Challenging the Ex Factor

I have been winding down my life in the cold North in preparation to pack it up and move it to the Bay Area.  Adieu, snow and cold.  Hello, Karl! This is Karl:

Karl the Fog (Washington Post)

Karl the Fog has his own Twitter (@KarltheFog) and Instagram (karlthefog) accounts.  After two decades of snow and ice, I am thrilled to get to know Karl.  In the midst of asking my sock drawer if it sparks joy, looking through Bay Area real estate when I have insomnia, and dealing with the expected (and unexpected) challenges of life, clarity and a sound mind have finally begun to emerge, I will carefully admit.

As usual, I will elaborate.

The hardest thing about this process has been meetings with my ex-husband.  Were it not for the Ex Factor, I would enjoy this process of transition more.  To me, there is something essentially good about intentionally closing one chapter of your life and beginning another.  I observe this because, in my experience, so many endings in life seem forced upon us without our say or expectation, or they are one-sided.  Bring to mind the events in life that evoke the concept of an ending–divorce, job layoffs, breakups, serious illnesses, betrayals, financial ruin, and, of course, death.  Many of these events come upon us out of the blue particularly in childhood and adolescence.  If your parents or primary guardians divorced, then you certainly had no say about the dissolution of your family as you knew it.  From a child’s perspective, divorce can feel one-sided and often unexpected.  It is not the gentle closing of a chapter but rather a metaphorical book burning.  As with divorce, other life experiences can feel the same, and that sense of finality can equate to a feeling of life closing in around us rather than life opening up bringing new possibilities.

I have wanted to give my daughters (and myself) a positive transition, but, whenever I have had scheduled meetings with my ex-husband, I have experienced the situation through the lens of trauma and anxiety feeling thrust back into that ever-narrowing emotional experience of perceived forced entrapment and fear.  That is what unresolved traumatic experiences leave us with–a belief that we no longer have choices.  Sometimes there is an internalized and often unchallenged belief that we are being forced into former roles and thought patterns.  We must play the part no matter who cast us.  I asked of myself if I was the one casting myself in an old role.  A hard but necessary question to ask.  There was no black-and-white answer.

As it turns out, all those necessary meetings with my ex-husband forced me to challenge those negative core beliefs and, I say begrudgingly, resulted in something quite beneficial.  I admit this cautiously because my marriage didn’t end well, and I also want to emphasize that it isn’t always healthy or safe for people to meet with former abusers.  While my ex and I are presently civil and negotiate adequately, I was very afraid of him when we separated.  When my former therapist, whom I was seeing at the time my marriage ended, directly told me that I was experiencing domestic violence and suggested that I get to know some local women’s shelters, I, to be blunt, lost my sh*t.  I was not ready to be confronted with that truth.  I unfairly judged myself as a woman who “knew better”, and I learned that some people I knew judged me in much the same way–“I thought you were a woman who would know better.”  After everything I had been through with my parents and even the process of recovery from adolescent human trafficking, I honestly believed that I was beyond being victimized again.  Surely I would never again put myself in a situation to be traumatized or abused.  I never imagined that I would be someone who would lie to people about how I was injured–“I don’t know why I’m limping.  I think I ran into the door or just woke up that way.”  Alas, that wasn’t the case.

The first few times I met with my ex-husband after our initial separation, I endured the meetings while trying to present a calm, cool affect.  I would later return home and descend into a strange purgatory-like state of depersonalized, emotional zombiism–feeling neither psychically alive nor dead.  Our interactions would replay in my mind, and, in hindsight, I noticed a pattern in his communication style.  We would cover the necessary ground in our meetings, but he would characteristically say something extremely hurtful and mean.  The verbal tactics were quite familiar to me, and, in retrospect, I should have anticipated this.  I refrained from passive aggressive remarks or even bitter verbal swipes.  In the beginning, it would take me weeks to recover from a one-hour meeting.  I would sink into a kind of depression adrift in very negative intrusive thoughts and surges of flashbacks.  In those moments, I felt quite stuck in a mélange of distorted thoughts and toxic emotions melding together into a manifestation of negative beliefs and self-judgment.  I would feel like I would never be free of him.  He would always be the all-powerful perpetrator, and I could never truly have the ability to effectively self-advocate.  I was essentially stuck in the all-or-nothing distortion of Him/Perpetrator:Me/Victim.  Derailing that thought train became one of my primary goals.

How? In the moment when the past becomes present and former injuries be they physical and/or psychological become brand new again, how does one clarify the distortions and dam the deluge of negativity in order to properly interpret circumstances and achieve emotional regulation?

