I first met my spouse at my job. A friend thought that we would make a cute couple so she did her best to get us together. We even had our first date on the TLC show A Dating Story. There wasn’t a love connection right away. We saw each other off and on over the next few years. When I was doing a show with my sketch comedy group, I invited my future spouse to attend. Afterward, that was it! It was a whirlwind romance and we were married 6 months later. I loved my spouse very much. We laughed a lot. We both loved movies and television and all things pop culture. Then during an argument, she called me a name, demeaned and belittled me…Did you catch that? I said SHE called me a name. My abuser was my wife.
My ex-wife is a wonderful person. (I married her, after all!) She is warm, funny, caring, strong, and a really good person. However, when she feels an emotion that she can’t express, it builds up and comes out in vitriol. She insisted on rigid gender roles. I wasn’t living up to my husbandly duties because she had to pay half the rent. In fact, we split the bills in the house and that made me a bitch ass.
Verbal abuse isn’t just name-calling. It takes many forms including withholding, countering, judging and criticizing, and ordering instead of asking. The abuser demeans and belittles their partner until their self-esteem is diminished enough that they begin to accept what the abuser says. The partner feels that they aren’t worthy enough to demand to be treated with dignity and respect. Incidentally, this is also what keeps the partner in the relationship.
I didn’t find out until near the end of our marriage that I was in a verbally abusive relationship. I found out accidentally. I was researching how to get along with a person who insists on rigid gender roles. The first page that came up was one on verbal abuse. I read the article and it described many of the characteristics of my marriage. Even after seeing the similarities, it would still be a few months before I could admit that I was in a verbally abusive relationship. Men aren’t conditioned to think of themselves as victims. And let’s be honest, men are perpetrators of most things violent in the world. Had I not found that article, I wouldn’t have even considered that I was in an abusive marriage.
Now that I’ve actually been through an abusive relationship, I understand how hard it is to leave. I understand how you can get caught up in trying to explain things away. It’s so unreal that you try to rationalize what is happening. You try to make sense of it by trying to figure out why it’s happening and then trying to fix it. There’s nothing that you can do to fix it. There’s nothing that you can say. But I fell into the trap of thinking that there was. My ex-wife is an intelligent woman. I thought if I could reason with her, she’d stop. I thought if I could love her enough: bring her breakfast in bed, smother her with kisses, she would stop. It sounds logical. However, an abuser doesn’t share your same reality. In fact, abusers believe you are the cause of all their actions. They believe they have power over you and you are an adversary rather than a contemporary.
Like most victims of abuse, I made excuses for my wife. Initially, I thought that she was just having some trouble adjusting to married life. We got married in our 30’s and she had one son. He was 11 and it had just been the 2 of them up until we got married. So I thought that she was having trouble adjusting to there being another person in the house that she had to think about and consider. I thought she was really stressed so I tried to be patient. I tried to say the right things. I tried to do the right things, but I was never able to figure out what the right thing was. Nor was I able to find the magic phrase that would get her to stop. There was never a rhyme or reason as to why she would start yelling and screaming.
Abuse isn’t a male or female problem. It’s a human problem. According to the Domestic Abuse Hotline, men are the victims of domestic violence almost as often as women. It’s hard to document, however, because men don’t talk about their vulnerabilities. Men very often don’t report when they are the victims of domestic violence. Society doesn’t allow men to show fear or hurt. But men are human and so when they are in an abusive relationship, they are subject to the same feelings and emotions that women are.
When I was in my abusive marriage, I felt hopeless, helpless, powerless, and confused. I can only assume that women feel some of those same things when they are in abusive relationships.
I felt hopeless mainly because I was married and that was going to be forever. So I felt trapped. Ending my marriage wasn’t an option. I would have to figure out some way to work it out. And I tried everything. I Googled every possible psychiatry website. I just knew that Google had the answer!
I felt helpless because there was nothing I could say that would make her stop. There was nothing I could do to make her happy. And I tried everything! I made her breakfast in bed, would draw her a bath and serve her wine. In the winter, if there had been a snow storm, I would get up early and shovel the sidewalk so she wouldn’t have to walk through the snow to her car. And I would clean her car off as well. I would give her kisses on her neck every time I saw her. I loved her. But there was no amount of love that I could give her would make her stop verbally abusing me. But I refused to accept that there was nothing and continued to try.
I was very confused because when she wasn’t verbally abusing me, we had a great relationship. We laughed, talked about everything, played silly little games with each other, respected each other’s freedom, supported each other. We really loved each other. So I didn’t understand how someone who loved me so much and whom I loved deeply could call me such horrible names and say nasty, vile things to me. It made no sense. I couldn’t figure out what was different during the good times. I had difficulty reconciling the angry, verbally abusive person with the woman who loved me.
I’m very open about the fact that I didn’t respond very well to being abused. Most times I was able to calmly communicate with her. I didn’t speak to her in a threatening way and I expected her not to speak to me that way. After 4 years of being told that I wasn’t much of a man, I snapped. During an episode, I grabbed my wife and I tried to rip her head off. I don’t really remember the moment. I was out of my mind. I did it and I’m not proud of it. I will tell you though that after that incident, I felt like I had regained some of my power. I didn’t feel so helpless anymore. My ex-wife, however, because of that incident, is able to claim that she was abused. I never called my wife names and certainly never hit my wife, but because society is conditioned to think of men as abusers, this is how I’ve been labeled. If we don’t talk about it, it will never be known that men are the victims of domestic violence almost as often as women. And men who defend themselves against women abusers will continue to be labeled as abusers themselves.
Verbal abuse doesn’t leave visible scars. But the emotional scars can run deep and last for a long time. Mainly because men especially don’t talk about the abuse and therefore keep it bottled up inside never dealing with the pain that it causes. It’s also hard to convince people that a man can be the victim and not the perpetrator of domestic violence. And when that abuse is at the hands (or mouth) of a woman, it’s even harder to believe. That’s exactly why men should speak up when they are the victims of domestic violence. The more men talk, the less stigma there will be attached to being a victim.
I can attest to the fact that you may not remember what someone said to you, but you remember how they made you feel. I’ve mentally blocked many of the things that my ex-wife said to me, but I still get emotional sometimes when I think about how she made me feel. The most important thing is to not ignore the signs and if you suspect you’re in an abusive relationship, you probably are.
Jamie Black is an actor/writer from Chicago. His latest solo show, “It’s My Penis and I’ll Cry If I Want To,” recently made its international debut at the Toronto Fringe Festival. Check out more from Jamie at www.jamieblack.com.