It’s been a year since #MeToo swept the nation. So this month I decided to open up my platform to allow some other amazing women in my life to share their anger as well. Want to be a guest writer for Angry Feminist as well? Let’s talk! – Darci
This is part 2 of a 3 piece story. Check out Part 1 here.
I was 24 and 3 years into my marriage, but I was realizing things had gone very differently than I planned. That being said, I still thought I could fix our relationship. My husband was difficult, but he had reasons to be based on his childhood. I started going to counseling for myself, and every time I walked out the door he would fight with me. He would say how uncomfortable he was with me talking about our issues to a stranger. I heard him, but I kept going because I knew I needed help processing this relationship. I invited him many times to come to couples’ counseling, and each time was met with absolute and blatant refusal, coupled with disgust that I had asked. Through a year of counseling, I started realizing his issues with me were not about me at all, but about himself. He had an intense need to put on a good show for everyone around him, a need to be impressive in all things; be it intelligence, living situation, looks, status, whatever. I would notice him exaggerate things to friends to sound more impressive. If I corrected him, even kindly, he would snap at me and ask why I was saying he was wrong in front of people. I stopped doing that. Things were better for a while as I learned to communicate with him. He started helping around the house, he stopped saying unsupportive things about my work. This all felt like progress. I convinced myself there was still hope. I stopped going to counseling. I was 25.
But the truth is that he was manipulating me. Any time he had something that he wanted to change about the way things were, he had to get his way. He used logic and counted on my tendency for emotional decisions to convince me I was irrational if I disagreed with him. There were countless rules I had to follow in daily life in order to make sure I wasn’t disrupting him. No reading if he was home, because that felt like him being blocked out (I am an absolute bookworm. He used to brag about how quickly I read). Put the eggs back in the fridge this direction, not that. That’s the wrong way to microwave a taco. I fought back on each of these rules but was convinced I was probably in the wrong. He wasn’t in the wrong, I just hadn’t forgiven him for the abuse of the past. I wasn’t really being abused now. He wasn’t calling me stupid anymore. Things were better, surely.
Except they weren’t better, they were just different. He no longer tried to control how I dressed, but instead he started making me feel guilty about going out with friends. I always asked how his day was, but he rarely returned the gesture. He didn’t think we talked about his job or interests any more than mine, which was easily visible and untrue. If I wasn’t feeling amorous or physical, he would give me the silent treatment and make sure I knew I had hurt his feelings until I changed my tune. He was constantly trying to be physical in public. His need for physical affection outweighed my discomfort and need for space. I started unconsciously flinching every time he touched me because I was afraid it would turn into something more. I knew these things weren’t right, but I couldn’t justify walking away for such small things. Those aren’t abuse. That’s not a horrible person. We just had more work to do.
When my husband and I would go to social events, people were constantly asking if my husband was ok, people we barely knew, people who had no idea what was or wasn’t going on. His attitude was desperately seeking approval while at the same time trying to convince everyone in the room that he was on their level or better. And I would defend or explain his behavior, because I wanted to be a loving, supportive wife. I knew he struggled with talking with people. He said he often felt like he didn’t know what to say or how to come up with the right words. So when he was awkward or rude to people, I would say he’s just unsure of himself. He’s not actually that way, he just gets in his own way and is nervous.
My friends checked in on me constantly, asking how things were going, if things were getting better. Sometimes I was positive and optimistic, listing all the ways he had changed. He now washed the dishes every night! What progress! But when they dug deeper, they would start questioning his behavior, and my optimistic illusions couldn’t hold up. Yes, he washed the dishes, but he made sure I knew that he didn’t want to and felt it was ridiculous that I made him do it. And there were certain things he wouldn’t wash because it was “just too much trouble,” so if I cooked a meal with those things, I better wash it myself. Yes, he was better behaved in public, but he still couldn’t give someone else a compliment without making it about himself.
And somehow, this still wasn’t enough for me to leave him. I spent a year in this kind of limbo, where I knew we weren’t happy but couldn’t bring myself to end it.
Not until I started thinking about what raising a family with him would be like. Really thinking about it. Because maybe he would be great. But everything I had seen with him around kids, around our friends’ kids, was general annoyance with the noise and mess they make. But more than that, any kids we had would have to abide by his rules. They would not be allowed to make messes and mistakes. And what would happen if they didn’t follow his rules, or when they made messes or mistakes? This was my tipping point. I was 27, we had been married for 6 years, and I went back to counseling. This time he didn’t fight me every time I walked out the door but listened when I said that I needed to talk about things with someone other than him. I saw this as a huge sign of progress and was hopeful that counseling would help me forgive him and move on together.
With a very conservative religious background, I have always looked at divorce as being a quitter. Everyone knows marriage is hard! Taking two people and pushing them together for life is no easy task for a saint, let alone a flesh and blood human being. I never thought I would be that person. I believed everything I heard about marriage being two imperfect people who refuse to give up on each other. He even started saying that to me constantly.
And I still believe that definition to be true, but it only works if both people are willing to do the work it takes. As soon as the burden falls on one person or the other, the system is bound to fail. Unfortunately, he wasn’t willing to do the work. He would constantly make excuses for his behavior, but always in a way that tugged on my tendency for empathy. When I brought up concerns about how he treated me, things would somehow get turned around until I was apologizing and making him feel better. When I brought up ways I would like help, I was met with reasons that I was asking for too much. This was a relationship where his needs had to be met or I would be punished with silence and shame, but many of my needs could be explained away and mostly left alone. Every time I had a concern about our relationship, it was explained and reasoned away. At the same time, he felt competitive with me and told me so. He told me that people ask too many questions about my job and not enough about his, so I should start turning the conversation to him instead. He told me I “outshone” him in social situations, and I should start bringing him forward and putting myself in the background.
As I talked with my counselor about the relationship, she pointed out these narcissistic tendencies and helped me see that I really was doing all the right things to try to communicate my needs. Unfortunately, with narcissism, there’s no room to be told you’re wrong. I started to recognize that most of his behavior was rooted in needing to be verbally celebrated, needing approval from everyone around him. My counselor also helped me understand co-dependency. I always thought that term referred to relying on another person, but it means so much more. Co-dependency can also mean relying on creating an image and maintaining it, through physical appearance, possessions, cars, clothes, etc. This describes my ex perfectly. Many of our arguments stemmed from me not following his mental picture of what his life should look like, either in how I dressed or acted. I wasn’t fitting the mold of “cool trendy girl.” I didn’t worship him and encourage others to tell him how great or interesting he was. I stopped seeing my counselor for a while because she told me that narcissistic personalities rarely change, and she didn’t think he would. I didn’t want to hear it and wanted to keep trying to fix my relationship. This was all earlier this year.
That might sound crazy, based on everything else he had done, but again, he was a master of emotional manipulation, and I have been raised to be a peace keeper. I knew he had issues, but I also knew that his life had been difficult. There are reasons for how he acts, and many of them aren’t his fault. A difficult childhood is enough to give anyone baggage, and his was rougher than most. Between his need for understanding and my identity as a peace keeper, I felt like I needed to stay with him and work things out.