Okay, so I am going to publicly come out. Like most coming outs, this is no surprise to most people reading this, but it may be to some. And I hope it is helpful to some as well. And like most coming outs, I expect that this may make some people question me. Some people will not believe me. Some people will not understand. I hope to make you understand.
I was an abused wife.
I was an abused wife for ten years.
I would like parents out there to perform a thought experiment. Suppose that you are notified that the government is considering taking your children to live in a group home. Your children are happy and healthy living with you, and wish to continue to live with you, but the government feels that because of your particular choice of lifestyle the children would do better if raised in a group home as mainstream American Christians. It has been shown that mainstream American Christians have better future earning potential, and so although there is nothing actually wrong with the way you are raising your kids, someone else feels that they can do a better job and are threatening to take them. By the way, this isn’t all that far fetched. This very thing happened to many Native American children, with almost universally disastrous results. Anyhow, let us further suppose that you have some experience with this group home, and you are certain that your children would be very unhappy there. You are told that this won’t happen immediately, and may not happen at all if you can show that your kids are better off with you. But you know that you may have to go to court at some future time in order to keep your kids, and if that happens you are going to face huge legal bills you cannot afford. Also, you know that if you do or say anything to the children in the meantime that in any way bad mouths the group home, or even lets them know that this might happen, that if it DOES go to court it will be used against you as proof of bad parenting.
Oh, and if you let this upset you, make you visibly depressed or show anxiety… more proof of bad parenting.
Now this is in no way a perfect analogy, but imagine how helpless you would feel. You would need to constantly fight to keep your children, but do so in such a way so as to not let the other party ever know (or have proof) that it upsets you. You would need to show that not only are your kids fine with you, but that they are demonstrably better off to such a degree that it would be pointless to even take it to court. Because even if you are sure you would win in court, it would financially ruin you.
That is the situation I was in with my ex-husband. I imagine I am not alone. I could even end up there again in the future, and if I do the very fact of this writing could be used against me. I am taking a risk even writing this.
Because the system is rigged against me. Anything I do or say that publicly paints him in a bad light could be used against me as proof of denigrating the other parent, which counts against you big time in child custody cases. And child custody never goes away until the children are 18. Divorce and custody agreements are never considered final (although they are given a lot of weight, so it really is worth your while to bite your tongue until that final paper is signed and stamped.)
One thing I could not do while divorce was pending is this. I could not come out publicly as having lived as a victim of domestic abuse for 10 years.
I could not do so (and probably still shouldn’t from a legal standpoint), because if there is no concrete proof (in the form of police reports and hospital records) of physical abuse, then it is assumed that none took place. In a “he said, she said” situation an accusation of abuse is generally considered to be slander and gets used against the accuser not the accused. I have no police reports or hospital records because I was not physically abused. I was continually emotionally abused, and one of the biggest ways that this abuse/control was implemented was total financial control. I was not allowed access to finances or records. I was not allowed access to a joint checking account and had no way of knowing the financial status at any given time. I was allowed money only through the use of credit cards or if I asked for cash. Records of all my purchases were available to him. None of his records were available to me.
I was made to feel that being a primary care-giver for our two children was a form of freeloading, yet any part-time work I did was to be completely “on my own time” and could in no way impinge upon his schedule. This work was also generally denigrated as not worth the time or wear and tear on the car in order to get me to work. I was never forbidden to see friends, yet any friends of mine who did not meet with his approval would be bad-mouthed to the point that I would sever the friendship in order to maintain my marriage. Outside interests such as hobbies, or even reading a book, had to be dropped immediately at any moment to tend to his or the children’s needs. The act of sitting down to watch an entire half hour television show became nearly impossible, as I was almost certain to be called away before the ending. Any leisure activity of mine was considered a waste of time which should only ever be done if there were no other tasks to be performed. Theoretically I could read or do crafts if the house was spotless first.
The house was never spotless.
The children were seen as without flaw in his eyes, particularly our son. Anything the children did wrong, any messes they made, were seen as my fault and my responsibility. A report card for our son was also my report card. Any grade less than perfect was attributable to me and my lack of proper parenting. As were meltdowns, temper tantrums, ANYTHING broken, and all messes. Flaws in my daughter were more evident to him, and thus he largely ignored her when she was less than perfect, but it was subtly implied that this was due to her resemblance to me. Preferential treatment was always given to my son. But it was also always denied if I dared to call him on it.
