I was summoned from bed this morning by the buzzer at the door downstairs. Pulling on and tying my robe, I went down barefoot. There was a cop at the base of the stairs, papers in hand. Inside my head I groaned, knowing what came next. I opened the glass door that separated us and he asked if I was me. I confirmed. He explained he was there to serve me a Temporary Order of Protection and a summons to family court for this coming Tuesday. I have once again been accused of harassment toward my former partner.
Many times I have wished I had the nerve to write this post. To talk about what I have been going through, and how alone I felt in most of it. But frankly, it was scary, confusing, and humiliating to talk about. There is part of me that desperately wanted to shout for help and demand recognition of my experiences. And part of me that was too intimidated to speak publicly.
In recent years the talk about bullying has become a significant conversation in our culture. Bullying at school, bullying on the web, bullying of the LGBTQ community, bullying by spiritual figures who are meant to be caring for their flocks. But I have often thought about the lack of talk about one of the most pervasive forms of bullying in our culture — bullying in intimate adult relationships. Emotional, verbal, and spiritual abuse are implicitly accepted in adult relationships. Victims often resign themselves to continuing in them because their confidence has been eroded and when they seek help nothing significant is available.
My story is still happening. My marriage is still the site of my struggle for freedom for myself and my children. Because I am a strong and independent woman, my story seems all the more complicated — even I had a hard time understanding how I got into such a twisted place. I covered my own suffering for so long because I was afraid of what it would mean to fully acknowledge it. I didn’t want the marriage to end, so I allowed behavior that should never have been allowed, to carry on.
The incredible strength needed to constantly keep life from derailing, meant that I had no strength to address the ongoing abuse. In relationships where the abuse is continual but invisible to outsiders, you are forced to choose your battles. Like most others in my situation, I chose to keep up appearances as best as I could. Not so much because of pride, or because I was trying to pretend things were better than they were, but in that situation, it’s hard to know what reality really is.
My husband had a wonderful side. He was sensitive, creative, and had dreams I believed in.
But there was a dark side too. As if two different people lived in the same body, his gentle side could vanish in a flash. His face would become stony, his eyes narrow, and his voice cold. And then verbal torrents would pour out. Mocking, accusing, berating, claims that had so little basis in reality, that there was no way to engage them logically. There was no argument, there was only aggression and self-defense.
And then, whenever he decided, the battle would end. As abruptly as he’d come, the dark side would vanish, and a contrite partner would return.
For nearly five years I believed that the dark side was a terrible piece of him that could be fixed with enough patience, love, and forgiveness from me. I was all too conscious of my own failings, and so I thought if I just kept learning to be a better partner, eventually he would too.
The human mind cannot handle contradictory data, we are wired to find a rational explanation for experiences that do not match our expectations. It’s called Cognitive Dissonance, and it’s how humans live with all the conflicting experiences we do, still somehow believing life can be black and white, when almost everything is grey. We deny, avoid, suppress, or minimize what doesn’t fit our desired narrative, and we only focus on what does.
Every time the cyclones of my husbands wrath passed, I told myself that was the last time. That it wasn’t who he really was, and he was changing just like I was. I put the pain and panic aside as fast as I could, desperate to embrace the other side of him as what was real.
When I finally ended the marriage in practice, it was without any of the hysteria that I had regularly felt previously. I’d reached a place of such weariness that I’d quit focusing on the relationship and begun to focus on myself. It turned out to be the miraculous watershed.
Discovering and finding genuine love for myself in a way that I never had before is what created the confidence to grow stronger. It was not self-absorption or self-centeredness, it was precious realization of value in human life, starting from the inside out. By the time I took practical steps in my marriage, I was calm, centered, and unconflicted about my motives.
I knew I was acting in love. Love isn’t fluffiness, it’s grit. My intentions were the highest good I could manage for myself, my children, my husband. I was loving my children enough to refuse to consent to a life I would never want them living. It was a loving choice to not allow my husband to live without appropriate consequences to his choices. I had seen the lives of other men in our families whose treatment of their partners went unchecked until decades later. The result was lonely old age, still trapped in the sickness that provoked them to mistreat their wives. Tragic.
I had come to accept that change and growth were not mutual goals, and as much as I had tried to adjust, forgive, try harder, I would never be able to satisfy the demands to prove my devotion. Nor should I.
But I had no idea what I was unleashing. Getting out of abusive relationships is often harder than living in them, except for the light at the end of the tunnel.
