[August 2, 2022: There have been some changes made to this post. For more information, read the Editors’ notes at the bottom of the post. Editors.]
The following story of surviving abuse was submitted by one of our readers. Many, many thanks to Deborah for telling it. Trigger Warning as it contains detailed descriptions of abuse:
I have been divorced from my ex- husband for almost two years now and separated for over three. My ex-husband progressively emotionally, financially, sexually, and spiritually abused me for 17 years. By the end, when all the rest stopped working for him, he was physically abusive as well.
I have so many blank spots in my mind, for the years I was with him, memories that I don’t have access to. Since leaving him, I have started talking with friends who knew us then and they began reminding me of things that happened, filling the massive gaps in my memory. When they tell me, it usually brings back the memory of the incident they raise and opens several more that I had forgotten or refused to let in, when they originally happened.
I often remember about half of the story. I don’t know how much I have repressed over the 17 year relationship, just to function and cope, and it scares me at times, to think about what may have happened in those gaps of time, that I have lost. Sometimes, I don’t even want to remember them. Sometimes, I wonder if not remembering might be a little grace for me, rather than having to go through the pain of yet another memory to pile on top of the mountain of abuse. Sometimes it’s just easier to not recall every single, ugly detail.
The following is an account of what I have been able to either remember on my own, or recover from my blank places, by talking with friends or just from things that happen, that trigger the memories for me.
My abuser is what is known as a savvy abuser. He would go right up to the line where he might expose himself to others for what he really is, and then never, ever cross over it and take the chance of being seen. So, while some abusers are in their front yards, yelling and hitting their wives where everyone can see, he practiced his abuse behind closed doors and created a manipulative nightmare for me and my children. He was not an outright, “here I am”, abuser. He was an insidious, ”I don’t know what just hit me, or if anything really did, but I feel like I have been run over by a truck and don’t know why”, kind of savvy abuser. He knew how to look innocent to anyone of significance, but he was far from it. For him, the devil truly was in the details.
He controlled little things, like the thermostat at home. He made the kids and I stay in the house in the Southern 100 + summer with the thermostat set to 80. It was too hot for the kids and I would often lower it in the day, without him knowing, but sometimes would forget to turn it back before he got home. I would get in SO much trouble for that.
I would get in trouble if I spent too much money or spent it on things he didn’t approve of, or if I didn’t buy generic brands. Mine and the kids needs were burdens and his needs were essential. I would have to buy clothes for the kids and I, with birthday gift cards, because I could not get them any other time. When I was pregnant and needed maternity clothes, he got quite upset at that, because I was “spending so much money”.
I would also get in trouble for being gone too long or spending too long somewhere when he was ready to go or ready to have me home. He would tell me, not ask me, to go somewhere.
He would get mad at me for asking him one time to do something. He would call it nagging to simply ask for his help once. He never took the initiative to help with chores, even when he saw I was completely overwhelmed with them, but would get upset if I didn’t drop them to spend time with him exactly when he wanted me to.
For example, when I would clean and he thought I shouldn’t be, he would restrain me on the couch to keep me from cleaning. I never saw this as physical abuse. It just seemed normal for the way we lived. I can see it now that I have educated myself on what abuse actually is, but I didn’t then.
Any promise made to me about meeting my needs or desires, could be and was often pushed aside, whenever he needed or wanted something else. He had a cycle of promising me things, a vacation somewhere, fixing things around the house, a baby, my education, etc., and then never delivering on those promises. Later, I realized he only promised those things, to get me to agree to whatever he was wanting, or to get me to be quiet. I lost trust in any promises he ever gave me and felt awful about how he disregarded me constantly and consistently.
He broke his promise to me, to allow me to finish my schooling, once he was done with his Master’s program, making me feel guilty for not putting my education aside once again, to allow him to go on to get his PhD. That decision had a 6 year consequence for me. His desires and aspirations were ALWAYS more important than mine – always took precedence, even when he promised otherwise.
I developed a “wait and see” attitude. When anything was promised to me, I would wait and see if it would be delivered or forgotten, before I got excited about it. I had to, or else be hurt, over and over again, from his disregard of me. When you hope, only to have that hope bashed against an emotional wall, over and over again, sooner or later, you learn to stop hoping. I still fight this today, in the aftermath. I have a very hard time trusting that promises will be honored.
