Listener’s Letter: Episode 104 – Can I make it on my own?


This week our listener is questioning whether her husband is emotionally abusive, or are the wounds of her childhood blurring the lines? After years of control and debilitating illness, our listener asks if she should leave – and can she make it on her own if she does?+

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This episode contains discussion of financial abuse, emotional abuse and controlling behaviour. It also includes discussion of suicidal feelings and mental health.

Dear Katie and Helen,

I found your podcast in November and have really been impacted by it. I already knew that I grew up with a narcissistic dad and endured a lot of emotional abuse growing up, with my mother being an enabler. I always thought my dad was “bad” and mom was “good” until adulthood when my therapist pointed out that I had abandonment issues due to my mom always taking his side and never protecting us (kids). My dad was abusive towards both my mom and us. I grew up feeling guilty for even existing.

Fast forward to adulthood, I got married to someone who I thought was so different from my dad. But it turns out that he ended up being incredibly emotionally abusive as well. With my dad I was constantly criticized and yelled at, whereas with my husband the abuse has been more subtle and didn’t show up until after we married. With both relationships, there have been a lot of control issues. A lot of times I have questioned whether my husband is a narcissist or whether I’m just projecting all my issues from my childhood onto him. I question myself and my reality a lot. I KNOW there has been emotional abuse though and that has been validated by my therapist and many friends. Although he’s gotten a lot better over the past couple of years, I’m still struggling with whether or not we can really make this marriage work long term or if I need to leave. Here’s a little summary.

Our problems began almost immediately in the first year of our marriage when I moved into his house. It was difficult to move my stuff in because he was very controlling about where everything went and got upset when I tried to merge my books with his on the bookshelf, etc. Most of my stuff stayed in boxes in a closet for 5 years until we finally moved. I thought the issues with the house were due to me moving into “his territory” and that he would be less controlling once we moved into a place that we bought together, but that didn’t happen. When I had my first child I felt utterly abandoned and alone in motherhood. He would act like a caring father when we were out in public but I was shouldering the majority of the parenting responsibilities at home. So with our first child he wasn’t very involved. We saw 2 counselors during those first 5 years without really any progress. One huge issue was that he would not let me childproof anything, which made my life extremely difficult because I had to follow our crawler / toddler around all the time to make sure he was safe. There were no safe areas where I could just allow him to play without me being a helicopter. Because of this, I had to save all the housework and cooking until my husband came home from work and could help with childcare (so that I could do all the housework stuff), so I had literally no down time just to relax. I was chronically exhausted.

We moved houses 6 months before my 2nd child was born. There were some safety issues with the new house – stairs with no baby gate being one of them. My husband refused to allow a baby gate at the top of the stairs. I almost left him over this. I had had enough. So much that I even considered going back to my parents!!! My mom said she didn’t want to enable me leaving him so she wasn’t going to let me come there because we needed to work it out. We saw 2 more counselors during the time leading up to the birth of our 2nd child, again without progress. The 2nd one had an appointment with me one day alone and told me that she believed my husband was either a narcissist or autistic, because it seemed like he was unable to even consider a point of view other than his own. My husband maintains that he is absolutely NOT autistic, which to me really only leaves one other option. He is incredibly offended and angry about me thinking he’s narcissistic. I still struggle to know which one it is though. He struggles with inflexibility and change which I think drives a lot of the controlling behaviors but even knowing how much his control was causing me to struggle or put the kids in danger he was not willing to change for a very long time, so I don’t think we can chalk it up to autism.

For so long, I felt so trapped like a weight was just on me and I didn’t even have a CHOICE to leave. I finally understood how it was to be in my mother’s shoes. I have been deeply depressed and suicidal for many years, and finally had TMS therapy for my depression a couple of years ago. The biggest thing it gave me was a sense of agency over my life. At that point I started really standing up for myself more and being less scared of the idea of divorce. But that doesn’t mean it was an easy decision to make. I have struggled with what to do and then I hate myself for not being able to make a decision. I feel like I’m so weak and I feel so ashamed of how weak I am that I continue to stay and that I don’t have the strength to leave. Honestly there’s a big part of me that wants to leave and I heard what you said in one episode about how having agency actually makes it harder sometimes because you actually feel like you have a choice so now it’s within your control. And feeling like it’s in my control and knowing I’m still struggling makes me feel so weak.