How? I hear you asking… How did this happen? How did you let it happen? And how, if he didn’t hit you, did he keep you from doing what you wanted to do? My punishment was dismissal. If I transgressed in any way I was subjected to what I came to think of as the Black Cloud of Simmering Anger. I was ignored, shut out, and in some cases subjected to tantrums. Items were thrown, though never at me. Doors were slammed. Pots and pans were slammed. I was treated as an object barely worthy of contempt. I suffered the worst punishment if I actually won at something. If I indisputably won an argument. If I got a job after being told that I was worthless. Then I knew that a few days later I would be made to suffer. He would do something to reassert his dominance, like take the children somewhere without telling me for two days. Or simply disappear. He disappeared a lot.
Eventually after nearly ten years his behavior escalated. He had an affair, claimed to end it, and did not. He lived a double life for nearly a year, making outrageous promises to both me and his girlfriend. Eventually he got her pregnant. (Or maybe he did not. There is evidence both ways, and by then the lies were so thick on the ground that I wouldn’t have believed him about his own name without supporting documentation.) In any case he told me he got her pregnant, but refused to either leave her OR me until I finally ended things for him and kicked him out.
Was the abuse over once I kicked him out? Hardly. In some ways it had just begun. I had nearly no money, and had to rely on family for what I had until I could find full time work, which had to be done in addition to taking care of the kids. I had no way outside of court to make him give me anything, even as support for the children. And going to court costs money. Lots of money. For the next year and a half I lived and cared for our children completely without any money from him while I worked to slowly get the divorce finalized. During that time I had to “maintain a good relationship” with him for the sake of the children. I had to show I could work with him, because if I did not then the divorce would go to court and the few thousand I had paid for legal fees would run into the tens of thousands. And if I went to court I could lose the kids. Probably not, but you really never know.
One friend of mine fled a terrifyingly abusive relationship and took her kids to a shelter. Her husband filed kidnapping charges and she lost all custody until the divorce was final. And it was on her to prove that she could have any custody at all. To this day she must hand over her children every week to a man she knows full well is physically abusing them. And if she complains about it in court, the only result will likely be her loss of custody. Not his. That is the system,
So I spent a year and a half finessing the divorce. At no point during that time did he work with me or treat me with anything resembling respect. In most ways I was treated as unpaid childcare, just as I had been prior to the separation. Schedules for the children were carefully made, and then he ignored them. He dropped them off or picked them up when he felt like it. It was expected that I would be home waiting when he chose to drop them off, and that they would be packed, with clean clothes and brushed hair whenever he deigned to come get them. It was (and still is) expected that I would send them with a bag of clean clothes when he took them, although he refused to so much as tell me what to pack. He relays all instructions to the children, not to me, and they are the ones who suffer if I get it wrong. If I am lucky, I get the clothes back dirty to launder. If unlucky, I have to buy them more.
And do it all with a smile, remember… “for the sake of the children.”
But I did get my divorce. I got it, and I got the terms I had asked for. Mostly because he was too cheap to get his own lawyer, but so it goes. Now, if you have been paying attention, you will know that I would shortly be punished for it.
Because that is the thing… I will never be free of his punishment. Because that is what controlling, abusive people do. They control. I wasn’t his wife anymore, so he couldn’t control me directly. (In fact, I had married someone else in short order. Someone WONDERFUL who actually loves me and treats me with respect. Yet another reason to be punished. Being happy without him.) He could no longer even control the support purse strings because I now had a court order requiring a certain amount of monthly support for the kids as well as custody details.
The only way he could still control me was through the children.
Initially he did this by abusing the custody schedule. But eventually even he must have realized that he was creating a constant paper trail of his behavior. He was committing huge custody faux pas, like using the children as go betweens in vital communications, and then blaming them if messages did not get relayed. I started sending him formal emailed complaints to document his abuse, not because I had any illusions that he would modify his behavior, but so that I would have proof if I ever had to go to court. I saved everything. Often in triplicate by BCC’ing other people who would save it as well.
