Dear Prudence 12/28/15

Dear Prudence:

Last year, with the help of family and friends, I extricated myself from a physically and emotionally abusive marriage. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. I understand that I’m lucky to have had relatives who were able to help me with legal fees and moving expenses (I’m on a payment plan and have repaid almost all of it by now), but now my family members make unreasonable demands for personal information about me, require I check in with them about decisions I’m making for myself, and have implied that I shouldn’t spend money on certain items (necessities like rent) until I’ve paid them back. They’ve gone so far as to repeatedly call and text me when I’m at work until I drop everything (even leaving meetings!) to answer whatever their questions may be. They make hurtful comments about how my past judgment was clearly not the best to have ended up in a relationship with an abuser and I can’t be trusted to make decisions for myself yet. They also say that I’m ungrateful, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve worked hard in therapy to understand how important boundaries are to recovering from past abuse, and this dynamic feels unhealthy for me. I’m hesitant, however, to be rude to family members who likely saved my life and seem to really be doing this out of a misplaced sense of caring. How do I balance my obligation to their generosity with my obligation to myself?

Dear Letter-writer:

I had a very similar situation when I lived with my parents after leaving my abusive husband.  Suffice it to say, I had a terrible relationship with them when I was a teen and that parent-child dynamic was recreated for as long as I stayed with them.  It was so bad with my parents that I actually went back to my husband because at least I was an adult in my own home when I lived with him.  A miserable, desperate-to-be-treated-like-a-human-being adult, but an adult just the same.  So don’t do that.

I agree with Prudence that you seem to have moved from one abusive situation to another.  That’s really unfortunate, but I think that overall you are on the right path and there’s not much to be done about your situation right this second.  You can try setting boundaries in the way Prudence suggests, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t go well.

I hate to suggest this because it sounds so, so fucked up, but channel those skills that helped you keep your head down and bide your time before you left your husband.  Use them here to de-escalate and evade.  You mention that you’ve almost paid these people back, so you don’t have to do this for very long.  Once you’ve paid them back, move on with a completely clear conscience.  If necessary, cut them off completely.

These are people that appear to have bought into some of the myths about abusive relationships, such as the idea that any and all abusive situations can be avoided, and if you did get sucked in to a toxic marriage it’s because you have “bad judgment.”  This is just a way of psychologically insulating themselves and reassuring themselves that what happened to you could never happen to them because they have “good judgment.”  Once you get some distance from them, try to forgive them by thinking of them as people that simply have no clue.  They have no idea how abusive dynamics work and that’s a good thing because they have experienced a version of the world that is closer to how it was meant to be.

But that doesn’t mean you have to listen to them.

I’m sure they mean well, but meaning well doesn’t magically make them not abusive.  You can’t make them see how grateful you are, and you can’t make them see that they are treating you horribly.  The only thing you can do is limit your exposure.



Dear Prudence:

We’ve had a string of (really) bad roommates, but recently a good friend moved in with us. He’s amazing. He makes delicious coffee for us every morning. He cleans up. He’s a great guy. He moved in with us because he just ended a five-year relationship with his fiancée. Since he’s recently single and my roommate, he’s very much off the table, but this past weekend we got drunk and hooked up. He confessed to me that he’s had a crush on me since the moment we met and that it’s hard not to kiss me every single day. I have a crush on him too.

We’ve talked and decided that this is a recipe for disaster, yet we can’t seem to stop flirting with each other. Is there any amicable solution here other than finding another new roommate?

Dear Letter-writer:

Wait – what?  No!  Honestly, you create more drama with the constant dance of we-shouldn’t-but-we-really-REALLY-want-to than you do by just going for it.

My questions for you right now are:

  1. Who’s this “we”?  If by “we” you mean yourself and a significant other, than you have some soul-searching to do on a much deeper level than wondering what to do about a roommate you hooked up with.
  2. Do you actually like him or is he just someone available who happens to like you?  I know you’ve known him for a while and he hasn’t been single until recently so it might be a difficult question to answer, but give it some thought and see what you come up with.
  3. How compatible are you two and for which type(s) of relationships?  A fuck buddy relationship?  A friends with benefits relationship?  A temporary dating relationship?  A long-term relationship?  Marriage and kids someday?  What boundaries are you comfortable with and what expectations do you have?

The best way to handle this will depend on how you answer the above.  I’ll be honest, I’m very biased in the “go for it!” direction, but I think if you sift through the questions I suggested, the right answer for the two of you will present itself.


Dear Prudence:

After three lost pregnancies, my husband and I are expecting in June. We’re very excited! I’m normally a very affectionate person, but I’m having anxiety about the possibility of random strangers reaching out to touch my growing stomach. I think it’s terribly rude to touch someone in a vulnerable and sensitive place without asking, and I would never dream of doing it to another woman. If this happens, which I assume it will, how should I react that might get them to think twice about ever doing it again?

Dear Letter-writer:


Seriously, though, why is touching pregnant women a thing?  And who actually has this problem?  I mean, I’ve heard from enough women who have suffered through having their pregnant bellies touched by strangers – clearly it happens to a lot of people, but I’ve been pregnant three times and never had anyone touch my belly.

What’s wrong with me that no one wanted to touch me?  Do I look mean and scary?  Do I give off an out-of-my-way vibe?  I just think it’s ironic that I’m the one person who wouldn’t care about being touched, and yet I’m the one person it doesn’t happen to.  Weird.

