I had only been married for five months when I decided to separate from my wife.
After five months of near-daily mistreatment that included cuss-outs, name-calling, cruelty, unrealistic expectations, and threats, I initiated a separation from my wife. Five months of counseling saw no sign of improvement and little sign of empathy and after a year of separation, I decided to divorce her.
*Two Becoming Done*
I married the most beautiful woman I had ever laid eyes on. “This is the best day of my life,” I journaled not long after the wedding (and before the wedding night no less!) This was the first marriage for both my wife and myself. She was 24, I was 27.
We started dating just over a year before the wedding and after two dates, I was hooked. We shared the same sense of humor, tastes, faith, and much more. Six months of dating passed before I proposed. We set a wedding date for six months after that. We didn’t enter it completely naively. Five sessions of Christian premarital counseling and the broken marriages of both of our parents made sure we were not ignorant of the strains, stresses, and difficulty of making marriage work.
Trouble started almost immediately upon returning home from the honeymoon. My wife began to make me aware of deep dissatisfactions she felt with me as a husband. “I don’t feel like you see me or notice me, or that you’re interested in how I’m feeling,” she said. She used words like ‘absent’ and ‘disconnected’. These kinds of conversations became commonplace very quickly in our marriage.
I racked my brain trying to provide the best, most creative displays of love that I could. This included planning trips for her birthday, gifts, flowers, scheduling dates weeks in advance, pay special attention to words and touch, attending bible studies, morning prayer, spiritual conversations – everything you could imagine. Nothing stuck or seemed to count for anything.
The days that didn’t contain such interactions were fantastic. Filled with love, laughter, food, and sex. These days kept me going, but eventually became part of a roller coaster with no end in sight.
One day, my wife randomly said to me, “I want you to know that if I ever lost you, I’d kill myself- and I’m not joking.” This was not done during a heated argument, or in a passionate moment of love and adoration. It was flat-lined, frank, and seemingly came out of nowhere. I was taken aback, and had no idea what to say.
Later that week (only 10 days after returning from the honeymoon!), my wife and I were in a movie theater discussing the film we just watched. It was a normal, friendly conversation in which she asked me about the storyline from the beginning of the film. I very nonchalantly told her that I thought she had remembered one key aspect of the story incorrectly. I thought it was a very friendly conversation and meant nothing by the comment, but she became irate, stood up and said, “I’ve never wanted to say this, but fuck you! I can’t believe you’d say something like that to me, fuck you!” and stormed out of the theater.
Needless to say, I was floored, confused, and shaken up. Having no idea what had happened, I found her, attempted to talk about what had happened, and was met with complete unwillingness to discuss the situation for several days. I chalked it up to a strange misunderstanding, and went on.
By the end of the first month of marriage I had been irrationally cussed out, called a bitch, an asshole, and stubborn. My attempts to talk, touch, and love were often the wrong thing at the wrong time, in the wrong way. There was no grey space for me to make a mistake. I either got it right and she adored me, or I missed the mark and she treated me like she hated me. It was like I had 2 seconds to read her mind, predict what the right thing to do was, and get it right and if I didn’t, I would hear about it:
“You should be better at this husband thing by now!”
“All I need is some encouraging words, why can’t you get that!?” (After I gave her touch.)
“Don’t you know all I need is a hug right now!?” (After I tried encouraging words.)
In return I was told I was absent, disconnected, distant, and withdrawn. The accusations were unfounded and unending. The Christian counselors I was seeing were telling me I was over-sensitive and just needed to pray, have faith, and love her better. I believed something was wrong with me. That I was too nice and too emotional as a man, and not able to stand up to my wife or support her in the way women needed. I read four different books on loving women and being a better man who is grounded in the security and identity of his purpose (which for me is my Christian faith.) People told me these were “woman’s issues”, that every man deals with them.
My wife had gone from having conversations about the way she felt, to retreating to the bedroom and curling up in a fetal position. I would follow her to console her and attempt to comfort her, and the harsh criticisms continued. I journaled my thoughts and prayers extensively. I would lay awake at night and go to the living room to pray at 3 a.m. where I asked God for strength and perspective.
We rarely ever argued. Her rages were not sprung out of arguments reaching a boiling-point (as many assumed).
In addition to the one-on-one spiritual counseling I was receiving, I was seeking help from online communities I had found. Groups of men facing life battles and supporting one another by listening to experiences and giving frank advice on issues they see. I was uncovering things about myself I needed to work on. The importance of setting and respecting personal boundaries was another common theme, one that I had never thought of or considered, but one that clearly applied to me in every part of my life, not just my marriage.
As I began posting the experiences I was having with my wife, the men in the forum began to tell me that the irrational cuss-outs, ever-changing un-communicated expectations, and shaming language I was getting from my wife was not normal or based in the “Nice Guy” self-improvements being discussed in the forum. They’d ask me to follow up with them and keep telling them what was going on in my marriage.
When I started talking about boundaries with my wife, and started enforcing them, things got worse and worse. These are things I was asking for: Name calling to stop, insults to stop, my opinions, needs, and desires to have equal value and consideration, help with the housework, etc. I told her that when she’s upset I wouldn’t follow her into the bedroom automatically any more because I felt I was on a leash. I told her I wanted to know how she was feeling and discuss any issues. I asked her to communicate when something was wrong and I’d be happy to talk or listen – but I wouldn’t try to read her mind any more. Sometimes she seemingly received this and then backslid, other times I got more verbal lashings:
“You knew what you were getting into when you married me – I have an attitude, so what!?”
“If you do this (enforce the boundaries) it will get the to point where I never talk to you again.”
“You think you’re so great! You think you have it all figured out, like you’re husband of the year or something. You’re not.”
