We want to clearly and carefully say there is a difference between a destructive/abusive marriage and a difficult or disappointing marriage.
We sat in the Emergency waiting room. I sat gingerly on the edge of my seat, nervous and in more pain than I had ever experienced before. Bruce sat fidgeting with his hands. As we waited for a doctor to examine me, the reality of my situation began to sink in.
I was about to lie to a doctor. I am an honest person, but here I was about to tell a doctor that I had broken my rib while skiing. That was not the truth. Bruce had broken my rib in a hateful fit of rage. I was seeking medical attention for injuries that my husband had inflicted on me.
But I wasn’t a Stereotypical Abused Woman, or was I?
How could this have happened? How could a husband who I thought of as loving and kind do such a hurtful thing to me? What was going on?
The shocking realisation that Bruce was abusive took as long as it did because of our assumptions about abusive men and abused women. We break all the stereotypes: we are middle-class, highly educated professionals, and we come from good homes.
I didn’t see myself as an abused woman. The only images I had came from television. I thought of abused women as weak and uneducated. And Bruce certainly did not fit my image of an abusive husband. I thought they were wild and out of control – men who drank too much and were nasty and hateful. Bruce’s behaviour was confusing. I saw him being kind and pleasant to our friends and family. He was often loving to me, and I loved him. But he got angry so easily; and, when he was angry, he was hurtful. Since his hurtful behaviour was always directed at me, it made me believe I was the cause of the abuse.
Bruce’s unpredictable behaviour made me feel like I was crazy. In subtle ways he tried to control my actions and my thoughts. He always had to prove that he was right and that I was wrong; we couldn’t simply disagree. His rage would silence me. I constantly had to decide whether an issue or concern was worth raising with him – if it was safe to bring it up. When Bruce did any housework, he became angry and resentful. He was always picking fights and it was hard to avoid explosive situations. I was exhausted living with him.
I knew there was something wrong but I didn’t know what and I didn’t know where to turn for help. As time went on, Bruce seemed to be angry more and more. Finally, when Bruce broke my rib I began to see the seriousness of our situation. I wondered if this was abuse.
Breaking the Silence
Keeping my pain a secret to protect Bruce became suffocating. I needed to tell someone. We decided to tell two of our closest friends, one of whom was a counsellor. At last, we had broken the silence. Bruce needed to be held accountable for his behaviour and I needed support from people who would be concerned for my safety and well being. Our friend referred us to a counselling agency where Bruce entered a group for abusive men and I entered a support group for women.
The first few weeks of group counselling were wonderful for me. I began to understand that virtually all Bruce’s behaviour towards me was abusive.
I discovered that I did not deserve the treatment I received.
I discovered that Bruce was in the wrong – not me.
I discovered I was not crazy.
And I discovered I was not alone.
The six other women in my group had experiences incredibly similar to mine. The way Bruce treated me was not simply the way Bruce treated me, it was the way abusive men treat women.
While this was all good news, I had a sad realisation. As I began to see the pervasiveness of Bruce’s abuse, I felt the need to leave the marriage. It wasn’t enough for him to simply stop the physical violence, he needed to stop all the verbal and emotional abuse, too. This abuse seemed to be so much a part of who he was that I couldn’t imagine him without it. I didn’t believe it was possible for a person to change that much.
Do I Leave or Do I Stay?
I thought a lot about leaving but was torn. I still loved Bruce but his treatment of me was intolerable. I also felt I couldn’t deal with the terrible embarrassment of a separation. Perhaps even more important, I was afraid to be alone. One of the impacts of Bruce’s abuse was that I thought poorly of myself. I thought that no other man would want to be with me. Bruce was my only chance for marriage and family.
While I wrestled with whether or not to leave, Bruce began to change. The physical abuse stopped immediately and the threats of violence stopped shortly after. Verbal attacks became less common as he struggled with ending the mental and emotional abuse. I could tell that he was motivated to change. Participating in his group was important to him. I decided to stick it out for a while and see just how far he would go.
Mutuality, Respect, Care
Bruce worked as hard in our second year of counselling as he did in the first. He realised that he had broken the vows he had made at our wedding. He took responsibility, stopped the abuse, and learned how to be respectful.
The change in Bruce is incredible. He is a completely different person now. It is wonderful to live in a home where I am supported, encouraged and cared for. I feel myself flourishing in my work – all the energy that I needed to survive in my relationship is free to be used in positive ways in the world. Today, 14 years since we first sought counselling, Bruce and I have a marriage that is characterised by mutuality, respect and care. We are deeply thankful for this new life.
We have shared our story in the hope of breaking down stereotypes that keep abused women in isolation. We hope our story will encourage women who have experienced abuse to seek the support and safety they deserve.
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