It’s not a secret. But it’s not something I bring up regularly either. I suppose I was a victim, although I don’t think of myself that way. All of it — the sickness, the lies, the abuse — have become no less than, but also no more than, the pivot of my life so far, the fulcrum from which everything else is measured.
But that’s not how it started. When I was thinking of asking my ex-wife to marry me, one of my concerns was that she might be too positive for me. I can be a right proper cynic sometimes, and we should all want a spouse who can easily tolerate our casual disposition.
I thought then, and still think now, that marriage is about the big things. It’s not necessary to find someone who likes the same music and movies as you. Over the course of your lives, those things are just as likely to change as not, and if you can’t stop what you’re doing to take a legitimate interest in your spouse’s hobbies, whatever they are, then you’re not mature enough for marriage. That’s not to say you have to do everything together — that’s also a likely disaster — or that you need to enjoy their hobbies as they do, but you should enjoy THAT they do. You should enjoy their enjoyment.
At some point, my ex-wife started to get sick — physically, bodily ill. It started with hives. Her skin would itch and swell, filling 3/4 of her back or one whole side of her leg all the way down to the ankle. Later, she started vomiting suddenly. We would be watching TV and she would get up from the couch and run immediately to the toilet to puke. Then came severe lethargy and a highly irregular, almost non-existent cycle. And so on.
She went to the dermatologist for the hives, the gastroenterologist for the vomiting, the gynecologist for the irregularity, and the internist for the lethargy. She was diagnosed with gastroparesis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and a bunch of other crap. And it was all legit, as far as it went. But there was no Dr. House around to put it all together. No one asked why all of these things appeared within six months of each other… and didn’t that indicate something larger behind?
With the physical symptoms came the changes in mood and personality. At first it was easy enough to chock it all up to stress. I mean, look at that list. It fucking sucks! I felt so bad. I kept asking “Do you need anything? Do you need anything?” As it happened, she had just passed the Virginia bar and started work at a very elite intellectual property firm in DC. Life was tough. I was supposed to support her. I was her husband.
Not that my job wasn’t also stressful. I was a junior executive in a transitioning firm — in one two-year period, I had five different bosses under three CEOs — with an hour-plus commute each way. For various reasons that I don’t regret, we bought a house in Northern Virginia that was much closer to her job than mine, which was in Columbia, MD, but the result was that, counting the commute, my minimum work week was 60 hours, with regular spikes well above that. Weekdays left little time for anything but getting ready for and then traveling to and from work. Laundry, cleaning, yard work, grocery shopping, and the rest were saved for weekends.
But we had a nice 3-bedroom town home in a safe neighborhood with good schools. We had two beautiful dogs and a pair of newish cars. We had cash in the bank. We were going to start a family, and so I didn’t choke on the schedule. I thought it was better to hustle then, before the kids came, so that I could hit cruise control in a VP position later and have resources for braces, college, and some good life experiences, like travel.
As my wife got sicker, I took the lead on doing the housework, which only seemed fair. It wasn’t her fault she was ill. We were partners, and that meant sharing the load, including the added burden of her illness.
One Saturday, after another stressful week, I woke up early and cleaned the kitchen from the previous night’s dinner, which both of us were too tired to clean. I took out the trash. I did the laundry. I let my wife sleep in.
About 10:00, roughly five minutes into my well-earned appointment on the couch with David Attenborough, my wife rushed downstairs, hair a mess, and said I needed to get ready, we were leaving soon.
“For where?” I asked.
She said we’re going to some kid’s birthday party — a kid whose name I didn’t recognize and don’t remember — and that it was starting soon and we still needed to go to the toy store to get a gift.
I asked who this kid even was, setting aside the larger issue for the moment that this was the first I had heard of it.
Turns out he was a friend of our nephew — her sister’s son’s schoolmate, all of maybe seven years old.
I asked if we had ever met these people.
I asked if she had told me about this before and I forgot, which I freely admit happened more than I would like.
