It wasn’t until my daughter was seven months old that I learned I was being abused. I believed I was the problem. Truly. That I was irreversibly screwed up. Maybe even that I should be institutionalized. I finally sought therapy on my own – my very own individual therapy session where JEN was the client. Not a “marriage.” And my abuser wasn’t there to spin or manipulate. It was just me and my therapist. By the end of the first session, I heard these very words, “oh Jen. You aren’t losing your mind. You are being abused.”
Relief swept over and through my entire body. I learned in the coming weeks that my response – my yelling and crying and defending myself – was the exact response he was looking for. That helped him maintain his power and control over me, since my response was sinful and he was so calm and collected. So I stopped responding. Oddly enough, I had tried this once before when I was 8 months pregnant but without the context of why it was significant. He was verbally attacking me so egregiously that I didn’t respond – I climbed into bed crying. He responded by using the squirt bottle he used to train the dog and sprayed me in the face. Three times. A week later he told me in writing, referring to the squirt bottle incident, “I’ve acted out that like that before. It wasn’t flattering, but I think that’s on the behavior that procured it, and not on me.”
When I stopped responding, his abuse had to escalate, kind of like the squirt bottle. He had to maintain that power and control somehow. The last day this happened in my home, he told the police, after assaulting me while I was holding our daughter and screaming for help on the balcony, that I was going to kill my daughter and then myself, and that she should be taken from me. I was on the phone with my sister-in-law (do you see a pattern here? Like most abused women, I called family and friends instead of police!) while he said, waiting for the police to arrive, “I don’t know why you are talking to anyone else about this. I’m the one you have to convince you’re not crazy.”
And it clicked. He believed with every ounce of his being that when the police arrived, that they would take or not take my child based on what he told them. This was the ULTIMATE play for power. This was my baby. My child – my HEART. My exclusively breastfed daughter who I birthed in my living room (on purpose) and who had never been away from me for more than a couple hours while she was sleeping. The child who, if I asked him to watch her, I had to send a calendar invitation and my phone would begin blowing up with texts demanding my ETA if I was more than five minutes late. He believed that if I didn’t make it up to him somehow, before the police got there, she would be gone – at his sole direction and pleasure. My sister-in-law calmed me down brilliantly and when the police arrived, I lied about what happened (because what if they took her!?!), and they responded by saying, “you two need to get your marriage together.”
Thanks, Captain Obvious.
Except we didn’t actually need to do that. He needed to stop abusing his wife. And I needed to stop letting him. But I couldn’t do it alone, so I went to the church. And our friends. Our very best friends. And our families. And they fought beside me, and for me, and vowed to help pay my rent, and to work with my “husband” to get him healthy and safe.
I discovered quickly that abusers don’t “get better.” Even while working with people who I considered amazing mentors for him. Our head pastor, who I gave far too much power to in the end, attempted explaining it to him in the most practical way possible. He, your boyfriend, was using the wrong “tools” with which to love his family. He was using a hammer. And a saw. When the job called for much gentler tools. It was such an awesome word picture for me and I thought, naively, that your boyfriend would “get it.” He would ask our pastor for help to find and use the right “tools” and would make the changes necessary for me and our very young daughter to be safe! I was wrong. Again.
Because then he played the ultimate trump card for a Christian. He (gasp!) filed for DIVORCE. And my church disappeared. And our (closest) friends disappeared. And many family members disappeared.
So here I am, four years out, still not safe, and still not able to make my daughter safe. And I’m thinking of you. Praying for you. If you hear NOTHING else in this painstakingly long message, please hear this: you are valuable. You are beautiful. You are wise and strong. You are all joy, and strength, and downright fun. And when you begin to doubt any of that for even one second, I’ll be here. When you think that he must be right about how bad or wrong or crazy you are, because he says he loves you and he’s just trying to help you be your best self, I’ll be here. When you begin to doubt your own sanity or beauty or strength or joy, I’ll be here.
I will tell you that you are valuable, and beautiful, and wise. That you are joy, and strength, and downright fun. Because I know you. You are me, 12 years ago.
The “crazy” ex-wife