The regulars will recognize "B." She posts quite a bit in trying to deal with her own abusive marriage. I asked her to pull some of her communications together and put them in order because hers is the story of a victim who listened to her body, took her power and is in the process of working her marriage. She is doing an exemplary job despite some very real bumps in the road.
So, get ready for another blow by blow "map" of victim recovery... Watch her get healthy. For those of you who have not come as far, read on for a glimpse of where you may want to go.
If you are the abuser, read on to get a glimpse of what may be required of you - if you're lucky!
What follows are two emails B sent me woven into a chronological reprint of her posts to other boards. My original comments to the posts are in blue. My new comments are in brown.
Dear Dr. Irene,
Is this an example of covert abuse?
We have kids. He counts on me to take care of our kid, and takes the time to do his stuff, but does not reciprocate: 1. because he's selfish (does not want to help or do anything he does not care to do), and 2. because he does not acknowledge (whether only to me or also to himself) that I'm the one who enables him to do what he wants.
Another example: When "victim" is working on something, and "abuser" finds himself (or herself; could go either way) "stuck" with taking care of the kid, he does his best not to succeed (so kid keeps going to mom and disturbs her work), blames it on the mom ("It's not my fault, you raise her that way, so she prefers you!"), and also complains about the time mom spends doing "her things" (hint: I deem them unimportant) instead of being with him (abuser feels neglected because victim does something other than take care of him).
The main covert abuse here, perhaps, is the ways the partner manages not to be a partner, not to help, not to do his share, but in a covert and manipulative way. :) Passive aggressive stuff.
I have 3 kinds of questions: One is, what should the victim do in such a situation? Take care of the self. Always, always, always. Everything else takes care of itself.
Two is, what general advice do you have, Dr. Irene,
about how one should react to covert abuse? Telling the abuser what he
does only sounds like complaining. In general, I miss this in many places
on your wonderful site. Often I find myself asking: "OK, so what
SHOULD the victim have done?" Look at these two
pages with Q & A:
We need you to tell us how a healthy, self-respecting person would behave when confronted with such abusive behaviour.
Three, are all these examples of covert abuse abusive only when the abuser-type does them? No. Victims can learn to dish it out too, though the underlying motivation is not the same. Because when my partner behaves unkindly to our 3 year old, I protect HER feelings and not his. So am I guilty of the abuse "prefers his kid's feelings over yours" covert abuse? Huh? Please explain. NO! Setting limits is not abuse! (Especially when done firmly and calmly; just work on it if you get nasty.) He overstepped his boundaries; he diminished his integrity by hurting the child. When you defend the child, you are simply correcting his misbehavior to the extent you can; you are not enabling him to continue hurting her.
Many thanks for your wonderful site. B. I'm sorry for the spotty answers, but your questions are BIG and deserve their own forum. I will try to spell out healthy ways to think and act more.
An example of covert abuse I'm not sure of: My partner messes up but does not "clean after himself". When I ask him to please correct his mistake/clean up the mess he made he a. denies he did it (even if he did it right in front of me), b. attacks me for being "hysterical" and bugging him, and c. tells me that if I have a problem, I clean up the mess. It's none of his concern, and he plans to do nothing. I think you can make a case for covert abuse. Whatever it is, it is yukky. Handle it by calmly a. Telling him it doesn't matter who did it, would he please clean it up; b. Calmly tell him that whether or not you are hysterical is besides the point, and please clean it up; c. Clean up the mess and pack your emotional and or physical bags.
Now let's say it was the other way around: I mess up (I'm human too). I immediately say: "Oops! I messed up" (Oh, I spilled the coffee! Oh, I don't believe it! I forgot to pay the car insurance!) and then I immediately proceed to correct my mistake. If it happens that he finds out before me (Gee! You forgot to pay the car insurance!) I own it (God! I did! I don't believe it! How could I?) and immediately start to correct it. You respond normally.
That's what convinces me that what he does is covert abuse. Also, it is a pattern of his, to mess up, to not pay attention. Had that been a once or twice a year thing - OK, but when it's a pattern, it's covert abuse. I agree. Furthermore, each time you pick up his pieces, you enable him to do more of the same.
