Twenty years ago, Bill and I were about to be engaged, but I asked him to meet my therapist first. After a half-hour chat, Dr. N turned to me and said, “He’s got a job. What the hell do you see in him?” We all laughed, but it underscored my poor marital record.
With husband #1, I felt as if we were family on our very first date, when he made fun of my appearance. A few years after we married, he quit work and retired to the sofa. I wrote in my diary that if I were happy 10% of the time, that should be enough. I left him after the second time he beat me.
Five years after that divorce, I was very lonely. I almost didn’t care that husband-to-be #2, in his mid-thirties, lived with his sister and drove a car that barely ran. A recovered drug addict, he owned nothing in the world. But he was so smart, so artistic, and so compellingly broken. After we married, he quit working, but he never beat me, so I counted myself happy. I gave him a roof over his head and health insurance. He gave me astronomy, geology, history, music, and when he relapsed, drugs.
Why would I, a smart, hardworking honor student, grow up and choose such men?
- Because they were familiar.
- Because I didn’t know how to tell good people from bad. After all, I’d been taught that my father could break my eardrum or give me a bloody nose and still deserve my love and loyalty.
- Because my religion taught me to turn the other cheek, and love the sinner.
As a result, I didn’t know what to do with bad people. Their pain was like a claim ticket. All they had to do was show it to me and I was obligated to cash it.
And what was “bad,” anyway? When I consider what my dad went through as a little kid, I could cry. I love and miss him to this day. That’s messed up, right? To feel so much empathy that you bond for life with an abuser?
Well, it’s textbook codependency. You feel your fate is tied to theirs. You only exist insofar as you are useful to others. You don’t know what to do with yourself if you don’t have a purpose that somehow serves humanity. You’re a people-pleaser, hypervigilant, and/or you have a relentless sense of responsibility for everybody and everything. Maybe you’re addicted to alcohol, food, drugs, sex, or overwork.
As I learn about myself under the guidance of a trusted coach, I’m having a lot of thoughts and dreams. Even a nightmare or two.
But there’s a silver lining: my behaviors, developed appropriately as a child and continued inappropriately into my seventh decade, can now stop. Now that I know they were textbook protective reactions, I can choose how to react, how to behave, and even how to feel.
A few days ago, we babysat our grandkids for a few hours. When their daddy, my son, came home, he insisted we stay and visit a while, and we had a great conversation. When mommy came home, it continued. What a warm, close feeling I had, sharing their lives. But then after we left, I felt that familiar sense of loss, of disconnection. Of being separated from the whole.
Newly informed, however, I reminded myself that no matter how real it felt, it was an illusion; nothing more than learned behavior, nothing more than the fossilized remains of childhood trauma.
If you are in an abusive situation, understand this: abusive behavior is generational. Please get help – if not for yourself (Janay Rice), then for your child, who will in ten or twelve years go looking for a man to knock her out cold in an elevator.