I was 23 when I finished college and married my first husband. My need for security and my need to please were a perfect match for a domineering, controlling man. I believed that I could overcome his negative traits by using my kindness, sacrificial love and even “diplomacy”. This sounds as familiar and as futile as the U.S. trying to negotiate with terrorist nations. I was imprisoned in my victim and rescuer role and did not know how to extricate myself from my two victimizers; first my mother, then my husband. I did not choose my mother but I certainly did choose my first husband. My mother was domineering and controlling also and she was still inside of me making demands when I became a young wife. Without question I was too naïve to recognize the parallels and connections between my family of origin and my first marriage.
My name Diana and I am now 49 years old. My story is not unique because unfortunately, emotional abuse is rampant in our society. What is unique about my story is that the cycle of abuse ended. It took me many years to heal from my broken marriage, my broken family of origin and my own unhealthy patterns. I battled with depression and anxiety and did not take care of my health. With recovery this has changed. If I can offer hope to someone who is in an abusive relationship, my experience will be a valuable one. Just because someone abused you it does not mean you have to abuse yourself or others. Acknowledge your past and present in an honest, sober way. Once you see the truth you must make a choice to either continue to cover up the pain with denial and destructive behaviors or get help so you can love, nurture yourself and forgive others.
Before I tell you the end of my story, let me share with you some of my experiences. I remember feeling insecure because I could not please my mother. She was hypercritical of everyone around her and did not show much empathy. Many of us suspect sexual abuse from her father and/or cousins. She was not physically affectionate and was verbally abusive towards my older male brothers. Now she is 83-years old and to this day my brothers hardly speak to her. Their wounds probably run very deep and they have sought help. As a child I felt I had to be the “good one” and she implicitly treated me like her favorite despite her unhealthy parenting. My younger sister who was stubborn like her, had numerous heated altercations followed by years of estrangement continuing to this day. My relationship with my sister has been complicated as well since she follows my mother’s patterns and has not been a “safe” person for me. I am guarded with her – and she is not in any kind recovery.
My father was an affectionate and kind man yet a passive figure who tried unsuccessfully to appease my mother’s outbursts. I remember how he would tune her out or in extreme situations drive away for a few hours. For whatever set of reasons, he could not stand up to her and divorced her after 28 years. Though I was grateful they were not physically abusive to each other, their ongoing estrangement and unhappiness made me feel uncomfortable, helpless and even guilty. I vowed that my future marriage would not be marred with these problems; I was going to do everything in my power to make it work. This meant giving in to abuse and giving up my needs.
My first marriage was doomed from the beginning. I married my own mother; a self-absorbed, abusive, complicated person. This married relationship was intensely more abusive because it was a dominant, chauvinistic male looking down on a woman who was not even biologically related to him! My husband was also a racist; he rejected my Spanish heritage and my family. I had two children with him (who are now grown) and I completely depended on him financially like a child. He came from an alcoholic, abusive father and an overbearing mother who fed into his narcissism. Though he appeared to have a great ego, deep down he was extremely insecure. And he was not concerned about other’s feelings.
The most painful scenarios in my 15-year marriage were the humiliating moments for myself and for my son. He berated us and used coarse language on a regular basis. Many times my husband put me down in front of his family or guests. Once the nasty remark was out of his mouth, it could not be taken back. And there was absolutely nothing I could do to save face in front of others. I felt destroyed inside but looked strong on the outside. I did not have bruises or cuts but I was nevertheless bleeding from a fresh wound. I falsely believed that he would change, and that he would not do this again. I won’t forget the comment he made at my sister’s dinner table: “Diana, that is the most intelligent thing you have said all evening”. Add a sarcastic tone to that. I felt helpless and embarrassed like that little girl in front of my powerful mother.
From the day forward she asked me to never bring him back to her house. She drew a boundary – an important concept for me to learn. While having guests of our own my husband had a bad habit of calling me to the bedroom to “talk” when it was actually to complain and re-establish some power. The little girl had done something “bad” but she did not know what that was. Because of my financial dependence and my co-dependent patterns, it took me a long time to open my eyes. Family members and a few close friends saw the abuse and the damage. My newfound faith in God helped me to find a direction and a support system that ultimately healed me. My pastor reminded me that my children needed me as healthy as possible and that staying in this abusive marriage would compromise their development. The advice resonated with me – at that point I loved my children more than I loved myself.
I was not totally healed when I was divorced. There were still layers to peel; my relationship with my mother; my fragmented self-esteem, my emerging identity as a working woman, my undeveloped sense of trust with men – all of that took time, pain and hard work. In the context of a loving, wise therapist and peers in group therapy, I gained the self-confidence which enabled me to stand up to her. I had to teach my own mother how to respect me. I knew deep inside that I was a person of value and that I must never associate with someone – male or female – who devalued me. Until I loved myself completely I could not live at peace with myself and could not consider sharing my life in marriage to another man.
This is the happy ending: ten years after my divorce I met someone who had his own recovery and spiritual journey. We complement each other and have an adult-adult relationship, respectful and supportive. This is so different from the earlier model – because I am different – and it is infinitely more rewarding. If you are in a hurry to remarry or “hook up” with another person, wait. You are a very important person, loveable and unique just as you are. Let God teach you about his love, his power to heal and bless you.