Dear Prudence:
My husband and I have been together for seven years now. We have a fantastic relationship except for one thing: We don’t know how to fight constructively. We don’t fight terribly often, but when we do, it goes a little something like this: One of us brings up something that upsets the other. The other takes it very personally and becomes defensive. A loud argument ensues. Feelings are hurt. One storms off to another room, and we ignore each other for a couple of days until we just quietly decide to act like nothing had happened. I know this is unhealthy, but he refuses to go to counseling because he says he’s already worked on changing himself, so now it’s my turn to work on changing. Until I do, he won’t even consider counseling. We’re at an impasse because I firmly believe I’ve tried to change my own behavior, and if it isn’t satisfactory, then the only thing left to try is counseling. And even though I will admit that he’s worked hard over the years to rein in his anger issues, I honestly don’t see any changes in the way he handles our arguments. Since we can’t seem to reach an agreement, counseling seems to be the only reasonable next step. He seems to think it is a waste of money and we need to figure this out on our own, but this clearly hasn’t happened.
What do I do? How do I convince him that counseling would help us sort out our feelings and give us better tools to argue without ruining several days on end? There are times when I feel so weary I want to throw in the towel, but I love him, and I made a vow for better or for worse.
Dear Letter-writer:
Oh boy.  I feel you.  My husband likewise disdains counseling, and what was really frustrating is that we were required to do some premarital counseling before our convalidation … and he completely wasted the opportunity.  And yet, there’s a handful of issues that just keep coming up over and over and result in a big, blowout fight on average about once a year.  It gets so ugly – mean things are said, and then he walks out and leaves me SO ANGRY.  At one point we got as far as starting to hammer out the details of our divorce before he came to his senses.  It’s just an awful feeling.
To answer your question – how can you convince him to go to counseling – I don’t know that you can.  Here’s what I would suggest instead:
  1. Go ahead and go to counseling alone, if only for the self-improvement aspect.  I’ll be honest, he’s being a bully and fighting tooth and nail to avoid looking in the mirror.  Because improving yourself is uncomfortable, so naturally the woman has to do it, amirite?  At the very least, you owe yourself a better you.
  2. Find a new hobby.  Something that will fully occupy your time and attention next time you and your husband aren’t speaking to each other.

Now, those are just my suggestions to get by in the here and now.  Do not treat these as a permanent solution.  The purpose is to give you a bit more space and a bit less friction while you figure out the big picture.  Do not treat these as a permanent solution.  Got it?  Good.

So what now?  Well, you need to monitor what happens over time.

  1. Does he improve over time?  Generally, my husband and I don’t push the same hot buttons more than once. Or twice.  We both work together to de-escalate and avoid the hot buttons when we find ourselves starting to get upset.  We have worked together to get better at not fighting.  Also, my husband does this thing where he will joke about some of the fucked up things we say to each other when we’re fighting – it sounds messed up, I know, but it helps make sure those awful fights have no power over us going forward.  I don’t know what “improving” will look like for you, but that’s what it looks like for us.
  2. Does he escalate over time?  “Over time” is a relative word here, but if this is the pattern, get out.  Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.  Try a trial separation and tell him why.  It may be a wake-up call for him and he may finally realize how serious this is.  You will find out how much he is willing to do to keep you.  If you do get back together, keep an eye on the overall pattern and make sure the situation is improving.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does have to be improving.  If he continues to escalate after one trial separation, you will probably need to call it quits for good.  No one should have to put up with this behavior, and if he continues to get worse it will only get more difficult for you to take care of yourself.


That’s it for today!  As always, your thoughts are appreciated.



The Problem With Perfectionist Conservatism, Part I of II

Kayla Sue wrote a post a couple months ago talking about “a disturbing movement within the [pro-life] movement that is strongly anti-contraception.”  What she doesn’t get into is how much deeper it goes and why it exists in the first place – there’s a lot going on in the background and below the surface that most visibly manifests this way, and I think it’s worth taking the time to understand where it’s all coming from.

My background, in a nutshell – I was raised a conservative Catholic, I’m still Catholic, and I had a few very messy years in early adulthood.  So I’m fairly familiar with conservative thought and Catholic apologetics, but I’ve had the experience of challenging a lot of my assumptions, sifting through to see what’s bullshit and what holds up.  I’ve worked on seeing what works for me, what works for other people, what doesn’t seem to work for anyone, and occasionally what seems to work for most people.

Now, once you’ve established what’s true and good and beautiful at an individual level, you still have to decide what works for public policy.  And while you have to keep in mind that the way you see the world is not the only way to see the world, I agree with Archbishop Chaput that “A healthy democracy depends on people of conviction working hard to advance their ideas in the public square – respectfully and peacefully, but vigorously and without apologies.”  Unfortunately, this means that for many issues there is realistically no such thing as “live and let live.”

Meet the Perfectionist Conservative

When I say “perfectionist conservative” I am referring to the conservative that is shooting for the moon, social policy-wise.  They want no same-sex marriage, no divorce, no birth control, no abortions, no sex outside of marriage, no single parents and NOTHING LESS IS ACCEPTABLE.  They are unable to prioritize; they want it all at once.  In no way does this represent all conservatives, but as Kayla Sue noted, there’s a bunch out there.  So let me take you inside the mind of a perfectionist conservative, beginning with some baseline concepts:

Human nature – Human nature is corrupt.  Without external constraints, humans will descend into ugliness.  But we need people to behave to minimize the negative impact on innocents such as children.  To get people to behave, we need to make the consequences of bad behavior unpleasant so people will not do those things.  We also need to make unfortunate circumstances unpleasant so people will be sufficiently motivated to do something about it.  Everything is seen through this punitive lens.

Feeding into this, I think, is the way many perfectionist conservatives were raised as children.  Many will wax poetic about how their parents were successful at controlling their behavior with the constant threat of a spanking.  For their own good, of course.  So all they can conceive of for social policy is an environment of punitive control that should be put into place for everyone else’s good, too.