I am explaining this because I've just read "how to be unhappy" in the abuser pages, and I found that one of the things the abuser does is pick on "messes other people do", and starts an argument where he is always "right" in his "justified anger" at what seems like other people's imperfections. So I started thinking: "Am I the abuser here, because I ask him to clean up his messes?" No! Stop getting twisted - by the way, you are in good company, but please stop it anyway. You are asking him to take care of his end of the deal and he is refusing. He is being disrespectful towards you - and towards himself. He is also provoking you to get mad and act out. Don't bite! If you do, he can turn around and blame you for "yelling" or whatever. That's the game. Buying into the game also virtually guarantees that the original issue is now forgotten and will never be dealt with or discussed, which is often your abuser's underlying motive. How convenient! You can fall into the trap of behaving abusively yourself if you start yelling, and that will diminish your own self esteem. Recognize the provocation and don't bite. Pull away emotionally because he just played with your head.
But then I thought that I feel like the abuser because his abuse is covert. Right. And you are the one who looks bad if you act upset with his irresponsible behavior. I am the one walking on eggshells with HIM, I choose many times to just clean up and not even mention to him that he messed up. (I guess you would say that this is the ultimate goal of his behaviour: to create a house where he can do anything he wants and make other take care of him and his, without his needing to ask for it, acknowledge it or thank for it), because I simply don't want to be attacked. He may want that indeed, though my guess is that he feels contempt towards you if he gets what he wants. Whatever. Take care of yourself: Your own self respect should dictate that you do not allow yourself to be manipulated, so you pull away and set limits. As you begin to respect yourself, and as he sees you mean it - or bye, bye - he begins to respect you, and in many cases (but not always) begins to clean up his act.
He almost always attacks me for even mentioning the fact that something he did was not perfect (he feels so stupid and useless): sometimes he attacks me verbally and adds to the damage (to punish me for saying anything or expecting him to actually clean up), other times he just attacks me verbally, in either case he does not clean up his mess. Rarely, he attacks me verbally but grudgingly cleans up after himself. So, is that covert abuse? Yes. It's mixed with overt abuse. Am I also abusive here? No, unless you are disrespecting yourself by letting your frustration get the best of you. Even so, you are not "abusive" because you are not the one who is provoking. You may be misbehaving abusively, but you are "engaging" with his junk. The abuser provokes, the victim engages. Both can behave poorly. See the difference? Your guy is playing a game with himself, a game he does not realize he is playing. He is very hard on himself; an expert at beating himself up. So, if you criticize him in any way, you've pushed his criticism button and he gets mad at you, even if he knows you may be right. But, he's so, so, so angry and feels so, so, so controlled (stuff from childhood that he's bringing with him to your relationship), he absolutely refuses to to what he knows he has to do. This is the only way he knows how to maintain his weak sense of self. In other words, he acts this way because he is broken. But, that does not give anybody the right to mistreat you. And it is up to you to not let him.
If letting him get away with it (not mentioning it and doing his cleaning for him) is wrong victim and co-dependent behaviour, and calling his attention to the mess is a. perhaps abusive? Calling his attention to the mess does not need to be abusive. You can say what you have to say respectfully. But, it probably won't work. b. futile (he does not clean anyway) Yes. and c. only facilitates overt abuse - is there a third way I don't see, other than just leaving him and taking our child with me, or than letting the mess stand (the majority of the messes are such, that doing that will cause a lot of damage which we cannot afford or fix. I did try this a few times. Nothing happened. He did nothing.)? Thanks. B.
No. You've tried all that. There is nothing you're missing. He has set up a no-win situation. The only way I know of that may work in rectifying the marriage in the long run is for you to refuse to put up with his abuse. Usually, that means getting out of the marriage. But, needless to say, never pack your bags to send a message or to fix the marriage. Pack your bags when you've done everything you possibly can and you've had enough. There are no guarantees. You leave because you have to take care of yourself by removing yourself from a situation that is toxic.
Dr. Irene, I wrote: "what should the victim do in such a situation? (concerning a partner who does not do his part, but manages to pretend he does and that it's your fault anyway)" and you wrote me back: "Take care of the self". BUT - and this is a big but - what does that consist of? The only answer that comes to my mind is - live as if I am alone. What would I have done if I was a single parent? But - that does not solve my problem with him. Why then do I stay married to him? Is that the only way? B. He is apparently not giving you many other options. What else can you do when every fix you try backfires? If you found out you had a severe and dangerous radon problem in your home and no remedy controlled the radon level, what would you do? Ohhh I got a fix: Yell and scream at the radon!