I would often have to get in between him and my kids, as he would yell at them and scare them badly (I found myself warning the kids of what he might do and was always in a panic for them to behave, so he wouldn’t yell at them). I remember my son would break down in fear, crying when he did anything wrong at school, even as minor as talking out of turn, and begged me, pleaded with me not to tell Daddy because Daddy would use his mean voice.
At my daughter’s third birthday party, he told me he was going to go with some of his friends who were at the party, to a liquor store, that was right next to the place where we had her party. I stared at him stunned and asked if he thought he might should stay and help with his daughter’s party. He looked at me, as if I was annoying him and killing all of his fun.
He only changed diapers or did kid stuff when we were out in public, so he could look like a great dad, and even then, he would forget sometimes, and leave me to handle them alone. One time, we were eating with my parents at a restaurant. My son was potty training and my daughter still nursing. I was nursing my daughter and my son had an accident. One of us needed to change his pants. He just looked at me and I knew he wasn’t going to offer any help. So, I had to take my daughter, still nursing on me, to the bathroom and get my son changed at the same time.
There was a time when he and his father made his mom, me and the kids (my son was 5 and daughter 2 at the time) wait outside of a smoky casino, for over an hour, while they went in to gamble. After about half an hour, I went in while the kids stayed outside with their grandmother, and asked him to leave. He refused and said he would go when he was ready to. We didn’t matter as much as what he wanted to do and were just expected to wait for him to finish, with nowhere to go and nothing to do.
I would get trapped and was unable to please him, ever. I would get in trouble for doing something, anything really, in a way he didn’t approve of, and the next time it would happen, I would do it his way, and still get in trouble. Often, he would then ask, why I didn’t do it the way I had originally done it in the first place, as now, that was the correct way. I would be in trouble, no matter how I handled it.
I couldn’t ask him how he was doing or tell him “I love you” too many times in a day, or he would get upset with me. He said my asking him how he was told him he looked bad and it got to the point that I was not allowed to ask at all or he would get angry. If I said “I love you” too many times in a day, he would tell me that I decrease the value of the meaning of the words when I did that and that I should rarely tell him those words. I never understood that and was always confused by it.
He once got angry at me for falling asleep, while waiting for him to come home from a business trip, as he believed I should be up and happy to greet him. I was pregnant and it was late. I accidentally fell asleep.
He would clench his fists and hit the walls or sink and then blame me for inciting and angering him to that point. One time, I startled him by putting my hand on his shoulder, and he completely flipped out, yanked my arm so that my elbow was on his shoulder and pulled down. Thankfully I screamed and he stopped before he broke my arm. He simply told me not to startle him like that. At the very end, he pushed me hard across the room. I remember because I barely caught my balance, before knocking my head on the kitchen counter.
When he was mad at me, he would give me the silent treatment or ridicule me and it would often be a shock. I never knew when it would happen, or what exactly would set him off. It was often minor things that would do it.
When I was sick, I still had to care for everyone, particularly if he were sick too. There was no taking turns. I remember one time he and I and the baby all had a stomach bug. I had to get up and change the baby’s diaper and it took five times of trying because I would have to rush to the toilet to throw up. He never got up to help and would always say that he was so much worse off than me and that is why he wouldn’t help. This was a pattern. When I had strep throat, I begged him for three days to take me to the doctor. I couldn’t take myself because I was so sick with fever, I was dizzy and could barely walk. He refused and said it was just a virus and would pass. I knew it wasn’t. He finally took me and I was delirious and could barely move. The doctor took one look in my throat and said it was strep and I needed antibiotics right away. My ex just stood there looking that fake concerned he put on in front of other people.
He told me, when I was pregnant with my first child, that if he had known I would be that emotional, he never would have married me.
He would keep records of everything I did wrong and would throw them back at me like a shopping list, when he was mad at me. Nothing was ever really forgiven, never ever forgotten. His words were used to bludgeon my heart over and over again, to put me in my place and remind me of how little I am to him.
