I always joke that I blame Jane Austen and Walt Disney for selling us a flowery, picture-perfect scenario of true love. Think about it: in these fantasies, there is self-sacrifice that always yields complete and utter devotion on the part of both parties. I know the day I walked down the aisle to get married, at the tender age of 18 ½, I knew it was a bad decision but I truly believed that if I devoted myself to him that he would love me unconditionally and take care of me in body and soul. Of course, I knew the behaviors I had seen from him were confusing. They weren’t predictable. Some were scary. Imagine being 17 years old and getting a phone call from your boyfriend who is hundreds of miles away at a Naval base, asking you why you were sitting with a particular person at your high school football game. That was my life as a high school senior, the same age as my older daughter is now.
That ideal of perfection is also what ruined every holiday for me for 25 years. Somehow, I believed that if my Thanksgiving table or my Christmas decorations or the girls’ Easter outfits were picture perfect, the rest of our lives would be, too. I’m not exaggerating when I say I would try to throw the most beautiful, Martha Stewart-esque holiday party in town and put months of energy into planning and baking and decorating. The last time I did that, we invited probably 50 couples and had two show up. Then, of course, it was my fault that people didn’t come. Years later I found out this was because most of the people we invited were from his job and they hated his breathing guts. Mystery solved.
Letting Go Of Expectations
One of the toughest hurdles I had to jump in my recovery was letting go the notion that this is what love and marriage and family would be about. When living with an abuser, love and marriage and family become about surviving until the next day and trying to keep your sanity intact. I rarely got flowers and it got to the point where I said I didn’t want any because it was a waste of money. Truth was, he would always make me feel guilty after giving me flowers and that made it not worth the momentary enjoyment. Gifts were never well considered and were either obligatory (birthday, Christmas) or a thinly veiled apology which was quickly overridden by the next round of abuse. Trips were always planned by me. The rare night out was always planned by me. There was no romance unless it was to put on a show for others or to Hoover me back when he felt me pulling away. In other words, nothing that I saw in my parents’ marriage and definitely nothing I saw in popular culture actually played out in my own life.
When I finally let myself grieve the loss of my hopes and dreams about love, it was gut-wrenching. I have to admit, this was probably one of my most difficult recovery steps. It meant, essentially, admitting that 28 years of my life had been a total lie. That was awful. Although the good moments were extraordinarily rare, I had clung to them like a shipwreck survivor to a deflating raft. It was part of the attempt to keep my sanity and relate to the rest of the world. Letting go of that meant jumping off the raft and trusting myself to swim. You know what? That’s exactly what happened.
Grief Turned Empowerment
Slowly, I realized that by acknowledging my grief over the fact that nothing about my marriage was real, I also gave myself the power to declare that his assertions and claims about me were not real, either. The gaslighting wasn’t real. I wasn’t all those things he said of me. In other words, by grieving and letting go my fantasy, I also released myself from the falseness of his mental training. This gave me the freedom to create my own dialogue based on things I knew to be evidence-based. I could take inventory of myself and see the truth instead of what he had worked so hard to have me believe just so he could maintain his control.
Yes, I grieved. I grieved the many lost years and tears. I grieved the wasted time and wasted love. I grieved the young girl who laid aside every dream she had in order to try to keep peace and be a “good wife.” I grieved the falseness of the façade I had put on for my children. Then I held a proper funeral for that other life, and moved on.
Not long after, I discovered that reality is so much better than fantasy, and I am so grateful for this crazy, messy reality.