This page contains the preface and first chapter of "Get Your Words Off Me: Stepping Out from Under a Controlling and Verbally Abusive Man," the memoir I that wrote about my marriage to a man who went from loving to controlling to abusive. This has been excerpted on the blog, but here I have put it together in the order it is to be read.
Get Your Words Off Me: Stepping Out from Under a Controlling and Verbally Abusive Man, by laura g.
“But is he mean to you?” my friend asks when I tell her that I am changing my last name back to my maiden name after my divorce. What kind of question is that to ask? How can anyone who knows me and knows that my husband has used me as a verbal punching bag ask me such an inane question?
“What do you mean?” I ask back, not wanting to think that she may be implying that if he hasn’t hit me, then he hasn’t been mean to me.
“You know, hit you,” she answers. Is that it? Unless I’ve been physically beaten—smashed against the wall—he has been nice to me? Is the abuse I have endured as naught because only my eyes are red, not my skin? Two years of constant insults and curses, and twenty years of belittling comments and controlling behaviors are okay if I haven’t been physically broken? It doesn’t make sense. Do people really believe “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”? Have they never been upset by criticism? Have they never felt the pain of rejection? Have they never felt the sting of a word?
I look at her and respond (truthfully), “He kicked a bag at my head once and I called the police. He didn’t try again.”
She looks satisfied, as if now there is justification for my disaffection, for my wanting to distance myself from him and his name. And I had played right into those expectations, that to be abused is to be physically tormented. But I was disappointed in my reply; once again I didn’t stand up for myself, I didn’t say what I needed to say. Yes, he’s been mean, I should have said, he calls me bitch and liar and leech every chance he gets. Yes, he is mean. He insults my profession, my ideas, my vocabulary, my interests, my looks, my name, my breathing, my smell,—my everything. Yes, he’s mean. And I have had no protection from him because he has not hit me or threatened me physically. And that must stop. Verbal and emotional abuse is abuse. It hurts, it harms, it humiliates. What more needs to happen to a woman in order to be protected against a man? Do only welts count?
* * *
It’s devastating when the person who is supposed to encourage, support and protect you becomes the person you need to be protected from. Now I pay a lawyer $500 an hour to defend me against and extricate myself from the man I unhesitatingly married almost twenty-two years ago. How does love morph into hate? How does the man who tells you you’re beautiful become the man who calls you ugly—inside and out? How does the woman who hangs onto her husband’s every word as if it were the truth from Mount Sinai come to cover her ears and scream “STOP” over and over again so she won’t have to hear him berate her? How did I come to hate the man I once loved?
I can blame him. I can say he’s selfish and a narcissist. I can say he never really loved me, it was all about him, always, and I naively believed that he cared about me. But what does that say about me? How did I end up with such an evil man? I can analyze and hypothesize about his faults and faultiness, but, ultimately, to make my life better, to make it one that improves upon this dismal present, one that I will be content within—no, happy within—I need to understand where I went wrong, or at least to understand where my intentions were missed, why my actions came up lacking. Much that went wrong can be blamed on him. So what? Does it really matter that he is a deeply-flawed person. The right question seems to be: am I? Am I flawed for having fallen in love with him? for having stayed with him? for having believed in him for so long (even more than myself)?
* * *
Since I have always thought that whatever I live through, someone else has/is/will do so as well this book is meant to bring comfort to other women who have or will, unfortunately, at some point, live in this debilitating atmosphere, and to help them understand the dynamics of that relationship. And to know, especially, that they are not alone, that there is a community of caring—even if never met or formally established—of women who empathize with them, and who send out thoughts of compassion and care, even if through the ether, and even if out of their own pain and incomprehension and self-doubt.
This book is also a heartfelt rending of my soul so that friends and family can understand what I (we) have lived through. It is also meant to provide essential insight to therapists and divorce lawyers, especially those who foolishly ask, “Let’s say that you’re both 50% to blame for the break-down of your marriage,” or “Why did you stay in the marriage so long?” Therapists need to understand the dynamics at play to help the couple, and, more importantly, the abused and controlled woman. And lawyers need to know what a controlled woman is living with, to help her better prepare herself to leave and protect her while in, an abusive marriage.
