Disclosure: Part 2

Research shows that approximately 10-14 percent of married women in the United States have been raped by their husbands. The consequences of such rapes are no less dire just because the perpetrator is a spouse. Indeed, women who are raped by their husbands suffer severe and long-lasting physical and mental health problems.

://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/making-sense-chaos/202005/the-bizarre-legal-loopholes-surrounding-spousal-rape

Spousal rape has only been a crime in all 50 states since 1993. And there are still exceptions, it isn’t treated by the legal system as “as bad as” other types of sexual violence. In Virginia, someone convicted of spousal rape can receive counseling instead of jail time to “promote maintenance of the family unit.” In the eyes of lawmakers then, it would be better for a victim of rape and abuse to stay if the family unit can be maintained? Are they hoping this ruling will convince her to remain with an abuser who traumatized her rather than building a healthier life for herself?

In my experience and the experience of many other survivors, counseling for an abuser or couple’s counseling does not work. Not only that, counseling with the goal of keeping you in a harmful situation is re-traumatizing. When I briefly went to counseling with my abusive ex-husband, he berated me in front of the counselor. Then I watched as he manipulated and played mental games with the counselor. Narcissistic abusers can be charismatic and charming when they want to, and they often try to get professionals who might intervene on their side. That includes therapists, doctors, police, and lawyers involved. Along with turning up his charm, the abuser may try to discredit his victim and paint her as unreliable, overly sensitive, or “crazy.” On top of that, it is absolutely normal for someone currently experiencing or recovering from trauma to act in ways that seem irrational. This is one podcast that explains how the “fight or flight” mode affects our brains during those times: https://www.npr.org/2019/11/27/783495595/in-the-heat-of-the-moment-how-intense-emotions-transform-us

And of course, abusers routinely use promises to change along with temporary superficial changes of behavior to convince their victims to stay. For an abuser, counseling can become one of the tools used to make the appearance of a change while still retaining control of their victim.

As late as 2015, the lawyer of the U S. President was recorded saying, “understand that by the very definition, you can’t rape your spouse.”

Talk about lawyers being re-traumatizing. But until 1993, what he said was true. Despite about half of all marriages ending in divorce, while you are in that contract you do not have the right to decide what happens to your own body. You are property.

In my state, marital rape is not a crime if it involves a weapon or aggravated assault- if considerable force is used. My state also does not recognize emotional abuse as grounds for divorce, and requires a year-long waiting period for a no-fault divorce.

So I wrestle with the idea that in my state, what he did does not legally “count” as sexual assault or abuse. The answer to the questions asked in my previous post is No. My experiences do not “count” in the eyes of those who are in a position to decide.

During my years in an abusive relationship, I never even considered calling the police. That includes during the night I spent locking myself in the bathroom because I was afraid of my husband and he wouldn’t let me get my clothes and car keys in order to leave. It didn’t occur to me that I had the right to feel safe inside of my home or to choose to leave it, and that perhaps police could have helped me exercise that.

I have also definitely never pressed charges against my abuser for sexual assault. I don’t have any legal standing there, and I know it. I wish we lived in a world where he would have consequences for what he put me through, but we don’t.

His family, who I have also cut off contact with, does not admit that his behavior was abusive towards me and instead says that he was “depressed” and going through a tough time and needed my support. This is in spite of his family witnessing his rages and times when he verbally berated me in front of them. That is another reminder that it doesn’t “count.”

During my own journey of healing, I have to reckon with the fact that my experiences are not accepted as valid to many. I am not considered believable, even in describing my own experiences. Even when I have nothing to gain and certainly no power to dole out punishment. In identifying myself to my doctor as a survivor of sexual abuse, what I was hoping to gain was healthcare that could address and perhaps explain the physical symptoms I’ve been experiencing. Instead, I’m left wondering if my doctor agrees with the quote above, “by the very definition, you can’t rape your spouse.” If he felt the need to challenge my description of my own trauma in order to protect the nameless and faceless man who was perhaps being falsely accused, of a crime that doesn’t exist.

The doctor’s visit that I’d hoped would help resolve a medical issue ended up just reminding me about how little power we truly have in some situations.

Disclosure

I don’t often think about my past with my abusive ex-husband. Sometimes I can go for weeks without really having to mentally and emotionally return to the worst things that have happened to me. I’m in a better place now, newly married to a partner who is always patient, loving, and kind. I’ve moved on and I’d rather focus on the new life that I’ve built since leaving my abusive situation two and a half years ago.