Theology of the Body – Shorthand for the grand unified theory of how our bodies relate to our souls, and based on that, how we should treat our bodies.  Based on a series of talks by St. JPII.  Note: It’s actually on my reading / blogging list because I keep getting referred back to this body of work in my struggles to understand and accept Catholic teaching on sex and birth control.  Widely assumed that if everyone everywhere followed the guidance of Theology of the Body, various social issues would go away.  Specifics include:

  • Sex – An acceptable activity only for married couples so that children have a safe place and stable household to grow up in. Leads to a lot of smug attitude from married conservatives, with an undercurrent of “nah nah ni boo boo” whenever they talk about how people shouldn’t be having sex if they’re not married.  Also leads to a lot of hostility in abstinent single men who are being eaten alive with jealousy that other people are having more fun than they are.  Anyone who has sex outside of marriage is a slave to lust and is party to an inherently abusive relationship, both with their own bodies and with the other person.  Even if you have sex with your fiancée a half-hour before your wedding.  Purity culture addendum: Men have sex because they “need” it; women have sex because they are trying to trick men into loving them.  So women need to deny men the satisfaction of their “need” in order to wrest a commitment (i.e. marriage) out of them in order to satisfy their own need for love.  It’s just the way men and women are; no use denying biology.
  • Birth control – Enables people to have sex outside of marriage without the “consequences” of children. Also enables married couples to continue to selfishly use each other for lustful purposes without the consequences of children.  Note: All that being said, I have to think that the long-term effects of all of us dumping hormones into our bodies en masse cannot be benign.  It would be nice if we collectively could maybe not assume that turning our bloodstreams into artificially-created hormone rivers is necessary and normal.  It would also be nice if young women could go to the doctor for things unrelated to reproduction without being pressured into taking a prescription for birth control pills.

Marriage – the basis for the family, the building block of society.  We need to encourage strong marriage … by making it supremely unpleasant to be in anything other than a monogamous, heterosexual marriage.  And we need to make it difficult / impossible to divorce, because people only divorce for selfish reasons.  Also, if people do “need” a divorce because of abuse, they need to prove it in court.  Because abusers always leave a neat trail of evidence, and if they don’t then it’s not really abuse anyway.  Also, abuse victims should be able to clearly and logically piece together their stories in a sequential fashion, because trauma isn’t a thing.  If they can’t tell a clear, logical, sequential story in which they reacted to every stimulus like a “reasonable person,” it’s not because of the way trauma messes with your brain; it just means they are lying.  Marriage is also a ticket out of poverty, and we will prove it by trotting out statistics of how middle class and rich people behave and make the logical leap that poor people can become like middle class and rich people by behaving like them, but only in ways that we care about, such as marriage.  Note: No word on whether you can magically lift yourself out of poverty by buying a yacht and a vacation home in the Hamptons.

Family – the building block of society.  We need to encourage strong families … by making it supremely unpleasant to be in anything other than a nuclear family.

Self-denial – Life is not about what you want and it is childish to use “but I want it” as an argument for anything.  We need to be better than the animals and master self-denial and self-control.  Note: A fair point, but too often used as a crutch.  By itself carries no weight, even though it is often treated like it does.

Right to life – the foundation for every other human right.  Liberty, bodily autonomy, equal protection under the law – none of those have any meaning without the right to life as an inviolable foundation.  Touches a lot of specific issues, but for today we are only roping in:

  • Abortion – This is the only issue that is actually a matter of life and death.

Why the inability to prioritize?

You will notice that at the end of a very long section detailing the perfectionist conservative’s opinions on all the things that are wrong with society, there is one small sentence on abortion – the only issue that is actually a matter of life and death.  But that’s not good enough for the perfectionist conservative – they want it all.  At once.  Right now.

I mentioned earlier that one of the defining characteristics of the perfectionist conservative is the seeming inability to prioritize one issue over another, and I think I see two reasons for this:

  • Cultural blend – not so long ago, American culture and Christianity were very intertwined. They still are, but not to the extent they used to be.  Even so, this is why you see a lot of people falling back on Christian theology to explain their recommendations for social policy.  They are unable to separate what every Christian optimally ought to practice with what you can reasonably expect people from a variety of backgrounds to conform to.  So you ask the perfectionist conservative what his non-negotiables are for social policy and he says, “All of them.”
  • Perfect is the enemy of the good – the perfectionist conservative believes that ALL of their pet issues need to be addressed RIGHT NOW or any remaining permissiveness will once again rot society to the core. After all, with the very future of Western Civilization™ at stake, one simply cannot negotiate with terrorists. Note: I give them points for realizing that things are connected to causes, but then I take those points back away for refusing to listen to what actual problems and actual causes are.


In Part II we will talk about how the perfectionist conservative sees various social ills, how they want to fix them, where they are wrong, and where they are right.

One thing that will DOOM your marriage

Right here is a marriage that is definitely doomed to fail:

What is wrong with you people?

What is wrong with you people?

My husband and I saw this last weekend and the conversation went like this:

Me: *Gaping in horror* How would that even work?

Him: I don’t know – maybe they work through it somehow?

Me: Yes, but … why would you even get married if you’re so far apart on such a fundamental life philosophy?  I mean, a difference in politics?  Fine – you can learn from each other.  A difference in religion?  Sure, I get that – no problem.  But this?!  No way.  Anyone that would put up that sign is either not in a happy marriage or is soon to get divorced.

Him: Maybe they just learn not to speak to each other for five months out of the year?

