I walked into my kitchen to make a pot of coffee. It was early, and I could see the faintest hint of sunlight beginning to light the night sky as I looked out the window over my kitchen sink. It had been less than 12 hours since I said the words. But already, I felt different.
He had come home a little after eight o’clock. He was in a bad mood, which was nothing out of the ordinary. I heard him put his briefcase down in the foyer with a thud, his keys hitting the entry table with just enough force to let me know what was coming.
I never could predict how angry he would get or if the Fates would conspire to distract him. I hoped my usual measures — a home-cooked meal, flowers on the table, a beautifully organized 8,000-square-foot English Tudor — would temper him from flying into a rage.
Tonight it was a slow-cooked chicken dish with mushrooms in a white wine sauce. My husband’s portion was still simmering on the stove and filling the air when he walked in. I had spent about three hours preparing it, chopping vegetables with precision and stirring it at the regular intervals I set for myself.
Our one-and-a-half-year-old son played nearby, putting together and taking apart various sorting and stacking toys, experimenting with how they sounded every time they hit the wood floor. He always laughed with delight at the different sounds they would make.
We had eaten dinner together, my son and I, like we did most nights. When we had finished, I cleaned up the kitchen, leaving not a single dish in the sink, and brought my son upstairs for his bath. I was lying on his bed next to him, reading a bedtime story, when I heard the front door open. I didn’t stop but did say a silent prayer that tonight would be a calm one.
God didn’t appear to hear my prayer, and once I heard the keys hit the table, the bellowing began to start. “Where are you? You can’t believe the f—ing day I had at the office! Hey, where the f–k are you?”
I could determine his distance from us as the intensity of sound increased while he walked up the stairs. “I’m talking to you!”
My voice caught as I tried to continue with the story. I didn’t think my son noticed until I looked down at his face to see if he was still listening. He was listening all right, but not to me. He was looking at my face intently, gauging my reaction. At that moment, I saw the fear in his eyes.
It was a look and feeling not unfamiliar to me. My son’s expression was the same one I often had as a very young child. My child’s precious face stared up at mine with a look of fear and a desperate need to escape it. This moment penetrated my heart as I recalled the times I directed such a yearning to my mother and father.
My brother, who was a year and a half older, had decided from the day I was born to hate me, and he let me know it, too. My mother later told me how I didn’t talk much until one day I said the complete sentence, “Mommy, Michael hit me!” She recalled the incident with no insight of her own and no reaction to how I said this sentence frequently after that.
What I recall from my childhood was that no one stopped the violence I felt, whether it was physical or emotional. No one understood the fear it caused in me to live with the possibility, at any random time, of being the dumping ground for someone’s uncontrolled and unwarranted anger.
My mother ignored my pleas, and my father got mad at me. At five years old, I ran away and hid in an old barn to get away from my brother’s menacing pranks. When my father found me, he didn’t listen. Instead, he whipped me with a belt. At that moment, I learned to keep my mouth shut and carefully watch out for others’ feelings rather than mine.
Seeing my son look so scared petrified me. Had history begun to repeat itself but with different characters? I knew I couldn’t let this continue.
“Where are you? I know you can hear me!” The sound of my husband’s voice got louder, even though I had asked him many times not to yell at me in front of our son. “You can’t believe what that son-of-a—”
My husband had finally reached the doorway. From the bed, we both looked at him, waiting for him to complete his sentence. We were like deer in the headlights, afraid to speak, afraid to stay silent, never able to anticipate what the correct response should be in any given situation.
As if he didn’t see my expression or my son’s, my husband went on with his story. I didn’t hear the details because all I could do was focus on absorbing the negative energy he was now directing toward the bed where we were. I pulled my son closer.
I looked down again at my one and half-year-old baby as I held my breath. Then I looked up directly into my husband’s eyes. It was like my brother and me, one dominating over the other, all over again. But this time, my eyes became like daggers from my heart. The air was still and heavy.
I don’t know where the words came from, but that’s when I said them, breaking the silence: “You and your feelings need to leave for a while.”
With a few more expletives, my husband turned from the doorway, informing me he would leave that night.
I heard some rifling around in our walk-in closet as my husband threw a few things into a suitcase. Ten minutes later, the front door slammed behind him.
And then, silence. A long and steady stream of it. Too long, perhaps. Slight panic and a little relief took up the open space.
What had just happened? I was frozen. But when I looked down at my son and saw that he only had relief, I picked him up, carried him down the stairs, and locked the front door.
When I put my son to sleep, I said to him, “You may not understand what’s happening now, but someday I hope that you will know this is not how a man should ever treat a woman or a child.”
Later that night, as I peered out the kitchen window drinking my tea, I could hear the minutes ticking on the grandfather clock in the hallway. Had it ever been this quiet? I knew then I had a long road ahead of me, what was destined to be a bitter divorce and healing after it. But I felt like I had already rounded the corner once I was able to stand up for myself and my child.
That latter thought gave me a special power and a purpose. I would attempt to do what my parents were unable to do: stop a generational pattern. I knew my father, father-in-law, and brother all had anger issues and, therefore, relationship issues. I knew my mother, mother-in-law, and I could not express healthy boundaries.
The divorce played out as I had anticipated and was extremely hostile and bitter until the very end. Even so, I remained focused on the prize, which was freedom. I had to work hard to earn my freedom, which involved learning to boldly speak my truth. As my son grew up and went through rough patches of rage and anger directed toward me, I had to practice all that I was learning on him as well.
During those early days when my husband first left, I underestimated the healing and work that I needed to do, what that involved, and how long it would take. Our divorce was final within a year, but the breaking of our patterns took 20 years to complete. And by all accounts — mine, my family’s, my friends — everyone has been amazed by the profound transformation that can occur in one lifetime.
They have all been touched or transformed themselves by watching me rise to become an empowered woman. No one yells at me, and no one treats me poorly. They know if they do, they will hear from me gently, with kindness and respect as I share my truth, not dump my anger.
I was even able to heal the relationship I had with my brother. My brother became able to let go of his anger issues, not to dump them haphazardly. By doing this, my sister-in-law and my precious nieces also benefited. Today, their house is much more peaceful than it ever was.
It’s important to note that I didn’t learn not to care about my husband’s (or others’) feelings; I learned to care about my own. I recognize now that my feelings are trying to help me, and if I don’t listen to them, who will? The trick has been to say them out loud, and to do so has meant everything to me.
Living my life with just the right empowering truthful words and the right amount of sharing at the right time has allowed me to experience more and more levels of freedom. The freedom to be me is such a satisfying place to exist, and that has made my past something that I not only can live with but also appreciate.