leaving an abusive marriage, how knowing shows up in our bodies
After investing in a relationship, career, family, or community, the decision to leave isn’t simple. We try to make it work until we can’t or until chaos forces us to choose. For some women, it was a nervous breakdown. For others a scandal at work. And for a large majority, it arrived in the form of chronic pain or illness. When our body is screaming at us, when staying means losing ourselves or our health, we face a choice.
Wendy denied the abuse in her marriage until her body gave out. She spoke openly about her leaving story - confused to find herself with a man who verbally berated her and in an emotionally vacant marriage. She had been raised in a household that honored the value of family. Close to both her mother, who left her career to stay at home to raise two daughters, and father, who coached sports and hosted barbecues with friends and family on weekends. For as long as she could remember, her ambitions included following an established path: college > career > marriage > family.
After college graduation, she moved to a resort town for work, where she met Rick, a single dad. She said yes to his surprise marriage proposal just six months into their relationship, despite some red flags. She focused on the belief he loved her and seemed like a good father. Later she would come to realize how much of her decision derived from being chosen by him and believing her adult life needed to begin with marriage. Yet early on, these were nothing more than murky thoughts she easily dismissed.
Rick and Wendy, along with his 3-year-old son, moved in together and overnight, she had a family. She filled Pinterest boards with dresses, décor and palm trees, planning a dream wedding in Cabo. Over one-hundred friends, cousins, aunts, and uncles planned to join their celebration.
However, what Wendy didn’t account for was the recurring sense of dread which somehow slid into her engagement period and confused what was supposed to be the happiest time of her life. It was hard to ignore Rick’s excessive drinking and short temper. Yet, she rationalized it, telling herself he only raged when he was drinking. It was the alcohol, not him, that was the problem. She contemplated whether she was in an abusive relationship, but he didn’t hit her. Her parents and friends loved him. When he wasn’t drinking, he was a great guy.
She thought about calling it off, but found herself stuck in patterns of self-doubt, holding firm to the belief her initial choice to say yes, over-rode all the choices that followed. Unwilling to allow herself room to change her mind, she had the familiar air of being overly accountable while letting others off the hook. Confiding a need to punish herself for saying yes in the emotional swell of a proposal moment. The voice of her strong inner critic on replay, “you chose him; you said yes; this is your bed, you made it, you will lie in it.”
Many women struggle to walk away once they’ve made an important and visible decision like getting married. Silence and regret cemented with conviction on the reasons they “should” stay. Her story was heartbreaking and familiar. Three decades after my first divorce, the anguish of obligation women carry remains noticeably present. We have not yet broken free from the assigned task of securing a relationship and sticking to it.
Whenever she felt the urge to call off the wedding, she felt guilty. Once down payments had been made, invitations sent, and plane tickets to Cabo purchased, stopping it no longer felt like an option. She believed she could accomplish whatever she had put her mind to, and this marriage would be no different.
Wendy is not alone. Once you’re on the marriage train - in the process of getting the dress and picking out colors and going to a destination wedding or honeymoon and posting it all on social media … it is hard to jump off. The process is overly romanticized and pre-announced. It’s a public commitment, not just a personal one. Unwinding your relationship with your fiancé is one thing. Unwinding your brokenness to the world feels like another. She was just one of dozens of women I spoke to who silenced pre-wedding doubts.
After their wedding, Rick’s behaviors worsened. His drinking began as soon as his workday ended, and his habits put them in debt. As Rick’s verbal degradation toward her increased, her confidence decreased. She became accustomed, even prepared for his backlash, walking on eggshells to avoid his temper. She had always been close to her mother, but Wendy chose not to tell her about Rick’s behavior. She avoided friends, ashamed and fearful they would sense something wasn’t right. While she was an educated and once confident young woman, she convinced herself she was the catalyst for his anger. It was her fault, and she just needed to try harder.
Wendy unsuccessfully attempted to create boundaries and care for her own needs but she couldn't shake the feeling that her life was off kilter - and in direct conflict with her desire to be in an authentic, loving, and respectful marriage. Friends and family noticed the shift in her personality. They commented she had changed and prodded as to what was wrong. Yet for almost two years, she kept a wall around her truth. Convinced if they knew her circumstances, her hand might be forced, and she wasn’t ready to call it quits. She was the only stable parental figure in their home. It would be selfish to put her needs before her stepson, knowing when she married Rick, she also committed to becoming a stepmother. It was her responsibility to care for her family, even if it meant sacrificing her own health and sanity.
Her crossroad’s moment came after one last crippling encounter of verbal abuse with a very drunken Rick threatening her. For the first time, she called her mother to ask for help. Rick grabbed the phone from and in an icy calm voice, began to tell Wendy’s mother that Wendy wasn’t well and was making up lies. Wendy’s mother knew better, and the veil or pretense was finally lifted. Each woman who has left encountered a similar moment, when the clear choice is to stay and forfeit their sense of self or leave and regain their identity. One or the other, no middle ground. A transparent recognition of choosing confinement or freedom.
At 23 years old, and with tremendous hindsight, Wendy recognizes the symptoms of emotional abuse showing up in her body. Despondent, depressed, and ill, she felt her body “shutting down” in response to what she described as repeated trauma. She experienced daily symptoms like vomiting, migraines, muscle fatigue, and hives. She also suffered a miscarriage, which she now attributes to the stress, induced in an attempt to preserve an image of a happy marriage.
After leaving Rick, people would attempt to console her with comments like, “thank goodness you didn’t have kids with him.” These well-meaning messages reminded her that observers, even those who knew her, can’t possibly know her truth. She still struggles with the silent loss of her unborn child and missing the relationship with her stepson, who she hasn’t seen since she left. Still fresh in wearing the badge of divorce, after growing up in a family where it hadn’t been present, she acknowledges it's weight, “I know it’s not even a real thing, it’s just the stigma around it, and something I shouldn’t even be battling. Yet it has stuck with me. The story I told myself is that I committed so quickly to living with someone and it was my fault it failed. That I failed.”
Despite having grown up in a family with deep unconditional love, she acknowledges the insecurities she held in relationships with men, “Somebody offers you a crumb, and you take it. Wow – you are so content with the crumbs, you don’t look for the whole pie. It takes tremendous confidence for you to say, it shouldn’t just be the crumbs. It doesn’t have to be just when he’s not drinking that he treats me well. It all goes back to worth. I didn’t believe I deserved the full spectrum of attention and being respected.”
Wendy reflects on how long she hid from her truth, “I believe a lot of people know something’s not right with their situation when they are entering into it. At the beginning it’s a thought and then it turns into more of a reality until it’s full knowing that you need to leave.” Today she radiates. She is exploring her own life and new adventures. She has moved to another state and is starting a new career. Finding her way. Celebrating her freedom. Living fully in health and in her body.
It is obvious to me, the amount of work she has done to own her story. And the work she is continuing to do to trudge through waters of valuing her worth outside of a relationship. Women don’t just leave one thing, they leave many. For Wendy she left a husband, a stepson, and the illusion that all marriages end in happily ever after. Letting go of the belief that any choice, most of all that of a spouse, is a life sentence. On the other side of her leaving, she celebrates the woman she is today as enough.
Wendy's Because I Left …. “I am able to find myself again and live out the life I actually wanted. I can dream again. It’s really lovely.”