Dear Dr. Irene!
Recently, under "covert abuse", You wrote to me: "He is apparently not giving you many other options. What else can you do when every fix you try backfires?"
You also wrote to someone else, that this site is not about "saving the marriage", but about helping us understand what's going on, and EMPOWERING us to help ourselves. Which is exactly what you need to do if you want to save the marriage...
SO - I learned a lot from your answers to me and to others, I understood that I am a victim, that I am not happy, that I have suffered for several years but I don't want to suffer anymore, that I deserve better - and I LEFT HIM!! Holy Crow!
Yes, exactly a week ago. I originally planned to talk with him in the morning and then pack and leave, but my daughter needed to nurse and I couldn't get up. In retrospect, it was better. I packed, tidied the house, and wrote him a letter. I explained that I was leaving him because I could not live with him anymore, that I want a loving partnership, that I do not deserve the abuse I'm getting, etc. Then I took our child and drove 3 hours to my grandma. I did not tell her what I did. I only told my father and my babysitter. I did not want to deal with non-supportive reactions, or to risk any such reactions. It was hard enough as it was. Sad... You've been covering up his mis-behaviors, yet you are the one worried about support...
Along with my letter, I left him a book about dependency and co-dependency, and a pile of pages I printed from your site for him to read. I did not tell him where I went.
I now know that the letter, for me, was the best way. It spared me any "engaging in his abuse", and it enabled him to deal with it alone, by himself, preventing a heap of aggressive reactions trying to justify himself to me.
I thought he'd trash the house, call me (as I thought, his first bet was my grandmother) and tell me I was crazy etc. I was totally wrong. And I'm not surprised you were...
He called me crying. He was in shock - though he did say he suspected I was going to leave him, for 2 weeks!!! I told him I only knew a day before I did it, and if he knew that, why did he not try to do anything? Stupid question... He is not only aggressive, but passive too.... If your husband knew what to do, don't you think he would have done it long ago?
He said he now agrees to counseling, since he now has no choice. He loves me and he wants to save our marriage. He admits that part of what I say is true. Yippeee! He wants me to come back and we'll talk. After that, if I still want him to leave home (I wrote in my letter that I'll be back in a week, and I asked him to not be there when I'm back), he will leave.
Anyway, we talked a lot. I told him that I will return when he finishes reading the book and pages I left him. I put my finger on everything that bothered me - even though many times it was a day late. Better late than never! (You'll get better at it - and faster, with practice.) One of my "co dependency" traits was that I was hurt, did not understand what happened, but felt something was wrong. But I did not know how to tell him, and doubted my own perceptions, so I used to just "ignore" it. Now, even if it took me hours to really understand what bothered me, I still said it, assertively (not accusing, not shouting, but not afraid to make him feel bad! You know what I mean...). Yeah, I do.
For example: I told him I was bothered by the fact, that he admitted I was right "in part" - but then proceeded to discuss only what HE thought that *I* did wrong! (Taking our daughter with me, which is nonsense, since she's nursing and I could not have left her!) I told him this was one of the forms of abuse I was talking about, and that I don't want to live with it. :)
You told me in answer to one of my posts, not to leave as a manipulation. I knew exactly what you meant. I am sure it worked since I really felt inside me that I could not live with his behaviour for one more day. He sensed I meant what I did, that I was not playing games. :)
After many long conversations and after he told me he had read all the things I requested (and he never reads!), I returned home.
I did not know how it would be, but it was better than I expected. We "opened a new page" in our book (turned a new leaf? I don't remember the English expression), we really talked, communicated, expressed ourselves. Excellent!
One amazing thing is, I felt my love for him came all back! And I thought I lost it! Yes, I did really want him dead just a few weeks ago... Amazing, isn't it?
