Personal experience has taught me that partnership has the profound power to heal old wounds. But as true as I’ve found that to be, it’s always been hard for me to explain why (without quoting parts of Titanic, I’m lost). So today’s anonymous post holds a particularly special place in my heart. Because it’s about allowing yourself to trust someone implicitly and finding power in that trust to overcome past trauma. Which, even if your personal history doesn’t match that of the author’s, I think there’s a little (or maybe a lot) of that exchange in every marriage. Trust begets trust, and together—we heal.
—Maddie for Maternity Leave
In my first year of marriage, I found out I had a problem. It was the first time I’d ever gotten into arguments with my husband that I couldn’t easily back away from by, say, hanging up the phone or taking a shower. These were big arguments that needed a lot of time for discussion and vulnerability. There was my problem, though. Showing any kind of vulnerability terrified me, but not in some kind of conscious way where a buzzer went off in my head that he was getting too close to a secret. It was more like there was this quiet need to avoid difficult subjects and if that failed and an argument arose, I found myself being defensive to the point of attack. I don’t think I realized how bad things were until we were coming home from church one day and I confessed to him that I felt I could argue more positively. He said something to the effect of, “Yeah, you can be a real ninja when you feel threatened,” and I don’t know why but I asked a question that changed my life. I asked him, “Do you ever feel abused by me?”
He said no. I thought about why I had even asked that. I was not good at staying on a positive track and I knew that but I had never cursed at him or hit him or even screamed at him. I just made nasty, hurtful comments like all people. Right? But then, why did I think that all people made those kinds of comments and why did I feel the need to suddenly connect that with feelings of abuse? Then something came out of my mouth that never had before.
“I learned this from my mom.”
At first, it was something small like a whisper. A brand new feeling was growing inside me that my relationship with my mom was not right. I pushed the feelings down because they pertained to things that happened years ago. It didn’t feel fair to dredge up emotions when she wasn’t doing those things anymore. To be honest, though, that thought was a cop out. I didn’t want those memories to surface because there was something really painful lurking inside them. They emerged anyway, first in a trickle, and then in a deluge.
When I was a teenager, I had a recurring nightmare. In the earliest morning hours when my mind was swimming along just below the surface of sleep, I built myself a castle. In this castle, there were lots of gates, barriers, and huge wooden doors. I was alone there at first, in an empty purple foyer, but slowly I heard the rattling of armor, shaking the floors and chandelier, and the suit of black, smoky armor materialized in front of me. I ran down a long hallway where I could pull closed a black, iron gate and keep going to the end where I could shut and barricade the doors. Then I ran up a flight of stairs and turned into a first room where a potion waited for me on a long wooden table. The suit of armor was always behind me with a heavy, giant axe and a mace. I took the potion and ran through a door to an adjoining room where I locked the door behind me and closed two more on the other side of the large bedroom I found myself in. Every time in this nightmare, I pushed all the furniture in the room in front of the door and I collapsed on the floor, begging the suit of armor to leave me alone. I heard clawing and scratching on the other side of the doors until the axe began to break through. Finally, I resorted to the mysterious potion I still had in my hand, which would transform me, giving me enormous black-feathered wings. I opened a window and woke up.
At the time, I had lots of nightmares and I usually chalked them up to my love of fantasy books like Lord of the Rings and to my love of anime and video games, which also featured a lot of these themes. I even thought it could have been because of my first boyfriend who had taken to cursing at me and telling me that I was a terrible, selfish person. Actually, that last theory was not entirely untrue but it wasn’t the entire truth either.
The entire truth didn’t solidify in my mind until two years into my marriage when I was getting better at saying only the kinds of things to my husband that could build up both him and our relationship. I was feeling safe with him and I was even kind of excited in a way to share my vulnerabilities with him because I gave him a newly discovered level of trust. He was proving all the voices in my head wrong—all the ones that told me he was going to devastate me and that I needed to strike first. All those times we got into arguments, he had never said anything to make me feel insecure or threatened so I was forced in the best possible way to reframe my thoughts about what I could expect from him. Bitter words were no longer the norm for me. My husband’s constant control, compassion, and tender love for me freed me to expect good things from people and to trust that the people who love me will actually care enough for me to try not to hurt me.