Me: *Shaking head* I still don’t understand how they would get to the point of considering marriage.  I mean, if you were a Packer fan …  I don’t think I could have married you.  I mean, the Catholic – agnostic thing is fine, no problem.  But this?  I … I really don’t think I could have done it.

Him: I know what you mean.

Marriage from hell: the beginning

Or: Why I left.

I’ve posted all this before, but it was in a post where I was specifically responding to a post from someone else.  So I wanted to put it in a place that stands on its own.


I married a man that had been my best friend for a year and a half.  Would I have seen something in him to warn me to cut and run if we had dated longer before marriage?  I don’t know.  But I do know that if you don’t at least give yourself some time, you really limit your opportunities to see the red flags before it’s too late.  You want to know if that great guy you just met is actually a great guy or if it’s just a façade.  A really savvy abuser can say and do anything to convince you that he is The One.  Give to the needy?  Yup.  Go to church with you?  That too.  Have deep philosophical discussions about God, the universe and everything?  That as well.  He can also take care of you when you’re sick, cheer you up when you’re in a bad mood, explore your taste in movies and music, introduce you to his taste, and discover new passions and hobbies with you.  He can even be absolutely committed to marriage and lifelong love and putting every effort in to keep your marriage going strong.

Until you actually get married.

And you have a baby.

And you decide to stay home, because you both agree that it’s very important for children to be raised by a stay-at-home parent if at all possible.

Suddenly, the power dynamic in the relationship has changed.  You’re not working, plus you’re busy with the children, while he makes all the money and is free to come and go as he pleases.

And because he can go wherever he pleases, he finds himself in the arms of another woman.  And then another one.  And he comes home and tells you about it because he wants to be “honest.”  And then he asks for your permission to continue – “Don’t you want me to be happy?  I’m not happy with you.”  Of course you’re upset about this – he did promise to be faithful to you, didn’t he?  And funny enough, cheating was never even close to an issue while you were dating.  Knowing your spouse is unfaithful is painful enough; knowing your spouse is unrepentantly unfaithful is soul-crushing.  So you get upset, and you fight.  It gets physical.  You scream.  Neighbors call police.  Police come and find a quivering, shaking woman with not a scratch on her.  You’re a little fuzzy on what happened because it happened so fast, but you know you’re going to have some bruises, um, here, and you think over here, too.  He soberly and carefully points out the bites and scratches you made to desperately fight back against him, sadly telling the police that he doesn’t know why you did this to him but he loves you so he doesn’t want to press charges.  You try to interject that he unplugged the phone so you couldn’t call for help, shoved you across the room, threw you down to the ground, your neck narrowly missing the edge of a crate on the ground, pinned you down and started to choke you.  He had pulled back when you bit him which gave you enough air to scream.  He looks at you sadly, then shares a knowing look with the police, “She’s crazy – you see what I have to put up with?”  And of course he had found a second to put the phone cord back in the wall before they showed up.

And because you live where he is stationed, you have no family or friends to turn to for help.  No money of your own because you don’t work.  No one to take care of the kids even if you were to get a job.  Nowhere to go that you can get to on one tank of gas.  Any of the friends you do have were his friends first and guess whose side they take when it all falls apart?  That’s right – his.  You have NOBODY.

So you try, and you try, and you try harder.  Whenever you try to talk to him about that night, you want him to know how hurt you were and you want him to apologize.  He looks at you like you’re crazy – “that never happened.”  No matter what you say, he appears not to know what you are talking about.  So you start to wonder if you are crazy.  Maybe it was your fault.  Maybe you were just imaging things.  Maybe you were overreacting.  It’s not like you have any other options, right?  You try being the woman he wants.  You dye your hair, do your nails the way he likes, wear the clothes he likes, try to always cook dinner on time and always have the house clean.  You stop talking to the couple friends you managed to make because he doesn’t like them.  You act like a porn star in bed for him.  You do … things … that he physically forces you to do.  And the worst part is – you end up reprogramming yourself mentally into thinking that this is normal in order to survive.  Marriage changes you, right?  Marriage involves sacrifice, right?  Love keeps no record of wrongs, right?  You need to be committed to marriage as an institution because divorce is bad, right?  See?  Nothing to worry about – everything is fine!  It’s a feature of marriage, not a bug.

“Okay, Athena.  That’s all well and good … I guess … but what does this have to do with anything?”

The reason I’m telling you all this is because I want it to be absolutely clear that I didn’t leave my ex lightly.  I believed with my whole heart (and still do!) in the sacredness and permanence of marriage.  I married a man who had been my best friend; and being his wife nearly destroyed me.

Negativity is all well and good, but I think it’s very important to balance it out with the happy ending.  Part I is here.

Marriage from hell: the happy ending (V)

Continuing my series on healing from abuse, because I didn’t want to spend too much time ranting about abuse on my blog without balancing it out with the positive end of the story.

When I left off at the end of part IV, I had finished describing in general terms how I was able to create in my head an academic concept of what a healthy relationship looked like, and I was about to move on to how I took that concept from theory to reality.

I want to pause here for a moment because although I am telling my story, I did intend to tell it in such a way as to be useful to others.  And it occurred to me as I wrote the last post that some of what I did to address my issues with relationships was not just coming from having been in an abusive marriage.  Some of the work I had to do was necessary in order to correct the impact of the way I grew up.  See, I was strongly encouraged to isolate myself (for various reasons).  This isolation in combination with my natural social awkwardness served to deprive me of the opportunities that most people have during their formative years to learn the rules of social interaction.  So you may or may not see me having to teach myself things that just came to you naturally as a small child.  If you do, similar to my earlier discussion of triggers in part III, just allow yourself to feel more normal than me.  You’re welcome.

