I want to address something that inevitably comes up during the healing process after a break-up or divorce particularly if your ex-partner was not a very nice person. What do I mean by ‘not nice’?
Well, my marriage ended for many little reasons much like this proverb:
“For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For the want of a rider the battle was lost,
For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.”
The primary catalyst for my separation and divorce, however, was domestic violence. As an aside, I want to make note of something significant for a moment. Less supportive people have questioned me about my divorce including my family. People can be extremely judgmental about divorce, and some groups who we might hope or even assume would support vulnerable families in need even think that domestic violence is not a legitimate reason to end a marriage as noted in this study–“Poll Shows Lack of Conversation on Domestic, Sexual Violence in Churches”. Judgment and blame then become part of the cycle of abuse and even recovery. The victims are initially questioned rather than the perpetrators of violence, and the questions may look like this:
- “S/he was so nice to everyone. You seemed so happy when we saw you. What was going on to make him/her do the things you say?” (the implication being that some outside influence could “make” a person harm another i.e. stress at work or nagging)
- “Well, if it was so bad, then why didn’t you report it? Why didn’t any of us know?” (This question is based in ignorance. The dynamics that keep domestic abuse of any kind in place are shame and fear. With shame and fear in place, one wouldn’t self-report.)
- “If s/he was abusing you enough for you to divorce, then why weren’t the police ever called?” (I was asked this. A few times.)
The first thing to note is that all of these questions smack of victim-blaming. Secondly, there is no perspective-taking present within these questions. Thirdly, there is no acknowledgment of the Resiliency Spectrum. What do I mean? I will use a scenario from my marriage to explain.
There was abuse present throughout my marriage, but some of the abuse did not register as “abusive”to me due to my past experiences with abuse. I was troubled by the behaviors to be sure, but I did not feel traumatized by them. When my ex-husband consumed too much alcohol, he was capable of verbal and physical abuse. Weird things happened. Yes, weird. That’s how I interpreted the interactions: “That was weird”. Even when the “knife incident” occurred, I was still relatively shocked more than anything else. It didn’t register as trauma although it probably should have. When your spouse brandishes a blade and waves it around in your face menacingly, you should feel something other than surprise. I was asked very directly by my therapist, “Why did you not call the police when he did that? That was a felony.”
Well, I had seen my mother do worse things than that. I was so shocked by his behavior that I froze, and then I was far more interested in diffusing the situation. Getting the police involved never occurred to me. I grew up around so much violence that, while I knew my environment wasn’t normative, I wasn’t terribly shocked by it when I saw it again. I am not justifying it. I needed to be recalibrated and reacquainted with what a safe and healthy relationship looked like. The Resiliency Spectrum describes a state of being in which what might be traumatic to one person is not for another. The death of a pet might be a 9 or 10 on one person’s Resiliency Spectrum while the same event might register as a 3 for another.
Who, however, wants to trot out their past abuse stories with other people? Furthermore, who should have to? If you are experiencing abuse, then you are. You have the right to feel safe, secure, loved, and accepted. That’s it.
With that foundation laid, what happens when you bump up against your own Resiliency Spectrum in terms of cognition and emotion? That’s a very abstract question. I’ll put it another way with an example.
I was in a therapy session discussing my ex-husband when a wave of disgust washed over me. I shuddered and blurted out, “Oh my gosh, he saw me naked.” I became nauseous. I tasted bile. I actually threw up in my mouth a little.
My therapist jumped on that immediately. “What just happened there? What are you feeling?”
“I feel disgust. Viscerally.” That seemed legitimate to me.
“Why?” he pressed.
“Well, I…don’t know.”
We went round and round for a while until we came upon the answer:
“Do you believe that you should have known better? Do you believe that you should have been able to discern that he had the potential to abuse you? Do you feel disgust at him or yourself? Are you disgusted with him that he saw you naked or yourself that you revealed yourself to a man who abused you AND you missed all the signs that he could and did?”
Yes, that is exactly how I felt, and I felt tremendous shame over it. I felt disgusted with myself. How did I miss it? How did I not get it for so long? What if I miss it again?
My therapist always turns it around for me, and he did it this time, too. He leaned in and looked at me squarely:
“When you met him, did you believe what he told you?”
“Did you have any reason not to based upon what he presented?”
“Did you do the best you could at that time in your life with all the information and resources you had?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Then you have nothing to feel badly about. Once again, this is not your fault. This is not your fault.”
This is what I mean by bumping up against your own Resiliency Spectrum. Cognitively, I know that it’s not my fault, and most of what I endured, while understanding the behaviors to be wrong, I tolerated to a degree because they were not out of the norm for me. Emotionally, it feels like my fault because I feel like I should have known better. I feel like I should have done something about it sooner. Just because you can tolerate something doesn’t mean that you should.
This is, however, the process of recalibration; the process of aligning cognition with emotion. The feelings of disgust that radiate outwards but originate from within need to be named for what they are. They are more about me than they are about him. I was vulnerable. Yes, he saw me naked, but, in a way, I never saw him naked. That lack of reciprocity caused me to want to judge myself because I kept giving myself away regardless of what I received in return. My own hope was the currency I kept using in the relationship. It cost him next to nothing to be with me, but it left me bankrupt.
If this sounds at all familiar to you, then I suppose I would encourage you by saying that this is part of self-regulation, integration, and trauma recovery. It’s not unusual. It’s a marker on the road of recovery.