When we met, he smiled, complimented my looks, took me to fine restaurants, took me dancing. He showed me off, flashing me on his arm like expensive cufflinks. He swept me off my feet, showered me with attention, overwhelmed me with the intensity of his desire for me. He told me how great and accomplished he was and how lucky I was to have him, marveled at the confluence of events in the universe that had brought us together. One month after the day we met he told me he loved me, and one month after that he proposed. Not so much proposed as began talking about how we would be married some day, as though it were the most natural assumption in the world, the inevitable result of our miraculous joining. He said that having a ceremony was almost redundant because we were already married in God’s eyes, yet it was urgent that we marry as soon as possible because the only way we could be together physically was within the sanctity of marriage, which was the only way he wanted his children (and mine) to witness our relationship. We would be a shining example to them, and to the world, of a real family, a Christian family, a good and proper family, where the man treats the woman like a precious diamond and the woman is her husband’s helpmeet in all things. Even though I was an atheist, he declared that my character and outlook on life were more Christian than those of all the other women he had known. He readily admitted that he had been a player, with a string of marriages, one-night stands, three-ways, and physically confrontational relationships behind him. But he was now changed. He was godly, Christian, a new man, a tender and attentive father of two innocent girls. A beloved teacher, a devout churchgoer, a devoted brother to his single sister, and a forgiving son to his deeply damaged father, whose marital indiscretions had resulted in his parents’ divorce when their children were very young. And I was his angel, his love, his inspiration, his very reason for living.
Six months after we met, we married. We continued living in our separate households for a year to help our children transition into our new life. We visited each other and had sleepovers when the kids weren’t home. It was like a year-long date weekend. He hung a photo of us on his bedroom wall with the caption, “A man’s greatest treasure is his wife. She is a gift from the Lord. Prov. 18:22.”
I moved into his house after our first anniversary. I put the contents of my house into storage with the idea that I would gradually incorporate my furniture, appliances, and pictures into my new home. But his house was so completely furnished that there simply wasn’t room for any of my things, which he took to calling “junk.” Once all my things were in storage and I was more or less settled in to the space I was allotted (a dresser and a closet—or, as one of my best friends observed later, “You went from a five-bedroom house of your own to a nursing home.”), he came home one night, found that I hadn’t done something he had wanted me to do, and called me a name. I laughed in his face—it had to be a joke, right?—until I saw the hate in his eyes and realized he was serious. I could hardly believe it. I never dreamed this side of my husband existed. But from that point on, that was the side I primarily saw. There were moments when the charming, sweet, solicitous man I thought I ‘d married came out, particularly at gatherings or in public, and so long as that man was beaming at me, I was limp with relief. I redoubled my efforts to be as good and hardworking as I could be to avoid arousing his ire, which I found terrifying. After several such episodes I managed to screw up the courage to ask him, gently, to explain what had happened. He told me that sometimes he reacted the way he did because of his traumatic childhood watching his father abuse his mother. He said that he needed me to reassure him that he was valuable and lovable and that he never wanted to be “on the outside of” my love. I believed his promises that he had changed because I desperately needed to. My credibility, my son’s happiness, our very lives depended on it. When the smiles were replaced by the flashing eyes and the silent treatment that often stretched on for weeks, I felt sick and useless and worthless. He called it being in “the man cave”; I felt I was in the doghouse. I tiptoed on eggshells.
Then the threats came. He always said he’d married me because he needed a good woman to help him “get to the next level”; now he said that if I didn’t help him, he would find someone who would. I was in it too deeply; a year and a half into the marriage three children watching anxiously, hopefully, for the stability they were promised. I clung to the good times that would eventually emerge after the “man cave” times and told myself that the good times were our “real” life, our “real” marriage, and that the ever-lengthening periods of his white-hot anger were the anomalies.
Presently I discovered that he had active profiles on several online dating sites and was hitting on women daily. I managed to save screen shots of his activities and messages, knowing that they would be useful sometime.
I hid it well. I didn’t breathe a word of what I was enduring to my family or friends. I even went to great lengths to tell them how happy I was. I smiled at church, which I attended with him because he said it was important to him. Once the pastor invited to the altar women who had ever been abused. I sat stiffly in the pew, watching in horror as women poured down the aisles by the hundreds, some weeping, and clogged the front of the sanctuary (it was a mega-church with a weekly attendance averaging nearly 5,000). I longed to join them, but I knew that if I did I would pay dearly later.
Any time I was busy with one of my community activities, he would accuse me of neglecting my family who needed me more than did a “bunch of strangers.” I was involved in a local Dancing with the Stars production, and I frantically rushed from rehearsals to get home in time to avoid his wrath. During the show I went backstage to check my messages. I had received a text message from him, and my heart jumped—was he coming to see me in the show? I opened the message to read, “I think it’s best if we get a divorce.” I felt my body freezing from the inside out, my neck tingling, my limbs hardening and then becoming brittle as though they might shatter if I moved a muscle. I stood motionless until the lights dimmed, signalling the end of intermission, then I put down my phone, walked onstage, and danced with my blissfully oblivious partner, a prominent doctor in the community. Afterwards I went home and slept fitfully on the couch. But when morning came he woke me up with yelling, putdowns, accusations and, finally, violence. A broken dresser remained after he stalked out of the house, but I understood that the furniture was a proxy for me, and that if I stayed, I would be next.
Within days, he brought me flowers, declared his undying love, begged me never to stop loving him. I had called the National Domestic Violence Hotline several times over the past few months, but I always stopped short of following their advice to get out as soon as possible. After the broken dresser, I acted. I got a referral to a local support group for survivors of domestic violence and began attending weekly meetings. Ready at last both to acknowledge that I was in an abusive relationship and to follow the advice I was given, I squirreled away money, packed a bag with necessities, made copies of important documents, secured promises of shelter from a few close friends, and waited, with as much cool as I could muster, for the right time to leave.
Where is our nation’s broken dresser? How much longer will we deny we are in an abusive relationship with a lying, cheating, controlling, violent bully? When will we finally screw up the courage to call him what he is and reclaim our dignity and peace of mind? How did we even get to this point in the first place? Why did we allow ourselves to be seduced by an empty showman? How did we miss the red flags?
And how will we ensure we will never fall into this trap again?
I left without a backward glance with my preparations in order and my spirit intact. It took the better part of a year to regain my footing, and my son is still regaining his. But he and I reach, ever hopeful, toward a new future. Will America?