It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Even now as I write that, it seems like such a given. This freedom is extremely new to me, though, and it came with a price. One night, I was lying in bed, unable to sleep, and I had this sudden realization—this world-crushing, heart-shattering epiphany—that the nightmare I described earlier was nothing but a reenactment of the real life showdowns I had with my mom so many times as a teenager.
For some reason that is in no way clear to me, my mom went through a phase where she came home from work angry about something and she antagonized me. She would push me and prod me, and my reaction was to back away, while still retaliating. I was a smart-mouthed brat, I will admit, but I clearly remember that in every argument, when I felt like I was about to burst and say something that I really couldn’t take back—something that would make me into a person I didn’t want to be—I would try to get away. I would tell her to leave me alone because I just needed time to calm down and I would back myself into my room or the bathroom and try to close and lock the door. Once I couldn’t get the door closed in time and I finally burst and said something awful, something I can’t even remember, but she was through the door in an instant, slapping me and dragging me into the hallway by my hair. Several times, I could make it into my room and lock the door but I would hear her picking the lock with a hanger. I would just cry in my bed because I had nowhere else to go. Sometimes she would sit on me, yell, and call me a bitch until, in her mind, we were done. Afterward, I would feel broken and worthless, not because it seemed she thought so, but because I had let her make me into someone I wasn’t—I let her reach inside me and pull out something monstrous.
So how could I not have understood that I was being abused? How did it take me years to piece it together? Well, for one, I think to some extent that everything that happens to you when you’re young seems normal as long as it’s consistent. I never knew what my mom was going to be like when I walked in the door from school or she came home from work. Not ever. It became more extreme when I was a teenager and young adult but overall, it wasn’t unlike her. Two, human beings are incredibly complex and we have lots of coping mechanisms, one of which is the power of repression. I truly think I didn’t realize I was being abused until well into my married, off-on-my-own life because it would have been too much pain and too much struggle to deal with my mom every day. Now that I have someone who is a source of safety for me and I also don’t have to deal with my mom in an immediate sense, I can adequately deal with this fact without losing my mind and tearing my family apart.
I have distance from it, which, in some ways, has made things unexpectedly complicated. My mom has not, over the years that my husband has been in my life, been so much abusive as controlling and manipulative. She hasn’t truly changed the things about herself that hurt me so much but I have changed tremendously in my ability to deal with her. Ever since I recognized her dark side and called it by its name, I’m able to section her off from areas of my life where she will be able to criticize me or make herself more present. Sometimes this means I have to make power plays like choosing not to invite her to events in my life I know she can’t appreciate, or not answering her calls when I’m already having a bad day. Other times, I get to be more positive by offering to share certain experiences I know she can’t ruin. If somehow my relationship with or opinion of her comes up, I choose not to talk about it with anyone but my husband because right now, he’s really the only person I trust to be on my side. Unfortunately, there are times when cutting her off also means that I have to leave out other members of my immediate family like my dad, brother, or grandma who lives with them. I also find myself sometimes letting my past with her cloud my relationship with those people who knew about it and didn’t do anything. I’m as fair as I feel I can afford to be, and I make my peace with that.
I can’t tell you that my wonderful marriage has healed me completely. My faithful partner is someone I can depend on, though he’s definitely not perfect, and that is so powerful for someone like me. Just trusting one person this much has given me back so much of my power, yet I still look for proof that what happened back then wasn’t my fault. I still question that all the time. I can clearly look at it and say, “No, there’s no way in hell that I would ever, ever do that to my child, no matter what she said,” but a daughter instinctively wants to trust her mom—to give her the benefit of the doubt. All I know for certain is that I feel so incredibly lucky and blessed to have the gift of a patient partner who, when I expressed all these things to him, said, “I’ve known all along. Why did you think I hated visiting her so much? I can’t stand the way she treats you.” All I could do was tip my head into his chest and breathe in deeply.
Photo by: Emily Takes Photos (APW Sponsor)