Whether I like it or not (Surprise! I don’t.) the past still sometimes crops up uninvited into my new life. This week it was at the doctor’s office. I saw my ob/gyn after having a recent episode of severe pain and some ongoing, intermittent health issues that have never been fully explained. I had read about a few conditions that sounded similar to my symptoms. And I read that a history of sexual abuse can sometimes be connected to these symptoms. That even if you have moved on to a loving relationship, even if that abuse happened years ago, it can still have an effect on your body. With this in mind, I detailed my symptoms and also disclosed that I had a history of sexual abuse, in case that helped to explain them.

The response took me aback.

My doctor asked, “how long ago was this?”

I said, “since I left my ex-husband about three years ago.”

He seemed surprised and confused. “The sexual abuse was from your husband?”

“Yes, it was an abusive relationship that I left about three years ago.”

“Wait, was it physically abusive or sexually abusive?”

My doctor seemed to struggle to categorize this information. I was surprised that he didn’t already have it in my file, since I had already mentioned my history of abuse in a previous appointment, in a discussion about whether to stop taking my anxiety medication because of potential effects on pregnancy. Maybe he assumed that I meant I was molested as a child. Did he not know that sexual abuse and rape can happen in a marriage or with an intimate partner, too?

I had expected to be taken at my word, to say, “ok, let’s put that in your file in case it relates to any of your symptoms.” Or maybe even for him to check and make sure I knew about Sexual Trauma Services and counseling options, if the trauma in my past was still causing issues. Instead, I had to provide more information. The question of whether it was physical or sexual abuse felt like a determination of whether it “counted.”

If you’ve read my previous posts, you may know how loaded a question this is. It took me almost 12 years in an abusive relationship to realize that what I was experiencing “counted” as abuse. It was primarily verbal and emotional: rages, insults, manipulation, control, name-calling, blame, gas-lighting. When I describe it that way in certain settings, I feel that I can hear a sigh of relief: Oh, it wasn’t real abuse. It was just in her head. Over-sensitivity. Just a bad relationship, maybe. She could have left any time, so it must not have been that bad.

As survivors, we have to choose carefully how and when we share our stories. It will introduce judgement. It makes people uncomfortable. And it may be human nature that when faced with someone else’s tragedy, people start to explain to themselves why it couldn’t happen to them. “I would never allow someone to do that to me. Why didn’t you call the police? Why didn’t you leave the first time it happened?”

Maybe it’s a blessing that more people don’t understand its intricacies like we do. How the abuser probes us for weak points, conditions us to find under what circumstances we may let down our guard. How they give us “crumbs” of something we deeply want, like a loving relationship, then use those crumbs as our personalized reward and punishment system. How the unpredictable cycle of abuse keeps us in a “fight or flight” state and that we are so tired and relieved when the explosive stage has subsided, when he promises it will never happen again (and in my case, still subtly blames me for causing it at the same time) that we believe him. All this makes us lose our trust in ourselves until we even doubt our own memory and perception. Or become so numb that we could not even describe our thoughts and emotions or opinions and preferences. Personally, I was much better at describing his than my own. What a world we lived in!

After living this way for 10+ years, a counselor gave me permission to think that my life and my happiness had value outside of this marriage. And finally I was able to say that, yes, it “counted” as abuse. After I left and had some space and distance, I realized that “verbal” and “emotional” doesn’t quite cover it. Hadn’t I gotten bruises from fighting him off? Hadn’t I severely sprained my ankle when I rushed down the stairs to get away from him? What about the panic attacks that I had for years? Were heart palpitations, insomnia, and vomiting not “physical”? Oh, and what about the time that he hit me in anger with the most hateful look in his eye? Does it not count because it wasn’t hard enough to injure me? What about when he yelled at me while holding a butcher knife in the kitchen, preparing dinner, and I calmly offered to take out the trash for him….and stayed outside until I was fairly sure he had calmed down? Do those experiences count? Was the abuse “physical?”

The doctor had asked if it was physical or sexual, as if it was one or the other, not both. So if not physical, did the sexual abuse count?

