Holly told me she wasn’t suicidal. I disagreed.
“I guess you’re right,” she said after some thought. “I’ve been killing myself off for years.”
Holly was referring to staying with a man who frequently deflates her spirit—her husband, Lance.
She related the events of an evening they had some friends over. When it was time to call it a night, Holly stood with the front door open while saying good-bye as each guest left. From the living room Lance shouted, “Hey, dummy, close the door!”
I asked, “Could a casual passerby talk to you that way?”
“No,” she said.
“Then why do you take it from someone who supposedly loves you?”
“I’m not so sure I want to anymore,” she said in our counseling session. “I’m afraid to leave him . . . to be on my own. But I’m more afraid of staying. I look in the mirror and wonder who that dismal-looking person is. Where did Holly go?”
For some, contemplating divorce is rooted in valuing oneself, a recognition that greater respect is deserved. One could even say that breaking from someone who is toxic to our well-being is an act of compassion—self-compassion.
It’s typical for people to be drawn to those who treat them as poorly as they treat themselves. If we’re self-harming or self-condemning we automatically feel deserving of harm or condemnation from others. Conversely, those who treat us respectfully are rejected or ignored. Kindness can feel foreign and make us uncomfortable.
But when we begin to cherish ourselves, something interesting happens. We simply cannot tolerate demeaning or abusive treatment anymore. Indigestion is experienced at the core level. Our gut cries “foul” every time we’re subjected to degrading behavior or remarks.
This is what’s happening to Holly.
“His nasty jabs make me boil inside,” she said, “and I cringe every time he puts down the kids.”
That’s understandable. A sense of outrage when treated horribly is not only appropriate but a sign of being mentally healthy. We’re supposed to think protectively of ourselves and of our children.
She recalled an incident in which he tripped over her shoes. He erupted, blasting her for leaving them in his way.
“If it’s not me, it’s the kids,” she said. “I used to fold—letting him get away with being a jerk. But I can’t do that anymore . . . I fight back.”
Abuse should never be permitted or swallowed no matter what form it takes—physical, verbal or emotional. All have a flattening effect on self-esteem.
When I first saw Samantha, another client, she was putting up with physical abuse. “Whenever he would beat me I used to believe it was my fault,” she said. “But I don’t anymore, so what can I do?”
“Why don’t you leave this man?” I asked.
“I’m thinking of the kids,” she answered.
“No you’re not,” I said. “Thinking of the kids includes considering what they’re exposed to day in and day out. Watching mommy get hit isn’t good for children. Period.”
Although Holly isn’t a victim of physical abuse, she’s a constant target of her husband’s verbal and emotional abuse, which is just as devastating. Eventually, I met with Lance, who seemed clueless about his behavior and the effect it was having on his wife.
“Why would she want to divorce me?” he asked. “I love her!” I presented him with the simple truth: “The love in your heart doesn’t count unless it’s translated into actions.”
Instead of feeling loved, I pointed out, she feels like a whipping post.
If Lance wants to save his marriage, he’ll have to make some changes. Real changes. Superficial change—merely going through the motions—won’t cut it. She has to see and feel a changed heart. It’ll show in how he consistently relates to her and the children. Because he seems so blind to his mistreatment, I’m afraid Lance has an uphill battle ahead of him.
While Lance tries to change his side of the equation, Holly is starting to take her life back.
She’s been liberating herself from everything that debilitates or saps her spirit, including him.
She’s growing beyond the belief that she deserves insulting attacks to her dignity. And she’s realizing that her children need a climate that’s esteem-enriching. She also sees how unhealthy it is for them to observe their father’s cruelty and her mere endurance of it.
Ultimately, if Lance continues in his spirit-deflating ways, she and the kids will be out of there. As they should be.
Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.
(c) Salee Reese 2017