On the other hand, the silver lining of my personal brand of awkwardness allows me to easily disregard public opinion once I’ve decided on what I need to do.


If “what will everyone think?” handwringing is a struggle for you, unfortunately I’m not going to be a fountain of advice.

Anyway, moving on –

So, armed with all this new, fresh knowledge of how to be the type of partner that I wanted to have, I realized I should probably have some practice going through the motions before I tried the new and improved Athena out on someone I actually thought I could have a future with.  So I needed a guy.  Hmmm …

*Thinking, thinking*

*Snaps fingers* Aha!  I know!

Remember that neighbor I mentioned earlier in part III?  He’s perfect.  He’s a good guy, he wants to spend time with me, and the best part – I know he’s not going to develop any serious feelings for me.

Wait, what?  He’s not going to develop serious feelings?  How is that a good thing?

Since I was looking for someone to basically be my therapeutic tool, I didn’t want someone that I would actually hurt.  Now, of course there’s an element of risk on my end (what if I grow some feelings?) but that’s my risk to take if I think that this is what I need to do to work on myself.  The most important thing is that I not be responsible for hurting someone else.

So I have someone to work with – great!  So …. um …. What now?

Well, one specific thing I knew I needed to do was have sex.

Bear with me while I digress for a minute – 

Now, depending on your particular ideological persuasion, you are probably thinking one of two broad categories of thoughts –

1) Of course you should have sex!  Sex is an important part of any relationship!  How exactly is this relevant to anything?

2) Sex is only a good thing within the context of a heterosexual sacramental marriage.  Any other sex is inherently destructive and abusive.  You don’t fix any dysfunction you’ve previously experienced by engaging in more destructive behavior.

At the time I got divorced, the dominant picture of married sex in my mind was something coercive.  Remember that I didn’t know what healthy even looked like?  Yeah, that applied to sex, too.  So if I were to remarry without having had sex in the interim, how was I supposed to know whether or not my husband was using sex to abuse me?  “Well, duh, Athena – it’s obvious when someone is abusing you.”  With your frame of reference, maybe.  Not with mine.  So I started having sex again.  When I wanted.  With whom I wanted.  And if I didn’t want to have sex, then I didn’t have sex, and there was no bribing, cajoling, pleading, or begging that could convince me.  I was learning how to be in control of my body again, and I was learning that sex could be enjoyable.  Once that realization hit home, I found that I actually had a sex drive again. (Finally!  I’ll be honest – I didn’t feel like myself without a sex drive.)

By the time I started dating my neighbor, I was pretty firmly comfortable with my body and being upfront with what I wanted in bed.  I was ready to push my boundaries a little and see how normal people navigate differences in sexual preferences.  My neighbor was into some … things that I didn’t enjoy.  But he didn’t push me.  He asked what I wanted and he asked what I would be open to.  If I was open to it, he was gentle and patient.  If I wasn’t open to it, the discussion was over.  He didn’t bring it up again, he didn’t make fun of me, he didn’t badger me or physically force me to do it anyway.  In short, he was what a normal guy should be like.  And we had a normal sexual relationship with mutual attraction and respect.

TL/DR: At the risk of sounding a bit too “Eat, Pray, Love,” without my post-divorce sexual awakening, I would have been in no shape to get married to my husband.

Now, where were we?  Oh, yes!  I was telling you about how my neighbor helped me recover emotionally  –

It so happened that learning what a “good relationship” could look like in real life turned out to be blissfully easy, because my neighbor was really an excellent choice for this process.  If he said or did something that hurt my feelings, I told him that he hurt my feelings, then he held me and apologized, and here’s the best part – he didn’t do it again!!  No, he didn’t shrug off my hurt feelings and tell me it was all my problem for being “too sensitive” or “not woman enough,” he didn’t file the information away for later so he could hurt me on purpose – none of that.  He simply apologized and didn’t do it again!  I seriously don’t know if I can overstate how excited this made me – this realization that there are actually men out there that don’t purposely exploit my vulnerabilities!  This really changed my perceptions and expectations going forward.  This became the “normal” that I expected out of everyone.

Another really awesome thing my neighbor did was talk to me.  He didn’t just insist that I plan everything and choose every activity and then complain about it later.  He brought his own ideas to the table, he planned some things himself, he told me what he enjoyed and what he didn’t enjoy.  And if he didn’t like something after the fact, he didn’t blame me – his attitude was “lesson learned – now we know.”  So it was a much more equitable relationship than I was used to, and it further helped me paint a better picture of what a “normal” guy is like.

And then a really amazing thing happened.  Something that I wasn’t prepared for.

Do you feel your emotions physically?  I do.  When I’m angry, my heart is a ball of white-hot flame that I want to hurl out into the world.  When I’m sad, my heart feels like it’s being squeezed and my breathing becomes shallow; crying and forcing deep breaths help release the pressure.  During this relationship I was in a safe place to be able to explore and work through my raw emotions, and I found myself exploring depths of joy, grief, anger, lust, tranquility … depths of emotion that I didn’t realize existed.  The more I felt myself come alive again, the more I could see how dead I was.

So, at this point I have worked through my major triggers, I am able to enjoy sex again, I have some practice at constructive conflict resolution, and I’m just in a better place emotionally.

And that was when I met my husband.

To be continued …

Marriage from hell: the happy ending (IV)

Continuing my series about healing from abuse.  At the end of part three, I had just finished discussing a couple of my triggers and what I had done to address them, which was my third main area of focus for myself.

