Reasons why asking about a former abusive relationship can be triggering
Postdivorce, I’ve chosen to write a lot about my marriage. I view it as important not only because doing so raises awareness of less understood forms of abuse—such as emotional, verbal, and financial—but also because it’s helpful for the many women who are or were in abusive marriages to know they’re not alone (as many have told me). For them, finding and connecting with other Solo Moms who have been through similar experiences has been part of their healing process, and mine.
Inevitably, however, whether it’s in an online Comments section, my ex-mother-in-law asking me over a glass of wine, or a friend asking me over a cup of coffee, someone will ask, “Wasn’t it ever good?” The question has always bothered me. If you, like me, have been asked this question postdivorce, below I break down why it’s so damaging. The next time someone asks you, just send them a link to this piece.
There may have been good times, but . . . The good times were part of the pattern of emotional abuse. The verbal and emotional abuse would escalate, I’d threaten to leave or drag us to couples counseling, he’d promise to change and would behave—for a while. At first it was nine months of good behavior between episodes, then six, then it was three. The good periods kept shortening, and the cycle became more exhausting, until I finally faced the fact that it wasn’t going to change unless I did something to break the cycle of tension building, active episode, and honeymoon phase. I had to leave him.
The good times are a key piece of emotional abuse. For example, one year my ex-husband wanted to buy a new gaming system that we couldn’t afford. He pouted and sulked. He gave me the silent treatment one day and then berated me for being too tight with money the next until I couldn’t take it anymore and I bought him the system. The switch flipped: sweet compliments (“My wife is the best!”) and hugs, praising me to his family and friends on Facebook. It was early in our marriage, and all I knew was that the loving man I’d married was back.
I ignored the sick feeling in my stomach and the repressed anger I felt whenever I looked at the shiny, new system under our TV. Those few months of happiness and peace—until the next time he wanted something—had been dearly bought.
Please don’t add to feelings of guilt and shame. Most survivors I know, myself included, have dealt with feelings of shame about their marriage. Why didn’t we see it? Why did it take us so long to recognize what was happening behind closed doors? Society places a lot of blame on survivors’ shoulders—blame that lacks a fundamental understanding of domestic abuse. It’s not just the cycles I mentioned above but how the abuse, by its very nature, escalates over time. It’s an offhand comment here, a cutting remark about your postpartum body there.
By the time we leave, we can’t just look back at the good times and see the seeds of later abuse; rather, we look at the decisions we made in response to that abuse and, frankly, blame ourselves. At some point, we’ll move past that and find healing. But as someone asking a survivor if her marriage was ever good, you don’t know where she is in the learning-to-forgive-herself-and-move-on cycle. You could trigger more shame or guilt—shame that it took her so long to recognize the cycle and leave and/or guilt from exposing her children to the tension and violence in the household.
Respect that we’re trying to rebuild our self-confidence—and questions like this don’t help. My ex engaged in rampant gaslighting, often regarding my financial skills or intelligence. When I’d point out that I’d managed to save money when he’d been unemployed, he’d switch tactics, accusing me of spending too much on my hobbies. One year it grew so bad that I sat down and went through our bank statements, adding up how much he’d spent on his hobby (Warhammer miniatures) versus what I’d spent on mine (knitting), in order to prove that he’d spent more.
He constantly undermined my self-confidence and my perception of reality. When you’re the rational person, you think that maybe the other person is right, maybe you should examine your spending habits, maybe you do mismanage money. Rational people want to be self-aware and accountable for their actions, and abusers use that against them.
After years and years of having your self-confidence and judgment undermined, it can take time to rebuild it. The place to examine past mistakes or poor decisions is in therapy with a trained and compassionate professional, not with a well-meaning friend. The very questions imply doubt in our judgment and contribute to a culture of shame around domestic abuse and violence.
It’s not my job to reassure you that it won’t happen to you. Sometimes it can feel like the person asking the question isn’t asking out of concern or love, particularly if the person is just an acquaintance or a colleague. These folks are looking for reassurance that it couldn’t happen to them, that somewhere along the way, you made a choice that they, of course, would never make and therefore they are immune to experiencing domestic abuse or violence in their lives. Asking me this question may also be asking me to perform the emotional labor of reassuring the questioners that they’re safe.
Harsh? Possibly. But my job is to heal myself and protect and help my child as he struggles to deal with an abusive father and process his memories of our marriage. If I choose to speak up in order to educate and help other survivors, that is my choice and on my own terms. I’m not always in that strong place, particularly if I’ve had a bad encounter with my ex. Being asked well-intentioned questions by those who are simultaneously seeking reassurance may be beyond my bandwidth that day.
And, finally, does it matter? Even if my marriage started out well, that never excuses the abuse and violence in which it ended. Instead of asking for the good memories, why not ask how you can help the survivor recover from the bad ones? I guarantee you she’ll appreciate that question a lot more.
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Dena Landon is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Good Housekeeping, the Washington Post, Salon, Parent Co., and more. She blogs about being a Solo Mom at Femme Feminism.
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