“People only see what they are prepared to see.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
Abuse is a funny thing. I don’t mean humorous, of course.
I mean the other definition of funny: difficult to explain or understand.
Abuse shouldn’t be difficult to understand. If someone is mistreated, we should be able to clearly point a finger and proclaim, “That is wrong.”
But not all abuse is obvious or clear-cut.
I was abused for most of my adult life and didn’t know it.
Let me state it again: I was abused and didn’t know it.
I only saw what I was prepared to see.
Is That Really Abuse?
I’ve read enough biographies and seen enough movies based on true events to know what physical abuse looks like. But broken bones and bruises are only one kind of abuse.
Through deep discovery with a therapist who cradled me protectively, I can now say with certainty that I have suffered abuse in several forms:
Yes, abuse comes in many forms.
It is often invisible.
My abuser was my husband—the very person who was supposed to love me more than anyone.
A man I started dating when I was seventeen years old and married when I was twenty-two years old. We were married for thirty-one years.
He never was physically violent. He never screamed at me or called me names. That abuse would have been more obvious.
His abuse was subtle and manipulative.
What People See
Imagine you stand outside to watch the day end with a beautiful sunset.
A friend stands next to you and remarks, “What a beautiful green sun.”
“Green?” You scoff, “The sun is orange and yellow like a big ball of fire. It isn’t green. Maybe you should get your eyes checked.”
A neighbor overhears your conversation and joins in. “It certainly does look magnificent tonight. That is my favorite color. Emerald green with shades of lime.”
You wonder why two people suddenly think the sunset is green. Could they be playing a joke?
You squint your eyes, looking at the sun critically. You see an orange ball surrounded by yellow haze shooting out until it blends into the ocean-blue sky.
You overhear more conversations around you. Everyone is talking about the green sun.
A kid cruises by on his bike. “Look how green the sun is today!” He shouts and points up in the sky. Everyone murmurs their appreciation of the view.
You slowly begin to think maybe you are the one that is confused. Maybe you aren’t seeing things right.
You keep hearing that the sun is green, but you don’t see it. Maybe there is something wrong with your eyes.
And just like that, your perception has changed. The next time you look at a sunset, you look at it differently. You’re going to be looking for green instead of the oranges or yellows.
You only see what you are prepared to see.
Abuse is a lot like that.
The more you are told something, the more you believe it.
I was told I was worthless, and I believed it. I didn’t argue against it. I didn’t see it as abuse because it didn’t fit in with my idea of abuse.
The abuse I suffered was so manipulative and deceitful that I didn’t see it coming. I was belittled and bullied. I slowly lost who I was while I fed my husband’s constant need for validation.
These are the words I often heard:
- You’re too emotional.
- That’s not what I said. You never remember things right.
- Are you cheating on me?
- You’re too sensitive.
- The husband’s role is harder than the wife’s.
- It’s a good thing you have me–who else would love you?
- I never said that. Why do you always twist my words?
- Your body doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to me.
- Why do you always make me feel bad about myself?
- Remember when you messed up that one time? Let’s talk about that again.
- Most women are better… and I got stuck with you.
- Women just aren’t as smart as men.
Thirty years of these statements left me feeling inadequate. Worthless. Hopeless.
I wondered why I couldn’t be a good enough wife.
If you read through those sentences above, you may see the obvious gaslighting that was going on.
My husband made me think I was ‘wrong’ about everything in life. I was too emotional and sensitive. I had a good body but didn’t want to have sex 24/7. (He called that false advertising.)
I was not allowed to ask him questions about things like our finances and savings … or I was questioning his manhood.
If I asked an innocent question, such as if he was going to have to work on Christmas Eve, he would chastise me for making him feel bad.
My husband used my faith to control me. He would cherry-pick bible verses and common ideologies to support his authority over me.
And then he made me feel like I was overreacting and ridiculous.
What’s worse, I began gaslighting myself!
I would chastise myself for not being his ‘ideal’ woman.
I blamed myself for not being a perfect wife who could take care of everything in the home, raise three children, hold down a job, and take care of his mother who lived with us… all while fighting lupus—a progressive autoimmune disease.
I felt like a failure.
And then something happened…
The House of Lies Falls
Thirty years is a long time to live in ignorance. When I finally realized what was happening, my whole world collapsed around me like a brick building in an earthquake.
The blindfold was finally taken off my eyes.
In the span of four months, I discovered every heartbreaking lie my husband told me. And there were mountains of lies.