I said I was tired. I’d just spent all morning cleaning, and after a long week at work, I wasn’t going to rush out to a birthday party for a seven-year-old I had never met and would probably never see again, but if that’s how she wanted to spend her Saturday, she was free to. I wouldn’t even ask why. Frankly, I was too tired to wonder.
What followed was EIGHT HOURS of fighting. She never went to the toy store, or to the party, but she did accuse me of not loving her, of trying to sabotage her relationship with her family, of not caring about anything that was important to her, and so on.
Eight hours, man.
Eight fucking hours of arguing.
At some point, when I asked in a less-than-helpful way (consider how confused and frustrated I was) why we couldn’t just put this behind us, she raised her fists in the air, and with a snarl on her lips — literally, like something out a cartoon — began beating on me, two-fisted.
I was shocked.
What the hell was happening? Who was this person? And what had she done with my oh-so-positive wife??
Now, I’m a pretty big guy, so I can’t say it hurt much. But as any survivor will tell you, it’s not the physical pain that lasts the longest. So afterward, I did exactly what everyone else does. I said it must be some kind of anomaly. After all, it had never happened before. At that moment, it wasn’t immediately clear it would ever happen again.
But of course it did.
It’s a common myth that men aren’t at serious risk from domestic violence. I remember keenly one night where things were very bad — bad enough that I had to retreat to the couch downstairs. I pulled it out from the wall such that I could lay on my back facing the stairs. I left the stairway light on so that if she came down, her shadow would be projected across my face and I would wake up. Because the shit she was saying and the way she was acting was so angry and nonsensical, I wasn’t entirely sure she wouldn’t come down with a knife.
Normal psyches have checks in place that keep us from being the worst versions of ourselves. We all can be irrational, selfish, and mean. But adult people have the daily sensation of taking a deep breath, sucking it up, and moving on.
My ex-wife lost that barrier, that filter that tells us what is and isn’t fair and appropriate. So in some sense, it’s accurate to say the person she became was always there, as some folks close to me have since claimed. But that’s not only incomplete, it omits the most relevant aspects of what happened. The sum total of who she was before included that barrier. And it went away. An important part of her was lost.
In the years since, I’ve heard a number of people — talking about some other case — say something like “I don’t know why she stays with him. If a man ever hit me, I’d be all BYE FUCKER!”
It’s a nice thought. It’s also hopelessly juvenile. Every relationship is unique of course, just like the people in it, but I would guess a lot of women — a lot of PEOPLE — stay not so much out of fancy but out of genuine, adult love. I made a commitment to my wife. I stood up in front of a crowd of people and said “in sickness and in health.” One month into the abusive period, two months in, six months in, and so on, you never have to face that all-or-nothing decision of whether to leave. It’s only ever about whether you’ll honor the commitment you made for one more day. That’s how life comes — one day at a time. And it never seems worth it to throw away a marriage for one more day.
Of course, that can’t go on forever, and eventually I had to leave. And I went back, as we all do. I actually think that was the right decision. I told everyone at the time — friends and family who were very worried about me — that marriage was serious, and that regardless of her actions, I didn’t want to leave and then say in ten years “I wish I had stuck it out a little longer.” I didn’t go back for her. I went back for me. I went back so that future me — me right now — can look anyone in the eye and say without batting a lash that I fucking did every goddamned thing possible to make that shit work.
We tried counseling, for example. I found a pair of psychologists, an unrelated man-and-woman team who worked in tandem. The first week we met one-one-one, like gender with like gender, and the second week we met as a group, and so on. At one point in group session, we got around to the subject of hitting. (We never discussed the verbal abuse.) My wife’s therapist called it a “gating issue,” explaining that I said I was unwilling to proceed until the hitting stopped.
I wish you could hear how she said it. It was like I was holding things up, that they were stopping the big show to deal with a “gating issue.”
Look. Physical violence is not a fucking “gating issue.” Physical violence is wrong. Period. It doesn’t matter who hits who.
I didn’t go back.
