I stood in the crisp fall air, aware that my hands were getting cold and wishing I had worn gloves. As I waited for my son to pack up his belongings from a sleepover with his friend, the friend’s mother slipped on a jacket and came out to greet me. Normally I would make small talk and cover up the fact that I truly disliked driving to the next city from our house across the bridge when all of the kids’ activities were near their school a good half hours drive in thick traffic. This time I didn’t hide it. I blurted out my frustration to the friend’s mom who looked intently into my face.

Posing the question that almost everyone asked at some point in the last 16 years, she said, “Why don’t you just move over here?”

My answer was shockingly honest. “I don’t have any say in the matter.” I must have startled myself with my honesty because I quickly tried to make light of it by adding, “Oh, well, they’ll be graduating soon” with a forced chuckle.

Her face was no longer casual. “We should have coffee.”

How many times had I brushed people off by replying, “yes, we should” and I never made it happen? This time I knew she meant it and I knew that I would take her up on it. She gave me her number as my son appeared at the door.

We exchanged pleasant good byes laced with many ‘thank you’s and away we went down the mountain. I thought about that meeting several times over the next week and finally I texted her. We made a plan to meet the next day.

Her smile as I entered the coffee shop was genuine and caring. Without hesitation she leaned toward me and began to speak as if we had been friends for years.

“I was so concerned for you”, she confided, “In fact I was almost brought to tears by your statement. I planned to contact you in the next few days if you didn’t get in touch with me.”

That was all I needed to open up and I spent the next half hour encapsulating my 16 year marriage, ending with the definitive statement, “I want out’. Relief washed over her face.

“Oh, I am so glad you came to that conclusion. I knew from that first meeting that you were in an abusive relationship but I had no idea how I was going to tell you to leave. It seems like such a strong statement to make but it is necessary. Take it from a single mom. I was in a marriage for 8 years. Three years before my son was born until he was 5. It was difficult to leave but it was the best decision I made.”

An hour had flown by so quickly so we made a fast exit to pick up our children.

Where were my other girlfriends she had wondered. Well, they were there for me. But I think they had known me for so long that they didn’t detect the gradual eroding of the situation I was in. I think we had all just become used to it. That was just the way it always was. So, when I did tell them things that seemed wrong to me, it probably just came out as whining or complaining rather than warning bells. But that’s okay. Not everyone has to be a psychologist. Besides, there were no physical bruises that were visible on the outside.

But the pain in my heart was increasing and it took outsiders to be able to diagnose the fact that I was definitely suffering from abuse. What sort of abuse? Well for one thing, I had no say in the actual marriage. When we were first married, I moved into the house he had built. I thought to myself that I could handle it for possibly 6 months to a year. Why? Because he had lived there with his first wife. Hmmmm, a bit of a humbling experience for me. But I had been renting at the time of our meeting so it was just logical to move in to his house and make plans to sell it and move shortly thereafter.

The problem was, we never discussed it. When I would try to bring up issues that I thought needed discussing, I was brushed off with a vague response followed by a weak promise to talk about it later. Often, it was at night after the we had gone to bed and I was again put off with the statement that ‘it was late’ and he had to work the next morning. I began to suspect that this was a delay tactic but I would quietly acquiesce and wait for another opportunity. Weeks turned into months and months slipped by into years. 

My life had become one of compromise. Choices I was granted were never really for things that I wanted, but just came down to picking between the lesser of two evils. I was starting to see patterns. What I used to see as isolated incidents that I could muster the strength to get through, became repetitive. Maybe not always the same circumstances but definitely the same types of situations where I was often left to ‘put the fire out’ and then deal with the ensuing emotional trauma surrounding it.

Once, at a family gathering, my husband’s niece interpreted one of his angry outbursts as an attack on her integrity. She avoided our family for the next 7 years making excuses not to attend family functions until she finally revealed it to her grandmother who then told me. Of course it was I who had to fix it all. When I called her she was just as upset with me. She assumed that, because I was married to her uncle, I must have known about the incident and I was holding the same disdain for her as he was. I assured her that I knew nothing about it. When I inquired of him, he didn’t even remember the incident. Slowly, I was able to convince her that our marriage was not what I would consider normal and he would not have talked to me about any episode. I also revealed that many times he did things simply on a reactionary basis with no thought of the message his actions were sending.

At the beginning of our marriage, I thought that if I submitted to him, I would be able to soften him and I would in turn get some of the things I desired. Like a different house – not one that had already been inhabited by a previous wife. But as time went on, I realized that my subtle approach was being taken advantage of. My needs were not being met. It was time to quit.

But how could I get out? He controlled everything, ad nauseam. From an on-lookers perspective, it might look pretty cut and dried. But what they may fail to realize is that the same psychological power that got me into the situation and kept me there for years was the same one that would prevent me from leaving. Not to mention the physical boundaries of not having access to any of the money.

The next six months were agonizing. I would go to sleep in one of the kid’s bedrooms at the opposite end of the house. When I woke up, the first thought that washed over me was, “I’m still here.” Each day became a battle with insanity. How could I keep sane enough to formulate another plan without being crushed by tormenting thoughts? Then there were my children. I had to stay strong for them. I forced myself to focus on them and the needs of my extended family so I wouldn’t dwell on my own situation.

I spent my spare time packing away things unnecessary to daily life. Most days, I drove to a local storage unit where I squirrelled away a box or two while the kids were in school. Other days, I would visit properties for lease in the hopes that something would become available in the almost zero rental market. Once, I was 34th in line to view a home. When the owner handed me the application, she asked why I was looking to rent when I had lived in my own home for 17 years. When I told her it was due to a marriage separation, she reacted with the expression that had become all too familiar ~ ‘nope, don’t want to get involved’ was written on her face.

When was this ever going to end?

And then it happened. He came home from work one day and said he couldn’t take it anymore. He sat down and wrote me a check that would cover several months rent. He also agreed to sign the separation papers I had shoved in front of him on a frequent basis. But I still had no place to go.

Then one day the phone rang. It was my step-son, his son from his previous marriage. He had discovered a loophole in the strata laws governing the townhouse he owned. Although he been previously told that he was not able to rent his unit under any circumstances, the one exception was immediate family. He could rent it to me and my children until I was granted a settlement and purchase my own place. That was my ticket out.

The first morning I woke up on the couch in the new place, I was afraid to breath. What if it was all a dream and I wasn’t really out? What if something went wrong and I would have to go back? As frightening as it was to be on my own for the first time in decades, each day brought a new strength.

Enough time has now lapsed to distance the memories and sooth the pain. I am becoming whole again and the happiest I’ve been in years.

Although it meant giving up some comforts in exchange for this new life of freedom, it was worth it. After all, nothing in life is worth the death of one’s soul.