“The first years were good,” says Caroline Abbott of her 20-year marriage. It wasn’t until the last 10 years that there was a “very gradual, very, very slow escalation into abuse.” It was such an inconspicuous change, in fact, that Abbott says, “I didn’t really fully grasp that I was being abused until about six weeks before I left.” Even though he hit her. “The couple of times he hit me were so far apart that I felt like it was a one-off thing.”
Before she knew it, Abbott went from being married to a somewhat controlling person, whose behavior she admits she could just laugh off, to being scared for her life.
The “silly things,” she says he did, like locking her in the house under the pretense of keeping her safe, or yelling at her if she bought the wrong cereal, seemed almost normal to Abbott because she grew up with something similar. “My dad was controlling, so this seemed normal to me. But friends of mine would say, ‘How can you stand that?’” She didn’t see what they saw.
But during the last five years of her marriage, her husband’s behavior took a more psychologically damaging turn. “His favorite tool was the silent treatment. When he first started doing it, he wouldn’t talk to me for several hours at a time. Then, he would literally not speak to me for a month, then several months. It would make me so crazy, I would yell and scream at him. The only way he’d stop was if I begged him to forgive me.
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“It was so damn uncomfortable in our home,” she says. Then, one day, during an argument, he hit her. Upset and scared, Abbott, a devout Christian, turned to her pastors for help. “At first, they seemed sympathetic and talked to him a couple of times, but they didn’t seem to be willing to help for the long haul. Now that I know what I know, I realize he couldn’t be ‘cured’ overnight.”
Her husband, she says, was livid that she went to the church. In turn, his abusive tactics became more severe and more frequent. He yelled at her, threatened her, told her he was going to take away her children. One morning, she remembers, he calmly approached her and said, “I hope, when you get in your car today, you die.” Later, he asked her, “How does it feel to know I want you to die?” Abbott says she lived in constant terror.
Her ‘Ah-Ha’ Moment
And then, one day, Abbott’s husband emailed her—his preferred means of communication even though the two shared a house. “He told me he wanted me to tell the kids that he’d never abused me,” she says. “I thought, something’s wrong with this picture.” For the first time since the abuse had began almost 10 years earlier, she called the National Domestic Violence Hotline. “I got this amazing woman on the phone. She told me, ‘What you’re experiencing is abuse,’ and it was like a light bulb finally went on in my head. She recommended I read The Verbally Abusive Relationship. I read it in two days while sitting in the bathroom with the door locked because my husband was in the house with me 24/7.”
The book outlined how verbal abuse often escalated into physical abuse and Abbott knew she was already in trouble. The next steps happened quickly: She called a nearby safe house, talked to an advocate, got a lawyer, filed for an order of protection and, “Within six weeks, he was out of the house.” The day he received the order of protection, she had all the locks changed. “It was terrifying. But then I made dinner with my kids and we sat down and watched TV together for the first time in a year, because he had always kept control of the remote. I felt so much relief.”
Her Biggest Regret
It’s been 10 years now since Abbott’s divorce. “I’ve done tons of counseling.” She laughs. “I mean, tons.” She joined a support group at the safe house and one at her church. She wrote two books about her journey out of abuse and trained to become a domestic violence advocate. She met and married a man “who is amazing and wonderful in every way.” The last decade, says the 50-something survivor, has been incredibly healing in every way except one.
“My children aren’t open to talking about the domestic violence we experienced. They become angry when I try to talk to them about it. They don’t support what I do. It’s hard and sad.” Looking back she says she didn’t want them to be traumatized by what was happening in their home so she normalized her husband’s behavior as best she could. “I never called him on it or talked to [the kids] about it. I was trying to get them to respect their father.”
During the divorce, her children told the court they thought their parents were always mad at each other, “but they never grasped there was domestic violence going on,” says Abbott. Still, she’s not sure how she should have walked that tightrope, so to speak, with them. “It’s a really hard walk to do, but I wish I would have been more honest so they could have grasped what he did. I never said, ‘This isn’t OK that your dad treats me like this.’” Today, she worries her now-adult children will be unable to set healthy boundaries with others in their life.
“I think it’s incredibly important to talk to kids about this [domestic violence] when they’re young. I would love it if it were part of education in schools. That would be amazing. It’s one of the heartbreaks of my life that I can’t do that with my own children.”
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