Lately, I’ve seen so many stories about the rising rates of domestic violence as a result of “shelter in place” policies. COVID-19 has transported us into the world of isolation, and each of us are feeling the emotional impact. But the fear, anxiety, and uncertainty are nothing new for those who have been isolated in an abusive relationship.
That’s why I want to share my story, to give a voice to the many who are currently trapped. Had I been in “shelter in place” with my ex-husband, I don’t know what would have happened – to me or our children.
The impact of emotional neglect, psychological abuse, and domestic violence is a prison. Imagine a life where the only social connection you have is an abuser who gaslights you and alters your perception of reality. A life in which the price of social connection, may cost you your life. When you live like this, you live in a constant state of fear, confusion, doubt, self-loathing, worry and tension. Millions of people are living through this every day. For me, it started like this…
I met him. Swept off my feet and taken to another world. Six weeks later, I found a diamond ring on my finger. One month later, my family began to splinter in confusion and disarray over what was about to transpire….a wedding. And in just a little over 7 months.
The fights began shortly after the engagement. I was in my early 30s, had a vibrant career, and many close friends. I found myself trying to balance friendships, family, and work and figure out new expectations of me, now that I was an “engaged” woman. I would plan a dinner with girlfriends and be told, “You are engaged now, why do you still act as if you are single?” I would go on a work trip and be questioned about who would be there and what was “really” going on. I would be on the phone with a friend, he would walk into our apartment and tension would mount that would force the phone call to end. At our engagement party, that people had traveled from across the country to attend, he locked himself in the master bedroom refusing to come out, because “I wasn’t paying enough attention to him.”
But he was charming, powerful, bigger than life – and I loved him. I wished I’d known then that as the daughter of a narcissist, I was particularly at risk for falling for a guy who showed the same behavior. I didn’t make the connection, though, and in some way his behavior just felt familiar.
The weekend of our wedding arrived and everyone I loved was there. I knew that this was a once in a lifetime moment and one to be cherished, but I found myself worrying constantly that my attention to friends and family would “upset” him.
He approached me suddenly the night before our wedding at a welcome cocktail party we hosted for our guests. My heart sank. He wasn’t really going to start a scene now…was he? He escorted me away, put his hand on my back, and said, “Brides don’t stay out the night before their wedding.” On top of that, he took over the bridal suite to play cards with his friends, forcing me to spend the night with two of my bridesmaids in their one queen bed.
The morning of the wedding, I felt nauseous and knew I was making a mistake. Yet I proceeded.
In the months after our wedding, the fights and the isolation continued. I saw no one socially. I distanced myself from my friends to their confusion, and my despair. I couldn’t understand why, but I knew I didn’t have a choice, and frankly, I was afraid of the outcome. I was married now had an obligation to keep my husband “happy.”
In March, just three months after our wedding, I was pregnant.
We moved to the suburbs and began a new chapter of this dangerous life. I lost myself in his endless criticism, and even started to believe that it was true.
I could never predict the mood he would be in, he would start a fight prior to a social engagement, to get out of going. I wanted to build a new support system; instead, I was isolated. We were the odd couple on the block with bad energy.
Realizing that relationships with others with him involved were going to be impossible, I worked hard to build strong friendships with other preschool moms, but did it silently, and mostly during my work hours, to hide my efforts from him. I lied about what I did certain days, I would pay for my lunch in cash to hide my trail.
We had one child, and a second. They will forever be the loves of my life and I would do it all over again, to have them. But the ransom was high, and I had enough.
After a year and a half battle, I left the marriage with 50% of my children, most of the debt, no assets, a family ripped apart and friendships that had been tarnished due to lack of contact.
Despite this, I consider myself a lucky one. I have a family and a community that came back, quickly, supported me, strengthened me and helped the children and I find our new normal and flourish.
But it didn’t end. He promised that he “would spend his life making this right.” I bought it. And I wanted this nightmare to desperately be re-written and for a second chance.
Unfortunately, this time the abuse and isolation was exponentially worse. He insisted we move out of our town to a new town, which took me from my support system, and my friendships that had helped make the children and I so strong post-divorce.
The abuse escalated to the point that my friends stepped in and made the decision that I was moving out – and helped the children and I get out of the house and into my own safe haven.
Which brings us to today. We’ve moved into a small home, full of boxes and an air mattress. It’s not much, but we are finally free and at peace. My mind is calm and heart quiet with gratitude. The burden of abuse, isolation, and neglect has been lifted. The end of my story is thankfully a happy one, but my heart still breaks for those who couldn’t get out of the prison of isolation before COVID-19. We can’t forget them and need to act to end their abuse.
But we also need to work to make sure others don’t get into these relationships like I did. While it’s certainly not my fault that I ended up a victim, my entire life has been impacted by the fact that I did. I think back on how different it could have been if I’d made a different choice. If I’d been explicitly taught about the basics of relationship health versus relying on what I learned through the relationships I observed or experienced along the way, perhaps some part of me would have had the courage to trust my gut and act on my instincts versus ignoring them and ending up married to an abusive person who would wreak such havoc on me and my life.