I thought that since no else saw the extent of devastation behind closed doors, if I got myself out from behind closed doors, I would finally be able to stand up for myself. Since what went on in private had been so fervently denied, I thought making a public step would block further attacks on me. I was wrong.
In August, a year ago, I rented a bedroom in an apartment a few blocks away from our family home. I did not want to create more stress for any of us by hiring lawyers or moving the children away from their father and out of the environment they knew. Since we were a single income family, I did not want to compound our pain with outrageous financial burdens. Since I never believed my kids were in danger, I didn’t see a need to remove them.
At first everything went okay. My partner never protested when I told him I was moving, nor when my mother and brothers came to help me. The morning after I made the move, I was right back in the home, making breakfast, packing his lunch, caring for the children as usual. Every day I came in the morning, did all the things I always had, laundry, grocery shopping, and most importantly, caring for our wee ones. By the time their father got home at night, the kids were long asleep, and I would return to my little room with its mattress, yoga mat, and suitcase of clothes.
I had a visit with a psychologist and clergyman that I respected, to talk through some of my thoughts and plans. I felt calm, despite the changes, and things seemed to be smooth enough. I wanted a mental “check up” among other things. His primary advice to me was to make sure to put an agreement in writing, in order to organize and protect us both. “A legal separation can be torn up at any point down the road if necessary, but it can also protect and help both of you in terms of conflicts arising.” I wasn’t in a hurry to file anything legal, mostly I was just focused on the practical realities of our lives. But I took his advice and brought the matter up to my partner when he returned home from work a few nights later. Hey, we need to figure something out. We need to deal with what is going on.
I was met with fury and aggression. If you try anything further I will make your life hell. You better be ready to play with the big dogs, because I am going to destroy you.
As shocking as those threats were, I had learned to live with serious threats for years already. They were always followed by a return to normalcy and though not usually apologized for, they were usually treated as meaningless or ignored completely as if they’d never been made. So I wasn’t as alarmed as I was forever annoyed that any attempts to work things out were utterly blocked with bouts of crazy.
Still wishing to avoid tremendous financial burdens that I could only assume would have created unnecessary stress, I didn’t pursue anything legal. After several weeks of us functioning well practically — at one and two years old, the kids were mostly oblivious, the groceries were stocked, the laundry was done, we even hosted our son’s first birthday party with friends and family — I grew frustrated at being denied any way to define and move forward, and being threatened when I expressed myself. So I thought I would make a statement, I posted on my blog that we were getting a divorce. It was my way of saying,
I am not your property. You cannot threaten and intimidate me forever.
The next day he filed child abuse charges against me and tried to get a restraining order. No restraining order was granted, but a temporary order of protection (TOP) was issued which meant that they would proceed with an investigation of the matter. The only bank accounts with any money in them were emptied.
I was not allowed to see my kids for half a day while we waited for a caseworker to come and assess the situation. The TOP granted the holder, my former partner, the right to have me arrested at any point that he felt threatened or harassed by me. For months, on a daily basis I was criticized, harassed, threatened… but if I replied in any way that wasn’t deferential, I heard, Do I need to call the police? Do I need to have you arrested?
The Child Protective Services investigation was eventually closed as “unfounded” — no evidence of abuse or mistreatment. But over the last year I have had the police called on me numerous times, all of which end with them leaving shaking their heads.
Within two weeks he hired a full time babysitter. My former mother in law, with whom I had always been close and spoken lovingly on the phone with during the first weeks, flew in. I’d been assured that our relationship would not change, and that she was there to help with transition. But that wasn’t the case.
It was a crazy time. I had no access to money and lived miraculously by the generosity of a few gifts and what I got from selling my engagement and wedding band to a jeweler. Dear old friends who, reading my blog post, called and offered a financial gift which I used to retain a lawyer.
Never seeing any of this coming, I hadn’t stashed any money away. I had always been the one to pay bills and knew there really wasn’t much to take. Renting a single room close by had been the most drastic step I was willing to take. But somehow, there was suddenly money for full-time child care, shocking to me.
I had to get a job and start trying to build something of my own. I cannot articulate the trauma. Never, since coming out of my body, had my babies ever been away from me for more than a few hours at a time. Sleeping somewhere else had been difficult enough, but suddenly the forced separation was disastrous to me. He gave new instructions for how the kids should be cared for, and if I didn’t follow the instructions, as directed by him and supervised by the new nanny, she reported back to him. I found notes he was keeping on me, and discovered things he’d been telling others that were utterly untrue.
