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Amy Phoenix could be considered a two-time survivor, a badge of honor that no one really wants to wear. Her first marriage was to an emotionally, verbally and sexually abusive alcoholic. She ended it and, while she began to heal from that trauma, she met her second husband just a year later. This new man gave her hope.
“He was completely different. He was really spiritual and knew what he wanted. He was playful.” But, looking back, the 39-year-old wishes she’d waited longer to fall in love again. “It wasn’t enough time. I know that now.”
There were no red flags while the two were dating that led her to believe anything might follow the pattern of her first marriage. But, after marrying, things started to change.
At first, her new husband became more reclusive when angry. “He wouldn’t discuss things when he was upset.” That silence quickly turned to rage.
“He began yelling, punching holes in the wall, throwing things. It was intimidating. I was totally paralyzed by fear.”
She felt conflicted. “This was the man that I loved and [his behavior] was completely confusing and crazy.”
The couple lived in a town where Phoenix knew no one. And, she was pregnant. “When he would get into these rages, I just held on to hope.” They went on to have two children together in addition to the three Phoenix had from her first marriage.
Her husband used intimidation as a weapon. “He shared that he had really violent thoughts about hurting me and the children, but said he didn’t want to act on them. It was progressively evident that he was repressing those thoughts, but they were right there under the surface. One time, he got right in my face and said, ‘Do you know I could rip your head off right now and it would feel good?’”
Phoenix continued to hold out hope that her husband would get help. “He was willing to a degree, but the help was never consistent.” He would go to a few sessions with a counselor and seem to be better, kinder, when he was done. But it never lasted. He began to threaten and intimidate their children, breaking doors and yelling even when he could see they were intensely afraid of him.
It Got Worse Before It Got Better
Phoenix says the last five years of their six-year relationship were increasingly more destructive.
“He wouldn’t listen to me, he just continued to yell and get into people’s faces. He would sometimes get space and not erupt, but was often very volatile. He broke doors, walls, an entire washing machine.”
In a surprising move, he suggested the family move closer to her family. That’s when Phoenix felt more confident to reach out and ask for help. She and the children went to a local domestic violence shelter after a particularly upsetting explosion. Her husband was not happy, she remembers.
“When I was in the shelter, he went to our house and started breaking everything —doors, dressers, etc. He threatened to burn the house down if I stopped talking to him on the phone. He said he wanted to choke me.”
Police talked her into getting a protection order. “He acted surprised,” she remembers. “I don’t think he completely understood what was happening, how abusive he really was. But, he did respect it and for that I’m grateful.”
Last year, she and her husband came to terms enough to discuss the children and finances in a written separation agreement, but she feels at odds about actually finalizing the marriage. “There’s still a sense of, ‘Is there hope of him getting the help he needs?’ It’s a spiritual/personal thing I’m working on inside myself. He’s going to be in my life anyway because I have children with him. But time will tell to what degree. I keep bringing it back to my need for trust and safety.”
Her children, ages 15, 12, 9, 5 and 3, miss the “good times” that they remember.
“When he wasn’t [abusive], he was really interactive and playful and caring. They feel confused. My youngest – I don’t know how much she really grasped – but she will randomly say ‘I don’t want him to come here and break things.’ For a long time, I felt guilty for creating this. I won’t put us in that situation again.”
Her New Focus
Phoenix says her top priority is the safety of her family and doing what she needs to do to help herself and her children heal. “I want to make sure my kids don’t repeat those behaviors. My son hasn’t had a really great role model, so that’s hard. I wish that he did.”
Does she think about finding a new partner someday?
“No, no, no dating again. Not interested in that whatsoever.” She says she doesn’t really trust men who want to be with a woman with five kids. Maybe one day far in the future, she says, she could find a friend that wants to go to yoga with her, but that’s about it.
“It’s more important that I get myself as healthy as I can.” To that effect, she attends family counseling sessions. She also practices meditation and mindfulness that, she says, is helping her gain inner strength to stay safe and be able to stop blaming herself for a part in the abuse.
“I realized there wasn’t anything else I could do besides saying, ‘no more.’ I have to have compassion with myself as I heal.”
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