A couple of years ago, I made a choice that changed the course of my entire life, and the effects of this life-altering decision are still unfolding today. After 22 years of trying everything I could think of to make my abusive marriage work, I finally decided to give up on it for good, and I wish I had done it much sooner.

It is important to me that I share why I stayed for so long and the resulting consequences, so that I may help someone else make the crucial decision to leave sooner than I did. There are countless reasons people stay in abusive relationships but not one of them has to do with being stupid &/or actually deserving it. I would say “staying for the kids” is probably one of the most common reasons and the worst one of all. In my case, not only did I believe it when he said he never meant to hurt me and promised to change, but I was also lying to myself, which may have been even more dangerous than believing his lies. However, the main reason I stayed is that I had already been groomed for abuse by my family of origin in multiple ways, and I truly believed I deserved it. Let me repeat that: I believed to the core of my being that I deserved to be abused. Oh, and I also didn’t think of it as “abuse.” That’s why I stayed for so long. I thought I was causing it. And if I could just be better and stop making everyone so mad all the time, the abuse would eventually stop. Spoiler alert: I was wrong. Nothing is ever good enough. They will always find or manufacture a reason to abuse because that’s what they want to do.

This is a pretty textbook story about the cycle of abuse. Every time there was an episode in my marriage, it would eventually end with him apologizing for the often hours of sustained verbal and emotional abuse I endured, sometimes even admitting some guilt, but making sure to remind me of how I started it. He always promised he’d never do it again, but he did anyway whenever he got mad. Most of our “fights” took place in front of our children, and he even dragged them into it sometimes. For example, when I would finally break down in tears, he would say things like, “look how stupid mommy looks when she cries.” Even if he didn’t directly bring them into it like that, they still heard all of the horrible things he said to and about me during his verbal tirades. Additionally, he regularly told me things like, “you’re too much work” or “you make it hard to love you” and our children received those messages.

He always claimed I was the one who started it by nagging, criticizing, &/or attacking him. The thing is, I could ask a simple question and he’d perceive it as an attack, which meant he felt justified in attacking back. I could never express a negative emotion because he somehow framed it as abusive &/or destructive no matter how healthy the expression, even if the emotion I was feeling initially had nothing to do with him. He simply could not deal with it.

It also set him off when I couldn’t do certain things due to my Fibromyalgia, so he accused me of faking flare-ups and other illnesses because I was “too lazy” to do the dishes, for example. In his mind, I was inconveniencing him for no good reason, and this justified the hours of insults and accusations that would follow as a result. I would ask, “don’t you think I’d prefer doing the dishes to this if I were physically able?” But logic had no place in his world. He found being inconvenienced in any way for any reason quite offensive and disrespectful, which enraged him, and unless I was doing exactly what he wanted, I was a disrespectful inconvenience. Our children were saturated with these messages throughout their childhoods: Mommy is a lazy, judgmental, emotional, irrational nag who lies about being sick, and is always mean to daddy so it’s okay to say awful things to and about her because she deserves it. No wonder they believed it. Even I believed it, so I was frustrated with myself for not being good enough. I routinely said things like, “I’m trying my best but it’s just never enough.” Then I finally began to wake up.

It’s hard to reconcile regretting not giving up on something sooner, especially a marriage, for someone who never gives up on anything, but I do. In fact, staying as long as I did was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made and it was unimaginably detrimental to my children. It affected them in ways I could not have fathomed until I witnessed them. They all have a daunting amount of childhood trauma to recover from, and I can’t describe the guilt I feel. I legitimately thought I’d protected them, but I was lying to myself.

Their father seemed indifferent to them at best, and just generally annoyed by their existence for the most part. That’s not to say we didn’t have some happy times, but they were few, far between, fleeting, and always punctuating by a stressful or traumatic event for assorted reasons. I also think they felt like they had to earn his affection.

In addition, growing up in an environment in which their father was constantly debasing and gaslighting their mother into believing she was the problem has undeniably affected the way they view me now. I truly thought they’d be able to see things as they really were. I never imagined that they could witness my abuse and still grow up to believe I was at fault, but two of them did. I’m hopeful that my youngest, the only one who has lived with me without their father, will have a more realistic image of me as we have now gotten the opportunity to spend a lot of time alone together, and she has seen my healing process up close, but my adult children think I’m the abusive one because they believed what their dad said about me during his demeaning rants and abusive outbursts.

