My emotionally abusive relationship and what I did about it
When I was 26 years old I fell in love with a tall, blond, and witty guy who had loyal friends and a likable family. He owned a growing business and I liked his take-charge style. We had fun together.
Early in our relationship there were signs of trouble, but I explained them away. I saw his occasional fits of jealousy as expressions of love. I interpreted his tendency to point out my shortcomings as helping me to be my best self. I considered his moodiness the result of a stressful day. Nothing could corrupt my idea that I found my Prince Charming.
After we married, the trouble got worse. Sometimes he appeared to be the caring and generous man I thought I married. At other times, he made me feel like I couldn’t do anything right. He was argumentative, critical, and demanding. He seemed to take pleasure in putting me down in front of other people.
When I tried to talk to my husband about his upsetting behavior, he stepped over my words and twisted the blame on me. “You’re too sensitive,” he would say. “You’ve got to change.” I struggled to figure out what I could do to gain his approval. I tried being more attentive to him, more tolerant and more understanding, but nothing worked. I kept my feelings to myself and clung to the idea that we were facing the normal ups and downs of marriage.
After the birth of our child, my husband discovered a new way to ridicule me. One day at a shopping mall, he pulled me behind a corner to hide from our two-year-old son. My son couldn’t see us and began to cry. When I ran to my son to comfort him, my husband said, “You pamper him too much. You’re going to spoil him.”
My husband showed only his best behavior when we were among friends and family. I couldn’t explain the dramatic change in his conduct toward me. Isolated in my confusion and self-doubt, I lost weight and found it harder and harder to calm the critical voice in my head. “If you were smarter or sexier, he would treat you better,” the voice said.
We had been married seven years when my husband pushed me against a wall during an argument. Right then, I knew I had to leave him. Although my self-esteem and confidence were at an all time low, I still had enough self-respect to draw the line at physical battering. I wouldn’t raise my son in a violent household.
After our divorce, I returned to the city where I had lived most of my adult life. I got a new job and bought a home. Loving and nurturing a child that loved me back helped me to heal from my emotional pain and anguish. I gravitated toward people who honored my feelings and opinions; people who did not have a need to reduce me to bolster their sense of self-worth. As I worked on building my self-esteem, I saw the distinction between mutually respectful relationships and controlling, abusive ones.
At a birthday party, an acquaintance told me she wanted to introduce me to her boss. One blind date with Jay and we became inseparable. We married two years later. Happy and secure in my second marriage, I returned to graduate school to become a psychotherapist. I wanted to help victims of emotional abuse and better understand what had happened in my first marriage.
In school, I realized how my military family’s numerous moves in the 1950s and ’60s affected my first marriage. At the many schools I attended, I learned to be a people pleaser to make friends. Characteristic of that era, my parents handled problems by pretending they never happened. As a result, I didn’t acquire the skills to confront and resolve thorny issues. They discouraged me from expressing anger, hurt, and sadness, leaving me with little understanding of how to articulate those feelings.
I learned why my first husband had a controlling personality. His father used shame and physical aggression to discipline him, and his mother acquiesced to her husband and didn’t protect her son. As a result, he developed a profound sense of personal inadequacy and suppressed anger. Insecurity and fear of abandonment drove his need to take control over me, and he did that by attacking my self-esteem.
When I opened my private practice, I quickly discovered that many others were having their own experience with emotional abuse. Like me, they didn’t understand the trouble in their relationships and felt they had nowhere to turn. Some told me I was the first person who understood what they were going through.
I dedicated my practice to treating emotional abuse victims in both individual and group therapy. Over the years, I came to understand the subtleties and complexities of emotional abuse. Emotional abuse can be situational or characterological. Situational abuse is an isolated incident of emotional abuse ending with genuine remorse and attempts to improve hurtful behavior. In characterological abuse, the perpetrator takes control over others by using denial, deception, intimidation, minimizing, blaming and other psychological tactics to manipulate their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. There is a pattern of intent to undermine another’s self-esteem for better control. Often victims take the blame and feel defective in some way. They disregard their own needs and feelings and may lose their sense-of-self. Characterological abuse happened in my first marriage.
One evening during my therapy group, a member spoke out, “Amy, you’ve got to write about this. This is a phenomenon that hurts people and destroys families. The damaging effects are passed on to our children. But people don’t understand it and can’t protect themselves and their loved ones.”
I knew she was right. As a psychotherapist, writer, and emotional abuse survivor, I could take my experience and knowledge to a broader audience. I spent the next year writing From Charm to Harm: The Guide to Spotting, Naming, and Stopping Emotional Abuse. My mission is to help expose a social epidemic that thrives on secrecy. My objective is to encourage both perpetrator and victim to recognize and stop destructive behaviors, get help, and provide healthy relationship role models for their children.