He demanded His way and if I refused or disagreed, I was told I was arguing and needed to submit to his Biblical role of head of the house. He would listen to my ideas as though he were a king and I was a servant. He would say things like, “I’ll listen to what you have to say and then I will make my decision about it.” “I am the head of this house and what I say goes.”
Everything I brought to him was going to be a fight. I had to really think a problem was a big one, for it to be worth raising with him, knowing he would throw it back at me and somehow make it all my fault. He was a master at that. He blamed me for everything and had a way of making minor discretions into mortal sins, whenever I did something he didn’t like. I was made to feel as if I had killed someone, simply because I didn’t hear something he had said and he felt I wasn’t listening to him.
One time, we were in the car and arguing about me going back to teaching. I wanted to stay in the ministry position I was in and he wanted me to teach, to make more money. He called me a liar and told me he would never trust me again, because previous to becoming a stay at home mom and getting involved in the ministry at my church, I had agreed to go back to teaching, when our youngest child was in school and now I had changed my mind and he was not ok with that. He told me that my calling from God was an excuse for me to do what I wanted to do and that I should be doing work that made more money, so that he could retire.
He was screaming so loud my kids in the back seat were terrified. I initially tried to defend myself, but gave up after I realized he was beyond listening to anyone. I curled up in my seat and begged him to stop (I thought he was going to hit me). He wouldn’t stop. I tried to get out of the car at a red light and he locked the doors, so I couldn’t. Later, he said I drove him to it, by making him so mad. He said if I didn’t push his buttons, he wouldn’t do that.
He was my tormentor, and my healer. He would do horribly hurtful things and then, when I was broken, come back and show a kind of compassionate forgiveness for my “wrongdoing”. It was a cycle of torment and beating me down, followed by building me back up, after I had been crushed by him. I believe this is how he gained and maintained my loyalty.
He had me doubting his abusive acts, because of all of the acts of kindness, so to speak, that would follow. This part I still struggle with today, as it massively messed me up in the head, emotionally.
When we were dating, if I got close to breaking up with him or realizing things he did that hurt me, he would emotionally pull me closer and romance me. Once I was back in emotional dependence with him, the loving concern and romance would stop and he would go back to his old ways. He had me back under control.
When we were married, that changed slightly. Instead of romancing me back into his world, he started using demands and control to keep me where he wanted me. If I would step out of line in his eyes, he would exert his authority and control, to whatever extent he needed to, to scare me or guilt me back into submission. Instead of “Baby, I love you and I would never….xyz….” it moved into “You will do this and you won’t do this.” Once I complied, he would ease up on me and would relax again, until the next time. His control slipped into this pattern so slowly over the years, that I didn’t even see it happening.
He was abusing me in the bedroom too. When we were dating, he constantly pressured me for sex and I wouldn’t give in. He would take us too far for my comfort and conviction level, and then I would feel guilty and pull back and he would get upset and completely withdraw emotionally from me for days. I would feel so guilty, for compromising my faith and would feel terrible, for “teasing” him all at the same time. I was completely conflicted and confused, as he would say throughout that he wanted to “stay pure” too. Then the cycle would start again.
Our first sexual encounter was when he sodomized me. That was my first time. I have blamed myself for this and have lived in deep shame about it, since I remembered months ago, that it even happened. After all, I agreed to this. I agreed to it, by not saying “no” but I never, ever wanted it to happen. After it did happen, I sat in the bathroom in his dorm room for a long time, physically sick, and crying. When I was done, he took me to the store, bought me some spermicide and said, “Put this in you. If you get pregnant, it will ruin both our lives.”
He would ask me to do weird things, that I didn’t understand, like shaving myself bare and sometimes he would watch TV when we had sex. I don’t remember what he watched. He was rough with my body and I felt like he was preparing it for his own pleasure, rather than learning my needs and desires. I felt like a pin cushion and I guess there was a reason for that.
If I complained about something he did to my body, he would withdraw all affection completely, for a long time, I guess to punish me for complaining. I learned to endure it, rather than complain. To this day, I have trouble trusting that physical affection isn’t a transaction, to get sex.