Moving on –

4) Figure out what a healthy relationship looks like, how to be a part of creating one, and how to recognize one

As I looked around at all the happily married couples and families where I lived, I remember thinking how weird it was that both husband and wife seemed really happy.  I found myself wondering what was fucked up about them behind closed doors; what were they hiding?  It’s got to be something big, right? Maybe he throws dishes at her if he doesn’t like what she cooked?  Maybe he throws glasses around for her to clean up and then blames her if she misses a shard buried in the carpet?  It’s got to be something, right?  No one’s really happy in their marriage.  They’ve just learned how to pretend really, really well.  And she must have more self-control than I do not to try to fight back when he comes home and tells her that he’s been cheating because she’s a shitty wife who’s boring in bed.

^^ See that?

That is honest to goodness what I actually thought when I looked around at other people.  And that’s how I knew I needed help.  I realized that I really and truly had no concept of what a healthy relationship looked like.  What do people in healthy relationships do?  What do people in healthy relationships not do?  How do I recognize an unhealthy relationship in the future?  How do I tell the difference between a relationship that’s not perfect (but otherwise healthy) and a toxic relationship?  How do I do my part to create a healthy relationship?  No idea.  Literally no clue.  Even as I framed these questions in my head, the concepts seemed so foreign.

So I decided to do some reading.  As a bookworm and scholastic overachiever, pursuing academic knowledge first seemed to be the most intuitive way to go.

In perusing my own bookshelf, I settled upon a few that had a general theme of “how to fix your marriage.”  Now, you have to be careful here, because a lot of it can come across as victim-blaming, especially if any of these books were a “gift” from your ex designed to help you learn how to be a good wife to him.  But I chose to read them anyway in the spirit of: a) no regrets for ending my marriage, as it was absolutely, 100% necessary; and b) learning what to do for a possible next marriage.  After all, if their goal is to get people to put in some work and create a healthy marriage, surely they are going to paint a picture of what this end goal looks like, right?

The specific books I ended up reading were Emotional Infidelity, The Five Love Languages, and The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands.  What I found helpful about these books was 1) explicit instructions for me on how to treat someone; and 2) lots of case studies of happy spouses (well, at least by the end of their story they were happy).  So I found lots of examples of relationships to draw from and build an idea of what my hypothetical next marriage could possibly look like.  Also, I did recognize a pattern in myself of being impossible-to-please, bossy, high-strung, nitpicky, and nagging that I picked up from my mother.  Just to be clear – I am not saying that I in any way deserved what happened to me because I sometimes annoyed my ex.  What I am saying was that I wanted to work on my bad habits so I could treat my hypothetical future husband better than I would have otherwise.

If you find yourself in a position similar to mine, there are plenty of sources out there that would be helpful; the books I listed were just the ones I happened to use and they worked for me.  It goes without saying that if you go down this road, this process is highly individualized; my bad habits are not necessarily your bad habits and my perfect relationship is not your perfect relationship.  And, of course, the books that worked for me may not speak to you the same way.

Academic knowledge is all well and good, but the real question is – how do I do this for real?  How do I put this into practice?

To be continued.

Marriage from hell: the happy ending (III)

Continuing my series about healing from abuse.  When I left off, I had just finished discussing the second big area of focus that I had.  Moving on –

3) Address my triggers

Certain things would set me off and send me into an irrationally angry, crying fit.  I learned recently that this is actually normal for people that have been through trauma.  Margaret Vasquez says that because trauma doesn’t affect the logical parts of the brain, you can’t address it through logic and talk therapy.  And because the passage of time is an abstract concept, understanding of which is driven by the logical centers of the brain, until the trauma is healed, triggers will bring back all of the emotions as if the victim is living through the trauma again in the present. (I hope I’m not misrepresenting anything she has said.)

All of which is consistent with my experience, as I found that I had to basically reprogram myself into responding differently to certain of my triggers.

It’s been a few years, but the main triggers I remember having are Days Inn, the movie “Moulin Rouge,” and John Mayer.  Now, the reasons for these particular triggers are a bit of a long story, and in any case are not really relevant to the focus today, which is on healing.  So I’m going to skip the “why.”  What I did to address these was to purposely associate each of these with pleasant experiences, so that the dominant association in my head would be the pleasantness rather than the ex and the rage.

Everyone’s process to address their triggers will look different, but here’s how mine looked –

1) Days Inn – A friend and I took a trip together to get out of town and show the kids some new scenery.  We stayed at a Days Inn.  During this trip I purposefully took the time to stop and sense how good I felt, look at / think of the Days Inn logo, wash, rinse, repeat.  Even after we got home, I would take the time to immerse myself in the good feelings while visualizing the look and feel of the hotel room and the Days Inn logo.  A little bit of alcohol (but not too much!) helped amplify the good feelings, limber up my brain, and enhance this process.

Writing this now it sounds so silly to make such a big deal about something so mundane as a low-level hotel chain logo, but that’s what I did, and it worked.  I no longer sink into a quivering, blinding rage whenever I happen to drive past a Days Inn.  Yay!  Go me!

So if you EVER feel like your triggers are “stupid” just remember how that weird lady Athena from the internet had to work to address her hang-ups with a low-level hotel chain logo.  Think about that and allow yourself to feel more normal than me.  You’re welcome.  Happy to help.

2) Moulin Rouge – Whenever I had a date, I would invite the guy back to my place to watch a movie.  Most guys go for this.  Most guys also let me pick out the movie.  At this point in the evening, my line was, “Oh look!  I seem to remember this one (holding up the DVD case for Moulin Rouge) being a pretty good movie – haven’t watched it in a while, though.  How about it?”  Guess what the answer was?  (Most guys are pretty agreeable to anything you suggest on a first date.)  So, similar to #1 above, as we were watching the movie, I would work to focus my mind on how good I felt, how attractive I felt, how much I was enjoying the company of the guy sitting next to me, and at the same time be present in enjoying the movie.  If there was kissing, cuddling, and handholding, so much the better – more warm fuzzy feelings to capitalize on.  I think I did this about three or four times, this exercise of forcibly mashing emotion and sensation and memory and music and movie all together.  And it helped quite a bit.  Just like my Days Inn trigger therapy, a moderate amount of alcohol (but not too much!) worked to make this process a bit easier.