After my experiences and the time I spent recovering, I do not know how an abusive intimate relationship could NOT involve sexual abuse. Like a minor cannot consent to an adult, and someone who is drugged or passed out cannot consent… I don’t understand how someone in an abusive relationship can consent to their abuser. I was in an environment where I did not know that “No” was an option. And yet, somehow I did say no, over and over. But when I fought back, it became a twisted game. My abuser joked that I had developed “ninja-like” reflexes. He treated my outrage like a joke and met it with laughter. So I laughed back. Did you know that laughter can be a defense mechanism? I learned to use sex to appease him and to let myself by controlled. If I didn’t, I was met with “punishment” through the rages, insults, and other abuse tactics. I learned to disconnect my mind and emotions from my body, to go to a place that seemed safer.

After leaving, I had a vivid dream about trying to fight him off as he tried to rape me. Oddly enough, the dream was liberating. I knew that while my physical safety has its limits, I would never have to allow someone to damage my soul again. And I continued learning how to replace my previous coping strategies with the healthy boundaries and sense of self-worth that could serve as real protection.

So, was my abuse physical or sexual? Would it count? Was this really a train of thought I wanted to go down while sitting on the exam table? Did it really need to be explained?

“It’s complicated,” I said, “but definitely left me with negative associations related to sex.”

And that was all. I didn’t get any answers from the appointment. The doctor gave me some basic advice that sounded like middle school Sex Ed and tested me for two things I knew I didn’t have, that didn’t match my symptoms.

Since that appointment, my anxiety has been elevated and it took a few days to process how I felt. I felt dismissed, like I was back in a place where my thoughts and experiences and pain didn’t count and couldn’t be believed. I experienced some self-doubt, wondering if I came across as “crazy” or overreacting or overly sensitive somehow. When in reality, I was straightforwardly giving information that I thought might be relevant to my health.

After some time to reflect, my self-doubt shifted into anger. Why wasn’t it already in my file? Why didn’t he consider its relevance instead of questioning its validity? Did he not see issues of sexual violence as relevant to his practice as a gynecologist? Thinking of the abuse and sexual assault statistics, surely many of his other patients are also survivors. And I feel angry thinking that perhaps they have issues that are going unnoticed and untreated, too.

I was able to see my primary care provider the next day and I had a totally different experience. There were still no answers, but at least I felt listened to. After that visit, I had a better idea of how to track my symptoms and felt like they would be taken seriously. I didn’t disclose the history of sexual abuse this time and just focused on the present. I may be a bit more selective in what I disclose from now on.

Sharing Our Stories

Yesterday an anonymous blog circulated on social media in my town, sharing the names of people who had raped or abused someone.   Victims anonymously submitted brief stories and the name of their abuser or rapist, who very likely has suffered no other consequences. I scrolled through, thinking of the stories of my friends and my own story and wondering if I would see any familiar names.  I did not, but the stories themselves were familiar, describing things that far too many women have experienced.

A few hours after it was published, the owner of the blog wrote that they had received numerous threats, insults, and assertions that the accusations were false, and that they would be taking down the blog. The blog was harshly criticized for posting accusations that were “unverified.” (We have to produce “proof” for our experiences and stories to be worth believing, when that is often an impossibility.) When I tried to reload the page, it was gone.

When I first heard of this blog, I briefly imagined submitting something to it. As a way to force some “karma” perhaps. But even though the submissions are anonymous, anyone reading my ex husband’s name would obviously know who the accuser is.  Then if word got back to my ex husband or his circle, what would that bring?  Legal action for defamation? Attempts to get back in contact?  More harassment?  Even if nothing came of it, what good would it do for me to be back in a place where I am worried about what he might do next? Continue reading “Sharing Our Stories”

Merging accounts, Hopkins v. Jones

“Hopkins?”

I heard my ex-husband’s last name called at the doctor’s office today. Even though my divorce and my name change had already been finalized before last year’s appointment, the office has had trouble updating my record.  I was in their system twice: once under my maiden and current name, and once under my abusive ex-husband’s.  Like me, the office was having difficulty recognizing that these two versions of myself, these two realities, existed in the same person.

Continue reading “Merging accounts, Hopkins v. Jones”

Collateral Losses

Today I was reminded of my former sister-in-law, Amy,* who married into my ex-husband’s family a year or two after I did. She was a big fan of music, and John Prine, who died this week of COVID-19 complications, was one of her favorites. She introduced me to him and others artists whose songs were full of heart and earnestness.

