I left while he showered. I took my children, and I left while he was in the shower. There. I said it. It’s out there in black and white, and it is real, gut-wrenching, and vile. Who does that? Who makes the decision to run away from home into the night, unprepared and terrified, with two wide-eyed children? I do. I did. I have been gone for four years.
I was not the first victim of his mental and emotional abuse, but I was hellbent on being the last one. Twenty long years had shown me exactly how cruel his words could be and how determined he was to make everyone around him feel inferior. I had watched him belittle his elderly mother from very early in our relationship. Several times during our early dating years, I heard him call her “stupid” and watched her laugh it off. Her puffy eyes told another story.
I had watched from the sidelines while he gave her grief over every little decision she made. Many days, he drove her to tears. A tiny, but very weak voice in the far reaches of my teen mind told me he had always done these things … belittled, mocked, and dismissed her feelings.
These unprovoked behaviors continued long into adulthood and could no longer be written off as the misbehaving of a spoiled child or typical teen angst. This was his pattern and had been throughout his life. He wouldn’t stop, and I should have seen that as a teenager. Teenage girls really don’t know everything, though. I should have tried to picture myself in his mother’s place, receiving the insults and battling his cutting remarks. But I never did. That voice, which should have grown strong enough to snap me into reality, had begun to fade. It wouldn’t be the same for me as for his mother. I wasn’t her.
A few years into our dating relationship as teenagers, it began. Subtly at first. We dated from the time I was 16 until we married seven years later. His treatment was all I knew. He questioned my every move. He never wanted me to spend time with my own family.
Red flags. Clear signs of control and manipulation. They bear repeating. He questioned every move I made. He took personal offense to me going anywhere with my family and, somehow, made me feel bad for him in the process. When those two behaviors are part of your relationship, run. Just go.
Perhaps the reddest flag of all was the one signaling his status as a complete loner. He had no friends outside of his mother and myself, and he refused, in 20 years, to speak more than a cool “hey” to any member of my family. Needless to say, interactions between him and my parents dwindled away. The less he wanted to see of them, the less I would be allowed to feel I should … if that makes any sense. The emotions I should, and should not, be feeling were dictated by him and his mood.
Throughout our marriage, I endured much more than just control of my emotions. If, at certain points, I was not compliant or willing, my keys and phone would be taken from me. Many nights saw me locked out of our bedroom and left to sleep on the couch after being pushed out of bed. More than once, after being perceived as less than accommodating, I was locked out of the house in the middle of the night to sit on the garage steps and cry, hoping and praying my children were none the wiser. As long as I maintained that small bit of control, I could endure.
Though I took care of everything from household chores and yardwork to calling about repairs and addressing insurance questions, much like his mother, I was always wrong. Not only was I wrong, but I would not be allowed to forget exactly how wrong I was, and how truly amazing it was that I was even able to function from day to day at my level of stupidity. For years, those words reverberated in my head. As hard as I fought to ignore them and forget them, they stuck. I am a full-blown doubter now. I doubt every well-thought out and thoroughly-researched plan I make. He got to me. He wouldn’t get to the kids.
I remember saying at one point after my oldest could actually play, interact, and talk, “You may treat your mother and me like this, but my kids will never feel it.” I never really got a verbal acknowledgment. Sometimes I believe he didn’t see the emotional attacks the way we felt them. I don’t know if it was all so ingrained that he couldn’t tell the difference between his behavior and that of the average father. Regardless, the emotional attacks began on my children.
There were very small jabs at first, but I was vigilant. I saw him tease them and tell them they couldn’t do things like throw a ball. All fathers did that. Tough love, right? No. I addressed it, but he always dismissed me. I listened as he put down friends of theirs. He didn’t have any. Why should they? Drawing his attention to it did nothing. There was a reason for every negative word he spoke, and if only I was smart enough, I would see that. The small, weak voice I should have listened to years ago was still there. By now, however, she was tired and had almost given up.
Then, he turned cruel.
His interactions with me had never changed. The treatment he showed his mother had never improved even as she aged and her health declined. We were only sources of frustration to him, but when he began to dig at my children and bring them to tears, I called it. From something as simple as playing a game with him, my son would retreat with his tears streaming down his face. Listening to his father laugh in the other room, I would dry his face and tell him to forget about it. He wouldn’t, and I knew it. I had never been able to myself.
Our final evening in that house, I listened to my son scream in frustration at the goading. Tears flowed and blood-curdling screeches resonated through the wall as he was called names while his father chuckled. I heard it all from upstairs. I was folding laundry. I made the single hardest decision I have ever made in my life, and I made it while I was tucking the tops of worn little crew socks together. It happened that quickly.
I began stacking the laundry piles that would have gone into dresser drawers and closets into three piles, their two and my own. While he continued to torment my son a floor below me, I gathered up three garbage bags and placed everything inside my closet. When he showered that night, we left. I have not turned back.
Since I have been gone, I have voraciously researched mental and emotional abuse, narcissism and social anxiety disorders. I believe all of these are factors contributing to my husband’s treatment of the ones he loves. The road I chose to travel that night has been hard, but my children will always have been worth that decision. I have not regretted sparing them the torment. Neither of them will ever have to learn to feel worthy again, for they will never have lost that feeling to begin with.
I lived for far too long believing I was the only person in my position, stooped under the weight of verbal attacks and suffering the sting of hate-filled insults. Since that night, I have learned I couldn’t be more mistaken. There are countless men and women in the same position … with children, afraid, on the verge of giving up and believing their only option is to stay and watch the cycle continue. To say, “If I can, you can too” seems cliché and a bit oversimplified. But, I have to say, it’s true.
When I left, I literally had nothing but those bags of clothes, my children, and a couple of their favorite stuffed animals. Hunkering under the weight of emotional control and mental abuse does not have to be a way of life, and it can be escaped. I did it. I drove away from that house with my mind made up. For over four years, I have been able to sustain my income, provide for my children, and lead a productive life. Happiness and, most of all, peace, can be found if you take that first awkward and painful step. It can be done, and I can assure you that it can be done without ever turning back.
This article was originally published on