And no - I did not forget that this "honeymoon" could be misleading. None of us has solved the anger issues. Right. So right away I called the local "Centre for Prevention of Domestic Violence" and made an appointment. Yippeee! Apparently, they don't treat us as a couple here. First I have to come and tell them the case (they want to check if I am a battered wife - and I'm not...), then we each go to a different professional. Then we'll see.
He was a bit shocked. He says he's not a wife beater and why not go to regular couple's counseling. I told him we have a problem of anger, violence and abuse, and I want someone who understands problems of abuse (I did my homework, Dr. Irene!). I see that! You know the old saying, "The Big Guy helps those who help themselves..." I don't care what they'll think of us. I want to solve our problems. Also, I told him that if we don't like what they offer, we'll go shop somewhere else. But I am willing to try them.
So, we are back together, we are both happy, but this is just the beginning:
I keep a close eye on him, and I will not tolerate the slightest deviation anymore (3 days since I'm back, none happened). Word of warning: As your heart warms, you will find yourself slipping back; forgiving him, overlooking, etc. DON'T!
Also, I keep a close eye on myself: I do my best to "feel my body" and go by what it tells me, and I do my best to stay calm and centered, so that I, too, will not "engage" or react "abusively" in any way (I used to shout at him when I got mad at his provocations). Excellent.
Also, we are going to counseling and more stuff - for instance, I want to suggest to him Shiatsu treatments to help him get more in touch with himself. I do it, and it helps me a lot. Sounds good to me. But, don't insist if he turns the treatments down.
I can't believe how different I feel today, compared to last week. At the moment I even have a hard time remembering any abusive incidents... All because I heard your advice, thought about what I, in my particular situation, needed to do, and acted on it. You took responsibility; you took control of your life. Now comes the hard part: keeping it up.
You empowered me. You used the information to empower yourself. I left because I really felt my feelings, and I got the courage to stop acting co-dependently (i.e.., suffering but staying).
Leaving - which was being true to myself - empowered me. Now I'm back, still empowered. I have no illusions. We have a hard work ahead of us, but we have good chances of recovery. He's going to need you to stay tough; he can't do it alone right now.
Thank you for being here! Thank you!
I agree with what you say - nothing I said to my husband before ever made a difference. The only thing that made a difference was manifesting to him and to myself that I RESPECT MYSELF now, and will not live with his behaviour, literally. "Threats to leave" or setting "leaving" as a boundary, don't work with abusers. They always treat you as manipulative (because they are), so they won't believe you. Correct.
Victims, put your money where your mouth is (is that the right expression?). It is all about respect. Can't stand it anymore? Then don't! Yep.
Love to you all. B. God bless you and yours Smart Lady B. Keep us posted!
Dear Dr. Irene, B. here, keeping you posted.
You wrote to me: "He's going to need you to stay tough; he can't do it alone right now."
Yes! Absolutely! I really feel it. Actually, part of what makes me angry is "being the mother" in the house. I love being a mother to my 3 year old, but I don't want to be a mother to my 31 year old partner. However, this time it's not "mothering", but really taking care of me, of my own self, at all times - which helps him to stay in line. Exactly.
I wanted to tell you two things. One happened last night. My husband wanted to make love to me, but I was so tired that I only wanted to hug and kiss briefly, and go to sleep. This is a familiar scenario. What he does when I tell him I do not want to make love is he pushing me away in a rude way. With angry body language, he disconnects in a sudden way, turns his back on me and sulks. In short: he acts abusively towards me, while he actually "plays the part" of the "rejected victim". He feels "rejected", though I did not reject him (I simply don't want to make love right then for some reason) and he "punishes" me for the perceived "wrong" I did him. You are correct to challenge him on his mis-behavior. Sounds like he's keeping you on your toes!
My behaviour as a co-dependent victim with no self-respect was either to say the "no" and be offended by his ugly reaction (feeling awful, crying, trying to explain to him my reasons etc. etc.), or - mostly - to shut up and sleep with him even though I didn't want to, just because it seemed harder for me to experience his abusive reaction (Yes, this is what you call "selling out". Yuck!). I bet many victims now nod "Oh, yeah, been there, done that". :)
Well, yesterday he did that again - though in a "lighter" way (he did not manifest high hostility, only mild irritation, but he did push me - gently, but firmly and physically - over to my side of the bed). I felt bad, though I did congratulate myself that I did say "no" (Yes, the thought of "giving up" did cross my mind - but I did not act upon it!). Then I did something that I think was a bit "co-dependent" of me: I said "wait, first I want a kiss" and we hugged and kissed. It was co-dependent because I did it a. to "pat" him and assure him I love him and want to be physically close to him even though I am too tired to make love. b. to calm myself, because his reaction made me feel rejected. Not codependent. Just smart. You let him know you did not take his silly rejection seriously and you still love him even though he's behaving like a 3 year old. Good for you!
