On Secrets

My ex-husband is a liar. That sounds harsh, but it’s true. When we married, I didn’t know him very well. He had many secrets that he had kept from me, and they trickled out over the years. Some of them I didn’t even find out until after we divorced. I’ll probably never really know the full truth about everything. When I first found out some of the secrets, I was understandably hurt. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.

“Because I knew you would leave me,” he said.

I was genuinely confused. “Why would you want to marry someone who would have left you?” I asked.

He never answered that question, but I think it was about control. If he could control the information that I had access to, then he could control me. And abuse, above all, is about control.

When I left my husband, he had a different story for everyone he spoke to about why we had split up. If he was talking to a man who was sympathetic to the “women are crazy” excuse, then his story was that I was crazy. If he was talking to someone who didn’t know me very well, then his story was that I abused him. If he was talking to someone who knew about the abuse but stayed in contact with him anyway, then he just didn’t say anything.

Last summer, he met up with some friends of his who had also become friends of mine over the years. After he saw them, he sent me an email telling me that he had told our friends how much we loved each other, and how much we had tried to make things work, but just couldn’t. These friends were, he said, all very sad for us and very supportive. At first, when I read that email, I felt touched, then it hit me that his story was completely untrue. We divorced because he was abusive. There were, of course, other reasons also, but the dominant one was because he hit me. He hit me frequently and violently. His email was self-serving, I realized. He wanted me to remain complicit in his lies, just as I had remained complicit for so many years.

Because I had been complicit. I had helped him. I had helped him abuse me.

I am not a comfortable liar. I am more known for being uncomfortably honest. But when my husband was abusing me, I was forced to lie. I lied to protect myself, but I mostly lied to protect him.

He didn’t abuse me frequently throughout our marriage. In the early years, there were some isolated incidents that I was able to excuse as outliers. His abuse didn’t become frequent until after we had moved across the country. I was isolated by then, which is part of the pattern. I had no family or friends nearby. I think that some people think that all abusers start abusing the minute the relationship starts, but it’s not always that way. Sometimes it’s a slow buildup. Sometimes the abuser waits until the bonds feel too strong to break.

I don’t remember the first time I had to lie to someone about the bruises, but a couple of times are rendered in my memory vividly. My friend Rebecca came over, and I had forgotten about the bruise on my arm. I had forgotten to wear long sleeves. She asked what had happened in horror. He was there–my husband–looking at me, waiting to see what I would say. I panicked. I told her that I had done it in my sleep, that I didn’t even remember it. I told her that I thought I was anemic. She couldn’t imagine how I could have possibly not remembered that happening because the bruise was so large, but she trusted me, and she trusted him, so she accepted my story.

Another time, we were babysitting our nephews while his brother and my sister-in-law went to a football game. He had attacked me the night before. It was very, very hot in our house, but I wore long sleeves in order to cover up the bruises on my arms (the visible bruises were usually on my arms because I raised my arms as a defensive measure.) As we spoke to my in-laws, I was sweating inside of my shirt. I wanted to push my sleeves up so badly, but I couldn’t. We had a friendly conversation. There was lots of laughing, but I was dying inside. I wanted to scream “This isn’t real. What you are seeing is not my life.”

The last time I remember lying, I had lunch with two friends, including the same friend who had asked about the large bruise on my arm. I had worn long sleeves to the lunch, but I couldn’t hide the fact that my hand was bruised and swollen. I told them I had shut it in the door. I felt that I was lying poorly. I felt that they would surely see through the lie, but they accepted it.

The truth was trapped in my throat. I wanted those words to fall out of my mouth like rocks. I wanted to let go of that pain. I wanted to say Help Me, but I didn’t.

After he was arrested, I told all of my best friends. I partly told them as an insurance policy. I knew that, if they knew, they would never let me go back to him, and I didn’t trust myself yet. I didn’t trust myself not to give him another chance.

I tell my son that no one can ever ask him to lie about anything. I tell him that he can always tell me the truth. I hope that he always does. I hope that he always trusts me enough to tell me the truth.

A friend today sent me a message on Facebook telling me that she appreciates my blog. “It takes a lot to stand up and tell your story,” she said. “People will scrutinize and judge. But, even more people will connect to something you write.”

I hope this is true. I am very aware that some people will judge me for my honesty. I am also aware that some people will react with disbelief. But secrets are shame. Secrets are wrong. When I became complicit in my husband’s secrets, I became complicit in my own abuse. I am no longer keeping his secrets. I don’t owe that to him, but I owe myself the truth.

13 thoughts on “On Secrets

  1. Anonymous

    Well done, Kelly!

    My heart broke for you when I first read your news that you had left an abusive husband, and then my heart soared for you when you wrote of your acceptance into your PhD program.

    I hope this blog both heals you and helps others.

    Like

  2. Anonymous

    You are so right about the secrets. Even after your divorce, they will continue to show up in odd places until they slowly trickle away over the years. People will wonder why you can't be friends with your ex, and because you were complicit in the abuse & you didn't tell them sooner, you find it hard to explain and people think it is all you. Isolation is classic, making you tethered to this person that you are now covering up for. Other people would be outside the control range of the abuser, and who knows what you may say to them or how they would expose the liar for who he is. Then there is the shame that you let him get away with it, when you would never stand for anyone abusing your children or others. Abuse reminds me of that painting “The Scream” where you are dying on the inside and screaming in your pain, while keeping your face composed and no one hears. You fight to keep your soul's pilot light from going out completely, feeling the dark inhabit you more and more until it is such a sad little light in the dark, it's almost hard to find.

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  3. Anonymous

    I was in the same situation two years ago and still trying to find my footing. I was locked in my apartment while he was at work. I had to tell so many lies, that I couldn't keep up. I enjoy your blog. I found out about it through my teacher. It really helps me, when I start blaming myself.

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  4. Before I came to Ohio, one of my exes (who graduated from the same MFA program as I did) emailed me and asked very politely to stop telling people about the horrific, misogynist, abusive communications he'd been sending me since we'd broken up. It was totally baffling, since I was thoroughly beyond any psychological influence he could exert, but, on his part, it was strategic. It IS the secrecy that gives this stuff power–it causes you to blame yourself and get (or at least I felt) embarrassed, which keeps you silent. It's hard not to feel embarrassed about someone calling you a whore or about the dynamics of an abusive relationship being exposed–those things are so deviant and personal, it feels like talking about your deepest darkest sexual proclivities or relationship weirdnesses. And that silence exempts the abuser from social pressure, from fulfilling his obligations to everyday decency.

    I'm so glad you shared this–as someone who has seen emotional and physical abuse close to home, this is a totally powerful account. Thank you!

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  5. Thank you, Katie. And thank you for sharing your own story. You've exactly pegged that abuse is embarrassing, and it's tempting to keep quiet in order to avoid that embarrassment, but keeping quiet can perpetuate the abuse.

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  6. Anonymous

    I highly recommend reading “Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation and Guilt to Manipulate You” by Susan Forward. It helps you understand how an abuser gets you under his/her spell, doubting yourself, believing the lies.

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