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This holiday season has been a rough one for me.  For some reason, I’ve felt December 30th more than I normally do. December 30th, 1961, was my wedding date. If I had stayed married, I would have been married for 51 years, approximately. As it was, my marriage lasted just 20 years.  But why has this particular anniversary date been worse than the others? 

The answer to that question, I believe, lies in the fact that I finally understand that what went wrong in my marital relationship was not my fault and, in fact, had nothing to do with me.  Until I read the book The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans, I had assumed that the responsibility for the failure of my marriage rested at least in part squarely on my shoulders.  In fact, I believed that most of the responsibility lay on my shoulders.  Somehow, I had failed to maintain my part of the relationship, somehow . . .   But try as I might at the time, I never could figure out what I was doing wrong, and, therefore, I could not figure out what I needed to do to fix the situation. Obviously, there was something wrong with  my head.  If I had only been smart enough, I could have changed in a way that would have pleased him, would have made him happy, and would have led to a rosy future for our entire family.  My spouse and I would have aged together, taken trips, and faded into the sunset together. But that’s not what happened. 

What really happened was that I didn’t know back in 1961 that I was marrying a man whose reality was entirely different from mine, and at the time, I was blind to the little warning clues, the indications that his view of life and mine were totally incompatible.  What was his reality? Patricia Evans calls his reality the Power Over reality.  Life was a game in which intimacy and closeness were for weaklings, and power and control were all-important. To a person whose reality is the Power Over reality, relationships are of no value unless they feed the voracious need for self-aggrandizement.  Relationships are never mutual; relationships exist only to serve the control needs of the person with the Power Over mentality. 

Unfortunately, the people who dwell in this reality are often highly intelligent and clever enough to know how to hide their reality from those people who live in the reality of close relationships, mutuality, equality, acceptances of differences, and intimacy.  The author of the book calls this second type of reality the reality of Personal Power.  This is the reality in which I have dwelled all my life and the reality in which I assumed everyone, including my husband, dwelled.  After all, why would a person not want the experience of closeness, personal acceptance, intimacy, and love?  Because I was totally unaware of the Power Over reality, it never crossed my mind that my husband did not want what I wanted in our relationship.  So there we were, my husband living in one reality, the Power Over reality, while I lived in my reality, the reality Ms. Evans calls the Personal Power reality. 

I may have been ignorant regarding the nature of my husband’s reality, but I was highly aware that our relationship was not working for the two of us and also for our family.  Because I was raised to believe that I was inherently flawed and stupid, I found myself constantly trying to fix myself, to measure up, to “get it right” whenever he shouted at me, threw a tantrum, belittled me, jeered at me, made nasty remarks about me and the few friends I had, sneered at my religious beliefs, and let me know that I was incapable of logical thought.  When he raged at the children and I intervened, he would later “put me in my place” and let me know that he was boss.  I learned to keep the kids out of his way if at all possible.  By the time I had been married for sixteen years, I fully believed that he knew best and that he was always right and I was always wrong.  I discovered the error of that assumption, of course, the day I caught him sexually abusing our daughter and reported him to the police.  Even then, though, I did not understand that his reality was different from mine. I simply could not comprehend why a father would do what he did! 

Now I realize, of course, that loving his daughter in the way a father living in my reality would love his daughter was not part of my former husband’s reality.  And after reading Ms. Evans’ book, I understand that he had no wish to have a mutual, loving relationship with any member of our family. I understand now that he would go to any extreme to avoid the feeling of being powerless, and every time he threw a temper tantrum and scared the rest of us in the family into submission, he felt powerful.  Now I understand that he was, in fact, addicted to his anger and actually got a high every time he used his anger successfully to scare us. The kids and I were merely objects, things he could manipulate and use to serve his own need for control and power.

A lot makes sense to me now that didn’t make sense before I read Ms. Evans’ book.  You see, I had tucked certain things into the file of my mind stamped “Inactive but Important.” This mental file contained some of the things he said that I could not make sense of at the time but that I knew I might make sense of in the future.  For example, shortly after I reported him to the police in 1981, I asked him why he stepped up the violence against me during the last three years of our marriage.  I paid careful attention to his reply and can recall it word for word: “Because I wanted to know if there was somebody in your body.” My reply to him at the time was “But if you had wanted to connect with me, didn’t you imagine that the way to do that was through gentleness and kindness?”  His reply:  silence. 