Finally, this book is my group hug to all the women who have been abused or controlled by the men who pledged to love and care for them. May the women thrive, and the men rot in hell.
In the late 70’s I graduated from high school in New York City at seventeen and went off to college in Buffalo. At twenty, I got my BA in English. Two months later, I took off on my version of the ‘grand tour,’ traveling by myself in Israel, England, Scotland and Ireland. At twenty-two, I moved to Israel, a country whose language and culture I barely understood, and where I knew only a handful of people. My parents did not try to stop me, they respected my decision (and, I suppose, my ability to make it on my own), and stood proudly by (or so they claimed) as I packed my things into a bright red backpack and took off to live in a country seven time zones away. It seems that I had become quite the adventurous introvert.
So how did this person who did not need her parent’s permission or guidance to move half-way across the world come to need to explain to her husband where she was going for an hour? How did I go from packing a backpack for a year without a guidebook in sight, to not going anywhere unless the itinerary was discussed ahead of time? How did I go from seeing Broadway shows by myself to sitting at home waiting for my husband to come home? And, how did I go from purchasing—and wearing—a bright yellow straw hat to needing my husband’s okay to buy a pair of black slacks?
Am I exaggerating, did I really need permission or did I just want to please him and so yielded to his desires? Or was it more, was it a feeling he conveyed that made me not want to antagonize him, not want to get on his bad side, not want to pit myself against him? No, it was definitely more than a feeling, it was a stance; his concerns were always right and my lack of worries was always wrong. So this impulsive woman, who could not always explain her choices and actions, became as a pawn to this man who lived life as if it were a chess game, planning all moves ahead of time. He gained control because of the dynamics of the kind of person he is with the kind of person I am. We were opposites attracting and then turning against each other; until we were rent apart as he sought to retain control over me while I sought to regain control over myself.
Some of it may come from his growing up in a patriarchal society (Israel). But why, then, did he chose to be with me, when I openly worked to subvert that kind of man-centric society? And what about me, why didn’t I realize that his concerns indicated more than caring but a need to control? Oh, to be young and in love. It can be a curse.
The Romance of the Haifa-Tiberias Bus
The man I had just spoken to briefly, inquiring about which bus would be leaving next for Tiberias at the Haifa Central Bus Station, walked slowly down the aisle of the bus once it had pulled in and we had started to board. Was he going to sit next to me or was he going to claim an empty seat? Holding his duffle bag high, he seemed hesitant as he walked down the aisle. I was sitting next to the window in a seat between the front and middle of the bus; he would have to decide fast. I wasn’t sure if I wanted him to sit next to me; I had met enough people, especially men, on this six-month visit and besides, I was leaving in two days, which was why I was in Haifa that day, purchasing a plane ticket to London.
Six months in Israel had been a great experience, but I was ready to leave. The war in Lebanon (the 1982 war) had broken out two months before, a friend had been injured by shrapnel to the head and another friend’s best friend had been killed. It had been more than enough reality for me. I was drained by my inability to do something while the killing went on; all I did was deliver cookies to resting soldiers. I felt that I needed to get started on my life, not this hiatus, and the solemnity of that time made it even more critical to leave and find a purpose.
It was Friday afternoon, so there was a lot of activity on the bus, people on their way home or to visit friends or family for Shabbat. Indecisive for a few seconds standing over me, he finally sat down, next to me. We exchanged introductions. And with that we began a three-hour conversation in halting English and Hebrew, from Haifa to Tiberias, and what would, unfathomably, become a relationship that would extend for more than 24 years.
After six months of half-day Hebrew classes at only partial attentiveness, my Hebrew was not very good. And after years of school-English, with two years out of school, his English was not very good. But we managed to communicate.
