When to enforce, and when to bridge

A few weeks ago, I faced a challenge in one of my close family relationships.  My mother did not approve of a major decision that I recently made, and she said some hurtful things in response.  I knew well enough prior to the conversation that she wouldn’t approve, but I was still surprised by the hurt I felt at her reaction.  In my teens and early twenties, my desire for approval was strong enough that this reaction would have led me either to make a different decision to appease others, or keep my thoughts and actions private and hidden from those who would not agree. This codependent tendency led to some extreme negative consequences and limited my ability to form genuine relationships.

Now, in my mid-thirties, I’m learning to put the brakes on my people-pleasing instincts.  While I don’t feel I owe anyone a direct window into all my thoughts, feelings, and decisions, I also cannot keep a wall up if I’m going to have a satisfying relationship and connection with someone. So, I did what I could not do a decade ago, and directly told her of my decision and stuck by it. Just as I realized that my decision would be difficult for her to come to terms with, I also realized that, in my life, it is the decision that is right for me and I am at peace with it.

My mother’s response may have been natural and expected, but it crossed many of my boundaries and pressed on old wounds. My history with my abusive ex-husband was brought up, and my decision was attributed to his prevailing influence over me.  (As readers will know, I left him nearly two years ago and have been completely no contact. Most days, he is the furthest thing from my mind. And after my year of healing while I waited for my divorce, I rarely feel that I will discover anything of value by delving into my memories of the past.)  I have asked my mother not to bring up the worst things that happened in my past when we are discussing my present and future, but it still happens repeatedly. I understand that it has also been a difficult process for her to come to terms with the abusive situation her daughter was living in for a decade, with a man who had been accepted into the family.  It comes from a good place of concern and protectiveness over her daughter.  But it is still frustrating to me when it happens.

Then, my mother hit another nerve by using “defining statements.”  These types of statements tell someone else what they are feeling, what they are, what they think, etc. This was a frequent verbal abuse tactic of my ex-husband and a generally unhealthy way of arguing. Some fairly mild examples could be, “You think you’re always right. You don’t know how to own up to your mistakes. You’re stubborn! You’re just trying to make me mad.”   How does someone else know what I think, if I did not tell them?  Do they get to decide my intentions and what I am trying to do?  It took a long time for me to realize that only get to define those things about myself! While my mother’s defining statements did not reach the level of toxicity, insults, or name-calling that my abuser used, it was triggering and frustrating. It was not at all how I felt, what I thought, or what I did!  It left me not knowing how to bridge the gap of understanding, when we were on such different pages.

I took my time in getting back to her after this conversation.  I needed space and time to process my disappointment and to think about what I could reasonably expect from my parents versus how I wished the relationship would be.  The conflict stemmed from the fact that my parents and I have different views of a couple of important matters. I feel that I respect and understand their stance, but I do not receive that same respect and acceptance in return.

Then I thought of the extremely toxic situation I left at the beginning of last year. How I had allowed myself to be treated like dirt for over a decade, and how I resolved to rebuild my boundaries and never accept that treatment again. That new resolve applied not just to a romantic partner but any and everyone I allow in my life. But enforcing boundaries is not as easy as setting them. What was I willing to do if my mother refused to respect my decision and continued to say things that were hurtful and triggering to me?  Would I take a step back from a relationship that I consider important?  Would I be willing to, at least temporarily, end that relationship if needed? 

My answer is complicated, but for now the answer is.. no. I would not be willing to end the relationship, although taking a step back is sometimes necessary.  I have seen others’ pain and grief at the loss of their parents and been urged to appreciate the time I have with them. I will only have one mother, and my time with her won’t last forever. So I try to understand where she is coming from, see the good intentions, agree to disagree, and adjust my expectations. One reason that I can feel comfortable doing this is that I can look back on the relationship’s history and remember all the times my mother gave, offered support, and times when we had previously worked through conflict and experienced growth. My mother is not a perfect person, but neither am I.  I believe both of us are well-intentioned and capable of resolving differences, and it’s still a relationship that adds more than it takes away.

This is where my feelings are complicated. Think of the importance and influence of a relationship with one’s parent, through all the stages of life. How does that compare to the importance of a partner or spouse?  In my upbringing, and I believe in our culture at large, marriage was by far the most important relationship. (I am not a parent, so I’m not including the relationship with children here.)  Choosing a spouse was the most important decision you made, and it was a decision that was supposed to last a lifetime. Being married, being a wife, became a major part of your identity, to the point that you can’t imagine living without your “other half.”

So compare this to my response to feeling a lack of mutual respect and a pattern of hurt in the relationship with my mother. I was not at a place to consider ending that relationship, and I was willing to accept some hurt, conflict, and limitations because I consider the relationship important. “You only have one mother, and they’re not with you forever!” was more than enough reason for me to do what I can to repair things.  But how much of that feeling also applied to staying with an abusive spouse and accepting his unacceptable treatment?  “I’m not perfect either.” “He’s my husband for life and we need to work through this.” “This is really tough, but we have had better times in the past and I’m sure we’ll get back there.”  These are natural responses!  Which is why it becomes so difficult to break out of that pattern, give up hope of mending the relationship, and leave.

In the weeks after this conversation with my mother, things have improved between us. We shared Thanksgiving dinner and have talked more productively. I am hoping that time will help her to accept my decision. We are working to establish healthier patterns, and for me that means not giving in to my desire for approval, and to be willing to accept disagreement without closing myself off from someone completely.  When, how, and with whom to enforce boundaries is something I will have to continue to think about. I sense that deep down, the same impulse that drove me to repair things with my mother is what drove me to stay with someone abusive.  What is sometimes a healthy, natural impulse can become a major weakness when the wrong person is allowed to take control of it.