I was afraid to tell people about what was going on because I didn’t think they’d believe me. The hurt the Christian counselors were causing was so immense, I was afraid to bear it from anyone else. They were telling me I didn’t have a grasp on reality, that this was all normal – marriage is hard, that I wasn’t walking with the Lord, or being a man. They worked with the assumption that my wife and I were both hurting one another, that we were doing things against each other, and a little more humility, counseling, prayer, hard work, and faith would do the trick. They also assumed that ‘it takes two to tango’, and I was hurting my wife just as much as she was hurting me. This was simply not the case.
*Breaking the Silence*
I was quickly reaching my breaking point. The coldness, sarcastic trashing of my needs and desires, and cruel bullying that was going on was too much to handle. I made a solo appointment with a therapist soon thereafter. When I told the entire story you’ve just read he told me that nothing I was describing sounded normal to him– that he sees couples in physically abusive relationships that are more normal than what I’m describing. He told me I wasn’t over-sensitive, that I was doing the right thing by approaching the situation as I was. He asked me to schedule a joint session with her and we finally got into one two weeks later.
In that session, with my wife present, I brought up everything. I expressed the hurt, confusion and fear. I spoke of wanting a change, hope, a direction– to work together. I never threatened to leave her in counseling or out of it.
My wife’s response to all of that? She admitted to everything and at the same time expressed surprise that I was bothered by these things, and offered no remorse, no empathy, no desire to change anything. “I think [My Husband] lacks forgiveness and needs to work on that.”
That was it.
The therapist asked us to agree to something: [Husband] can call a literal ‘time out’ when [Wife] gets angry and says hurtful things, and [Wife] must stop what she’s doing and leave the room if necessary. In return, [Husband] must agree to discuss the topic at hand and schedule a time to talk and then follow through with that.
This is what happened during the 10 days following that session:
– I found out that in the past my wife had pulled a knife on her Dad in a moment of anger.
– She started bullying, threatening, and name-calling in even harsher ways:
– “You’re so full of self-pity, like your life is so fucking hard,” was one of the more hurtful things she said after I called a ‘time out’ in the middle of an angry tirade.
– “All I get from you is hatred, and I have felt hatred in my heart for you.” This was particularly troubling as I haven’t done anything remotely hateful to her.
– “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll do what I say.”
After that chilling threat I removed the guns from my house. When she found that they were gone, she asked about them and I told her I didn’t feel hate and guns mixed. I continued to refuse and one night she got up out of bed and said, “I can’t sleep in the same room with you if you won’t bring them back in.” She left the room and slept on the couch.
The next day she got up early for work and didn’t say goodbye. That morning I told the original premarital counselor what had happened, that I was afraid, and thought I needed to leave. This is what they told me:
“You’ll be ruining a foundation of trust you’re trying to build if you leave.”
“You need to think about your vows Bruce, you need to think about the testimony of Christ.”
*Note that there was no mention of the destruction of the trust that had already happened due to the abuse**. No addressing of the sin, or the pain, or the awful circumstance. I went and talked to my friend at work and he encouraged me to leave. I went home, packed up, and started the separation from my wife.
That same day I spoke to my therapist and told him what had happened since I last saw him. He said he wouldn’t try to talk me out of it, that it sounded to him like my wife may have some kind of mood or personality disorder.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I decided to file for divorce a year after our separation. Though my wife began using remorseful language and showing emotion about the separation, she did several things that indicated to me that there was no true change happening:
– She contacted 7 different people and convinced them to confront me about ‘overreacting’ and separating. When I talked with these people and told them what had actually happened during the marriage, they were shocked and removed themselves from the situation. My wife wasn’t telling people the truth about the situation, at least not with any specificity. This, I learned, is a common tactic of abusers called ‘triangle-ing’.
– She wouldn’t address the abuse with any specificity at all in therapy or out of it. She would say things like “I’m sorry I did things that were hurtful to you, and said things I shouldn’t. I didn’t need to hear apologies as much as I needed to know why abuse was happening and how we could work together to make sure it doesn’t happen any more. There was never an attempt to meet those needs of mine.
– The same dynamic that happened in the marriage was happening during the separation: bullying, grabs at power, manipulation, confusion, etc.
During the marriage and separation, I never cussed-out, belittled, hit, or called my wife any derogatory name. I’ve been told that in most cases, both spouses become abusive– one in response to the other. People have said, “There’s always two sides to the story!” or “It takes two to tango.” In my situation that wasn’t the case. After all of the counseling and therapy, the only specific thing my wife could point to about me was that I didn’t give her enough eye contact. That’s it.
In the midst of all of the pain from an abusive marriage and the road to divorce that followed, I have struggled with depression, anxiety, and bitterness. However, I have grown immensely and will continue to seek growth from my trials. I’ve learned a lot about love, faith, friends, and myself. I felt very alone during this situation and to my benefit I’ve met and spoken to many men who have experienced similar things in their marriages. Unfortunately, most have faced the same unfair scrutiny and turmoil that I have after confronting the abuse.
The bottom line is that you can’t pray a personality disorder or abuse away. I’m glad you got out and got out before you had children with her.
In His Own Words/In Her Own Words is an effort to help raise awareness about the invisible victims of domestic violence, men. If you would like to submit your story, please follow the guidelines at the end of this article.
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD helps individuals work through their relationship and codependency issues via telephone or Skype. She specializes in helping men and women trying to break free of an abusive relationship, cope with the stress of an abusive relationship or heal from an abusive relationship. Coaching individuals through high-conflict divorce and custody cases is also an area of expertise. She combines practical advice, emotional support and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Schedule a Session page for more information.
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