The scariest thing about situations like this is how impossible it is to know what to do. When someone makes wild claims about you, the natural reaction is to try to defend yourself. But when you do, and you realize now that people are judging everything you say and how you say it, hysteria fills you. If you get emotional and upset, you look unstable. But how else can you react with reality is hijacked and you are helpless to prevent it? You begin to doubt yourself. You second guess everything you say, everything you feel. And it seems like your accuser just keeps winning.
For all my professional experience and potential, I was useless to any serious career pursuits. I had no car, a head full of crisis, and only emotional strength enough to live with an appearance of modest “togetherness”. I got a job at Trader Joe’s in Manhattan. Commuting by train to work at a grocery store was a life saver. Lost in the crowds, far from my crisis, it was just enough to find my footing.
I felt incredibly alone. It was terribly tricky for our friends to know what to do. Part of it was that no one had seen the side of the my partner that I did, so it was hard for them to understand and believe what was going on. I had spent years convincing everyone that things were okay. Now people had to choose whether to believe what I had said before, or what I was saying now. People wanted to be fair and not take sides. But not taking sides meant that my partner had no accountability for what he did. A quiet hysteria lived in me, utter disbelief that certain friends and religious leaders I pleadingly reached out only offered sympathetic words. When I occasionally leaked some of my anguish and anger into a Facebook status or blog post I was unfriended by a few people who thought I was airing dirty laundry or being unfair.
As soon as I had moved out, he had begun attending a small church not too far away. Meeting with the pastor and gathering the congregants around him for support, he began giving significant “tithes” to the church. Money that was technically both of ours, but I no longer had access to. I reached out to his pastor to ask for counseling. I knew that if anyone sat down with us in the same room and looked at the facts, at the court documents and accusations, there would be no problem discovering the truth. But he said he prefered to stay out of it and would pray for us. I was truly amazed at how thin the substance of a community I was raised my whole life to believe was the answer everyone needed.
One Saturday morning I arrived early to take care of the kids while he went to work. Gathered in the kitchen were the men from his Bible study group, drinking coffee and supporting him. They greeted me awkwardly and on the way out one mentioned that they were praying for me. It sickened me to think of their conversations.
With his newfound church family behind him, he’d berate me for no longer being a Christian. I told him I wasn’t interested in any religious culture that condoned his behavior.
Eventually we found a new normal(ish). Like I had during the marriage, I got used to mostly managing his rages and keeping life on the rails. I got my schedule fixed with my days off when he was working, so I could be with the kids all day. The rest of my week my hours were afternoon to late evening so I was with the kids in the morning. I had made an immediate decision to become friends with the new babysitter. She was a grandmotherly type from Jamaica, and since she was going to be caring for my children whether I chose it or not, friendship and peace was the only way. I was grateful to have someone kind and calm with them. I was glad to be moving forward, even it felt like free falling into the unknown most of the time. But it hurt like hell to feel restricted as a mother. To be away from my babies at bedtime, or only see them for a few hours some days.
I read Eckhart Tolle to stay sane, and took Advil PM to get sleep.
After a number of visits from the caseworker, the Child Protective Services investigation of me was closed “unfounded”. The Family Court case resolved as a result.
At Christmastime it seemed we’d found a bit of peace. I had the kids for Christmas Eve, he had them on Christmas Day. By New Year’s Eve we were acting like friends almost. On New Year’s Eve we spent the day together running errands. When we got back to the apartment in the early evening I stayed to bathe and put the kids to bed. He said he felt like steak, and would I mind if he ran to the store? Sure, I said. He came back with a feast of delights. Steak, shrimp, cheese, crackers, chocolate, ice cream, wine, champagne…
Look, I know all this is going on, but for one night can we call a cease-fire and be friends? He asked.
I had never wanted to be enemies — I just wanted to be healthy — so I consented.
Friends I can do, I said.
I grilled the steaks and we poured the wine. We sat at the kitchen table and ate and talked. We decided to ask each other the pressing questions we each wondered.
Did you ever cheat on me? He asked.
I was shocked, Is that a real question? No! Of course not.
I didn’t think you did, but I am a guy, I just had to know, he said.
Then I asked, Are you secretly hoping we will get back together?
No. I know we never will, he said. And then he started crying. I don’t know why I made your life so hard. I am so sorry. You deserve to have a life where you don’t have to work so hard to be loved. I am so sorry for treating you like I did… He went on for some time with a fusion of apology, reflection and warm wishes for me.
Then he moved around the table to where I was sitting and tried to kiss and hold me. My heart, that had been softening as he spoke, sank. I resisted with as much good humor as I could, not wanting to puncture the calm. It was one of the most conflicted moments of my life. The deep, desperate desire for peace, the nagging knowing that tonight I would have to buy it with my body. I did. We moved into the living room and I cried silently as he took what he wanted. We parted as friends later. Me vaguely feeling like it had been a worthwhile concession.