I thought that this tall, skinny man with short black hair and an intense look of innocence and intelligence was a high school student; young even for me (I was 21 at the time). But it turned out that he had already been in the army for two years and was on a two-day leave from fighting in Lebanon. The difference between my impression and the reality was great. He didn’t swagger and talk about his experiences, as so many others did, boasting of their experiences; he wasn’t even wearing his uniform. When we arrived at the Tiberias bus station, he asked if he could come visit me the next day. I was hesitant, since I was leaving in two days and I already had a few men who I needed to say goodbye to already. But hey, one more couldn’t make my already bad reputation much worse. (This was the first and last time that I would have, I think, a bad-girl reputation, and I quite enjoyed it.) At home I was always so shy and hesitant with men, but here, in Israel, I had made connections easily and was enjoying the attention.
On Saturday afternoon, while his parents were napping after their Shabbat meal at their hotel, he came to visit me. We continued our broken language talk as we walked around the kibbutz where I was living. When it was time for him to leave, we exchanged addresses, and he warned me that we were only friends. Considering that even for me in my new racy persona we had only talked, I laughed at the idea that there could be anything more—that he could even think that I had been attracted to him in any way. He still seemed the high school student to me, and I had already graduated from college. And he was off, and I was off to say good-bye to other friends.
The next day I flew to London and from there I was to go, within a month, to Perth, Australia. I had always dreamed of living in Australia. Things had really worked out: one of my friends in my extremely basic Hebrew class was from Perth and she said that I could stay with her when she went back next month to make her arrangements to return to Israel to marry her kibbutz boyfriend.
But my plans changed in a London dorm room, when I realized that it was important for me to live someplace where my very presence was meaningful, would add value and significance to the very ordinariness of life. So, I altered my plans, deciding to move to Israel rather than Australia. I am not a religious person, I question God’s existence, I question the validity and usefulness of religion, what with all of the wars and conflicts it has engendered, but my heritage, who I am as a person–-as a part of the continuity of generations of Jews—I felt that I needed to live within that identity and honor it. Especially growing up during the Vietnam War and then Watergate my skepticism for things American was great, it should have been for Israel, too, especially since the war in Lebanon had started, but I felt that this was a statement of self that I needed to make, that I needed to tether myself to something and not just wander through life on my own behest.
While I was in New York preparing for my move, I exchanged a couple of letters with the boy from the bus. I remembered his dark intent eyes and his inviting smile; I had no idea who he was, though. My reaction to one of his letters (in which he talked about the war and losing friends showed a depth that connected to me) either showed that I was truly ripe for love or that this man really was to be my true love; I told a friend, “I could fall in love with this guy.” There was something about the letter and his sensitivity that touched me. I have no idea what I wrote in my letter, but apparently it ignited a spark, too, because he wanted to see me again when I returned to Israel.
After turning up at the airport for the wrong flight (I never told him on which flight I would be arriving), and then finding out which kibbutz I was living on, he came to visit me a few weeks after my arrival. He arrived very late at night, having taken a helicopter from the Syrian border and then hitchhiked to the kibbutz. It was awkward, he was there for the weekend, yet we barely knew each other. Meeting this man I had barely thought of or knew as I was embarking on my new life, and then to be confronted with his determination to see me may have helped ignite something in me. He had lost his schoolboy aura by the time I had returned; he was an officer in the army by then. He seemed more capable and in command whereas before (on the bus) I had felt so much ahead of him. It turned out that he was about two years younger than I, but it didn’t seem so anymore; he had lived through things and matured since we had met.
The next day, along with some members of the kibbutz (a different one), we drove in the kibbutz van to the beach and the seaside town of Acre. It was a lovely spring day, with clear blue skies and rolling waves on a roughly pebbled beach with the worn ramparts of the ancient city behind us. We jumped through the waves (something we would do many times during our courtship and beyond) and talked, excited rapid words to match the energy of the sea. He looked so handsome with his sharply delineated V-chest and powerful arms, and Speedo (oh, the appeal of a 20-year-old buff, olive-skinned six-foot-tall man in a Speedo cannot be denied), certainly not the boy I had envisioned in his blue polo shirt on the bus. In that moment of watching him, of seeing his confidence and ease, I realized, again, that I could love this man. He must have had an epiphany as well, since we left the beach holding hands.