Affection was reserved only for when he wanted sex. I quickly learned that with us, affection meant sex and nothing more. When he was done with me, he would withdraw all physical and emotional affection, until the next time he wanted to have sex. It was a transaction. He gave me affection and expected sex. I felt like a prostitute.
My ex learned that if he withdrew emotion / affection from me, it was torture to me. Do it long enough and he could get anything he wanted from me. I would do just about anything to keep from having the emotional consequences he would give, if I chose not to do what he asked. So, while he didn’t force me, in a way, he did. He manipulated me into knowing that if I didn’t do it, he would withhold and deny me what I needed most for as long as it took to punish me or make me cave and give in and in the end, I would feel to blame if I denied him. It gave him ultimate control. It gave him a way to get what he wanted, without using direct force, and with me, this was a powerful tool in his hands, that he used in many areas of my life.
When we first got married, not long after coming home from our honeymoon, I came in the living room with no clothes on, as a loving gesture to my new husband. He moved his head to look around me at the video game he was playing and asked me to move. I ran into the bedroom, embarrassed and crying, put my clothes back on and looked up to see him standing in the doorway. He told me it was just a joke. He always said stuff like that. “It’s just a joke” “You need to learn my sense of humor.” In other words, “It’s all your fault.”
One time, we were at a store, and I asked him why he and I had stopped being intimate. He told me “I don’t’ think I love you anymore”. I was shocked. He said he had stopped trying because I had said “no” a lot (he was referring to a time I when I had severe stomach pain, after I had my daughter, that lasted close to a year, in which I did slow down our intimacy, but only because I was so sick). He said he gave up and that he didn’t think he loved me anymore. He said we could just live as roommates for the sake of the kids. I was devastated.
He had this look in his eye when he would click over to rage and I knew I was not going to be safe. That was the look he had when he attacked a guy in college and then claimed later that the guy just wouldn’t leave him alone and that’s why he choked him. It’s the look he had when he punched my dog in the head repeatedly, for peeing on the floor. I recently discovered that he also hit the dog I have now, with a stick, when I wasn’t around.
One of the worst times for me was at the end of the marriage, when he threatened to destroy me, take away all I had, including my kids, if I talked about his abuse, and to keep him from doing that, I apologized for upsetting him and then kissed him for a long time, trying to calm him down, desperate to keep him from hurting me. It worked and he stopped. He looked satisfied that I was again put in my place. In that moment, I felt like a prostitute, using myself to pay him off. It was only a kiss but it was the selling of myself to keep him calm which was represented in that kiss, that destroyed my soul in that moment.
I remember feeling like I was going to throw up in his mouth.
After that, I was so upset that I slept, or I think I slept, for five hours straight, in the middle of the day. My body just finally gave out. I say “think so”, because I could hear everything around me but I was so numb that I couldn’t move, I couldn’t open my eyes or respond when my son came in to wake me. I just couldn’t get my body to respond. That was probably the worst it got for me and it was soon after that that we finally separated and then divorced.
I was very depressed and would disassociate myself from him when it got really bad. He yelled at me when I shut down with him. He hated no reaction more than he hated me standing against him. When I would passively refuse to allow his control, He would get in my face and yell, “Why aren’t you talking to me?” “What is wrong with you?”
My son saw one of those times. He asked what was wrong with Mommy, and my ex smiled at me, knowingly, and then turned and told my son that mommy was sick and that he would take care of him. He then took my son in the other room, to play together.
When I started to realize what was happening, and that it was abuse, I told him several times I wanted a divorce. This was after couple’s counseling failed miserably and only made the abuse worse and after he had attempted “The Love Dare”, but continued abusing me through it.
He would threaten me – tell me he would tell everyone I knew some lies about me and ruin my reputation, get me fired, take the kids away, and leave me on the streets. He said I could stay at his house, but would be totally dependent on him. I believed him and I stayed. I didn’t think anyone would believe me. He knows how to appear wonderful to people. I didn’t know how to counter that. When I would try, no matter how I tried, people just saw me as crazy.
