I wondered a couple times if my friend was being abused. But she erased all doubt the day she stopped smiling mid-conversation and confessed, “I’m afraid of him.”
“What happened?” I asked as calmly as possible. “You can tell me the truth.”
“I feel like such a horrible person,” she began, tears pooling. “But I’m not sure I can take the stress anymore… I’m walking on eggshells constantly–always wondering which version of him I’ll get.”
I nodded in sympathy. They’ve been struggling for a loooooong time.
“My entire life hinges on his mood and choices!” she said, just before burying her face in her hands. “It’s too much.”
“Jane,” I say gently, trying to find the right words. “Nobody should have to live this way.” I searched for a way to phrase my next thought. Then I just said it: “Even if he doesn’t hit you, do you realize this is emotional abuse?”
She reacts as I expect. “Abuse?! That’s kind of ridiculous! We have a problem, but he’s not an abuser!”
“That’s often what abuse victims say,” I answer quietly. Then I give her the honest truth. “I just don’t think I can watch you deteriorate more and more…You’ve changed, Jane. You’ve lost so much confidence! Wherever we are, you’re always thinking about the struggle at home, and you’re losing touch with all the things that used to be you.”
“Well, yeah!” she says, getting defensive. “Yeah, life has changed. And yeah, it’s harder than I thought it would be. But it’s not all his fault! I guess I thought you would encourage me to stay strong; not try to accuse him of abuse!”
“I know it’s a heavy label,” I say quickly. I can see she’s shutting down. “But that’s what you call making someone feel out-of-control and hopeless as a pattern over time.” I want Jane to know she has someone in her corner. “I’m just concerned about saving your spirit…”
She looks at me with a glimmer of relief, so I keep talking. “Everybody has struggles. Sometimes life is hard. But nobody should be afraid in their own home! At some point, you’re not dealing with normal ‘hard’ anymore.”
“But where is that point?” Jane asks. She looks like an innocent child, and it almost breaks my heart. “I mean, he needs me! I promised to spend my life doing what’s best for him–always–no exceptions. How could I be this selfish? How can I pretend I’m the only one suffering?”
I allow the silence to hang for awhile, as she collects her thoughts. Finally, she finds my eyes again and asks, “Well, what do you think I should do, then? Divorce him?” (She spits that word with all the sarcasm she can muster.) “Should I throw in the towel and save myself, like a can’t-hack-it quitter?”
Then I remind her: “It has been 10 years, Jane.”
I take her hand and squeeze it hard. “You’re not a quitter! I’ve heard your prayers and watched you spend hours doing research. You’ve sought counseling and read books and lost sleep searching for a way to help him. How could you possibly call yourself a quitter?! You’ve done your best–but you’re running yourself down! For once in the last decade, think of yourself. What do you deserve?–”
“I’M HIS MOTHER!” Jane suddenly snaps. “If he can’t count on me to fight for him, who will?”
Her outburst doesn’t bother me. I know how much she’s hurting. Nobody sees something like this coming in the beginning, when they hold their perfect baby for the first time. No one thinks the day will come when it’s time to surrender–and walk away.
“He’ll always be a part of you, Jane.” I’m nearly whispering. “There’s a place in your heart he will always fill. But think of the other kids. Are you being the best for them? Don’t they deserve a mommy who isn’t worn-out and uncertain and scared all of the time?”
She doesn’t respond for several seconds, so I continue in the same gentle tone. “He doesn’t respect you. He doesn’t make any effort to work with you. Nobody expects you to go on forever–pouring out and getting nothing in return. It’s not fair.”
A tiny sob escapes from Jane, and she wipes a tear with her thumb. “You’re telling me to give up on him…on a part of me…my everything. I can’t keep going like this. And yet, what’s the point of living if I lose him–life as I know it?”
“The abuse has made you forget, Jane. You had a life before him, and you will have a life again.”
She cries and takes a few deep breaths. But suddenly, she changes her tune. “It’s really not so bad; I just needed to vent. Things will seem better with some sleep–”
“No, Jane.” I say it firmly. “You’ve gone through anger, grief, and now justification! Enough is enough. It’s time to accept the situation and take care of you before there’s nothing left at all. Just take a break for awhile. Spend a little time apart. Maybe you’ll be surprised how much better it will be for both of you.”
“I’ll never forgive myself,” Jane says shakily. But I can tell she’s coming around. “What he’s doing to our family isn’t okay…but it hurts so much to think of giving up. Walking ahead without him.”
“But you can’t accept all the responsibility,” I say, getting good at taking the other side. “I’m sure it will feel like a loss for awhile…but remember it’s also a new beginning. It’s a chance to get reacquainted with yourself. To finally stop defining your existence through another person’s temper. For once, there will be freedom in the pain.”
“…He doesn’t want to be helped,” Jane mutters angrily.
“And I’m tired of blaming myself for his issues,” Jane says with more confidence.
“I’m so glad to hear you say that!”
“You really don’t think this violates everything it means to be a mother?”she asks one more time. “Is it selfish?”
“Sometimes you need to be selfish,” I answer. “You’ll see with time–it works out for the best.”
I put an arm around her as I drive the point home. “It will be hard, but no harder than the last few years have been, slowly dying in an invisible prison… And one day, you will look back and realize you’re healthier. You’re happier than you ever thought possible… And you’ll move on…”