That led to two years of dating. During that time he completed his army service, and I studied in Jerusalem, then Tel Aviv, and finally got down to business and started working in Ramat Gan (a satellite city of Tel Aviv). Since he was still in the army and generally stationed in bases far from the center of the country, we would meet a few times a month. The unexpectedness of when he would come to visit or my going to see him on bases in different parts of the country (occasionally flying to get there) added an aura of excitement to our relationship. Add that to the fact that I had no family in the country and he was shedding his religiosity, we became pretty close and dependent upon each other.
A few months after he finished his army service, we got married and he started studying at university while I worked to support us. Sounds like a good beginning. And it was. Only beginnings don’t last forever, they progress into middles, and sometimes ends, bitter ends.
Following in My Mother’s Footsteps
My mother used to spend her days preparing for my father to come home from work. It seemed that from the moment he left the house in the morning, she would start her preparations, that is, once she got my brother and me off to school. She would clean the house (which included scrubbing the floor on her knees, something she greatly regrets today), shop for what she thought my father would like for dinner, and then get to those preparations. In the years when we were in elementary school and came home for lunch, she would take a break from her cooking and cleaning to make us something to eat, and then back to it. Somehow this would take a whole day, every day.
This dedication to home and husband seemed to work for her, for them, on the whole. Both of my parents were—are—happy; for goodness sakes’, they still hold hands. They had bonded to become one; they became stronger as a unit than each was individually. They each had their own, absolutely traditional, reign of influence: she had the house, the children, and family gatherings, and he had his world of work. They respected each other for what they did in their realms and supported each other.
When it came time for me to form my ‘unit’ I had in mind the patterns that my parents had established. But this was the 80’s and I certainly did not intend to be the sole proprietor of the home. (After all, there were some twists already, I had graduated from college and was working as a technical writer supporting us, while my husband, that man on the bus, was a full-time college student, at first pre-law and then law school.) So we added some feminist liberation twists: shared responsibility for all that relates to the house, as well as food preparation and clean-up. And it pleasantly worked, for a while. I should have known things were no longer aligned when he stopped cleaning the floor (his job) and hired a cleaning man: that it wasn’t just because he didn’t have the time. Although he technically fulfilled his duties, he didn’t keep up his end of the bargain. I was still doing my chores, while he found for himself a loophole named William.
Unfortunately, like me, he was also following the pattern laid down by his parents, whereby his father did nothing in the house (unless you consider the occasional horseradish preparation as something) and his mother did everything. But while I was looking to modify the model, keeping a happy balance, he seemed to be trying to recreate it; moreover, there was a huge difference in our roles outside of the house, and no recognition of that at home. This surely created a tension. I felt that I had the right to rebel against the home-based expectations since I was not in a traditional role and so could strive for a recreated model. This was something I was passionate about; I was not a wallflower on this issue. Maybe he tried but was unable to change his actions and expectations, or perhaps he manipulated me from the start, saying what I wanted to hear but going ahead with his own formula for success. Perhaps, he needed to maintain his control at home since he didn’t have any outside of the home while he was just a student sitting in a lecture hall. Whatever the conscious or unconscious reason, I think that this role-perception split did not enable us to create a stable enough basis for the future. Although we were happy for quite a long time (at least I was), this unrecognized tension of who we are and how we—I—needed to be recognized at home probably wore away at our relationship.
Trying to understand how and why a relationship develops is surely an endless task, with so many possibilities and perspectives. I find that I keep going back to our personalities and how different we are. It’s funny, because in the beginning those differences made it feel like we were creating a stronger-than-the-individual unit, that we were filling in what we were each lacking individually. I wonder if, ultimately, we just didn’t have the skills or ability to subjugate our own needs, they were just too fundamental to be overcome. Was our inability to be our true selves within this relationship what pulled us apart? Did we each need to make or expect too many concessions to create a healthy relationship?
My way to combat his decisiveness and imperviousness was to become as closed as he was. If I could not talk him into seeing or recognizing the validity of my point of view—ever, if his opinion was the only valid opinion, then perhaps the only way I could survive without becoming totally submissive was to fight back, absoluteness against absoluteness, or in my case, my silence against his torrent of words. I was changing so I would not have to respond to the charge that I was wrong, always. The whole rhythm of the relationship became discordant.
