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 …