There’s so much I could tell you but for the sake of keeping it brief I’ll just highlight a few more things he’s done over the years. When we were traveling in Japan, he literally ran off of a subway leaving me behind with no phone, internet, or way to communicate with anyone or find him. He just left me behind and then blamed me for not being fast enough (I didn’t even know it was our stop – he realized it at the last minute and got off without checking to make sure I knew / that I could also get off the subway fast enough). So I was left in another country where I did not know the language with NO map, no phone, no anything. I was helped by an FBI agent who just happened to be there and saw that I was distressed. To this day my husband still brings it up in more of a joking manner with friends, always still placing blame on me for the situation. Also, there was a time when my child’s car seat broke and he refused to get a new one even though we had plenty of money in the bank. When I said I was just going to have to go against him and buy one anyway, he threatened to take away my credit cards. At this point I made a post in a facebook group and had all these moms offering help, telling me he was abusive, which is I honestly still hadn’t even realized at this point because to me, the abuse was so different from what I experienced with my dad it felt so much more subtle. So it took all these strangers telling me for me to realize it. And after that a group of friends had an intervention with me and tried to get me to leave him. But I didn’t. For a long time, I didn’t have access to our online banking or any passwords to anything. There has also been a lot of gaslighting over the years although that’s improved now.

This type of stuff went on for 9 years of marriage, and we’ve been married almost 12 now. During those first 9 years we saw 5 marriage therapists with no progress – I don’t feel like he was really willing to look at himself and do the work. He went with me but I don’t think he was really “in it.” He has changed drastically over the past couple of years, I think only because I laid it all out in an email at one point and told him I am NOT willing to live with this for the next 70 years. I think knowing I might actually leave him is what caused him to change. And most of the time I can’t even access the old memories because things are just so different now so I forget how bad it was, but they came up this past week with my therapist. For the longest time he never apologized. Finally in September of this past year he apologized for hurting me, but I don’t think he really “gets” that was he did was that bad or really understands what he even did. And for the first time, we started going to marriage therapy and he is no longer concerned about the cost or anything, and he’s “in it” for the first time ever. But I feel like at this point, I’m the one who’s not, which makes me feel like the bad guy. I have no romantic feelings or attraction to him and haven’t for a very long time – all of that trauma killed it and I have been trying hard to get it back but I don’t know if it’s even possible after all of this. And yet I still feel so intertwined with him, like it would be incredibly difficult to separate our lives. In an ideal world, we would be able to reconcile now that he’s changed and I would be able to feel things for him again and we’d be able to stay together and not make things complicated. But I don’t know if that’s possible or what’s best. I honestly feel like I need space to figure it out, but I’m not even sure what that looks like.

Even just writing this all out is so triggering and bringing up this terrible feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach at having to stay, even with all of the positive changes he’s made over the past couple of years and even though things are better now. I’m recovering from a recent bout of depression and every time I think about this it triggers and almost sends me back to that place. It still feels like I have this gut feeling that I need to move on. I just don’t know how and I don’t have confidence that I can build a life on my own. It’s not like I have parents to fall back on, and I’m not sure how his parents would react if I left him even if they knew all of this. I don’t feel like I really have a good enough support system to make it on my own, especially parenting our two kids who both have special needs. I don’t know that I’m mentally healthy enough to do it on my own. My depression is debilitating at times and while I would hope that it would be better once I got through the initial period of adjustment and got away from him, I’m just not sure if I’m going to have the mental health necessary to work full time / support myself and also be a mom. And I don’t want my kids to end up in foster care either – the idea of that is terrifying to me. But also the thought of them living with my husband with no one there to make sure to keep him in line is terrifying, so I wouldn’t necessarily want him to have sole custody. He is a much better dad now than he used to be, but I still have to correct him / disagree and have to point out sometimes when he is doing things that I feel are emotionally damaging to the kids. And he is receptive, but I just don’t know how it would be if I wasn’t there to make sure he treated them well. I’ve had so much guilt over the years when I’ve felt it’s been hard to stand up for the kids (but I do and have always kept them safe). But I’m so afraid to be my mom and fail to protect them.

I’m sorry this is so long, I really hope you choose my letter for your podcast though! I would love to have some of your insight on this situation.

Question for the podcast: How do I make the decision of whether to stay or go and can I even make it on my own?

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