This is the third in a five-part series on the effects of domestic violence.
Over time, if an abuse victim keeps a secret journal, she may begin to discern patterns – how intimate occasions are often spoiled, how her partner is typically missing in action or resentful or angry when she is ill or needs help, how even the most innocuous conversation can have landmines in it that she sometimes ends up apologizing for – even if he is clearly to blame.
He is a shapeshifter, a moving target. And with her direct approach, her ability to examine her own imperfections, speak honestly about what she needs and what’s upsetting her, she is far outgunned by someone who is adept in the use of covert tactics that somehow always end up making her to blame and maintaining the status quo – with him in control.
Once she starts to recognize these periods of emotional abuse, once she starts to get language around the tactics, then it becomes more difficult to slip back into denial when things are calm. She may still think that if she just tries harder, she can figure out a way to make the abuse stop. But it’s getting harder and harder to ignore the toll it is taking on her physical and emotional health – and on her children’s.
Fleeting thoughts of escape flicker in and out of her consciousness, but she quickly dismisses them, wanting to leave no stone unturned to save the marriage – yet also afraid of what he might do if she leaves. She knows most domestic violence incidents take place after a woman leaves. That’s when she is most likely to get killed. He has threatened to destroy her in other ways – convince everyone she’s crazy or that she is the abuser, ruin her reputation, destroy her career, render her homeless. She knows if she leaves him, she risks losing everything: her children, her home, her life’s savings, her life.
Flashes of insight begin to occur, and this flickering between denial and recognition becomes more frequent and harder to ignore, until one day the dawning awareness reaches critical mass and results in an epiphany.
This is abuse.
She didn’t cause it.
She can’t change it – or him.
She can’t control it – or him.
She acknowledges at last after days, months, decades, that she is powerless over his decision to abuse her.
This epiphany carries with it a difficult choice: She must either stay in the relationship and submit/surrender to this truth and the effect it will continue to have over her and over the children as the abuse continues or gets worse – which it typically does – or she must risk everything she has and leave, sometimes after not just months or years, but after decades of building a life together while simultaneously having her confidence in her ability to make it on her own slowly eroded.
Where will she go? How can she keep a roof over her head, e specially if he has taken total control of the finances, which so often happens? How will she stay safe? Will he stalk her or hire people to stalk her for days, months, years to come? Will he kill her? Kill the children? Will he pay someone to kill her or them? These are legitimate concerns whenever an abuser realizes that he is losing control. He will often do whatever it takes to get that control back. Hence the refrain, “If I can’t have you, no one will.”
And then there is the profound sense of loss that accompanies this revelation. It is the death of a dream: the dream of a relationship that was supposed to last a lifetime. If she can overcome the epiphany and the grief that attend it, she may begin to catch sight of an alternative to this slow, steady descent into submission and surrender.
In part 4 of the series, Darlene will explore a victim’s call to freedom and the hatching of an escape plan.