My story starts back in 1997 when my daughters were just six and four. At the time, I thought I had a normal life and a normal marriage. I had two gorgeous children, a flourishing social life; all the things I was supposed to have. My husband was a few years older than me, he was intelligent and experienced, and I looked up to him, happily accepting his opinions and advice as wisdom and insight that I could learn from.
So as you can imagine, the day I caught him cheating on me with my best friend blind-sided me like a semi-trailer taking out a Tonka Truck. There was nothing left. There was no carnage, no remains; the life I knew was gone in an instant and what I was left with was a devastation that I still find hard to fully put into words. In fact ‘devastated’ doesn’t quite seem to do it justice, but now, almost twenty years later, I still haven’t found the right word to describe the time of my divorce.
I remember that day like a vivid dream. The date was the 3rd of March and I can still recall every detail, except now when I think back on it, I almost can’t believe it happened to me. Today that date no longer sends shivers down my spine, but it’s also a date I’ll never forget. In those days, the cold chill of autumn air still filled the Queensland skies and the afternoon shadows drew long and ominous outlines on the faded colonial VJ walls of my home. My husband had been away for work, and to welcome him home, my best friend and her three children came over to celebrate with us for the afternoon. By 5pm, with children rubbing their eyes and their bellies grumbling, I thought it was time to wind the party up, but out of the blue with a drink in hand, my husband decided he’d cook a roast for everyone. Being the dutiful wife, I organised all the children, we ate and as the party continued, I put our children to bed and put my best friend’s children to bed in the spare room.
As the evening progressed, my husband and best friend continued to drink to the point that I found my level of sobriety was starting to hinder the conversation, so I left them in their own drunk little world and took myself off to bed. Now, I hear you telling me that alarm bells should have been ringing for me at this point, but I’d come from a place where I’d watched so many of my girlfriends struggle when their friends and husbands didn’t get along, that I was grateful I didn’t have that problem. And so I silenced the feeling in my gut that something wasn’t quite right and put it down to me being paranoid, silly and perhaps just a tad jealous.
This one night however, as I tucked the sheets up around my shoulders and started to drift off to sleep, an almost ethereal force grabbed me by my shirt and pulled me into a sitting position like a puppeteer bringing his stringed companion to attention. I drew in a sharp breath as a voice in my head screamed ‘GET UP, GET UP, GET UP’ and seconds later I was standing at my back door, my eyes fixated on my husband and best friend locked in a deep embrace on our back deck. Her cheeks were hot and flushed and his hands delved deep within her unbuttoned shirt.
Without a word, the two of them stood up. She gathered her sleeping children from the spare room, and just like that they walked out of my home together and neither of them ever returned.
The coming hours, days and months were a blur of confusion and disbelief. Not only had the two people I cared most about in the world betrayed me, but my children had been catapulted into a situation that was the last thing I’d ever wanted for them. Having grown up in a broken home myself, I’d so desperately wanted to ensure they didn’t have to go through the same thing, yet despite my best efforts, I failed to protect them from the one experience that had a profound impact on my own life.
It’s only now I can fully understand why women stay in abusive relationships. Looking back, it was as if I had blinkers on. And it wasn’t because I was unintelligent. It wasn’t because I was naive, and it wasn’t because I just ‘took it’ when I shouldn’t have. I can now see it was because I didn’t yet know myself. It wasn’t that I was deliberately not standing up for myself, it’s that I didn’t know I wasn’t.
I mistook my husband’s controlling behaviour for him caring about me. I mistook his arrogance as strength that I could trust and rely upon. I mistook his put-downs and criticisms as him ‘knowing better’ than me. I mistook his flirtatious behaviour with my best friend as genuine friendship, and that feeling in my gut, that feeling that something was ‘wrong’? I mistook that as the insecurities of a paranoid girl.
Even after the discovery of his betrayal, my husband’s emotional abuse continued. At counselling sessions following the incident, he insisted that I’d made the whole thing up, that I had not seen him enveloping my best friend in his arms, and his hold over me was still so great, that for a long time, I actually thought I was going crazy. I mean, who would tell such a blatant lie, and be able to do so straight to my face? It wasn’t until the stalwart hand of time combined with many private sessions of counselling brought me the gift of healing and clarity that I could see without any shred of a doubt that I didn’t make anything up, that I didn’t deserve to be treated in such a way, and what my husband did to me actually had a name; they call it Gaslighting.
Gaslighting is a form of abuse where, over time, one partner is manipulated by the other into doubting their own opinions, perceptions and even their sanity. If it goes on for long enough, eventually the victim lacks so much confidence that they start to become unsure of everything in their lives, they can feel like they don’t have a voice or an opinion, that they’re too stupid to think for themselves and they’re too worthless for any other man to want them.
It was once I finally understood this that I was able to rediscover myself; it was then I was able to rebuild my confidence, my sense of stability and self-worth, and my intuition that would always guide me to my own true north. Finally, after two years, I started dating. A year after that, I met my new husband, Barry.
If I’m honest, I still didn’t really want to meet my new husband, and for a while I wasn’t afraid to let him know it. He’d show up at my front door, and in a matter-of-fact tone with no hidden agenda, say “I’ve made dinner for you and your girls”. We’d eat while he folded the washing or did the dishes and then he’d just leave, with no expectations and no bravado. The more I told him I didn’t need him or want him; the more he was there. One day, my youngest daughter had to be taken to hospital for emergency surgery. As I whipped on one of the oh-so-attractive hospital gowns and carried her to the operating room, her father was nowhere to be seen. I kissed her on her little forehead and plagued with worry, dragged my exhausted behind down to the lounge area to wait for the surgeon to arrive. As the ‘ping’ of the elevator signalled my arrival to the ground floor and the doors slid open, I heard my name being called out, and standing there, was Barry. Without being asked or told, he was there for me, for us. It was that moment that I knew I could trust him, and to this day he proves time and time again that my recovered intuition was right.
While it can be hard to believe that there is light and laughter and happiness after divorce; when your world and the world of your children are lying broken on the floor and you can’t imagine that it can ever be pieced back together, I can tell you it can. It can be better than before, even if it is a little rough around the edges with a few chips here or there. Surviving an emotionally abusive relationship, taking time out to know who you are and what you won’t stand for can give you the insight and confidence to fall in love again in a way you never could have before – a stronger way, a more balanced way. But that’s not where my story ends, next week I’ll share with you how you can identify if you’ve been (or still are) a victim of emotional gaslighting, how I managed co-parenting with my abusive ex-husband and how it affected my two dearest girls as they grew into the beautiful, well-adjusted women they are today.
This story is from…
This article has been written by our editor Naomi on behalf of one of Lift Magazine’s ‘Anony-mums’. Our ‘Anony-mums’ are those mums who, for sensitivity, legal or safety reasons prefer to remain anonymous, but never-the-less wish to share their stories, tips and experiences in a positive, supporting and uplifting way.