These are not simple questions, and they are not easily answered in one blog post.  What I can say is that I turned a corner recently, and I share it because it might be useful.  I met with my ex-husband and our accountant a few weeks ago for the annual tax paperwork exchange.  After she left, we awkwardly sat in a Panera making small talk.  I was quietly sipping on coffee when I heard him loudly yawn and assume The Catapult Position except his feet were outstretched into the aisle rather than onto the table:

The Catapult

In terms of body language, the Catapult is described as “an almost entirely male gesture used to intimidate others or to infer a relaxed attitude to lull you into a relaxed sense of security just before he ambushes you…The gesture is typical of…people who are feeling superior, dominant, or confident about something.” (Dimensions of Body Language)

He then told me, as he leaned back in this dominant-style pose, that we should never have been married.  He also said that I was the cause of all his anxiety during our marriage–something he rarely shared with me while we were married.  He went on to say that he was continually stuck in “fight-or-flight” because of me, and he said all this with a smug grin on his face as he looked off into the distance.  Smirking, he turned to make eye contact with me and said, “Oh, the last two years might have been painful for you.  Sorry about that.”  He was referencing the physical violence in that passing remark.  We then parted ways.  I drove home feeling confused and crazy.  What was he talking about? Was he being truthful? And then the thought train started…

I told a friend what he said.  Her comment? “MJ, he abused you for years.  Of course, he said that!” She went on to validate me and ask if I was okay, but I couldn’t internalize anything.  In my mind and body, I was stuck in Panera, looking at him leaning into that booth, outstretched and smirking, blaming me for his violence and newly confessed misery.  I felt re-victimized.  But then…

A moment occurred when I stopped and questioned the entire experience.  I know what happened.  My medical records document what happened.  My therapist knows what happened.  The people who love me know what happened.  Just because my former husband claims something doesn’t make it true, and, to be honest, it comes as no surprise that he is behaving badly now because he has always behaved like this.  There is a reason our marriage ended.  I paused and let what DBT calls one’s Wise Mind speak, “Why are you surprised that he is still engaging in unhealthy and victimizing behaviors? Isn’t this just another confirmation that you made the right decision? You walked away from a bad situation to build a better life.  You did the right thing, and this meeting is just another sign post that you are on the right road.”

In that moment, something clicked for me.  People who tend to abuse engage in abuse.  People who tend to exploit engage in exploitation.  People who engage in dishonesty tend to lie.  People who become violent tend to perpetrate myriad forms of violence.  People who are cowardly tend to display cowardice in different contexts.  Why would I expect a different set of behaviors from someone who has rarely historically offered different behaviors? And that’s when I knew.  The one person whom I can always count on to provide a different set of behaviors is me.  If I wanted to feel better feelings, think better thoughts, and stop the maladaptive thought train, then I was the one who had to change my paradigm.  Funnily enough, cognitively speaking I knew this! I’ve devoted a good part of this blog to this very topic, but internalizing this in real time while facing down a former abuser is very different than the intellectual process of knowing.  But, it can be done.

I don’t know how to neatly wrap this up because there is no pithy ending to a process like this.  I don’t believe that our processes to become better, healthier humans ever end, but I do think that it does become easier in some respects particularly when we know with whom to place our expectations and what to expect in general and specific.  In line with this idea, self-compassion comes into play here, and this may be a foreign and unpleasant idea for those of us with codependency in our backgrounds.  As I continue to try, however, I have come to believe that to truly take care of yourself and show yourself compassion showing up for yourself in small and big ways does make a difference.  Self-care and self-compassion do not seem to be about tuning out the world and checking out but are rather about tuning in to what you are ruminating on, what is driving you, and what you might be avoiding because you feel anxious and afraid.  Discerning the difference between tuning out and tuning in as I’ve tried to keep going has been very effective in helping me maintain momentum even in the midst of what has felt like setbacks.  And, I think that’s what is called resiliency.

It’s normal to be scared, anxious, and dislike uncertainty.  Preferring isolation when you’re stressed and fed up isn’t unusual either nor is avoidance, rumination, and intrusive thoughts particularly in the wake of post-traumatic stress.  But, there is also a much wider emotional spectrum that extends beyond these emotional and physiological experiences that includes joy, hope, increased distress tolerance, increased self-esteem, and the alleviation of shame and internalized judgment.  Once again, I will say the same thing because it continues to prove itself true time and time again.

You must keep going.  Always.

Further Reading

The influence of shame on post-trauma disorders: have we failed to see the obvious?







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