WARNING: the following includes content and language not suitable for young readers, as well as descriptions of domestic violence that may act as a trigger for some. Please read responsibly.
By Meg Kuck
Forgiveness is a slippery idea. Just when you believe you have reached the point, that pinnacle of struggle, where you can finally say those three elusive words to the person who has arguably been the linchpin in your wheel of madness and memory, your mind transports you, yet again, to those moments that created the wheel.
I haven’t seen my ex-husband since the summer of 2013, just before I left Washington, DC and returned to my hometown in Delaware. I consider this a blessing, really, since the very thought of looking him in the eye is still terrifying for me. During the time we were together I lost so much of myself that I could hardly recognize who I had become. It was as if my former self had died and my existence in this world had become simply reactionary and was purely for self-preservation - the latter often a contentious question I posed to myself that sadly leveraged my self-destructive and dangerous behavior in those particularly dark moments.
For over ten years my ex-husband slowly and effectively erased everything that I knew to be true and familiar, and replaced it all with falsity and fear. He was calculated in his control and manipulation and knew exactly how to simultaneously break and comfort me. His abuse was physical and emotional and his control was psychological to the extent of financially and professionally crippling me. “You will never make it on your own; you are so smart and beautiful; you do nothing but get in my way; you are such a waste; you cannot leave me, you are all that I have” are just some of the contradictory things I heard on daily basis. The state of our relationship was a perpetual pendulum swing: moving swiftly between him showering me with affection and feeling like I was the most special person, to being punched and shoved and spit on and emotionally torn to pieces while fearing for my life.
It wasn’t until I lost our second child that I hit absolute rock bottom. It wasn’t until I sat alone, bleeding, in the hospital bed that I realized that something had shifted, and my perspective of my own existence in the relationship, and in this world, finally started to re-center just enough for me to see past the fog of false love. Shortly after the miscarriage, I started the process of leaving him.
Leaving him was not easy, let alone unsafe. I lost count of the amount of times he called crying, then yelling, then threatening to harm me.
One of the last moments we saw each other face-to-face was not long after I had moved out and into a studio apartment in the city. I had agreed to have dinner with him at a restaurant in the same neighborhood as my apartment. The dinner was awkward at best but I was thankful for a public place; he despised any attention drawn to him and would rarely ever make - or allow - a scene. Since he was commuting from outside the city, he offered to drive me home. About one block from my apartment, our conversation took a turn and he began to yell and hit the steering wheel. He sped through several red lights and as we approached the corner next to my building I was readying myself to get out of the car as quickly as I could when he started shoving me in a way that suggested he was prepared to throw me from the car. As I opened the door to climb out, he began to speed away and I barely could catch my balance before throwing the car door closed behind me. In fact, I am still not sure if he sped off with the passenger door open or closed.
About 30 minutes later he called my cell phone. I didn’t pick up, but I did listen to the voicemail. He said he was sorry. He was "just so upset by the whole thing" and was “overcome with emotion.” I didn’t call him back. About twenty minutes later, he called again. I didn’t pick up, but once again I listened to the voicemail. He was irritated. “Why aren’t you picking up the phone? You are so incredibly insensitive and cruel, Megan. You know I am having a hard time with all of this and yet you don’t pick up your phone.” At this point I had been through enough of these kinds of conversation trajectories that I knew what was coming next. Not ten minutes later, he called again and I let the call go to voicemail. I listened, and shook my head not in surprise, but in the general disbelief in how I allowed myself to be treated and trapped. That third call was, as expected, hostile. “You are such a fucking bitch. You are nothing. You piece of shit, don’t you dare call me back. I never want to see your fucking face ever again.” And then, silence. Not even a text message. I thought to myself: okay, that wasn’t too bad. At least he finally shut up. Until he didn’t. He called a fourth time, about an hour later. After screening the call to voicemail, I listened to the message. He was crying and his speech was shaky. “Why are you doing this? What will I do without you? You cannot leave me, you are all that I have. Please call me back, Megan. Please.”
I didn’t call him back. The next day, I took a bus to the courthouse and filed for divorce.
I want to forgive him. The man who destroyed me for a period of time, I want to forgive him. Through the years that followed my departure from the city and return home to Delaware I’ve learned that holding on to hate, to pain and to unanswered questions, is one of the worst kinds of self-destructive behavior. By not letting go I am ensuring that his grip and control of me remain. At least that’s how it feels.
It’s one thing to believe in forgiveness and another thing altogether to actually offer it. Is there a magic moment that happens that will let me know “You’ve done it! You have forgiven!” that is followed by a self-assurance of not having to worry about any more flashbacks or nightmares? No. Of course not. In fact, those things will probably continue even after I have actively decided to forgive. However, I imagine having offered my forgiveness in sincerity I would likely find myself in a different frame of mind when faced with triggers and traumatic memories. The management of these events and conditions would become easier.
I knew from the beginning that my ex-husband suffered from mental illness, and that abuse ran in his family. His grandmother was emotionally manipulated by a classic, textbook, narcissist. After she left him, she spent the rest of her life alone - finding comfort, strangely but not unsurprising to me, in the retelling of episodes of abuse. Based on what my ex-husband had shared with me throughout our relationship, he was abused as a child by his father and his father was abusive toward his mother, and, his father’s father was abusive toward his children. My point is: my ex-husband’s behavior in our relationship was a learned behavior, if not a conditioned one. I think it’s also important to note that the perspective, and by extension opinion, of what constitutes abuse can vary based on generation and culture. In the case of my ex-husband, I strongly believe his perspective on abuse was influenced by his childhood, and seriously compounded by the mental illness from which he suffered - which, was a result of his childhood abuse. Fear of abandonment, the desire to control (as opposed to being controlled), manipulating the memory of events and conversations in favor of himself, and certainly: his parameters of acceptable and respectful behavior vis-a-vis an intimate relationship, were all things that influenced his perspective and behavior.
There is no excuse for what he did to me. While I can work toward a greater understanding as to why he did what he did, I cannot ignore the fact that he was a highly functioning and intelligent human being who consciously made decisions. He chose to corner me for hours in the kitchen and berate me over something trivial; he chose to shake me in the middle of the night and hover over me and say “I fucking hate you. You’re worthless.”; he chose to punch me when I tried to leave him. The dilemma, though, is to what extent can I consider the influence of his childhood on his decision-making; at what point does compassion and understanding become an act of making excuses?
So, maybe you’re wondering if I’ve done it. Have I forgiven him? The answer is no, I haven’t completely forgiven him. The process of healing after abuse is incredibly complicated and unpredictable, and anything but universal in its practice and application. I don’t know how long I will be in therapy - probably indefinitely, and I’m okay with that - or if the traumatic memories will continue to resurface with the same frequency or intensity. But I do know that I have arrived to a new place of healing, and maybe, maybe, that includes letting go.
Meg Kuck is the Founder and Director of Shine the Light Foundation, and Owner and Lead Artisan of Moderncity + Main
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