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It took a while for Alex* to admit to herself that what was happening in her marriage was abuse. Forty-seven-and-a-half-years to be exact. Married at 17, she’s 65 now, happily divorced and relocated herself to Southern California, knowing the sun and ocean air would help her heal from the last five decades. She appreciates and enjoys her life as a single sexagenarian but it was a process.
“By the time I’d gotten out of that I had a skill set to cope in a dysfunctional relationship. I had to reprogram so I could learn to function and take care of myself.”
She Didn’t See Abuse for a Long Time
It was subtle at first, as abuse often is, which is how abusers gaslight survivors like Alex into thinking things aren’t as bad as they suspect.
The first time she argued with her husband, he threatened to divorce her if she persisted. They had been married just three months. Afraid of losing her husband, she backed down. Alex knows now that it was his way of making sure she was submissive.
Which she was—Alex helped her husband build a multi-million-dollar family business but she allowed him to make all the decisions, including not letting her go back to school after she’d raised their children. She also allowed him to blame her for everything—from losing the TV remote to running out of toilet paper—infractions that resulted in him yelling and hurling insults at Alex.
“He was always stressed. My life revolved around making sure there weren’t things that frustrated him,” she says.
He traveled often for work and when he was home, insisted on alone time. Later, she’d learn he’d never truly been alone.
“I realize now he was cheating on me for the entirety of our marriage,” she says.
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The constant invalidation made Alex begin to question herself. Now that she doesn’t contend with the criticism every day, she says looking back on her marriage, the abusive words were like seeing neon signs.
“You start to question yourself,” she says. “It’s personal and it’s abuse. You become dysfunctional by developing skills to cope.”
What she began to live for, she says, was the intermittent reinforcement, just enough to keep her hanging on to a thread of hope. It was like an opiate, she says.
“There’s an addictive quality to these narcissistic relationships. When you walk away from that it’s like breaking a heroin addiction.”
Making a Choice
While verbal abuse can often escalate into physical abuse, Alex could be considered one of the lucky ones. She escaped unscathed, at least on the outside. She faced emotional turmoil when she finally decided she was done.
“I thought—him or me?” Alex says. She chose herself.
“He lost his temper, told me how f***ked up I was. … telling me I was worthless, a mess and had better get a grip on that, not blame him.” Alex says she didn’t say a word but instead, just walked away.
“I had finally come to realize he never listened when I tried to explain anyway, so I didn’t try.”
Still, she found herself grappling afterward with why it took her so long to leave.
“When all of this was happening, why didn’t I see it? Why did I stay? You feel stupid, you feel weak,” Alex says. She began journaling her thoughts after their split. The journal eventually turned into a book, Leaving You For Me.
“I made excuses for him so I didn’t recognize the abuse,” says Alex. She wants other survivors to know they’re not crazy when they take responsibility for the abuse in order to stay in denial.
“That’s how you cope.”
Today, the mother of three and grandmother of 12 says she doesn’t take a single moment for granted.
“I have enthusiasm when I wake up in the morning. I don’t devalue myself like I did before.”
*Last name withheld for safety
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