When Abuse Doesn't Look Like Abuse: A Story of a Semi-Separation


"It's like I'm that girl in an abusive relationship," I told my therapist one day, recounting our familiar cycle, where he did something shitty and insensitive (almost always with our money, for drugs, although he'd never initially admit that), apologized, and then when he was really about to lose me, he'd shape up and things would get better. He'd try harder next time. He really, really loved me; he was so sorry.

I was tired of the empty sorry. I was tired of being ignored and deceived. I was so...tired. I saw the cycle from the outside — recognized the peaks, sensed the floor about to fall from under me, strained to hear that second shoe about to drop, always about to drop — and yet here I was, again. And again. AGAIN.

"You are in an abusive relationship," my therapist said, plainly. And god damn, it felt good to hear that — to have someone confirm the nagging thought in my head. For someone to say, "This is not in the description of being a 'good wife.' You're being hurt."

As obvious as it might seem from the outside, I didn't know I was being abused. As I wrote for YourTango.com...

"The thing is, my relationship doesn’t seem abusive in the light of day. He never hit me or acted aggressively, not ever. He’s never raised his voice, even when I’ve lost my cool in a fiery rage. He’s never even said an unkind word to me — the way some men hurl nasty, hurtful insults in the heat of the moment. Not my husband. He’d never say anything to intentionally hurt me. He’s funny and charming and affectionate.

His actions, on the other hand, are anything but loving. I’ve been hurt in real, tangible ways; it’s just easier to hide a bank account and a credit score than it is to cover up a bruise. It’s easier to ignore a growling stomach than a verbal attack. This kind of abuse is subtle and easily justified. And because I understand that a drug addict’s brain is wired for selfishness and deception and because I see how much he struggles under the weight of an out-of-control situation, I tolerated his behavior under the guise of “compassion” or “being a good wife.” But as soon as my therapist confirmed that this was, in fact, abuse, I could finally see clearly.

I am being abused by a loving and kind man who doesn’t intentionally want to hurt me, but consistently does. My life is being controlled and consumed by my partner’s compulsions; my basic needs are being ignored. I know he wants to do better, I know he wants to love me, but this isn’t love; it’s abuse."

So I reached out to our private FB group (truly the loveliest group of women I've had the pleasure to know, so thank you). "I'm wondering if anyone has had experience with an abusive relationship that didn't exactly look like abuse, and it took awhile to fully see it for what it is."

Yep, they did.

We talked about verbal and emotional abuse — the pain of living with someone with a personality disorder, anxiety, rage, addiction, alcoholism. How we second-guess ourselves, are made to think we're the crazy ones. How hard it is to find our internal compass and know what to do next, especially after promising to love them through their sicknesses. Especially especially when there's a child involved.

But abuse isn't love.

When someone's compulsions take so much of our time and energy, it can take awhile to fully realize the crushing toll on our lives. Until, suddenly, you're sitting on a therapist's couch and the tears, THE TEARS, they just won't stop. Years of pent-up hurt, leaking down my face. But it's almost as if I needed to go through all of those cycles, all of that pain, to finally find my strength. In losing trust for my partner, I gained invaluable trust in my own intuition and hard-earned wisdom. When you spend so much time living with denial and dishonesty, it's impossible to live with anything less than total radical honesty. Honesty with others, but also honesty toward myself. I feel more awake, more alert, more present because I spent years living in a fog. Eventually that fog turned to steam, suffocating me like a hot shower, forcing me to run from the relationship, gasping for fresh air.

A week before Thanksgiving, I asked him to move out. Another relapse, another excuse, another round on the merry-go-fuck-yourself. It wasn't too dramatic, it was just time. When my therapist would ask, "When, Michelle? How long will you let this continue?" I said, "I think I'll know when it's time."

It was time. I've allowed it for too long.