And so I stopped discussing things with him. If his opinions were the only ones he would hear and were the only ones on which to base a decision that affected both of us and eventually the family, well, then I would not share the decision-making process with him (like him). It’s not that I was aware that I was doing this until much later, until our relationship had already disintegrated. It was only then, too, that it occurred to me that the strong-mindedness and determination that I had so admired in him initially were the very reason for my utter disaffection with him, his treatment of me and our relationship.
I changed over the course of our 24-year relationship, I don’t think that he did, that, too, holds the seeds of our destruction.
Change leader change. Change leader change. That was a chant we would call out when playing ‘Follow the Leader,’ unfortunately, the leader never changed, and the follower did. Or if he did, not in a way that would help save our marriage.
Put Me on a Pedestal, Please
I heard somewhere that for a marriage to work the woman must be put on a pedestal. I don’t know where that comes from, but it seems to have some truth to it. What does it mean to be put on a pedestal? A man should respect you, adore you, serve you, and want to make you happy. Is there more? For me that would have been enough. The problem was that I put him on a pedestal. I thought that I had struck it ‘rich’ with my husband; I thought that I was the one who married the pick of the litter, that he was the best, the smartest and the most likely to succeed. I felt for my friends and their laid-back husbands; I thought that my husband was The One. Unfortunately, so did he; I’m not sure if I was a competitor, and if so, for how long. Maybe it would have worked if both of us had stayed on those pedestals.
His nine-to-nine days never bothered me; I admired his dedication and workaholicness. It didn’t seem to predict any chinks in the relationship in the future. Wasn’t the type-A personality an indicator of future success, an indication that this man would be able to take care of me and my children. Was something wrong with thinking like that? I was working, I had goals for myself, but they were in the writing field, in the saving the world field, so why shouldn’t I respect a husband who would take care of the other side of things. It’s not that I was dependent, I took care of the bills, I wasn’t a tortured artist, I didn’t take advantage of anyone, after all I worked while he went to law school and then after. I thought we were a team, yin-yanging each other. He even acknowledged that I opened up horizons and perspectives that he hadn’t perceived before. So, where was the imbalance, where were the signs that this was a relationship heading for the brink? I thought I was acknowledged for what I thought and believed in, and he was respected for what he was doing and what he wanted to accomplish. Were we both living with illusions of our own making?
Did I put too much emphasis on his role outside of the home and, because of his success there, did I jealously try to prevent him from being as successful and commanding at home. Was my weakness outside, or rather my not achieving any of my goals, the reason I tried to hold onto the home base? I was contradicting myself, because while I was demanding that I not be solely responsible for the home, I was also demanding absolute authority in the home. Confusing for both of us, this blending of roles. The principle of ‘having it all’ did not recognize the difficulty it would engender at home, that a person could not always jockey for position at the top.
When did I get knocked off the pedestal? When did he get knocked off? Did he eventually tire of the silence of my non-compliance? Did he notice that I lost the glimmer in my eye when I saw him?
Another divide in our relationship was that while I would provide input, he made decisions. How did that happen? In the beginning I seemed so strong, so equal; I knew that he has a strong personality, but I did not wither before him. In fact, I think that my opposition to him was what attracted him to me, and my ability to stand up to his strength gave me strength, and he seemed to respect that. I’ve been thinking about decisions that were made at the beginning of our relationship, and I was calling a lot of the shots. Did he consciously try to bring me down later?
Before he got out of the army, when he was thinking about staying in, I simply told him that I was not interested in being married to a man in the military and if he were to stay, then I would go back to New York. I also let him know that I was expecting to get married, or at least engaged, a few months after he completed his military service. Was I pushy? Did I force him into doing things that I wanted but he didn’t? I don’t know. After being together for two years, with my being in a foreign country for those two years, I just knew some things that were essential for me. He did not have to agree. There was no arm twisting. I was not needy nor was I hanging onto him for dear life. I had a good job, had acclimated just fine, I was not dependent on him. Maybe he wanted me to be? Who knows? All I know is that things were definitely different in the beginning of our relationship than how it unfolded. There didn’t seem to be big warning signs about dangers ahead: we were two young people trying to make our way, together.