Seeing Beyond the Cycle

grayscale photo of washing machine

Hello readers!  It was one year and 10 months ago today that I got the courage to leave my abusive husband, after being with him for almost 12 years.

The past is on my mind, remembering where I was not just two years ago but 10 years ago, as a newlywed.  I was looking through old files to find a photo of myself for the “2009 to 2019 challenge” that has been going around on social media.  Instead, I ended up reading through old emails from that time.  I had saved them in an archive during my divorce, and the archive now serves as a record for me, so that I cannot doubt what happened or gloss over the truth.

Today I am in a healthy relationship with someone who has never said an unkind word to me in the seven months that we’ve been together. I can’t imagine name-calling, insults, yelling, and demands/orders in this new context. It’s not something I allow anymore, and I’m also with someone who would not consider it in the first place, so maintaining this boundary is effortless.

The records from my past painted a very different picture.  I had forgotten that a few days before my ex officially “proposed” to me, we had a conversation about marriage. It ended with him saying, “go ahead and plan a wedding however you want, as long as I don’t have to do anything!” I was frustrated and confused: did this mean we were engaged? Was he serious? Could I tell anyone? Did I still want to marry him, if this was his attitude? Continue reading “Seeing Beyond the Cycle”

It’s not about the sandwich

man holding sandwich

You can never really know what’s going on in someone else’s relationship. But today I read something that reminded me of what went on in mine.  This was posted on Reddit, a story about a fight over a sandwich.  The OP does not believe that the relationship is toxic or abusive, instead it is “just a fight.”  However, the incident she describes reminds me of common patterns in my own and what I’ve heard from other survivors.

Capture1 Am I the Asshole for having my boyfriend’s sandwich made a certain way? (click to enlarge) (original post)

There’s a lot going on in this story, and it’s a story that was repeated in my own abusive relationship many times. Continue reading “It’s not about the sandwich”

Dreams, learning to believe yourself

Yesterday I attended my first women’s self defense & martial arts class. It was challenging and empowering as I realized how much I could learn if I keep working at it. We practiced escaping from the tight grips of our male volunteers who graciously allowed themselves to be kicked, slapped, and prodded for our benefit. The instructor stressed: you will never out-muscle them. The goal is to surprise them, get away, and go. It  wasn’t surprising, then, that last night I had another dream about escaping from my husband: Continue reading “Dreams, learning to believe yourself”

Owning My Story

It’s been a year and a half since I left my abusive ex-husband. At this point, I wonder about holding on to my story.  My life feels normal and I generally no longer feel that this experience isolates me from other people who haven’t lived in the dark psychological nightmare of an abusive relationship for 10 years. I have supportive friends, hobbies I enjoy, a satisfying job, healthy family relationships, and a caring and understanding boyfriend.

When the topic comes up with someone who does not know my story, I wonder how much to say. I minimize or normalize it: “yeah, I went through a divorce around the same time as I moved to this city. It was tough; divorce is hard, but I’m doing great now. I’m happier and I’m even dating again.” Divorce is relatable, abuse is not. They must know that behind every divorce is a deeper story, one that can be shared under selective terms, when the timing is right, a need-to-know basis. Is it still beneficial for me to share that part of my story, and does anyone really need to know? Is telling the “light” version a sign of healthy boundaries and reclaiming my new identity, or a sign that shame and doubts about my past are creeping back in?  In my mind, it’s a little of both. Continue reading “Owning My Story”

A Beautiful Day

I want to share a song that reflects the new goals I wrote about in my last post. “A Beautiful Day” by India.Arie.  Enjoy!

Life is a journey,
Not a destination,
There are no mistakes,
Just chances we’ve taken
Lay down your regrets cause all we have is now
Wake up in the morning
And get out of bed
Start making a mental list in my head
Of all of the things that I am grateful for
Early in the morning
It’s the dawn of a new day
New hopes new dreams new ways
I open up my eyes and
I open up my mind and
I wonder how life will surprise me today
Early in the morning
It’s the dawn of a new day
New hopes new dreams new ways
I open up my heart and
I’m gonna do my part and
Make this a positively beautiful day
It’s a beautiful day
Life is a challenge not a competition
You can still smell the roses and be on a mission
Just take a moment to get in touch with your heart
Sometimes you feel like you’ve got something to prove
Remind yourself that there’s only one you
Just take a moment to give thanks of who you are
Early in the morning
It’s the dawn of a new day
New hopes, new dreams, new ways
I open up my eyes and
I open up my mind and
I wonder how life will surprise me today
Early in the morning
It’s the dawn of a new day
New hopes, new dreams, new ways
I open up my heart and
I’m gonna do my part and
Make this a positively beautiful day
It’s a Beautiful Day
Let’s make this a wonderful
Let’s make this a powerful
Let’s make this a Beautiful Day
It’s a Beautiful Day
Life is a journey,
Not a destination,
There are no mistakes,
Just chances we’ve taken
Lay down your regrets cause all we have is now

Erasing the Survivor Penalty

Woman with arms raised in joyful pose

In my last post, I wrote about common advice to abuse survivors as they enter a new relationship. Go slow, be extremely careful, take time to work on yourself first, stick to your boundaries, and don’t let the new relationship become your entire focus. This is so important! But it’s only half the story.

I recently started reading several books by Brené Brown, and I strongly recommend her work to survivors of abuse. (And anyone else!) She writes about shame and how it gets in the way of empathy and connection, and her later books have focused on the power of vulnerability and its connection to courage. Essentially, she writes that it is impossible to have courage or connection without experiencing vulnerability.  There is much more that I could say about this, but for now I recommend viewing her Ted Talk, The Power of Vulnerability.

And the most vulnerable emotion, according to Brené Brown?  Joy.

Continue reading “Erasing the Survivor Penalty”