And because it wasn't coming from an angry, defensive place — I've long learned that screaming and yelling about ALL HE IS DOING TO ME, pointing fingers, dousing him in shame, only backs him into a corner — we could get through to each other. (Also, a lot of that anger was really coming from hurt, and exposing the vulnerability was much more cathartic.) We lovingly agreed that it was the best thing for both of us. Our relationship was only stifling us, keeping us in this loop, preventing our growth. I told him that I love him, that I hope he finds his way back to us, that I wanted us to be amicable and co-parent Noah in a healthy way, but he needed to leave. I needed space, I needed my life back. I told him that I was scared and sad, that I didn't want our relationship to end this way either, but there's nothing left to do.

The choice was obvious, overdue even. I hoped him moving out of his safe place, his happy place, would motivate him to make some long-lasting changes. I didn't want to hate him, but I knew that switch was about to be flipped.

It turns out, the theory of separation is much easier than the actual logistics. Finding a new place, figuring out the finances, and what about the furniture? Who gets the bed? How do we explain this to Noah?

And then the thoughts started: I don't want to be a single mom, I never expected this, this isn't how my life is supposed to go (deep breaths). You'd think that because I've already been through one life-changing situation where I had very similar thoughts (I can't be a mom, I never expected this, this isn't how my life is supposed to go...), then it would be easier to embrace. In a way, it is. I recognize the language, the expectation letdown. I understood that I was mourning an image in my head, a life I wanted, but that it would eventually be okay. And this time, I took the time to cry, to grieve. Even after mourning my marriage for the better part of a year, I still found myself binge-watching the last season of Parenthood, alone on a Monday afternoon, crying from the gut.

I'll never have what Adam and Kristina have! Look at the damage Julia and Joel have done to their kids! GOOD FOR YOU, AMBER! DON'T ALLOW HIS DRUG ADDICTION INTO YOUR LIFE! WAHHHHHH.

In and out of a depressive state. Living together but separate. Waking in the middle of the night, sobbing.

And yet, I was also immensely relieved. For the first time, I had hope. Yes it was hard and sad, but I could breathe again. I knew, all the way down in my gut, that this is what we needed.

Then...everything changed.

He broke. I broke. And we somehow landed in this place of self-compassion and self-love, where we became softer, more tender, more honest. He's taken leaps that I never expected, committing himself to not only making his body healthier, but his mind. His being. I hate to speak too soon — remember, I'm that girl in the abusive cycle — but the shift has been startling. And lovely. Like fresh, clean air. I see him again, and it's nice.

Something else has changed: I'm consciously keeping a healthy space between us. Not a cold, angry space, but a loving space. I'm still okay with the idea of us separating, if things turn south again. I'm not expecting this to last forever; I'm just being here, right now, watching the life filter through his eyes in a way I'd all but forgotten.

I do have moments of fear, of uncertainty. The idea of separating gave me such relief, and while I want nothing more than our marriage to be healthy, there's a lot of work to be done. I worry about slipping into a comfortable cycle again, about allowing my codependent tendencies to creep back in (which, trust me, they're still here). I realize how much work I have to do, all on my own, to stay present and grounded and mindful.

Maybe this is part of the cycle, maybe it can't last, maybe it doesn't matter. My eyes are still open, my boundaries are strengthened, and no matter what, I'll be okay. Today, I'm okay. We're okay.


In case you're here for the first time, here are some things I've recently started talking about:

I Was in an Abusive Marriage and Didn't Know It

What it's REALLY Like to be Married to a Drug Addict

10 Signs You're in a Codependent Relationship

The Secret Life of an Inspirational Young Mom

The Ups and Downs of a Young Marriage

I'm a Recovering Codependent

I've been so grateful for all of your emails and messages — your stories of solidarity and understanding. Going through painful marriage/relationship problems can be lonely and isolating, and I encourage anyone in a similar situation to start talking about it. Write it in a journal for no one to see. Find a therapist. Confide in a friend. It really helps, I promise. You're not alone; we all struggle with hard things from time to time. But it's the hard times that teach us the most.

Here are some more posts that might help:

4 Questions for Tough Decisions

It's Only for Now

It's Okay to be Sad

Unexpected Lessons from an Unplanned Life