Throughout this series, I’ve shared my personal journey of leaving behind a life of “should” to find happiness and fulfillment as my authentic self. It’s an ongoing process, and I recently made a startling discovery about a powerful should that I’ve harbored unwittingly for years. Previously, I wrote about how I was vulnerable to rape at a young age because of my belief that I should do whatever men expect of me. With this segment, I want to shatter another should and talk about being in an emotionally abusive marriage. I got out and never discussed the abuse in my first marriage. The should kept me silent, and I’ve protected my ex all these years. Worse yet, the same sense of should extended well beyond my ex to other people—especially men—who mistreated me.
I made excuses for them, blamed myself, and blamed circumstances to explain it away. But no more. I was emotionally abused for decades. But unlike physical abuse, there were no scars or bruises to reflect the daily abuse. I was belittled, demeaned, and made to feel small and powerless. I couldn’t bring myself to ask the police to arrest my spouse even though the wounds ran deep. I stayed with him for years because I thought I deserved it, and I was convinced that if only I could learn to do things perfectly, then maybe he’d treat me better—maybe he’d be kind.
In an emotionally abusive relationship you’re trained over a course of time to think it’s what you deserve—you’re programmed to doubt yourself to the point of not being able to leave. It’s a perfect spider web of love—you’re the prey tapped for emotional energy for the spider, all while you’re stuck in the web, unable to move. Thankfully, I had friends, who witnessed the abuse, felt it, and even tried to do something about it before I eventually left. I couldn’t express this publicly without them and their support.
The reality of emotional abuse is that it’s more likely to happen than physical abuse, and often when people try to leave the relationship, the abuse ends up turning physical with threats of violence. I was an ideal candidate for an abusive relationship because of how I felt about myself. I was a people pleaser with low self-worth, which made me the perfect person who’d be attracted to someone that would abuse me. I had also been abused before—I had previous relationships with emotional abuse and control elements. My brain already knew the pattern.
When I met my ex, I was in a vulnerable place and yearned to be loved and accepted. In him, I found all of that and more. I was the focus of his life and he showered me with gifts and attention. I felt special. But that attention turned into control, and little by little, the walls closed in on me. Over time, I became more and more isolated. I had few friends because everyone was a threat. I was regularly criticized—I walked on egg shells. I was molded into what he wanted me to be. Year by year, I lost more of myself and my desires, thoughts, and ambitions. I was absorbed by what WE were, and I fell in line with how I was to behave. I started hiding a part of my life from my spouse—stolen moments of friendship and joy—for fear he’d tighten the reigns even more.
Most of the people that knew and interacted with me would have told you that I was very happy in my marriage because that’s what I portrayed. I was not. A few friends who saw how my life really was tried to talk to me about it and had even begged me to move in with them to escape the abuse. But still, I did not leave. Should had a firm grip on me. I felt trapped, like I could never get out.
After years, I was finally able to say no more. The veil fell from my eyes and for the first time I saw what my life had become and I was ready to leave. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and I’ve done some hard things. It’s also what I’m most proud of. Leaving the abusive relationship was me choosing me over should. For the first time, I decided that I mattered and had worth, even if I lost everything. I had myself and that was all I needed. I found the keys to my shackles.
People in my own family have said there’s no such thing as emotional abuse. That abuse can only be defined by physical wounds. I’m sure a lot of people believe the same, and that’s one of the many reasons why they stay in emotionally abusive relationships. No one believes you and then you doubt yourself. You’re trained to think the treatment is normal. People begin to believe once they see physical abuse, but often that can be too late, and the person trying to leave is wounded or worse. It’s something we need to start talking about, and we need to talk to our children. It’s real and harmful.
If you’re in a relationship that sounds like spider love, know that you’re not alone and you don’t deserve it. That the someday when they’ll treat you better will never come. Rally your support network and get out now. You should be treated well and you deserve happiness. And if you think someone you know is in an emotionally abusive relationship, speak up. If my dear friends hadn’t talked to me—and it took years—I don’t know if I would have had the strength to leave. For me, leaving that relationship was a huge part of leaving a life of should.
Sandy Eichel is a happy ex-should-er.