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, at least not anymore. 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 around which everything else has turned.
Of course 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! I was a recovering cynic, and we should all want a spouse who shares our worldview, or who at least can easily tolerate it. I thought then, and still think now, that marriage is about the big things. It’s not necessary to find someone who, for example, 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 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. She would get 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. She would get up from the couch and and go immediately to the toilet to vomit. She had severe lethargy. She had a highly irregular, almost non-existent cycle. And so on.
So 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 some other crap. And it was all there. 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. 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?” And keep in mind that at the time she had just moved out of law school and into a very elite intellectual property firm in DC. Life was tough. And I was her husband.
Not that my job wasn’t also stressful. I was a junior executive in a transitioning firm — at one point we had three CEOs in a two-year period, and I moved through five different bosses — with an hour-plus commute each way. For various reasons that I don’t regret, we bought a house in NoVA that was much closer to her job than mine 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 to and from work. Laundry, cleaning, yard work, grocery shopping, and the rest were usually saved for weekends.
But we had a nice 3-bedroom townhome 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 sickness.
One Saturday, after another stressful week, I got up 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 all a mess, and says 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 any 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 told me about this before and I forgot, which I freely admitted happened more than I would have liked.
She said no.
I said I was tired. I’d just spent all morning cleaning. And that 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 (which apparently didn’t include me), and so on. Eight hours, man.
Eight fucking hours of arguing.
At some point, when I’m sure I said something in a less-than-helpful way considering how confused and frustrated I was that 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-too-positive wife??
Now, I’m a pretty big guy, so I can’t say it hurt too much. But as any survivor will tell you, it’s not the physical pain that lasts. And 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, enough that I had to retreat to the couch downstairs. I turned it so that I could lay on my back facing the stairs. I left the stairway light on so that if she came, her shadow would move 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 going on with life.
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 claimed. But that’s not just incomplete, it omits the most relevant aspects of what happened. The sum total of who she was included that barrier. And it went away.
In the years since, I’ve heard a number of people — referencing some other case of domestic abuse — 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 (unmarried, 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 like that. At one point in group session, we got around to the subject of hitting. 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, but that they recognized my feelings were valid and so 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.
I didn’t go back.
My mother, actually, is a clinical social worker and has been for several decades. She specializes in anxiety and depression, but she also does marital work. She’s also been married for 50+ years. She was flabbergasted that two PhDs would act that way. Neither of us yet have a good explanation.
Soon after, 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 how it goes. A liar is someone who tells a near-truth in such a way and in such circumstances that it leaves the hearer with a clear impression of something that isn’t the case, while leaving the liar with complete and plausible deniability. In fact, when you repeat their words verbatim in calm circumstances, they sound ambiguous at best, and 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. I do know that she would do things like promise we wouldn’t have to see her family at Christmas if I agreed to miss my family’s Christmas as well (so to isolate me), and a week or so after I agreed and informed my folks I wouldn’t be coming, she would reveal that her family expected us at a dinner in a few nights, and we should 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 and hid it in the trash. She stood in between my legs while I sat on the couch with her phone in her hand, having dialed 911 and with her thumb hovering over the call button, and 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.
Fuck you if you think none of that matters.
At the end, it was my uber-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.” And when I told my ex-wife that I was leaving and wanted a divorce, 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.
Literally. Like something out of a 1930s movie.
I knew it would make no difference, but I was considering if only for the personal satisfaction of being able to throw whatever came up — I was certain it would take less than 24 hours for there to be something — right back in her face. Not that it would do any good. But as it happened, she had a doctor’s appointment that day. She’s sick. Seriously sick. Legitimately sick. And for various reasons, she couldn’t miss the appointment.
But she wanted to. She didn’t trust that I wasn’t going to leave right then and there. Maybe she knew me better than I did.
And so, despite that not moments before she had been pressed to my stinky sneakers, crying and begging for me to stay, she turned to me as she left and delivered a warning dipped in acid. I wasn’t to leave. Or else something something about the dogs.
What did those two things have to do with each other?
I looked at our two lovable Berners, who only ever look back with joy and expectation, loyally waiting to please.
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 thinking… 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.
I had to go back one more time. She absolutely, vehemently refused to see me during the week. She orchestrated it so that I would officially leave her on her 30th birthday — exactly. I’m sure she’s gotten quite a bit of mileage out of that one. I’m sure she’s since told people that the time she jumped in front of me to keep me from taking a shower and bounced off (because, again, I’m a pretty big guy) that I had pushed her down. I know this because she looked up from the ground at that moment and said “You pushed me.” 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 actually care. You may not believe this, but almost four years on, I just feel bad for her. I had loved her deeply. I had woken up so many days where the unspoken foundation of my being was that I would be with her for the rest of my life. I’m sad that this happened to her, that the person I married all but died, and that the person who took her place won’t seek treatment and so will probably never get the help she needs. There’s a hole inside her. And try as I might, I could never fill it. No one can. It’s a tragedy if there ever was one.
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 like that again.
Turns out that was hogwash. And it may sound cliche to say, but what I left behind doesn’t even compare.
cover image by Kevin Cabral, used without permission