He threatened me, so we split. Now he's wooing me back!

I'd like to believe he's changed, but I never felt safe around him.

Published April 14, 2005 7:21PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My husband, from whom I am separated, is pursuing me under the banner of "I've realized the error of my ways and now realize what a wonderful woman you are." How should I proceed?

We were married only a short time (11 months) when I asked him to leave (after he flat-out refused couples counseling). We'd dated for four years, and I felt confident in (although saddened about) my decision to separate. He complied, and it seemed mutual.

My reasons were this: I felt like my physical person was in danger around him (we were prone to knock-down, drag-out fights and he was prone to using threats of physical harm as an intimidation), and I was fearful of who I was around him (cutting off contact with friends and family, deepening my capacity for cruelty to him and to myself). In short, I thought he displayed physically and emotionally abusive tendencies, I didn't like my response to it, and I didn't want to continue in a relationship where I was fearful of our future together (having kids and bringing them into the hostile environment we'd created, for example, was out of the question).

However, now after a few months of separation, he confesses that he really messed up. He says he treated me in an unforgivable way and cannot understand why I tolerated his behavior for as long as I did. And he's apologizing over and over. More significantly, he is demonstrating remorse. Recently, we've been spending time together, and he's being ... nice. And ... considerate. And showing a capacity for patience that I've never seen before.

He explains that our few months apart have led him to a place where he can see what a wonderful woman I am (his words) and all of the ways I supported him that he never gave me credit for, etc. And he's asking that I move on with him to create a new life together.

I can see that this could seem like a honeymoon kind of thing, and how no one would think I should buy any of what he wants to sell -- and I can't deny that 97 percent of me wouldn't want to invest anything in a relationship with him even if I did believe him, for fear that it would spiral back into what we had before. But still.

Should I buy what he's trying to sell? His intentions seem genuine, and I know he believes everything he's saying. We were only married for a short time. Maybe I'm giving up on him too soon? I really did want a life with him -- if it were sane and healthy.

Not So Sure

Dear Not So Sure,

Ah, the remorse of the abuser, how after shameful excess it tortures one into promises of moderation, how after its dark and murky course one emerges bright and hopeful again, how, having little sense of history, one even believes one's own plain lies -- that it will be different this time because one feels so different! What is missing from such remorse is a mature sense of the other. The addict, like the abuser, is enclosed: What is important to him is how he himself feels; that is his world. How he affects others only becomes clear to him when he himself is made to suffer. He lacks compassionate imagination. After a setback, such as losing the spouse, he sees the problem: He was not quite charming enough! His spell was too weak. He slipped up a time or two. Maybe he went overboard a little. But no harm done! He can regain it all! And so he refuels his hypnotic engine of subterfuge and threat and begins again to dazzle, to wheedle and control.

Picture his newfound optimism, clarity and kindness as only the trough of the same wave that so recently capsized you with terror and confusion. It's building again even as he proclaims how much he's changed, how much he sees where things went wrong. I wouldn't be surprised if he said, characteristically puffing himself up even as he pretends humility, that it was an excess of love that led him to treat you so cruelly! It is only that he loves you too much!

I wouldn't go for it. I'd stay away.

Saying this makes me feel like a sour old man. Why am I always condemning what one would like to believe is genuine soul-searching change? Why do I see only the endless machinations of the addict and the abuser? Why? Well, what am I supposed to say? This is what I know. This is what I see. It's all too familiar.

I'm not saying one cannot change. People change all the time. But here's what the change looks like: A genuine deflation of the ego. Not this world-beating kindness and optimism, but something more muted and subdued, as though he'd had a blow to the head. If he were to go away and wait to hear from you, that might be persuasive. That might mean he'd given up control. But he's pursuing you again. He thinks he can make it work! Failure has not occurred to him. That's what I find so pathological and so eerie.

Every campaign of abuse contains a period of seduction. So to cast the seduction phase as evidence of a changed heart strikes me as pretty outlandish. It's easy to woo, to soothe, to seduce. The hard part is coming back into the same situation and responding to it differently, tolerating the same stresses that only a few months ago were intolerable, rerouting the same impulses that a few months ago led to threats of violence, finding new ways to handle extreme emotions, creating new methods for resolving conflict. I think if you put him back in the same environment, unless he's profoundly changed, he's going to tend to act the same way. And so are you.

Think about it: What will you do if he moves back in and you have a bad night and he hits you? What are you going to do if you find yourself sinking into whatever morass you were in when you two were together? What are you going to do then? Think of how foolish and defeated you would feel. It would be so much harder to undo what you have already undone once. No, I can't see how it's a good idea. I would suggest that what's done is done, that you gave it a shot and it didn't work out and the best thing to do is let it go. Let him find someone else. And you find someone else as well. Don't fall for it. File for divorce. Get the papers signed. Forget about him.

(P.S. A side note: When you feel physical danger, it seems to me that classic domestic violence is afoot, that undercurrents of criminal behavior are running chill around your feet. Why do I envision a cold current of water circulating about your feet? I see you drowning. Why is drowning your plight? What does it mean when a man seems to be drowning a woman? Isn't that the archetypal essence of domestic violence, the Scott Peterson method? Drowning, as envelopment, is the essence of domestic violence, isn't it -- a violence of reversal, not piercing but enveloping, and thus a kind of perversity.)

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