But I really made a breakthrough when I fell in love.  I had been spending time with one of my neighbors because we both had kids about the same age, and as we started talking we figured out that we had quite a bit in common.  Next we figured out that we were attracted to each other.  And after that we figured out that the sex was great.  So as I’m enjoying that rush of infatuation and the thrill of falling in love … in the middle of that I decided that this would be a great opportunity to watch Moulin Rouge together and help me work on this particular trigger.  So I told him what I was going through with this movie and that I was trying to fix myself so I didn’t get irrationally angry whenever I watched it.  So he held me and we watched it together.  It was at that point that I first thought to myself – “This is it!  I’m doing it!  I might actually be free someday.”

Just to make sure this conditioning stuck, I made sure to watch Moulin Rouge at least once with every subsequent boyfriend, up to and including my husband.  And you know what?  I haven’t watched it in several years.  At this point, I don’t obsess over it one way or the other.

3) John Mayer – This one I didn’t have a really easy answer to, mainly because I think there’s an underlying issue that I haven’t yet found a direct counter to.  And it probably doesn’t help that in general I never really liked his music in the first place.  But.  The fact that I would get irrationally angry whenever the first few notes of a John Mayer song came on the radio was reason enough for me to work on this one.  Even though the music is mediocre at best.

And you know what? Honestly, I ended up just avoiding his music for a handful of years.  I got really good at switching the radio in the car to a different station within the first three or four notes of any John Mayer song.  I wasn’t really motivated to work on this one, not when I had more pressing things to do.

With my other two triggers above I didn’t have much choice.  Days Inn – I had to work on that one because I see them all the time.  Moulin Rouge – I had basically been robbed of the experience of watching a movie I enjoyed.  It was important to me to get those things back.  But I wasn’t really missing anything by cutting John Mayer out of my life.

Until one day, quite by accident, I heard Say all the way through for the first time.  And I actually liked it.  Catchy.  Happy.  Somehow it made me feel very different than the specific songs I had heard before that I hated.  Great!  Something I could latch on to.  Fast forward a few years – at this point, I still enjoy that one song.  As for the rest of them, I’m still not a fan, and as a rule I still change the station when one comes on, but at least I don’t rage anymore.  I’d call that progress!

Whatever your triggers are, if you can find a way to associate them with happiness instead of trauma, that will put you on the right path.

I want to finish up this section by saying that despite what expectations others have for you, there’s nothing wrong with you if you can’t just “get over it” as if by waving a magic wand.  It takes work.  Also, don’t beat yourself up over having triggers that seem “silly” or “stupid.”  There are no silly / stupid triggers.  They just are and they need work just the same.

To be continued.

Marriage from hell: the happy ending (II)

Continuing my series about healing from abuse.  When I left off, I had just finished discussing the first big area of focus that I had.  Moving on –

2) Free myself emotionally

I left my ex-husband five times.  I think.  To be honest, I lost count, but I’m pretty sure it was in the neighborhood of five.  Why didn’t I stay gone the first time?  After the events of this post?  Well, he wouldn’t leave me alone.  He would drive around town (it was a small town) to find me.  I had a restraining order in place, so naïve little me reported him to the police.  Tell me, have you ever tried to have the police enforce a restraining order against a member of the military in a deeply red state?  I don’t know how it went for you, but for me, the police were NO help.  “Are you SURE you’re not purposely running into him?  Are you SURE you’re doing everything you can to avoid him?”  Okay then.  I was on my own.  And then I was broke and hungry and didn’t have any food for the kids and he sure acted like he was sorry and was going to change and marriage is sacred and marriage is supposed to be sacrifice and you never ever EVER give up on your marriage if you do you’re selfish and you’re wrong.

In the face of all that was the psychological trump card that kept me going back – what if it works this time?  If it does you’ll have the happy marriage you want without all the “drama” that seems to make people pull back from you right when you most need their help.  And if you don’t give it one more try and it would have worked this time, then you’re too selfish and give up too easily to be married in the first place.

So next time you wonder why abused women go back to their spouses, this ^^ is a pretty good bet.  Combine that with the fact that being abused really warps your sense of what normal is (see #4 later in this series) and it’s not too hard to see how people get caught in this loop.

So how did I do it?

This is another area where I was very, very lucky.  His Army unit deployed to Iraq and stayed there for 15 months.  With him literally on the other side of the world from me and unable to physically get to me, I was able to finally clear my head.  I realized that with him gone, I felt so SAFE – I hadn’t felt that way in so long that I honestly forgot what it felt like.  And that was how I realized that this marriage was destroying me.  I knew that I had to get out, no matter what it took.  And I knew that I couldn’t trust myself to stick to my resolve when he was around.

So I recruited some backup.  I started dating and living with a guy who was twice my ex’s size and literally violently protective of me.  Seriously.  He almost started a fight when he THOUGHT he heard one of my guy friends insult me.  Once the ex got back, I found that it was possible to keep him emotionally at arm’s length with the help of my boyfriend keeping him physically at arm’s length.  Then all I had to do was wait for him to get orders for his next duty station.  Thankfully, it only took 7 months.  And I was finally, permanently, physically free.  And I needed that security of being physically free in order to get emotionally free.

