I’ve always been pretty good at compartmentalizing, sometimes to my own detriment. I can pack stuff away in my head and shove it to the back of my mind where I won’t see it. But prior to and during my divorce, I became really, really good at it. My ex-husband would become angry and make threats, usually having to do with taking the children away from me or making sure he never I never got any money “from” him even though the money was our money, as in, shared, not just his.
Every time he would do this, I would feel myself shutting down mentally, almost going limp, like a robot that someone has snuck up on and hit their off button. My eyes would unfocus and I would concentrate on my breathing. I would tell myself over and over again not to react. I knew that offending his ego in any way would be an invitation to emotional violence. But I wasn’t always sure what would offend him. So I chose to show almost zero emotion.
My ex-husband didn’t have any legal recourse for any of the threats he made. Thanks to the advice of my attorney, I had taken measures to make sure of that. I’d written down all of our account numbers and passwords and made copies of bank statements. I knew the laws in our state would prevent him from attempting to take the kids from me, that in fact if he attempted to do any of the things he was threatening, he would be the one losing the kids. I knew that keeping record of all of our interactions, all of his snarky and manipulative texts and emails, was a potential weapon should I ever need it. I knew that remaining calm always would prevent him from being able to gather any fuel of his own.
I vowed to myself I would never give my ex reason to accuse me of losing control, and I would never allow my children to hear us yelling at each other. So I never yelled. I never reacted. I just shut down.
He made his threats in between bouts of apologizing and telling me he had only said those things because he was angry. Even during his apologies, I kept quiet, knowing it was only a matter of time before we would each be out of that house and on our own. I set up separate sleeping arrangements in the spare bedroom and waited him out.
I dampened my personality when I had to be around him and would withdraw completely whenever he started in on his threats. When we had no choice but to discuss something to do with our separation or coparenting, I pushed my voice into a low, calm tone. On several occasions he asked me why I was talking weird. He would ask what was wrong with me, why I wouldn’t respond. He told me once I sounded like I was trying to be a therapist.
Every minute I had to be near him, I became that sleepy robot. He would try to goad me into reacting and I would sit there as if in a drugged stupor, just staring into space and blinking every so often. If I worried that my prolonged silence would only anger him further, I would occasionally respond with some bland answer, just enough to appease him.
It was six months before we were able to sell the house. But those six months of being shut down damaged me in ways I didn’t predict. At the time I was shutting down, it was a defense mechanism. It was necessary, and it was the clear course of action given the alternative — trying to argue with him, trying to reason with him, trying to explain the law to him when he was sure he was above the law.
But now when I look back on those times, it’s hard to believe the things that I just sat and listened to without reacting. Part of me is impressed with how absolutely unruffled I made myself appear.
Another part of me though, is just traumatized. I was extremely shaken up. Once I was alone, and for many months after, I would shake and cry and have panic attacks. There were days my insides were so stirred up, my body so poisoned with cortisol, that I could barely function. I lost weight, slept a lot, struggled at work, and lost a lot of hair. From the outside, it may have looked like I was calm and handling things well. On the inside, I was a fucking mess.
But at the time, all I could think about was staying calm to protect the mental health of my children. It’s only been recently that I’ve realized how much it messed with my head to stay in that shut-down state for so long. I got used to it. It became the norm to exist as a shell of myself, to only perk up when necessary to be a good mother to my kids. I am still recovering, still relearning how to be awake and alert all the time.
Since our divorce was finalized two years ago, my ex has attempted to apologize and tried to make friends. He sometimes invites me to come “hang out.” It’s almost as if he doesn’t remember all the horrible things he said to me. Maybe he thinks that because he was angry when he said all those things, it excuses it. Maybe, because I shut down and didn’t react, he thinks his words didn’t affect me.
I can’t imagine ever forgiving him. He has a pretty good relationship with the kids, so I continue to communicate with him the bare minimum required to coordinate their care. Otherwise, I want nothing to do with him. Occasionally he still sometimes tries to provoke me by saying things he knows will get under my skin. Whenever he does that, it’s like I go right back to our divorce. I instantly shut down.
I will always do whatever I can to be the best mother I can to my kids, but I can’t wait for the day when I don’t have to deal with him anymore, or as much. I want to stop feeling like there’s a toggle switch inside me, always ready to flick to the off position.