When did things start to fall apart? When did he start to take a leadership position in the marriage? When did I accede control to him? I think I can trace it to when he started making pronouncements about my friends. At that point I started changing how I interacted with them, and that, in such a small but substantial nutshell, was, I think, the first seed of our discord. Although I had been in Israel for two years before we got married, I had only a few acquaintances from work and classes I was taking. I do not make friends easily; I generally keep to myself. So what was the problem with my having a few friends, even if he didn’t like them (not that he even knew them), or even my spending time with those few friends? All of our joint friends were his friends, from the university, the army, his childhood. I was on my own; a new person in a new place just starting to establish friendships. Was this why he was attracted to me, the fact that I was unencumbered, and he would not have to fight for my time and attention, he would have me full-time with no competition from friends or family?
He would tell me that someone wasn’t interesting enough or intelligent enough or successful enough to be friends with. It’s not that I agreed with him, I did confront him sometimes, but why set out to upset your husband? Only now, years later did it occur to me to think the converse, why was he purposely upsetting me?
He had friends who I didn’t like, and so we did not see them often. But that’s normal, isn’t it? I did not preface my comments by finding fault with his friends, I would simply say that I didn’t like so-and-so and was bored when we got together, so he should get together with them alone. Isn’t there a difference between that and claiming someone is unworthy of being your friend because of some bogus reason, like she has a tattoo, or she’s a secretary? In mediation, mediators are taught to tell the arguing parties that they should focus on the issue and not the personalities; they shouldn’t insult each other but rather look at the problem from different perspectives. He has always done the opposite; he goes right to the jugular, right to the biting insult. Even when we were trying to work on our marriage, it would only be about me and my faultiness, and not about the issue under discussion.
Instead of standing up to him, defying him, telling him that he is ridiculous, “this is my friend, she doesn’t have to be yours,” I would just not talk about my friends with him. Unfortunately, this dishonest situation was uncomfortable, so I came up with an appalling alternative, I did not seek out friends. I stayed isolated—with the man who was isolating me. Did I see this as an insult? If he found such fault with my friends then wouldn’t he be finding fault with me as well? I think I took this in subconsciously, by distancing myself from my imperfect friends. In that way I stayed on his good side, I stayed perfect, untainted. Moreover, since these were our first years of wedded bliss, I was not seeking outsiders, our little unit was still comforting, still fulfilling. The gradual undermining of and damage to my psyche was happening below the surface in so many of our interactions, and I was so unaware of their presence and impact. I was, still, delusionally happy.
Rather than risk hearing his judgment of my friends and hence losing them after the inevitable condemnation and then distancing, I never brought my friends around, not to our house and not to go out with us. Again, there weren’t many friends, but I did not want him to ruin the few I had by making me doubt them, and myself.
My parents never told me if they liked a boyfriend of mine or not. They were hands-off parents; letting me make and grow from my own mistakes. I wonder if, with him, I became lazy, leaning on his assessments and not having to make my own. Did I just concede decision-making to him so I wouldn’t have to? It seems that there is a true dichotomy here: part of me enjoyed having a patron who made decisions for me, while the other part resented him and his decisions.
It wasn’t just about my friends, he had a very self-righteous and arrogant attitude. He would call people derogatory names and stereotype them. Initially, my being in an exalted group made me feel good—made me feel worthy, fed my weak self-image. I was finally in an in-group. But as time went by, this disturbed me, his intolerance. I had always prided myself on being open and accepting of all, and here I was throwing my morals away for a man.
Perhaps I protected my placement in the exalted circle by not opposing him. My comfort or safety in his in-group superseded my ideals. Is this when I started to live a double life, when I became the woman married to this man as distinct from the woman alone? How could I have done that to myself? It makes me a hypocrite. No wonder the extent of my animosity towards him now, since it probably feeds off of my feeling that he stole some truly vital things from me, and resulted in compromising core values of self. But it may also explain my vengeance for wanting to get out of this marriage.