I woke up the next morning feeling hopeful. I texted to ask if we were still friends and he replied yes, and invited me over for coffee. I went, we drank coffee and made plans for the day. I took all the laundry to be done. It was the first time in months that he allowed me to do his laundry and I felt euphoric. To me it was proof that we could work together and figure out a peaceful, productive way forward.
We found another new normal. I bought patches of peace with my body a few more times, before one night when he aggressively demanded it from me after buying me a hamburger. When I recoiled from the tongue thrust down my throat while I sat in the front seat of the car, I could not believe my ears,
I just bought you dinner!
I eventually made my way home without intercourse. Before I fell asleep the phone rang,
Come on! Come over! Just for a little while!
When I refused, making excuses for why I couldn’t (I have to work early tomorrow! I am tired!), I heard:
Fine. Send me pictures then.
So the new normal was just a variation of the old relationship. But at least I was out from under it somewhat, and slowly making progress. I did my best to keep the peace, but I called my lawyer and said I wanted to get the divorce process going. I’d never demanded anything, I’d gotten no further access to marital money. I was doing my best to emotionally rebuild which was the only way I could see eventually getting anywhere practically.
It wasn’t until late Spring when we had a conference with the judge’s referee, that things blew up again. I naively went in to the meeting thinking it would be simple. I came out of the meeting a devastated mess.
He and his lawyer presented the story that I had abandoned my children nine months earlier, that I was a violent person with a history of abuse. Despite the investigation being closed “unfounded” many months before, there was another report from a few years prior that had been “founded”. It had been from an exhausting late night argument and when, after hours of pleading and negotiating, it hit a new high of verbal abuse from him. At wits end, I repeatedly smacked his face in anger. He called the police to “teach me a lesson”, they came and effectively said, “Grow up!” But the next thing we knew Child Protective Services had come to investigate. We’d both acknowledged the incident and our high levels of stress, but because our five month old daughter was present, and I was the one who had smacked him, I ended up with an Inadequate Guardianship report. At the time he’d written a letter saying it was a mistake and that I was a wonderful, loving mother.
Now though, it was a perfect weapon. So our conference with the judge’s referee did not go well. From an outsider perspective, I was a violent person who left my family, and now many months later wanted to come back and get money. I felt utterly helpless as my lawyer continued to signal me to stay quiet, and the opposing counsel made all kinds of wild claims about me.
In March I had (miraculously) moved into my own apartment and now had a place to bring the kids. I also changed jobs to a restaurant down the street from my new home. More money, less hours, no commute. I was with the kids every day almost all day again. I bought bunk beds and prepared my place for them. I asked to keep them overnight, but was always refused. Eventually, I realized that I had just grown into a posture of always asking, pleading for things, but no authority had granted custody to either one of us. Technically, I didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission. So one night, instead of bringing them back for bedtime, I just kept them overnight.
It landed us back in court the next week. Once again, this awful picture of who I was was painted for the referee. The hammer came down. An access schedule was put in place. I got one night a week with the kids, but lost several days. I was devastated all over again. Court was becoming a traumatic experience of being assessed by an official whose impression of me was based on wild claims I had no way to counter. I couldn’t disprove the allegations without a trial, but a trial was tens of thousands of dollars that I had no means of.
Not long after, we went before the judge assigned to our case. She looked at the stack of papers containing all his claims, she looked at the brief summary from the referee. “You don’t stand a chance,” she said. Her advice was to see the children on alternating weekends and dinner once a week.
To tell a mother who loves her children that she may lose her rights to parent them, is worse than delivering a fatal diagnosis. To be alive without your children is worse than death. That’s what I was beginning to face.
It made no sense to authorities that we had been functioning relatively peacefully for months. It did not occur, nor did I get the opportunity to explain, that I had been present daily, in fact spending far more waking hours with the kids than he did the whole time.
The retainer for my lawyer was long used up and he could see there wasn’t much else to get. Suddenly, it was hard to reach him, and every conversation made me crazy anxious thinking about the bill I was wracking up. When the other lawyer sent a divorce proposal that offered me plenty of time, multiple overnights per week, a small sum of alimony, and some money toward my legal fees, but gave my ex SOLE custody, my lawyer was elated. He encouraged me to sign it.
Don’t worry, we’ll trick him by writing up a joint custody agreement and just calling it sole custody to satisfy him. Everyone knows he’s just irrationally committed to having the title of sole custody.
