There came a point in my recovery from divorce when I was able to pull myself out of the trauma I’d been wading through and start to contemplate my future. And when I did, I promptly wanted to pull my head back inside my safe little survival cocoon and stay there. You see, the time when we tentatively poke our head back out into the real world, is also often the time when one very real and possibly mortifying fact hits home; the fact that we’ll most likely have to deal with our ex’s in some capacity for the rest of our lives. As much as it was clearly an obvious fact, it still came as somewhat of a shock to me, and for a while, I found it difficult to accept. But as time passed, I did. How did I do this? There’s no secret trick or magic strategy — to use a very well-worn cliché, I simply had to ‘suck it up’.
But there were things that eventually made it easier and gave me the feeling of having more control over the situation. They were… educating myself about my abuser, not being baited as a co-parent and seeing the silver lining of the situation… and in my experience, if you look hard enough, there usually is one.
UNDERSTANDING YOUR ABUSER…
As I started to free myself from the haze of abuse my ex-husband had weaved around me for so many years, I finally came to understand his personality and his behaviour. At first realising what he truly was terrified me. If he could treat me like that, what could he do to my girls?
As I mentioned in part 1 of my story, for many years I was the victim of what psychologists refer to as ‘Gaslighting’. In her article in Psychology Today, Dr Robin Stern, psychotherapist, educator, and author of ‘The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life’ outlines some of the common signs of being a victim of gaslighting emotional abuse as:
- You constantly second-guess yourself.
- You ask yourself, “Am I being too sensitive?” multiple times a day.
- You often feel confused and sometimes even wonder if you’re going crazy.
- You’re always apologising to your partner for things.
- You can’t understand why, with so many apparently good things in your life, you aren’t happier.
- You frequently make excuses for your partner’s behavior to friends and family.
- You find yourself withholding information from friends and family so you don’t have to explain or make excuses.
- You have a feeling that something is wrong, but you can never quite express what it is, even to yourself.
- You start lying to avoid the put downs and reality twists.
- You have trouble making simple decisions.
- You have the sense that you used to be a very different person – more confident, more fun-loving, more relaxed.
- You feel hopeless and joyless.
- You feel as though you can’t do anything right.
- You wonder if you are a “good enough” partner.
Over time, I came to realise that knowledge was my ally, and through educating myself and learning to recognise these signs, it slowly felt like he had less hold over my life, and every time I’d notice that I was feeling those old familiar feelings again, I could check-in and bring myself back to reality. From then, instead of interactions with my ex-husband continuing to harm my self-confidence, the abuse that had been masked for so many years started to leap out at me like big red flags and finally I could let it go, confidently knowing that it wasn’t me, it was him.
CO-PARENTING WITH AN EMOTIONAL ABUSER…
Even as I recovered, co-parenting with my husband was still extremely difficult in the early years, and even now isn’t without its challenges. For most of those years, I felt like I was walking on eggshells. I’d lie awake at night sometimes thinking that I’d be walking on egg shells forever – even at my children’s weddings, but my main goal with co-parenting was always to keep my girls safe and removed from as much conflict as possible.
Generally, I found the best strategy was to not react and not question the status quo unless I had a significant reason. This not only prevented me from experiencing more emotional trauma which, in turn, my children would have felt, it also reduced the risk of my children copping the wrath of my ex-husband’s scorn by being made to deliver conflict-inducing and potentially traumatising verbal messages to me. Usually these messages questioned my parenting ability or were posited to make my daughter’s question whether I cared about them. I remember one day when my youngest daughter came home from school without her jumper. I sent her off to school the next day reminding her to check for it in lost property, but kids being kids, she forgot to look. Clearly it wasn’t cold enough weather (being Queensland) for her to remember. When my husband picked her up from school that afternoon, he told her that I was a bad mum and I didn’t care about her because I hadn’t replaced the jumper straight away.
So I guess essentially my choice was a trade off — but in my soul I knew I was a very good mum and it was up to me to keep the equilibrium for the sake of my children. The two biggest things that have helped me achieve this over the years have been to have as little contact with my ex-husband as possible, with any essential contact being via email, and secondly, I learned not to play into the abuse. In this situation, the old saying that a fire can’t keep burning without fuel has never been truer. And while it can be tempting to stand your ground and defend yourself, I can tell you that when it comes to an emotional abuser, it’s a fight that will only get bigger unless someone decides to stop, and chances are, it won’t be them.
MY REFLECTIONS NOW…
When I look back now on my divorce, at the time I didn’t really feel I had much choice in how things were managed or how I co-parented with my ex-husband. I felt that all I could do was protect my girls from the fall-out as best I could, and while accepting the fact that my children were growing up with my ex-husband and ex best friend was very challenging, for my children it actually ended up having a lot of positives. My daughters had two families and it was fantastic for them to experience the dynamics of the different homes. With 5 little girls (including my ex best friend’s 3 girls) living in one home every second weekend they also learned to view and accept different opinions and personalities in a live-in situation.
The best piece of advice I can offer newly divorced mums is the old adage ‘If you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all’. As hard as it may be at times, never ever put your ex down in front of or to your children. By doing so you protect them from a world of pain and guilt. If your divorce is horribly ugly and bitter share it with a professional or closest friends or the fabulous support network that Naomi is providing at her Facebook support group, The 365 Day Sanctuary. Your children will eventually work out what happened themselves and they’ll thank you for protecting them. I know mine do, and now my daughters are perfectly well-adjusted women, both in loving, respectful and loyal relationships and neither of them feel disadvantaged in any way that they came from a broken home.
And you know, it’s funny how your reality and the reality of your children can differ so much. The other day, my youngest daughter rang me and asked me how to make ‘noodles Bolognese’, a favourite family dinner I used to make when she was little. As she was swooning over how good it was I froze for a moment in time, remembering those early days during my divorce when I was so consumed with grief that I could barely get dinner on the table. Bringing myself back to reality, I asked her if she had any bad memories of that time and in her astute 20 year old attitude she answered “No, not at all”. I hung up the phone with a full heart and a gentle tear. I’ve done okay, and so will you. You can all come through this. Trust me xx
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.