Hold those Communications
The roots of the end of my marriage can also be found many years ago when I it occurred to me that when there is a problem or an issue to be discussed, I would raise points, whereas my husband made decisions. So, at some point, and not consciously mind you, I stopped bringing up some things for discussion; in that way I was able to make decisions myself. Even if I agreed with his decisions, the dismissal of my vote as ever being able to be the determining vote was insulting and hurtful.
Initially this process of making decisions on my own was accepted, albeit reluctantly and only after he realized, I think, that he just didn’t have the time to accompany me everywhere I go in order to tell me what to buy. In the course of time there seemed to be things that he was willing to give up control over, like which sneakers to get for our daughters and what kind of birthday party to have. But, in all essential things, his need to make all decisions finally unveiled itself as his need to control our lives—to control me. To realize that your voice and mind are not counted is pretty tough, demoralizing even.
One day, when we were already in the process of getting a divorce but living (horribly) separate in the same house, I started telling my husband that I would not be taking our daughters for a planned trip the next day, but rather the following week. He stood there, puffing his chest out in all his glory, and told me that he would have to think about it. I puffed myself up, too, and said that this is not something for him to decide but rather to discuss—as equals. At the suggestion of our being equal partners in this marriage he bristled, and with his coffee and cigarette stained teeth mere inches from my face he finally came right out and said it, “What I say is more important than what you say.” At that nasty insistence of superiority I simply turned and walked away. What can you say to a man who is unable to relent, who cannot change his vision of the world and his centrality in it? Who made him God? (He came back to me later that day to tell me that it would be alright if I take them. Relentless. As if I cared.)
When we first met we were young, we didn’t talk about the important issues, we just enjoyed being together. The tough questions we never even brought up; I guess we figured that we could ride through it all. I guess we were wrong.
After we had our first child, we did not discuss my future employment plans. I’m stunned by this now, but that is truly an indication—more than seventeen years ago—that this is not a healthy marriage. Rather than discuss when and if I would go back to work, I simply did what I thought was right: I was a stay-at-home mother for a year and a half. If we had discussed it, he would have said that I need to go back to work and that would have been it, I would have needed to go back to work or defy him. How is it that we were never able to talk things over, how is it that we talked past each other?
I can remember early into our marriage we would do everything together. We would do the grocery shopping together. He would go clothes shopping with me, suggesting what I should try on. And me, needing approval, needing for him to like the way I looked, I would try on and buy the clothes he suggested. At that point it wasn’t that I was losing myself and my personality in his decisions, it was rather that I lacked confidence in myself and was following his confidence. It wasn’t that he was controlling me, it was more that I was enabling him to make decisions for me.
Why didn’t I have self confidence, or why didn’t I have enough self-confidence to stand against him. Or was it that I was following what I thought was the role a wife should have; was I simply following the way my mother had acted with my father? She let him make all the decisions, or so it seemed. She waited for him and was guided by him. It seemed to work for them, why did it become oppressive for me? Was I, the independent daughter who went to live abroad at 22, really less independent? Was I looking for guidance? Or did I simply select the wrong man?
What makes a man think that he is more important than his wife? How can a man say that what he says is more important than what his wife says?
Need for a Hug
I need a hug. I need to be encased and enclosed within masculine compassion. It’s not asking for much, but it is certainly more than I have gotten in years, and more than I expect to get for years to come. A simple warm embrace that a man and a woman exchange, and share. It’s not an invitation to sex, but it does not deny passion. It’s not cordial, there is, after all, some chemistry required to make it a warm embrace and not simply an air-kiss with arms.
My younger daughter does the hug-thing, and my parents do it when they come to visit and when they leave; it’s all I get, but it’s not what I need. My daughters, well, that is me transferring my love and hopes and encouragement onto them. My parents, when they come to visit they give a “you look better or worse (depending on the trip) than we expected” hug and then when they go it’s a “be strong and let us out of here, you and your untenable situation” hug. Neither are what a woman, this woman, needs.
There’s the friend hug, too. That can be wonderful, but it’s more of a mutual commiseration, it does not answer any physical needs other than to say you are a good friend and when I see you I need to do more than just say hi and get to talking.