Now that I have read the book, I understand that he did not want connection; he wanted to find me so he could control me.  I had taught myself to dissociate, to simply leave my body when he became violent with me.  He could sense my absence and knew that even though my body was present to him, the rest of me was not. I was beyond his control, and he was going to force me to return by stepping up the violence. In his thinking, through sheer force and violence, he could make me available to him so he could exert power and control.  He tried, but he failed.  

In addition, he said to me shortly after we had separated, “It’s a good thing that you stopped the whole process because if you hadn’t, one of us would be dead.”  I tucked that one, also, into my “Inactive but Important” file because I hoped that one day I would be able to make sense of it.  Now, in the light of what Patricia Evans has written, I understand that if I had allowed the process of abuse to continue, his final, ultimate act of control could have been murder or possibly murder/suicide.  Thinking back on the cases I’ve read about in the newspaper where husbands with a history of being abusive have murdered their wives and sometimes their entire families and also sometimes themselves, I feel fortunate that my children and I are alive today.  We had a close call!

Finally, when we worked out the details of his visitation with our daughter, he wanted unrestrained and uncontrolled access; what he got was supervised visitation.  He visited a few times and then appeared to lose interest.  At the time, I didn’t understand that, for I thought he genuinely wanted to maintain a relationship with our daughter.  Now I understand: he could not control the situation, so he wasn’t interested.  Even after going through the legal process and being convicted of a class C felony, indecent liberties, he had not lost the desire to control my daughter and me.  That control and Power Over were his driving motives was brought to my attention ten years later, in 1991, when my daughter, living on her own in an apartment, complained to me that her father was visiting her uninvited, insinuating himself into her apartment, and then wanting her to engage in sexual behavior with him.  By then, she was of legal age, so the law did not offer her the protection she had as a minor, and her father, well aware of that fact, tried to take advantage of her vulnerability.  Through connections, my son and I convinced him to stop the behavior.

I understand now that my former husband cared nothing for our love or for intimacy or closeness. In fact, he was incapable of intimacy because in order to be intimate, he would have had to relax his perceived control over us.  If only I had understood his reality before I married him and had known that eventually our kids and I would be objects for him to use in service of himself, I would not have married him.  Of course, I would not have married him! 

Ten years into my marriage, I began waking up in the middle of the night in cold sweats and with racing heartbeat.  My intuition told me that I needed to take the kids and leave, but I didn’t.  Why not?  I can only answer that question with another question: Who would have believed me when I described our life together?  The kids and I didn’t bear marks of abuse on our bodies, and the marks on our souls were invisible to others.  In a courtroom, it would have been my word against his, and he was a male, a worker in a respected position with the state–in the conservative county in which we lived, who would have believed me?

I stayed in my marriage so our kids would have an intact family and not be part of a fragmented family as is so often the case these days. Now, after reading the book and learning about my former husband’s reality, I know I made a mistake by not leaving him.  If I had left him in the early 1970s, I could have spared my daughter the horror of sexual abuse and could have spared my children and me a lot of suffering.  But at the time, I did what I could to smooth things over and lived in a fog of uncertainty.  I could not have foreseen the future and the escalation of abuse, so at the time, I chose to stay with him.  I did not know then that no matter how hard I tried, I would never be able to bring about peace because he and I were living in two different realities with two sets of rules, and his reality and his rules were totally unknown to me.  Had I understood this, I would have left him, of course.

The year is now 2013, and I have been single since 1981, about thirty years.  I’ve accomplished a lot since ending my marriage.  I finished raising our daughter, earned two graduate degrees, had a career I enjoyed as a writing instructor in a community college, and now I’ve been retired since 2003.  Life is good.  When I look back at my twenty-year marriage, I’m amazed that I survived–but I did.  And it’s been only recently, since reading Patricia Evans’ book, in fact, that I clearly understand the damage I suffered during those years.  Now that I understand what needs to be healed, I can do the work of healing.  If you have been involved in a situation similar to mine and similar to the situations described in The Verbally Abusive Relationship, please find a competent therapist who can help you heal.  You deserve that!  And please read the book if you are in a position to do that. 

A word of caution:  If you are now the victim of an abuser, I would suggest reading the book at a friend’s house, not mentioning the book to your abuser, and quietly finding help for yourself.  Be sure that your counselor or therapist knows the dynamics of verbal abuse, and if the person you see tells you to “go home and be a better wife and your husband will stop the abuse”–run like hell!  It might be a good idea to begin your search for a therapist by talking to a counselor at a shelter for battered women.  I wish you the best!  Namaste . . .