He suggested a 5-minute-quickie so that I can still go to sleep right away. I said: "no, I don't want that, I will not enjoy it at all". I felt that this answer, too, was a new assertiveness for me. I felt what was "not good for me" and took care of it right away. Also, the "new" aspect of it was, again, that I said it without any anger, indignation, complaint etc. etc. - just stating what I do and do not want. Excellent!!!!!!
I just lay there for a minute, and then I rolled back to him, looked him in the eye - with my new empowered personality - and told him that what he did right now was something he does a lot and I don't like it. I told him I do not want to be "punished" and "rejected" just because I declined his offer to make love. I don't remember exactly what else I said, but I was not angry, very assertive, and full of a new feeling of self respect, that I felt gave me the courage to stay true to myself and stand for what I need. I did not tell him what to do, I did not "blame" or anything, I just said "you did XYZ and I don't like it". Yipppeeee!!!!! She's got it!
He smiled, said almost nothing, but I understood his smile very well. It said: "Yes, you are right. Yes, you 'caught' me behaving improperly. That's OK. I like it when you don't let me step all over you, even though I was not aware of the fact that I was doing something wrong". So, Dr. Irene, You are absolutely right: He needs me to stay strong and empowered.
I promise I will NEVER again sleep with him when I don't want to, just to avoid his "punishment". But you know, how can I explain to someone else that this is abuse? After all, his "punishment" is not hitting me, shouting at me, or anything (that would not scare me, BTW) - I am afraid of his rejection, back turning, waves of hostility, silent accusation of me, behaving as if *I* abused him. It's as if this is abuse just because I act the victim! You've accepted it, yes. But that does not let him off the hook. He should know better at 31. Compromises his integrity.
OK, the second change brought by my new empowerment:
This is tricky. I don't know what I changed. Here goes: We went to a family dinner at his parents. Everyone there, all knew that I left him (they supported him. From what he said, none of them suggested that he corrects anything, but his brother told him "not to feel too guilty" and his psychologist sister-in-law told him she always thought HE would be the first to leave ME. And they know him as a childish passive-aggressive, and for years believe he should go to therapy!).
Anyway, the conversation flows (none said anything, business as usual). My sister in law (not the psychologist) told us about a parenting decision that appalled me.
My old self would have commented on that. My new self kept quiet. Why express my opinion when a. nobody asked for it, and b. I knew nobody would change. :)
Someone else told about their baby's nutrition. My husband said something about the fact that sugary foods are not good for children. The someone did not "get it" at all. I kept quiet. :)
I kept my mouth shut about at least 4 different things that would normally get me to say my opinion. I felt good with myself for not saying anything. I felt calm and centered. I felt self respect.
Why? What did I do? What was the meaning of the old behaviour? Why can I do it now that I am empowered? How is it connected to the change I made in my relationship with my husband (who is now attentive, helpful, communicative, loving and great with our child too)? Also, I felt this was a double improvement, because the more stressed I am, the more I talk, and here I was in a very stressful situation, for me, and I easily manages to exercise my better judgment and NOT TALK. What do you think, Dr. Irene? I think you are centered and no longer need to avoid your anxiety and other feelings by "engaging" in whatever is going on. And, you are centered, so you no longer need the validation of others.
All my love, B.
Email September 24, 2000:
Dear Dr. Irene, B. here, keeping you posted.
So all you Turtles out there: Listen to the body! Take care of the self!
And our very best wishes to you Smart Lady B. Keep on paying attention to your body; always let integrity be your guide. It's lots of work, but well worth it. It's about your recovery first and foremost. Your recovery is necessary if you want to give your marriage its best shot at recovery, assuming of course that your abuser comes along for the ride...
I want to read the posts.