9/11 was another, your-marriage-is-over day. I needed an existential hug, one that affirmed and reaffirmed my belief in the world and the still existent good. But my husband was distant. He did not come over to me within all of my weepiness and join me. And I, seeing that distraction, did not call him over or go over to him. Something like that should have been felt, should have been automatic. He focused on the terrorists and their viciousness, the need for revenge; whereas I focused on the victims and their tragedies. His focus kept a rage and anger at the boiling-point, which did not have room for trembling with the victim. My focus required a hug to coalesce all of the sorrow and emptiness and compassion I had in me, and which had no outlet.
My parents, knowing of my need for that human contact came to visit a few days later. My embrace with each of them was warm and supportive. But, still, it was a parent and a child. I am a grown woman, and I need something else. But why? What does a hug represent for me? Why has it become something so vital that I mull over its loss, and analyze those I receive or participate in? A hug is, after all, simply a momentary embrace. It is a letting down of one’s guard; a non-verbal interaction in a words-filled life; a purely physical moment in a too cerebral world. Perhaps, for me, someone who does not get moved in prayer or by prayer it is my deep connection with something greater than myself. Maybe it’s a basic life force or universal energy or godliness that I am seeking and which I have found—hope to find again—at that juncture of man and woman. Or perhaps it is my wishful condensing of all my needs at this time into that one thing that I can’t have, rather than spread out all of my needs and desires into an endless list and array of things that would be overwhelming, I have chosen to focus on this seemingly attainable thing.
Maybe I am downsizing my needs. Now that my marriage has fallen apart and I have been sleeping on a mattress on the floor and then a love seat in the guest bedroom for more than three years, maybe that is all I can hope to attain. Maybe it symbolizes my journey into the future, by focusing on something that can only happen in the future, I am easing myself out of this horrible place I am in currently.
Home is not a Sanctuary
Punctured. That’s how I feel nowadays when I get home. I don’t remember what it’s like to be in a normal relationship. To say hello when you walk in the house, to ask how his day was, to be asked how your day was. I just walk in the door feeling utterly deflated. I don’t even need to interact with my husband, or hear his voice or derogatory remarks; I am lifeless when I walk through that door. I need to pick myself up for my daughters, but I am swimming in inertia far too often.
Luckily I have my mother to talk to. The sad, or perhaps good thing, is that I have been using her to whine and complain to since my first job, an internship at sixteen. Then, I was bored. Today, I am abandoned. I feel abandoned. How else can you describe the intense feeling of lovelessness within a marriage, within a home that was purchased to contain the joys of a family, a home that has held defeat, the defeat of the dream of a happy marriage?
What is the difference between serving your husband and becoming, being made into, his servant? Is it when you no longer clean things or cook things or buy things or support him to please, but rather to hold him at bay, to prevent him from finding fault with you rather than being pleased by you? It is not such a fine line, the difference between doing something out of love and doing something out of fear. I feel so stupid that I didn’t realize the difference.
Every Sunday I am drawn to the New York Times “Wedding Announcements” section. I read with impassivity couple after couple’s announcements: where they’re getting married, who’s officiating, where they went to college, what they did and do and where they are going to live. I notice when there are step-parents and previous marriages, especially divorces. And I notice their ages, the older the better—for my solitary soul. I don’t sit and imagine what their lives are like or will be like, I simply take consolation from the unending cycle of love and marriage. Now that my marriage is over, I look at this continuum and take solace, not that I will get married again, but that there is hope, that there is still a world of love and joy beyond the real and imagined walls of my bitterness. This need to peek into other people’s lives, to remember that the world is a joyful place full of beginnings and expectations takes me out of my profound sadness and anger, disappointment and aggrievedness, if only for a moment.
The fact that the announcements are published on Sunday morning is a great break in the weekend, for they are generally the worst time for me, so much unending time “together.” The weekend is simply time during which I pass my husband in the kitchen far too often; a time to feel my lip curl up in disgust when he coo-coos the dog; a time to be “available” for humiliation and insults, which never seem to cease. Those announcements take me to a time of my own happiness and innocence, when I stood under the chuppah and smiled with the same smile as the brides in the wedding announcements, with an unbridled joy and satisfaction at having found the right man—the man who can make me happy, the man who wants to make me happy.
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