First, he hadn’t had a job in over fifteen years.
Every day he would tell me goodbye and go to a “job” he didn’t really have. He had lied about his job so convincingly that he had made up fictitious friends and co-workers, and even told stories about them.
We didn’t have health insurance. He hadn’t filed taxes. He hadn’t filled out financial aid for our college-aged children. We didn’t even have car insurance.
We had no savings. No retirement. We had been living on my meager income. We made ends meet because we were living with his mother.
He missed many events because of his “job”: soccer games for the kids, concerts, school programs, church events. I lived like a single mother because his non-existent “job” demanded so much of his time.
He has never given me an answer as to why he did this. But honestly, could there be an answer that would be forgivable?
He confessed he had a porn addiction. He was watching porn every day. This skewed his sense of reality.
This is why I was never good enough for him. He expected a porn star for a wife.
Then came the infidelity…
The Final Straw
It’s not going to be a surprise to hear he was cheating on me.
When I first learned of all the lies, my husband tried to maintain that he had been faithful to me. Well, when everything about him was revealed to be a lie, I couldn’t blindly believe him anymore.
He finally broke down and confessed that he had been cheating on me since we began dating over thirty years ago.
He thought he should win some brownie points because he never had a girlfriend, so he hadn’t cheated emotionally. I wasn’t too impressed.
He had sex with over fifty people. Fifty!
I can’t count how many times over the years he accused me of cheating on him. Now I understand why; it’s called projecting. He was projecting his own guilt on me. All the things he did, he assumed I must have been doing as well.
And the cherry on top? He said he cheated because I didn’t fulfill him.
In a nutshell, he cheated, accused me of cheating, and then blamed me for his cheating.
There is no coming back from that.
A Shift in My Thinking
My ex-husband has narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). He is a pathological liar and a sex addict.
He can’t think beyond taking care of his immediate needs and desires.
But here is where I had to change my thinking: He didn’t act maliciously. Atrociously and carelessly, yes. But not with malice.
There is something wrong in his brain, a disconnect. His emotional intellect is a cross of a horny teenager and a petulant child.
I know I’ll never get a sincere apology from him. (How can you really be sorry about lying for thirty years?) I will never fully understand the way he thinks because his brain doesn’t work the way most people’s do.
And that’s okay.
I don’t have to understand him to heal, move on, and live a peaceful life.
My perception has changed. I do not accept the blame for his issues and shortfalls. It is not my fault.
This shift in my perception did not come overnight. It has taken a lot of time, and I was helped by an awesome therapist.
In fact, during one session, my therapist had me write in big letters on a piece of paper: I didn’t do this. That visual reminder helps me view the situation through a new lens. Now:
I no longer accept abuse.
I no longer ignore abuse.
I will never again be abused.
No one can convince me that the sunset is green today. I see the golden oranges and yellows as they really are. I am prepared to see clearly.
But He Never Hit Me
Remember the second definition of funny: Difficult to explain or understand.
This whole situation is funny; it is impossible to explain or understand.
The only good thing to come of this is the shift in my perspective. I am now important in my life. I am the top priority.
I remember telling my story to a friend. He listened kindly, and then asked THE question in hushed tones. “Did he ever hit you?”
Dumbfounded, I shook my head no.
“Well, thank God he didn’t cross that line. Then you’d have so much more to heal from.”
This friend wasn’t being flippant. He just spoke out loud what many people think: Abuse is visible.
But I now see abuse as it really is—hurt, harm, and mistreatment that can be visible but is often invisible.
Scars of Abuse
I wish I could show the marks his abuse has left on me.
I’d love to reveal how my self-worth has been chipped down to sawdust. Or how my self-confidence has been beaten down by fear and panic.
The wounds on my heart are deep and scored like an ancient oak tree; no amount of repair work can erase the damage that has been done.
The bones of my joy have been broken and re-broken too many times to properly set anymore.
Scars sheathe the joints of my freedom from the bondage of “til death do us part.”
And the gentlest, softest part of my soul is shaded dark by bruises.
No, he never hit me. But great damage has been done all the same.
I am an abused woman.
I am a victim.
But I am a survivor.
And my story is just beginning. I walked away from my abuser and am embracing a new life, a life where I am in charge.
I call the shots.
My scars may not be visible to the eyes of people who don’t know what to look for. But they have forged a new woman who is strong, courageous, and much, much happier.