That’s when the lying started. Or maybe it was there before and I just didn’t see it. I was certainly naive. I always thought a liar was someone who told an untruth. But that’s not what a liar is. A liar is someone who tells a near-truth, factually correct but with omissions, in such a way and in such circumstances that it leaves the hearer with a clear impression of something that isn’t the case and leaves the liar with complete and plausible deniability. Nothing they said was flatly untrue. In fact, when you repeat their words verbatim in calm circumstances, they sound ambiguous at best, innocuous at worst.
I don’t have a clear window into what my wife told others about me. I do know she was very adept at leading me to believe her sister or the dog walker or our neighbors or someone was critical of something I did, with the clear implication that they thought I was being a jerk to her and needed to change. (These days we call that gaslighting, but I didn’t know the term at the time.)
That winter, she promised we wouldn’t see her family at Christmas if I agreed to miss my family’s Christmas as well (so to isolate me). I agreed — for the marriage — and a week or so later, after I’d informed my folks I wouldn’t be coming, she revealed that we would be getting together with her family for dinner the following week and needed to bring gifts — not because it was a Christmas thing, but because they would have gifts for us and we didn’t want to be rude.
She stole my computer once and hid it in the trash. She stood in between my legs while I sat on the couch with her phone in her hand. She’d dialed 911, and with her thumb hovering over the call button, she warned that if I tried to get up while she berated me, that was assault and she’d call the police and file charges. She was not only a woman, she was a minority and an attorney barred in our state of residence. I’m a white male with no knowledge of the law. And fuck you if you think none of that matters.
At the end, it was my conservative, gun-owning, FOX News-watching, married-to-one-woman-forever father who said that he appreciated my effort but that “marriage vows are reciprocal, son.” When I told my ex-wife I was leaving, she literally fell at my feet, pressed her cheek tightly to my shoelaces, wrapped her arms around my ankles, and — bawling loudly — begged for one more chance, like something out of a 1930s movie.
When I declined, she asked me at least to wait until she returned from the doctor. As she walked out the door, despite that not moments before she had been pressed to my stinky sneakers, crying and begging for me to stay, she turned and delivered a warning dipped in acid. I wasn’t to leave. Or else something something something about the dogs.
What did those two things have to do with each other?
I don’t remember her exact phrasing. But I remember the tone. I remember being stunned — again! (How could she keep doing that, even after everything??) I remember sitting in the chair motionless as her car pulled away. I looked at our two lovable Berners, who only ever looked back with joy and expectation, and thought… Holy shit, she might actually hurt the boys to hurt me.
I grabbed them and a few essentials and got in my car and never looked back. I left my house and my beautifully well-stocked kitchen and my furniture and my clothes and my books (!) and all of it. I drove two days to my parents’ house in Kansas. I didn’t answer her phone calls, despite that, on one occasion at least, she called 42 times in a row. I know because I had 42 missed calls from her, one after the next with no gaps between.
When I had to return to arrange the sale of our house, she absolutely, vehemently refused to see me during the week. She blamed it on work. The result was that the only day I could see her was her 30th birthday. I’m sure she’s told everyone that was the day I left her, which of course implies I am the jerk of the world, omitting that it was her who actually picked it.
I’m sure she’s mentioned to everyone the time she jumped in front of me to stop me from taking a shower in lieu of more fighting. She bounced off — again, I’m a pretty big guy — and fell. I’m sure she’s told people that I pushed her. I know this because she said as much at the time.
I’m sure I’ve become the bad guy in so many ways. I’m sure her family has explained the divorce to the neighbors and the relatives back in India by inflating my peccadilloes into dirigible-sized faults. I’m sure.
I don’t care. So many of my days began with the unspoken foundation that I would be with her for the rest of my life. I’m sad that the person I married all but died and that the person who took her place won’t get the help she needs. But it goes no deeper..
I only bring it up because I’ve been thinking a lot about love lately. I didn’t expect I would ever fall in love again. Turns out that was hogwash. It may sound cliche to say, but what I left behind doesn’t even compare.
cover image by Kevin Cabral, used without permission