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Divorce Doesn't Always End Emotional Abuse

Protect Yourself with a New Way of Thinking

“It’s best for the kids. You’re being selfish,” said Peter, Alice’s ex-husband and the father of Annie and Brian, their 18-year-old daughter and 21-year-old-son. Peter’s insistence on dropping by Alice’s house at his whim made it difficult for her to build a new life. Peter had a girlfriend, but he also enjoyed family life with Alice, Annie, and Brian. As he had during their marriage, he used her love and concern for the kids to get his way.

Alice wanted a new tradition of spending Christmas Eve alone with Brian and Annie. Christmas Day, the kids could have dinner with their father. But Peter insisted on joining Alice and the kids on Christmas Eve. She worried that if she didn’t give in to him, they would choose to spend their entire holiday with their father. Last Christmas, he took Annie and Brian to a high-end skiing resort in Colorado. He showered them with expensive presents purchased with his substantial income. Alice couldn’t afford to give pricey gifts. She gave up her career as a research scientist when Peter had insisted that she stay home to raise the children.

During their 24-year marriage, Alice tolerated Peter’s hurtful and controlling behavior in an effort to keep the peace. He demanded that she handle all the housework, cooking, errands, and transportation. Although she enjoyed being a mom and running the household, she felt like a domestic worker in her own home. When she took time for herself, he criticized her for being self-centered.

Peter called Alice offensive nicknames such as “space cadet” and “moid” (short for hemorrhoid). Sometimes he startled her out of a deep sleep in the middle of the night and scolded her for not paying enough attention to him, or forgetting to buy his favorite midnight snack. When she protested his behavior, he told her she needed to be a better wife.

Peter seemed to enjoy setting up Alice to look like an uncaring parent in front of Annie and Brian. When they were in grade school, he told her to meet them for dinner at a specific restaurant and went to another restaurant. When she didn’t show up for dinner, he told the kids that their mother didn’t love them and she had rather go shopping. Later, he told Alice that she made a mistake. “You know how scatterbrained you are,” he said.

Peter’s repetitive displays of being unreliable, irresponsible, hurtful, and deceitful took their toll on Alice. She heard his critical voice in her own head even when he wasn’t around. Her shame and self-doubt led to confusion and despair. She developed headaches and lost interest in books, cooking, and bicycling. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, she held on to hope that Peter would eventually treat her better.

When Annie and Brian were grown, Alice lost hope and found the courage to divorce Peter. She couldn’t live the rest of her days in a suffocating marriage. During the divorce, his imagined position as the victim and need to punish her resulted in a highly volatile divorce case that lasted 14 months and cost $100,000.

After years of devoting herself entirely to Peter and the kids, Alice felt lost. She still lived the life she tried to leave behind. Peter had always made all the decisions, so she struggled with her most trivial choices. He still expected her to run errands for him, provide family meals when he came to her house, and handle all the kid’s logistical and material requirements. He told Annie and Brian that Alice had caused the family break up because she doesn’t care about them and wanted to be alone. Annie believed her father and treated her mother with disdain, but Brian knew that his father had a significant role in the demise of their marriage.

Alice saw Peter’s refusal to allow her time alone with Annie and Brian at Christmas as the last straw. She went to a therapist to help her break free from Peter’s control and create a new life for herself.

In therapy, Alice learned that Peter had been manipulating her thoughts, feelings, and behavior for his own gain. He used intimidation, humiliation, anger, ridicule, denial, deception, and blaming as weapons to break down her self-esteem for better control.

As a Narcissist, Peter didn’t care about Alice’s humanity and saw her as an extension of himself. His own sense of personal inadequacy and fear of abandonment drove his need to dominate her. He disregarded the truth and shirked responsibility for his destructive behavior.

Alice’s willingness to accept Peter’s treatment enabled him and led her to neglect her own needs and feelings to the point of losing her sense of self. Building a better life requires knowing who you are and what you want.

The therapist helped Alice understand that she couldn’t change Peter, but she could protect herself by developing a new, more rational way of thinking that focused on self-respect. The new way of thinking meant gaining a deeper comprehension of why she tolerated abuse. It meant reconnecting with her needs and feelings and drawing personal boundaries against Peter’s abuse. It required facing her fears and taking risks.

Once Alice began to change her thinking, she stood up to Peter. She planted both feet on the ground, looked him right in the eyes, and said, “I understand that is what you want, but it is not what I want, nor is it what I’m willing to do.” She kept their interaction short and avoided exposing herself to his considerable skill at breaking down her resolve. At first she felt scared when she contested Peter’s will, but with more practice she gained self-confidence.

Alice continues to work on gaining self-esteem and healing from her oppressive marriage. She is discovering her talents and abilities and making new friends through a bicycling club. Her therapist and women’s therapy group provides her with moral support as she searches for a job and a new house. Alice’s newly found sense of self-respect and her refusal to tolerate Peter’s emotional abuse is helping her attain a better quality of living.

More from Amy Lewis Bear MS, LPC
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