I’ve been in a long-term, emotionally toxic and co-dependent relationship with someone since we met and started dating in February of 1996. We have separated several times, throughout the years, only to wind up back in relationship with each other, primarily because one or the other of us went against our better judgment, in that moment, and slid the slippery slope of emotional dysfunction to wind up back together.
I was a single mom of two, in search of a man who was a Christian, not into drugs and alcohol, who would love and accept my children as much as he did me. I wanted a man who was connected to his family. I didn’t know I needed to expand that list to include someone with healthy boundaries, since I had no clue what those were myself. It didn’t occur to me that I should not just look for someone who shared the religious label, but someone who could reason, discuss, and converse about the complexities of beliefs and values and how to walk those out in our daily lives. After all, I was fairly new to faith and belief in God, since I’d only had brief and sporadic dealings with various Christian communities. It never occurred to me that it was possible to be overly connected and enmeshed in a dysfunctional family system. I had grown up as the only child of a single mom and my family connections were so disconnected and dysfunctional that I didn’t recongize or understand that toxic dysfunction exists inside of whole, suburban, families of “good” Christians as well as in the dispersed and disconnected families of lowly sinners.
I guess, somewhere deep inside of myself, I’ve always kind of believed that, even if things weren’t my fault, I was still the one responsible for how bad things were.
In our early years, during my late 20’s and his early 30’s, we were passionate and verbally volatile, both of us vying for dominance and control. We would get into tug of war matches over petty, stupid things like who got the remote control because I wanted the television off to get to sleep and he needed it on, with the volume loud in order to unwind enough to get to sleep. I was verbally and intellectually cutting and belittling. He reacted with harsh, angry words and the physical intimidation of throwing things, slamming doors, and the like.
He only ever hit me one time.
We’d only known each other three and a half months. He’d moved in with me and my kids within two months of us meeting. It was after the first time we split up. It was the end of the first week of our separation. It was my 27th birthday. I can’t remember what he’d come by for or what we were talking about. I’m sure I said something triggering, it was kind of a specialty of mine at the time. He slapped me. My kids were in the bedroom, but my son had a view through the short hallway between where we were, in the kitchen, and between where he was with his baby sister.
Somehow, we were back in relationship with each other before Winter that year.
I say, somehow, because I never have understood why I kept getting back in relationship with him. I didn’t realize that in the deepest levels of myself that there exists a belief that this is the kind of relationship I deserve and that he is the only one who will have me. I don’t believe he has ever said those words to me himself.
He has his flaws: anger management, impulse control, emotional neediness/clinginess, a seeming inability to accept personal responsibility for his own choices, words, and actions, among other things. Out of these things have come a lot of the behavior which has contributed to an atmosphere of tension, conflict, and chaos. There is definitely emotional manipulation, but it’s more on the level of the manipulations of an out of control child throwing a tantrum in the middle of the store to get mom to give in and give him what he wants, rather than the manipulations of a man who enjoys seeing the people around him cower in fear.
I didn’t have boundaries and neither did he. Over the years, as my depression grew and the physical symptoms of the depression intermingled with the ones from my fibromyalgia, I did so many things to fix us, him mostly. Even as I identified his anger as a symptom of possible undiagnosed mental health and cognitive impairments, I failed to recongize my own need for emotional and psychological healing. I pushed and prodded him to participate in various therapies, counseling, and classes with me, by himself, and with the kids, never really investing in my own process and just getting frustrated and upset that he wasn’t doing what I felt needed to be done.
Throughout it all, bickering, yelling, arguing about finances and how to parent my kids, kept our home in constant confict and tension. My children were acting out at school, at home, at church. He was the loud, angry, authoritarian, I became the placater, the one who caved and soothed the overly harsh treatment of my kids. By the time my son was 16 and my daughter was 9, there had been so much dysfunction, disruption, and chaos that my son went to live with another family because he didn’t feel “emotionally safe” living with us.
Still I stayed or returned to being in relationship with him.
Same patterns, same conflict, same chaos. I kept trying to fix, heal, mend, trust. I just enabled. I was on the verge of trying to break free again, when, after 12 years of being in relationship with each other, I found out I was pregnant.
In the past five years I have tried to do everything I could do to raise our daughter in a home with both her parents. The same arguments, the same conflicts, the same tensions, amplified because now it isn’t simply MY children involved, it’s HIS daughter.
All the shame and blame of all the things I did to him in our past continually and constantly eat away at him. My, now adult, daughter and her boyfriend were living with us and not making the best choices. I was enabling them all, it seems. Continually simmering tension kept boiling over into verbal conflict, until one night, a little over three weeks ago, on our daughter’s fifth birthday, a raging conflict between the three of them erupted, causing our daughter to be terrified.
I left again, three days after the conflict . . . after my oldest daughter and her boyfriend moved out.
I met with an acquaintance from church who reached out to me to offer her friendship and support. During that meeting, at her workplace, we talked about a lot of things and some realizations have been being made ever since.
First, Domestic Violence, isn’t just one thing. It isn’t cut and dried. It isn’t the worst of the worst, the way it’s portrayed in media. I have been resistant, and continue to be resistant, of the DV label for what we’ve gone through in our relationship. Partly because I’ve always believed that in order for something to be classified as Domestic Violence, it has to be intended as such. Like rape and murder are classified as such because of the underlying intent.
Second, people with unidentified and untreated mental and emotional disorders and illnesses can be perpetrators of Domestic Violence, even if they are unaware that their words and actions fall into the category of Domestic Violence.
Third, regardless of the type of Domestic Violence or how it manifests in individual relationships and lives the outcomes fall on the same spectrum:
- Isolation: There is a loss and breakdown of relationships with others not in the closed system, especially for the “victim.”
- Loss of identity: The “victim” in the relationship loses all sense of independent, personal identity that is not connected with the abuser.
- Cyclical patterns of repetition: Honeymoon, build up, conflict – over and over and over again. Sometimes increasing in intensity, frequency, and escalation of the kind of abusive behavior, but not always.
I’m still learning about what DV is. I’m definitely still learning about the role I have played in this relationship. I’m now aware of the things I brought with me into the relationship which have played into the problems we have had together. However, I’m also learning that I don’t have to continue playing into it. I now realize and understand I need support and help to make the changes for me to be healthier and to raise our daughter to be healthier.
One agency that is helping me to do this is The Gateway Center for Domestic Violence Services. It is a centrally located hub for families who have experienced domestic violence to connect with resources to help them be safe, take care of legal issues, and receive therapeutic services for themselves and their children.
- Abuse Recovery Ministry and Services (ARMS) has a lay minister who is available for prayer and spiritual support from a Bibilical-based, Christian perspective and has a weekly class/support group called Her Journey, “a series of (15) classes designed to help women walk through their healing from domestic violence and abuse.”
- Lifeworks NW offers Support Counseling Services for Survivors through one-to-one counseling sessions and offers a twelve week Seeking Safety therapeutic group It is “a therapy for trauma, substance abuse, and/or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”
- Home Free, Volunteers of America, Child/Youth and Family Services can be accessed through the center. They offer Parenting Support, Kids groups & classes, connection to a Child Advocate, and services to Teens.
There are many other services and supportive community connections which are accessible through The Gateway Center. The various community partners and staff I have encountered there have been compassionate, respectful, and committed to helping the individuals seeking services to heal, grow, and transform themselves in healthy and constructive ways.