So then the next shoe fell. I was made aware by members of his family that are sympathetic that he was planning a custody coup. He was under the impression that at the point that my son graduated from the 8th grade that I would be forced to allow him to take custody because the public schools where he lives (with his mother) are better than where I live. It was his idea that he could argue that it would be in the best interest of my son to attend one of the top 10 public high schools in the state (Gunn High, Palo Alto), and that if he did so I would not have a leg to stand on. And then he could also argue that it would be in the best interest of my daughter to come live there as well, in order to maintain sibling cohesion. (This would also have had the effect of saving him huge amounts of money. By the terms of the divorce agreement he is responsible for my daughter’s private school tuition. He volunteered to this in return for the concession of being allowed to take one child every year as a deduction on his taxes, something he could only do if he was providing more than 50% of their support. Also, if he took primary custody he would no longer be required to pay child support, and might even be able to require me to pay him.)
Now, I knew that I would likely win if this went to court. I had reams of proof of ongoing abuse, as well as the fact that neither child wanted to go. I was likely to win, but I was in no way certain to win. And if you are a parent you know that there are some things you don’t want to risk. At all. Ever. And once again, going to court is brutally expensive. So I was faced with making certain that my son had a high school alternative HERE that was at least comparable to public school in Palo Alto. The best way to do that was to be accepted to a private school. A private school that costs about the same for one year as my income.
Not impossible. But it meant financial aid. A LOT of financial aid.
Which once again meant getting at least token cooperation from him. Because the private schools require a commitment from both parents. Once again, for another year I bit my tongue and made nice. I endured flagrant disrespect. I worked harder at getting my son into high school than I ever did to get into college. I think I worked harder than I ever did IN college. I bit my tongue when an admissions director admonished me that I should work on my relationship with my ex-husband. (This in trying to explain that I did not know what his finances were, or if I thought he could afford to contribute to my son’s education.)
I bit my tongue, and I won.
My son was accepted to a great school on a nearly full scholarship. This despite the fact that my ex did everything he could do to sabotage it short of being so obvious his son would hate him. Despite the fact that he refused to contribute more than $1000 per year for tuition.
Despite the fact that I know I will now be punished.
So far it has been in little ways. He went alone and signed the admissions contract before I could do so, putting only his information on all the forms. He listed himself as the financially responsible party, which struck me as particularly laughable as I was the one paying the vast majority of the tuition. He checked off the single payment option without asking, so that I am responsible for payment in full by June 30, rather than August 15.
I let it go. I’ve got the tuition money, although it would have been better to wait until August. I can fix the records so that my son’s actual home address is listed and everything doesn’t keep going to Palo Alto, although so far it still does. (In fact I just tried to do so via email a few minutes ago. I swear I cannot be the only divorced parent in that entire school with a sub-optimal relationship with their ex…) I let it go because, at least for now, my kids are safe. He can badger them all he wants on the few days he sees them, and call for the nightly homework interrogation, but the damage he can do is limited. My kids are great, and he doesn’t even know the half of it because he can only see himself. I feel sorry for him.
So why, then, am I bitching about it now? Because it isn’t right. It isn’t right that the system is set up to allow controlling abusers continued access to their victims. It isn’t right that children’s lives are being sacrificed in a system that is supposedly set up “for the sake of the children.” My own parents got divorced, and I lived with my mom. I saw my dad, but I did not have to shuffle back and forth, back and forth. I had one home, and no one was going to take me out of it. Once I was old enough to want weekends to be my time, I didn’t have to negotiate that right against a parental custody agreement. I had free time with my own friends, not as constant forced face-time with my parents’ activities.
I am bitching about it because the way things are, sub-criminal emotional abuse only has consequences for the victim. Abusers are often very charming people, particularly to those who do not know them well. They hide their abusive tendencies, so that the victim is at best questioned. At worst, and often, victims are called liars. Most of the time it is assumed that the victim is equally at fault. As in, “Well, it takes two to make an argument…” “You need to work on communication.”
It is HARD to come out as a victim. It is hard to admit that you were foolish or powerless enough to “allow” it to happen. I know full well that he has told his friends for years that I am just “crazy.” I know for a fact that he told his mistress that during the affair, and I expect that he has told that to his new “baby-momma” as well. (Yes he DID knock up another woman. I swear you can’t make this stuff up…) I am aware that at least some of the other parents at my kids’ schools only see his side of things, and that the vast majority just don’t want to be involved at all. I can’t blame them. He is far more charming than I am, and far more outgoing. He also compartmentalizes his life so that they only see a small side of him. For instance the only people at my son’s school who even know that he has a new little sister are the ones I told. He never told a soul.
When we split up he told me that it was my fault he continued his affair because when I first caught him I had told people about it, and therefore he had nothing else to lose.
I stayed silent when I had to. I won’t be silent any more.