You would think if someone loves you, they’d stop what they were doing when they saw how much pain it was causing you, but we’re talking about toxic people. In my experience, seeing your pain only makes their behavior worse because they get a kick out of it. Further, they’re trying to provoke a reaction they can use against you as evidence that you are abusive, unstable, or both. I’d usually wind up sobbing uncontrollably because I was so wounded by the cruelty of someone who was supposed to love me. That was used as proof that I was emotional and irrational or was mischaracterized as an attempt to manipulate him, which automatically meant that I was the emotionally abusive one. This is the same claim my father made when his abuse reduced me to tears as a child. I wasn’t really hurt. I was just trying to manipulate them. The reality is that I was in so much pain, not just emotionally but even physically, that I could no longer handle it. I was having a natural reaction to trauma and abuse that was used against me as if I were defective for experiencing it that way. I was always “overreacting” and labeled as “melodramatic” and overly sensitive.

Occasionally, as much as I regret doing so, I would lash out at him and tell him I hated him or call him a name (“reactive abuse”) when I finally couldn’t bear it anymore, which was always used to “prove” that I was actually the abusive one, as were my tears. Generally, my emotions were not my own and were regarded as mere attempts at manipulating someone else by both my ex and my father, so even my own feelings were never about me. At the end of one of the last incidents between my ex and I, he and one of our children stood over me as I literally wept and begged them to stop, talking about how pathetic and dramatic I was. That’s the first time I remember it really sinking in that my child was becoming abusive too. It was a good way to gain love, acceptance, and approval from the abusive parent. They were bonding over ridiculing and humiliating me.

When he was in middle school, he had become one of his father’s favorite scapegoats, second only to me, for a time. He came to me in tears on a regular basis because he thought his father “hated” him. It broke my heart, and I tried to reassure him that his dad loved him, but he was still in a lot of pain. Looking back, I realize there was a distinct point when he started engaging in abusive behavior toward me and his siblings. I’m embarrassed to admit that it affected me deeply as I find that kind of behavior triggering due to my history, and I would often sob, which he was taught was abusive &/or ridiculous, especially when I did it. The only thing that hurts more than your father or your husband purposefully saying hurtful things to you is when your child does it.

Once I started to learn and understand that certain behaviors I had been conditioned to accept as justifiable were actually abusive, I tried pointing them out to my husband and our children because I naively believed they would stop if they understood that what they were doing was abusive, and I wanted our other kids to know that what was going on was unhealthy. I was wrong again. My new-found knowledge, which empowered me, left those who were abusive, vulnerable to discovery, so I had to be discredited. Our children got the message that pointing out abusive behavior is somehow abusive in itself because the people I was “accusing” of behaving that way didn’t think they were or didn’t see the problem with it, so I became the villain. Incidentally, you are not abusing someone if you’re simply shining a light on their abusive behavior. Abusers don’t want to take responsibility for their actions, so the only thing they can do when you start to get educated and educate others in the house is to discredit you by any means necessary. My sources of information on the subject were also mocked as I was self-taught. In other words, I didn’t have a degree in psychology, so I must be making it all up to fit my narrative.

It was about this time that I finally accepted nothing was ever going to change, and if I wanted a different life, I’d have to leave and really begin my healing process on my own, so I did. It’s been over two years now, and the longer I’m away from the abuse, the clearer everything becomes. I have lost two of my children because I didn’t wake up and make the decision to leave when they were young, but I legitimately believed the abuse was my fault and I was trying to keep my family together. And once I learned the truth, I foolishly hoped that we could all heal together as a family. As it turns out, staying together did so much more damage than I ever could have imagined.

I will spend the rest of my life recovering from the abuse I was subjected to as a child and adult. Hopefully, my children will all choose to embark on their own healing journeys so they won’t carry the legacy of abuse into their adult relationships. I can’t express the amount of guilt I feel for the role I played in their childhood trauma. I work every day to improve myself and show my daughter who still lives with me that I am learning, growing, and healing. I’m finally modeling healthy boundaries. beliefs, and behavior for her, and I always point out my mistakes because I want us both to learn something from them if possible. I hope my other kids will see the situation & how hard I’m working to get healthy more clearly as they get older, forgive me for my mistakes & not realizing them sooner, and we can repair & rebuild our relationships in the future, but that means they have to get healthy first to gain the necessary insight to resume contact with me. Until then, I’ll keep working on my recovery so I’ll be ready to reunite with them if they ever decide they want to.