THE FIRST TIME
Stupid. Shit. Beast. Whore. Bitch. Liar. Loser. Asshole. Leech. Fart. Zero. Nothing.
I can’t remember the first time my ex-husband insulted me or what he said because I didn’t even notice that I had been insulted. It wasn’t much of a stretch from the negative comments and forceful suggestions that he was continually giving me about what to do, and what to say, and what to think, and what to feel, and even how to respond to him and his comments. The realization that his caring critiques were really humiliating affronts took far too many years of my taking it, and accepting it as a part of our marriage. The shame is that I didn’t stand up to him the first time the word “fat” or “ugly” or “nothing” or maybe it was “stupid” came out of his mouth and scream back at him, “DON’T YOU EVER TALK TO ME LIKE THAT AGAIN!” Who knows, maybe that would have been enough to break a pattern before it started? But I didn’t. And so my life became one filled with far too many insults, and distrust and fear of the man I had once loved and respected, and much too much silence from me.
I wonder what would have happened if I had yelled back at him. Would I have been excited about my 20th anniversary rather than dread it? I’ll never know, because I didn’t. I stood there quietly while he had his tantrum, and then I went back to life, I probably asked him if he wanted dinner. This acceptance or excusing of his behavior is something to shake my head in wonder at now, but then, then I just wanted to placate my husband, I just wanted to calm him down. It’s revelatory that my focus was on him and not on me; I was worrying about soothing him rather than being contorted with anguish at how he had spoken to me.
Bound together for me in this whole sorry scene is that I was doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing, in spite of the way I was being treated. I continued to take care of his needs and coddle his ego, and he was supposed to do the same for me, after all, didn’t we love each other? Isn’t that the way a marriage is supposed to work, aren’t we supposed to take care of each other? He broke the pattern by not caring for me, but still expecting that I attend to him. Or rather, he demanded more from me, of me, in order to get any tenderness from him. And so it came to pass that I would have to take the reprimands to get the tenderness. (But was it tenderness? What was it, what was I getting in return for serving him?) He was either breaking me down or proving my absolute allegiance, or both. In the end, I was mostly broken, but not enough to prevent me from breaking with him, but it took so very long. Years and years of taking it quietly, of looking past the harsh comments, and being treated like a servant, far too many years wasted expecting things to get better when some in-the-future and undefined event or situation would come to pass. But really, years of not realizing how bad it was—how wrong it was.
Even though I didn’t hurl back a biting comment that would put him in his place, or use my all-purpose standard, “Fuck you!” for quite a while, I did not acquiesce. My mind, and then my body, subtly began turning away from him. Gradually he stopped being a depository of knowledge who I would refer to when talking with others; instead, he became a person whose opinion I would so completely shun that when it was uttered, I would tune it out completely. So deeply, although still unconsciously, did I need to oppose him, prevent him from taking over any more of my mind and inhibit my self-esteem. I did not want to grant his words validity as I struggled to oppose his nasty pronouncements. Swirling within me were his obscenities, I didn’t need to confront his logic; I didn’t need to make sense of anything he said for it would always cause me to doubt myself and not him.
But it took so very long to reach that point of closing off his words. That turning away, even if unseen and unrealized, is perhaps what kept me alive, what kept me from wholly absorbing his insults and his hateful vision of myself and the world. It is, I think, what enabled me to break from him; to demand a divorce and then push and push and push him until he finally had to acquiesce—to me.
While continuing to live with him after that first outright insult, I began unconsciously to sidestep the marriage, and especially the relationship that is supposed to be at its core, that place where we are to respect each other and seek solace in each other. That was my leaving. Even with a pretty low self-esteem quotient and a personality that quietly took the abuse he was shoving at me by closing doors and taking solitary drives, I remained intact by slowly shutting him out. The swinging door into my interior life became closed to the person to whom I had once swung it open with a passion. The passion part is still there, but now with an entirely different tone.