I understand that the conventional advice is to work on yourself first and don’t jump into any other relationships.  But here’s the problem – while you are working on yourself, you need to make sure you have safeguards in place so you don’t slide right back to where you were before.  In my experience, I needed other people to keep me grounded and help make sure I had those safeguards in place to finally break free for good.

To be continued.

Marriage from hell: the happy ending (I)

I’ve spent at least one post recently ranting about abuse and how horrible my abusive marriage was.  I think it’s important to get the word out on these types of experiences, especially in the face of certain widely-read opinions (like this one and others) that divorce is bad and that no-fault divorce is The Greatest Evil to Ever Befall Western Civilization™.  No-fault divorce as a civil procedure saved my life and my childrens’ lives.  Period.

But even after leaving and getting to a safe place, I found that I was very traumatized from the ordeal, which had some serious implications for what kind of mother I could be and whether I could responsibly marry again. And while recognizing that a problem exists is crucial, at some point you have to answer the question, “What do I do now?  How do I fix this?”  I can’t even begin to give an answer on a societal level, but I can tell you how I fixed my life, in hopes that it may help someone else.  I’m going to try to stay focused throughout this series so we don’t get lost in the morass of my long, complicated story, so I may skip some parts and jump around on the timeline a bit.

I had a four main areas that I needed to work on –

1) Being able to support myself and feed my children

This is the part where I was very, very lucky.  I had several things come together at just the right time to catch me when it all fell apart.  I had already started taking classes at the university in town, so my Montgomery GI Bill benefits were already incoming and I didn’t have to wait too much longer to have the cash in hand.  And because I was a university student, I walked in to the university housing office and got an apartment key (after paying the deposit out of my GI Bill benefits) no questions asked.  I showed up to the WIC office on Friday, and when told that I would have to wait until Monday to get an appointment to receive my first batch of checks, I suddenly found myself choking through tears that I didn’t have any money for food to get through the weekend.  Seeing this, the kind lady behind the desk dropped everything and handed me my checks right then.  I was speechless, but I somehow managed to thank her profusely.  (I’m tearing up now writing this as I remember her –wherever you are, lady, thank you!!)

I also applied for food stamps, the Section 8 wait list (I never got on the program, but it’s worth mentioning), daycare assistance, and paid a visit to the local child support enforcement division office.  Because my oldest daughter’s father was military, all I really had to give them was his name and social security number.  They sent the info off to DFAS and they took care of the rest.  Because I was still technically a military spouse (and had the ID card to prove it), I was allowed on the nearby military post and could use the military medical system.  Otherwise, I would have applied for Medicaid and CHIP.

So on an ongoing basis, I was able to put my college tuition and my apartment rent on student loans.  I received monthly food stamp and WIC benefits, as well as child support.  Daycare (less a $10 a month copay) for the hours I was in school was direct-billed to the state.  So I had a place to live secured, as well as money / benefits for food, daycare, and a small amount of random essentials, including $18 for a large bottle of Jim Beam which I would ration out over at least a month, maybe two months.  And I could keep my kids caught up on their immunizations.

Crisis homeless period over.  Deep sigh of relief.

Once I caught my breath, I thought to myself, “Okay, Athena, that’s all well and good for today, but we need to have an end game in mind.  We can’t live like this indefinitely.”

It seemed to me that the best available end game to me was to finish college with a degree in a field with good job security.  I didn’t necessarily want to make the most money possible, but I did want income to be pretty predictable.  Somehow, it came to my attention that with an accounting degree, steady, decent jobs were relatively easy to find.  So instead of studying my first choices like economics or international business, accounting it was!  And just like that I changed the entire course of my life.

Before I move on, I want to pause here to say – if you can figure out the right combination of public assistance to pay the bills while you work on getting your family set up, there is NO SHAME in that.  In case you missed it, I’ll repeat it – NO SHAME.  That is what those programs are there for, despite what certain well-publicized pundits may think and despite any attitude from the public at large that you hopefully will not encounter.  I can’t say that I personally was on the receiving end of any shaming, but because it seems that shaming welfare recipients is becoming more fashionable, I thought I would point this out.

To be continued …

Why not have a divorce party?

Mr. Walsh writes

But, for some reason, when I hear about divorce I don’t feel like popping the champagne bottle or sprinkling the confetti.

Is that because I’m “too young to understand”?

The issue is not that you’re “too young” to understand; the issue is that you’re too inexperienced to understand. You have yet to be (and hopefully will never be) on the receiving end of physical and emotional abuse. You have not been the stay-at-home parent reliant on your spouse and then made homeless. In Alaska. In the winter. With a baby. You have not been to the ER for a bleeding head wound caused by your spouse. You have not had your spouse clear out the checking account, knowing that you needed the money there because you have already written a check to pay for school – the schooling that will ultimately be your way out of the marriage. You have not had the neighbors hear your screams and call the police, only to have your spouse show them the bites and scratches from you defending yourself. You can show them where the bruises will show up in a few days, but because your spouse is savvy enough not to do anything to you that leaves an immediate mark on you, the police don’t believe you are the battered spouse. You have not had your spouse be unrepentantly unfaithful and been unable to do anything about it (because remember, you are the stay-at-home parent in a traditional marriage – you have no money, no job, and you have the children with you all the time).

So yes, Mr. Walsh – the gentleman was right. You don’t know the future, and sometimes people change. Sometimes people change such that your safety and the safety of your children depends on a quick, clean divorce. People ALWAYS have free will, and sometimes they use it for evil. Including your spouse.

My divorce was the best thing that had happened to me up to that point – first time in years my children and I became safe. You bet your gluteus maximus I partied when I got those court documents in the mail.