It made me sick to my stomach. I didn’t want to trick him. I wanted a settlement that was fair. Period.
When I protested, my lawyer suggested I discharge his offices. So I did.
I googled lawyers in my new town and called the office of the first one. Her secretary talked to me for almost an hour and then set an appointment for the following Monday morning. I had no idea how I could afford to retain a new lawyer, but I needed to start somewhere. I walked in with my file and by the end of our meeting we signed a retainer agreement. She was my next miracle.
The last several months have been the ups and downs of further legal negotiations. As was always the case, we have many peaceful days and smooth exchanges. Once we all spent the day at the zoo together. A few times I have invited him over for dinner. We have had a few talks almost like the one at New Year’s Eve, and naively I still hope that they mean something. But inevitably we show up for our next court appointment, and wild accusations and claims are made.
The conflict is simple. I want equal rights. He wants absolute control.
When I took steps to end the marriage, it was about a diseased relationship between two adults that I did not want to model for my kids. Using the kids as leverage never entered my thinking. It had never occurred to me to fight over our children.
In situations like this, where the children are too young to testify, and where no reasonable settlement can be reached between the parties, the court requires a forensic study. A psychiatrist or psychologist is hired to conduct an in-depth investigation and write a report with recommendation to the judge. In our case, the study was done over the past few months and a report was delivered in October. In no uncertain terms the psychiatrist recommended that joint custody only be allowed in the event that the children live with me, and that I have final decision-making ability. If this cannot be arranged, then it is strongly recommended that I have sole custody.
Our next court conference was very different than before. The report definitely changed the tone of things. But the process is long. We have a trial with the final judge set for February, and all I can do is breathe deeply and pray for grace.
I try not to freak out because I know how far I have come, and worry has become pointless. I choose to trust. But I have my weak moments. The stress of living under accusations and intimidation for so long, takes a toll and still affects my strength for moving forward with my life.
It’s shocking how when someone speaks up about abuse, they are immediately scrutinized. A woman is raped and people say she shouldn’t have been dressed attractively or out late at night. If you speak up, you are invite others to judge you, and when you have been living with tremendous strain for a long time, the last thing you want is to open yourself to public scrutiny.
Bullying means anything and everything you do can be used against you somehow. Mention that you had a glass of wine and people warn, “Watch out! He will say you are a drunk!” Admit that bedtime was difficult one night, like it is for all parents at times, and the fear creeps up, “He will say that I am incapable of being a good mother.”
And let’s face it. No one is perfect. One of the reasons bullying abusers are successful at keeping their partners trapped so long, is that they exploit their partner’s real weaknesses. My ex knew all my vulnerabilities and constantly used them to prove I was deserving of his treatment. After hours of harassment, after being told I did not understand my own thoughts and he would tell me what my thoughts were, after being called filthy names and blamed for outrageous things, there were times I smacked or even punched him in desperate indignation. And that created even more strength for him — he convinced people I was violent, and I lived fearful of those accusations. It was crazy and I knew it, but it wore me down over time.
Fear immobilizes, and bullies make you afraid.
I am no longer immobilized. I am no longer afraid. I am still in the middle of this journey, but I refuse to be silent any longer.
Bullying abuse in marriage or other intimate adult relationships is rampant in our culture. Especially in the conservative religious subcultures I come from. It is real. It is sick. And I will stand up for myself, my children, and any other person who is being bullied into a life of submission to another.
Love is the goal of all life. It is where we come from, and ultimately what we rejoin, because God is Love. Growing in the understanding and experience of love is what we’re here to do. You wouldn’t always think so though, when you look around and see the wild mess that spatters across the nightly news. But it is true nonetheless.
My perspective of what is loving has radically changed during this journey. I am finally finding a life where I can experience true love no matter what the circumstances or relationships around me are. Who would have thought such devastation would have been the doorway to such a life? All I know is the pain and bloodiness of surgery is far more welcome to me, than a quiet cancer growing undisturbed beneath the surface.
Fear and intimidation are the cancers that keep us quiet. I choose love, and I now choose to live in the open. I will not stop speaking up for those who are being bullied and abused in plain sight, yet invisible nonetheless. If you are one of them, I stand with you.
This post was originally written in December 2013. In March 2014, following a three day trial, the Supreme Court of White Plains New York granted sole custody to the author.
In June of 2017 another trial was held and the decision granted the author permission to relocate across the country with the children in order to build a new family with her new partner.
“If you are going through hell, keep going.”