I look back at the person I was while married and it saddens me. The more I write and reflect about that prior life, the more I realize how much I was not myself – at all. Before marriage, I was funny, sarcastic, happy, energetic, smart, and witty. I loved exploring new places and learning new things. I loved robust conversations and shopping; traveling and cooking. I found joy everywhere. I loved life and felt on top of the world. But during my marriage, I quickly became a shell of myself in order to try and “keep the peace” in the midst of a tumultuous and abusive marriage.
Case in point…
While I was married, I read Reading Lolita In Tehran. It was the story of a female professor of literature at the University of Tehran during the Iranian Revolution. Her students were reading many of the same books that I read in college and it inspired me to put aside my favorite “chick lit” books and Vanity Fair magazines for a bit and read something of substance. My then-husband, Rob, read nothing. Not a newspaper or magazine or, heaven forbid, a book. He told me many times that he hadn’t read a book since the sixth grade. I thought this might be the perfect bonding opportunity- pick a good book and we could read it together before falling asleep. Maybe if he experienced great literature, it would inspire him to read more and maybe, just maybe, he’d start being different. I know—it was a stretch and not a realistic expectation but, hey, I was gasping at any straw. So I picked The Great Gatsby. It was short, easy to read, and the story haunted me.
For two nights, I read one chapter out loud to Rob. Until the third night when I started to read and Rob nearly shouted at me: “Stop! I just want to go to bed. This is stupid!” I felt like he had slapped me. I got out of bed and took a long hot bath and read the book alone. Oh well, I tried.
My point is that Rob and I were on different planets when it came to our interests, priorities, and desires in life. Alcoholism aside, finding things to talk about with Rob was a challenge because his interests were fishing, work, and where we should go out to dinner next. And my interests ranged from kids to managing a home to future vacations to… yes, current events, politics, weather, a tiny miniscule of work and just about everything in between. I soon discovered that there were loads of triggers for Rob that would surely start a huge fight. Those topics could include anything that had to do with running the home, children, or finances. And he knew nothing about anything that required reading a book, magazine, newspaper, or listening to a news source. Intellectual curiosity was non-existent. But even if I did manage to avoid obvious hot topics, anything could (and did) become a trigger. So I withdrew more and more into myself. I laughed less. I was not spontaneous. I was cold and reserved. I was sad. I often did things on autopilot, taking no joy or satisfaction from anything except achieving a spotless home. It was the only thing that was in my control so control it I did. With a vengeance.
I’m a chatterbox—I love to talk and I love a good conversation about almost anything. But those robust conversations just couldn’t happen. I avoided all of them. I did everything and anything just to (try) and maintain peace. It was an exercise in futility.
And the way Rob and I communicated and argued? Well, most of the time, I withdrew even more. I would run from room to room trying to get away from a screaming Rob. First, I’d go to the guest room, then a bathroom, then oftentimes I’d leave the house while Rob screamed and screamed some more. And I would go silent for two days while his texts, emails and voicemails would range from more insults to apologies—and I would ignore them all. And then, after two days, I’d start responding—usually with accusations and begging for a divorce to reconciliation. It was so predictable. A bad pattern, to be sure.
My children found me quiet and reserved and boring. Daddy was the fun one and I was the one too quick to remind everyone that there was homework, school and dogs that needed attention. And when everyone went to bed, I would stay awake late scrubbing floors, paying bills, and sitting in the bathtub crying. I would oftentimes come home from work and sit in the driveway not wanting to walk into the home because it represented everything that exhausted me.
Once I had finally escaped the marriage, I began dating “Dub” some ten months later. About seven months into our relationship, Dub and I got into our first argument. On a scale of a Liz-Rob fight (let’s give that a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10), this argument was about a 2. Nonetheless, I fell into my familiar “argument” patter. I went silent. Dub’s phone calls and texts? I ignored them all. After a day, Dub called and left a message. “Is this how you communicate? That’s it? This is really concerning to me.” Oh my gosh. He was absolutely right. I was reacting to our argument the same way I did with Rob. But with Dub, there was no need to hide and disappear. I was safe to discuss something that made me angry. Dub wasn’t going to scream at me and put me down like Rob had done. I called Dub immediately and apologized. This was not the person I wanted to be and it would not happen again, I said. And I meant it. And I’m proud to say that not once since then have we ever had an argument where one of us just disappeared or screamed or disparaged the other in any way. Thank goodness I was able to put that awful response aside. Thank goodness that I didn’t pick another man who was just like Rob. I was breaking a terrible pattern.
When I was married, Rob accused me of everything under the sun. I was volatile. I had a hair-trigger temper. I was his trigger. It was my fault he drank as much as he did. If it wasn’t for me, he wouldn’t have to hide his frequent trips to the bar—he only did that because he knew I hated it. I was a control freak. I was cold and mean. My expectations of a partner were unrealistic. I was boring and stupid. I couldn’t handle my life without him. I didn’t know how to communicate. Many of those statements resonated and I believed them. Maybe I was the horrible one.
It’s taken over two years but I can finally say that none of those statements were true. Sure, if someone screams at me incessantly, sooner or later I’ll fight back. But I’m not mean or stupid. I don’t have a hair trigger temper. Yes, I am animated and know how to say cutting things to someone who is belittling me. I am not controlling. I listen and speak and I don’t need to yell. I asked Dub what he thought about me. He knows me as well as just about anyone.
He says he finds me kind and thoughtful. I communicate. I don’t belittle him- ever. We rarely argue and when we have disagreements, they can sometimes be heated. But not once have we ever screamed horrible things at each other.
I have rediscovered how to communicate with a partner. I have found someone whom I can talk about books and current events and everything in between. I’ve learned to laugh and be spontaneous and to try new things. I don’t fear bringing up topics because it might lead to a big argument. I don’t dread going home. And I certainly don’t sit in a bathtub and cry because I feel so hopeless, misunderstood and desperate. Who knows if Dub and I will go the distance and for this purpose, it doesn’t matter. What is important is knowing that my former marriage will not poison future relationships.
While bad relationships change us (how can they not?), I think it is imperative that we learn to not allow those relationships to destroy new ones. It might take a lot of effort, support groups, therapy, and journaling. But doing so can make us stronger and better, more resilient, and, yes, better than ever.