The other reason I thought I had to stay was because of the kids. I knew the courts would grant joint custody, as what he did was not severe enough for the courts to take them away from him and give me full custody. It wasn’t enough in the eyes of the law, anyway, but I knew sooner or later, he would start in on them too. I thought I had to protect them. But I wasn’t really protecting them by staying there. What I only realized when I got out is that I am doing more for them now that they are with me in a calm, loving environment half the time than I could when we were all always in that abusive place. I’m also teaching them that when someone hurts you repeatedly, you don’t have to stay and take it. I am teaching them that God is a merciful God and will allow for you to leave, to preserve your safety.
I thought I was so weak. I thought I could not survive without him. That’s what he wanted, I think. He was happy when I was put in my place and his abusive behavior would stop when I acted like I realized how bad I had been, how wrong I had been and how just he was, for pointing it all out. In those moments, he would calm and things would go back to “normal” for a while.
My ex monitored my computer, putting a spy program on it so he could pull up whatever I did through the day. It was ironically out of this invasion that I was finally able to get out. He saw my searches for how to leave an abusive relationship and thought I would take the kids with me when I did leave. So he was the one who ended up filing for divorce, to prevent me from taking the kids too far away. That’s one of the many stories he tells people, anyway.
He often tells people now, that I am unstable, to discredit me and my side of the story. This is how he dealt with people who disagreed with him. They were all unstable in some way to him, and now that we are divorced and I am speaking out about the abuse, he has moved me into this category too.
There were so many consequences for me, for leaving him. I lost most of my friends, my support system I had through my small group at church, the house I lived in, financial security and half of my precious time with my kids.
I am documenting anything and everything he does that is questionable with my kids, as I have seen signs that he has started in on them too. He manipulates them, softly blaming them for his mistakes, rather than apologizing to them when he is in the wrong. They come to us sick very often. My husband and I get them back to good physical and mental health, and then they have to go back to him and it starts all over again. They are exhausted when they come to us, they have eaten terribly and gone to bed way too late.
That just scratches the surface. The emotional consequences are only now emerging. I trigger all the time. Almost anything will make me trigger. It could be as minor as a smell, a touch, words he used to say, a tone he used to use or lighting that is just right. I trigger, I flood and I react defensively, because to me, I am fighting for my life in that moment.
I am learning not to react as much. Learning to calm down and let the flood pass before dealing with the trigger, but I still trigger a lot. I react small to big things, because I am cautious from those years (you learn to be), and I react big to small things, because it was in my everyday emotions that should have been ok and weren’t, where I got most of the abuse. There are consequences that I haven’t even realized fully yet, but I believed through it all that God could get me out, that with his help, I could get out and I did. I will never regret that. Getting out saved my life and now I am around to grow stronger and fight for my children.
My ex-husband made me feel like I was trapped. He made me believe I couldn’t live without him and he convinced me that his abuse of me was not able to be proven, so I would never convince anyone of it. To this day, he denies abusing me, refuses to acknowledge any of the above from ever happening and he even tells people that I abused him.
My ex once told me that tattoos were disgusting. He told me this because I had mentioned to him that I wanted to get one. He then told me that if I got one, I would no longer be attractive to him in any way. That I would be “dismissed”. I now have a tattoo, which I got months after the divorce. It reminds me that God is protecting me and that He is the only One who can define my beauty. I am no longer defined by my abuser.
My wedding ring was tossed into the ocean, because that is where it belongs. My emotions no longer belong tossed in those waves, but that ring will remain there, as will the marriage that threw me in the waves to begin with.
God is a merciful God. He will never allow any institution He creates to come before His children, who make up that institution. My ex-husband abandoned me, when he abandoned our marriage vows to love, honor and cherish me, and my God is merciful enough to allow me freedom from the prison and torture chamber that my marriage had become. He never intended for marriage to hurt, torture and kill one’s soul. God is bigger than that, He deeply loves me and will always protect me and I am learning daily, what it actually means to be defined only by what my God thinks of me. He has given me the gift of new life, in so many more ways than I could have ever even imagined and I will use my life, helping others to find their strength in Him again.
[August 2, 2022: Editors’ notes:
—For some comments made prior to August 2, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to August 2, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to August 2, 2022 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (August 2, 2022), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]