Although we never lived close together, the times we shared in holidays and family visits meant a lot to me. She was someone I respected, learned from, shared with, confided in.  I remember in our mid-twenties, sitting together talking about our aspirations to start families soon. We had each finished graduate school and felt ready. I could imagine these future cousins, growing up together, playing at those same family gatherings. Continue reading “Collateral Losses”

Associations

Husband. Wife. Marriage. Wedding.

What emotions and associations do those words bring to you?

For me, they bring fear, control, trapped, pain. Hearing the words or thinking about the concepts can trigger a physiological response in me. I feel my stress levels rising, my body becomes tense, my heart races, my head pounds, my “fight or flight” instinct takes over and it becomes harder to make slow, rational decisions.

My body’s response makes sense under the circumstances. When I experience a trigger, my body doesn’t know whether I am remembering something from the past or if I am still experiencing it.

Continue reading “Associations”

Moving Ahead

This post is dedicated to my dear friend, Maya.*

I met Maya almost two years ago in a domestic violence support group. We were close in age, and had both gone to graduate school to work in professions focused on social issues. Separately, our lives had been turned upside down around the 2017 holiday season, until we finally left the abusive men we were with. The abuse we experienced flew under the radar for much too long, in part because it was emotional and psychological in nature and didn’t seem to match the stereotypes we knew.

After sharing some of our stories, Maya and I exchanged numbers, and a while later, she texted and invited me over for tea.  I remember talking for hours about our experiences, our families, our relationships, and being surprised at how much we could relate to. Continue reading “Moving Ahead”

What Makes a Healthy Relationship?

In my last post, I wrote about my changing views of marriage versus healthy relationships, and how they are certainly not always one and the same.  But what do I mean by a healthy relationship? Here’s a list that I was given by a local domestic violence organization that is a great starting point:

Characteristics of Healthy Relationships

How many of the following attitudes and behaviors are present in your relationships?

  1. Communication is open and spontaneous (including listening)
  2. Rules/boundaries are clear and explicit, yet allows flexibility
  3. Individuality, freedom, and personal identity is enhanced
  4. Each enjoys doing things for self, as well as for the other
  5. Play, humor, and having fun together is commonplace
  6. Each does not attempt to “fix” or control the other
  7. Acceptance of self and other (for real selves)
  8. Assertiveness: feelings and needs are expressed
  9. Humility: able to let go of need to “be right”
  10. Self-confidence and security in own worth
  11. Conflict is faced directly and resolved
  12. Openness to constructive feedback
  13. Each is trustful of the other
  14. Balance of giving and receiving
  15. Negotiations are fair and democratic
  16. Tolerance: forgiveness of self and other
  17. Mistakes are accepted and learned from
  18. Willingness to take risks and be vulnerable
  19. Other meaningful relationships and interests exist
  20. Each can enjoy being alone and privacy is respected
  21. Personal growth, change, and exploration is encouraged
  22. Continuity and consistency is present in the commitment
  23. Balance of oneness (closeness) and separation from each other
  24. Responsibility for own behaviors and happiness (not blaming other)

Continue reading “What Makes a Healthy Relationship?”

Marriage is…

What does marriage mean to you?  Love, commitment, partnership, family, the person you’ve chosen to spend your life with?  Or something else?

In the course of the 10-year abusive situation that constituted my own first marriage and the close-to-two years I’ve spent healing afterwards, my feelings about the institution have changed quite a bit. I am still unpacking and discovering them, especially as it applies to my new relationship.

A search for quotes beginning with “Marriage is…”  shows a little of what our understanding is as a culture. Some are inspiring, aspirational, humorous, or try to shed light on the realities of challenges and imperfections: Continue reading “Marriage is…”

Triggers and involuntary reactions

Today I was taken aback by someone’s treatment of me at work. Being insulted, yelled at, manipulated, and abused used to be a routine part of my life, coming from the man that I lived with for 10 years, my ex-husband. (Today’s incident was minor in comparison.) In previous workplaces, I have also experienced some unreasonable behavior and had to develop coping techniques. Now, however, unreasonable behavior along those lines is completely out of the ordinary to me! When I do experience it, the stress can be overwhelming. And my instinctive reactions to it, my coping mechanisms, are exactly the same ones that I have used for so many years.

Continue reading “Triggers and involuntary reactions”