Carroll: Breaking the cycle of emotional abuse
Editor’s note: This column used a fictitious name for Alice to protect her identity and those of her children.
When Alice Roe moved to Aspen in 2010, it was the first time in nearly 17 years she felt genuinely seen by others. After taking a job in Snowmass where she knew no one, she was awakened by the novel sensation of being valued. Her contributions mattered, which was evident by a promotion she earned soon after she started. Clients greeted her with a visible cheerfulness, saying, “Oh, good, I’m so glad you’re here today.”
A friend had told Alice that when she was ready, she’d “just wake up and know. It will be that day, and that will be the right day” to leave her husband. Despite feeling trapped in her unbearably toxic marriage for years, despite consulting friends, family and lawyers about how to try to disentangle herself from it time and again, a little respect from 9 to 5 on weekdays finally gave her the confidence boost she needed to extract herself for good.
She was set up with her husband in college and remembers thinking in the first months they were dating, “Oh, wow, we’re so comfortable with each other that we can fight.” While he complimented her sporadically in the beginning, building up her expectations for the kind of affection and emotion he was capable of demonstrating, he started picking her apart just as quickly. They bickered about silly stuff, she said, so it didn’t trigger any warning signs. No red flags were raised, either, when she’d do something nice for him and he failed to express even a small amount of gratitude.
“I tried to be sweet and he didn’t appreciate it,” she recalls thinking. “OK, I guess that’s just one of his quirks.”
Before she knew it, though, his idiosyncrasies were the rule, not the exception. With her confidence eroding, she clung to the few memories she had of his benevolence. She figured if those instances were fewer and farther between, the blame must lay with her. She felt crippled with incompetence when she’d do something seemingly simple, like pick out apples, and he’d belittle her for choosing the wrong ones or not the best ones.
“If I couldn’t even remember to turn off a simple light switch, how could I possibly manage to get through the day without his help?” she said.
Alice continued trying to correct what she perceived as her mistakes, but every time she thought she might be worthy of his praise — by taking it upon herself to mow the lawn, do the laundry, scoop up dog poop, grocery shop, garden or cook — he’d tell her she was being too sensitive if her efforts fell short of his thanks. She did, however, secure his disapproval easily: for looking too fat in her pants, for having a mother who drank too much, for having friends he classified as “bad news.”
When you meet Alice, her wide smile and warm, kind eyes embrace you wholly. When you hear her story, you feel horrified by what she — and her children by her now ex-husband — went through, and continue to go through. It’s not what you may expect to hear from a savvy, well-educated and well-heeled woman in Aspen. But as Alice will tell you, it’s a myth that something like this can’t happen to someone like her.
“There is no ‘typical’ abuse victim,” she said. “But there is a typical abuse pattern.”
In her case, as with many others, the abuse was subtle.
“It’s done in such a way that’s so manipulatively perfect,” Alice said. “You don’t see yourself getting lost in it.” By the time she realized and acknowledged what was happening, leaving had become far too complicated than she gave herself credit for being able to handle.
Jill Gruenberg is the program director for Response, the 33-year-old nonprofit that provides assistance for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in Pitkin and western Eagle counties. She agrees with Alice that there’s no typical victim; on the other hand, the perpetrators have much in common. The problem with the myth about victim “types” is those who appear counter to it may hesitate to seek help — because what many victims do have in common is that they tend to lead isolated lives and question their own reality.
“Emotional-abuse victims have been conditioned for so long to think what’s being done to them is normal, and that it’s their fault,” Gruenberg said. “So they’re sensitive to thinking others will accuse them of exaggerating and contributing to it — and they lose their bearing of what’s up and what’s down.”
Gruenberg says that of the people in abusive relationships who seek help from Response, 100 percent have suffered emotionally, while roughly half that number has been physically abused, too. Part of the difficulty for emotional-abuse victims, she said, is that “others have trouble understanding the impacts of non-physical abuse.”
Indeed, Alice said she actually wished her husband would have hit her, because “then, I felt, I would have a real reason (to leave much sooner),” she said. “He almost did once. I stood up to him, actually dared him to, and he backed down. So what did I do? Encouraged therapy to help him through his anger.”
People who experience “only” emotional abuse also face additional challenges in divorce and child custody battles because they have no visible scars to show a judge and don’t necessarily get the same level of validation from the system and society to get the outcome they feel they need to break free from their abuser.
Response doesn’t counsel victims, although they advocate fiercely for them. They offer emotional support and supply information and education. They steer them to counseling resources and assist in navigating the systems — criminal, civil, divorce, child welfare, to name a few — needed to try to start rebuilding their lives after being beat down.
While Response doesn’t have the means to endow direct financial assistance to victims, they’re looking to create a program that does just that later this year. Money raised at their Chocolate Classic event at the Hotel Jerome on Feb. 10 will go a long way toward making that a reality.
Alice’s ordeal isn’t entirely over, even though the divorce is long since finalized, and they’re both remarried.
“He still does it to me,” she said. “It doesn’t affect me the same way, but he’s doing the exact same thing to my kids.”
The difference for Alice now, however, is that she can draw from her deep experience to help them.
“I will always believe in me,” she said. “I will always believe in my strength, confidence, brains and worth. I will always know what I have been through, how far I have come to get to where I am, and that will always be enough for me.”
More at MeredithCarroll.com.
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With much sorrow I heard of the passing of a good friend Bruce Berger. He was a man for all seasons, a pianist, prolific author, environmentalist, and lover of Aspen.