My husband beat me. Should I divorce him?

I am conflicted and tied up in knots; he has tried to make it up to me, and wants me to come back.

Published December 1, 2006 11:11AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I have been reading your columns for years and always enjoy the slant you have on things even if sometimes I feel you should be blunter about the advice you give. Maybe that relates to my own problem, which is that I am suffering from a surfeit of points of view on my situation. There are so many ways of looking at things as they stand that I have been feeling sick with disorientation for some time now. I'm separated from my husband of a year but still seeing him frequently (we work together as journalists and now sit side by side in the office and also keep meeting after work). Why are we separated? Because less than two months after we married, while we were living in his parents' home, he began to be verbally and then physically abusive every night for three months, refusing to allow me to sleep and calling me a bitch, whore, prostitute, and so on and so forth. Why? Because I'd had two boyfriends and two flings before I met him. Which I'd told him about within a few days of our getting together. He asked for details; I declined; he insisted; finally I relented. At the time, until we married, he said that it didn't matter at all, that he only felt some of these people hadn't treated me well.

Metamorphosis after we married.

We fell in love quickly and married within just three months of starting to date. He was 26 and had never had a relationship, though he's handsome and confident; I was 27 and had had a few relationships. I thought, since we were both from families with happily married parents, there was a strong chance for everything to work out well. I didn't so much assess the risks as assume everything would be fine. You know, the same old story that lovers always tell each other: I was made for you and you for me; this relationship is a cosmic necessity, and so on.

More background. I live in Bombay, where I was born, but I grew up in England and have also lived in France. I moved to Bombay on a kind of whim three years ago, started to work, and realized I felt happy and at home after about a year. I'd decided to stay even before I met my husband, whom I'll call H. My family is also Indian but pretty unconventional, not overtly religious and so on, so I had little exposure to what a traditional/restrictive Indian background can be like.

H is from a traditional family. His parents, however, accepted our marriage quite happily, and everything as far as they were concerned was fine. We married and, supposedly to save money while we looked for a place, stayed with his parents (not my idea, but I understood it was for a month or so). I earn far more than him and until recently was also supporting him.

Everything went well; his parents are traditional yet never imposed any duties or even basic housework on me. H wanted to stay on with them and I agreed, but said I wanted to move out eventually. We carried on working in the same office.

Very soon, H became more and more possessive. In a way, I liked the assertions that he couldn't live without me for a second. But then he also became intensely involved with demanding all the details of my past relationships and became more and more abusive. This went on night after night in his house and his parents either didn't notice or chose not to comment. Perhaps they didn't hear. One night, he even beat me (while jeering, "You're not so clever now, are you''). Immediately he said he was sorry. I said he must never do it again. He promised, but a few other times he hit me once or twice, rather than sustainedly.

It was only nine months after this started -- and paradoxically, when things were much better on the whole -- that again he kept me awake all night and I fled for the first time to see my parents on my own. They live nearby, but I had always gone there only with him after getting married. I told my mother everything and spent a week at home working out what to do. I then tried to go back, but his parents put pressure on me to "forget about this and get on with the rest of your life now." I realized I needed more time and moved out, staying first with a relative and then moving in with a friend.

H did everything he could to get my sympathy, crying, telling me he missed me, moving out into a rented place so I would live with him. I started therapy (before my therapist discontinued it a few weeks ago because her nanny resigned). My therapist said I needed to be more assertive and not fall into the trap of being manipulated; that I should not feel responsible for H's loneliness or sadness.

I began to feel better; I wrote more (I am a nascent novelist) and carried on with work. Of course I continued to see H every day. No one at work knows; it is a very judgmental kind of place and in any case I prefer to keep my personal life separate (but not to the extent of not marrying a colleague, I know).

H has been pulling out the stops. He bought me jewelry for our anniversary, took me away for the weekend, and cooks for me every time I stay at his place. He also continually cries and tells me things are difficult for him. I alternate between rage, sadness, loneliness, relief, reluctance to get back together with him and a belief that we can still make things work. He has promised to see my therapist, too, when her nanny issue gets resolved. But that appears to be taking time.

My question, after this long preamble, is this. I want to make things work with him, I think. But, often, when I wake up at his place, or when I concretely consider the idea of living with him forever, my gut knots and says no, that he will always try to repress me in order to feed his insecurity; that we don't share the same interests (he is antipathetic toward art, though he's now starting a novel himself); that in order to feel less insecure he will always want to bring me down; and that I cannot live with someone who is like that. I feel in my gut that he is my enemy. Not that I hate him. But that he will destroy me if I don't escape.

My head says I should try, give it time, etc, etc. I just want to know which of the conflicting points of view to give weight to. One friend says this is my spiritual struggle in life, and if not with this man, I will have to confront these issues with another. The therapist says anyone can be successfully married to anyone as long as they are committed to making it work. Another friend says it is doomed. My parents hope I end it but are not pressuring me. I know my own low self-esteem is part of what ties me to him. But what I can't work out is whether I should ignore my habitual nerves and stay fast in this; or whether that knot in my gut is telling me something I need to listen to?

I really hope you can help me, Cary. With many thanks for all your other columns.

Is Knot a Negative?

Dear Knot,

If I have occasionally failed to be blunt when bluntness was called for, let me be blunt in this case: End the marriage. In your gut you feel that this man is your enemy, that he will destroy you if you don't escape. Trust your gut. End the marriage.

As to my characteristic lack of bluntness: I did not enter upon this enterprise in order to tell people what to do -- Divorce him! Tell her to shut her trap! Tell those nosy neighbors to mind their own business! Rather, I believe in the value of the transaction between you and me. It is that transaction itself in which mutual dignity and power are born. You speak to me, I speak back, not in oracular fashion but as a peer, one as baffled and uncertain about life as you. And then, through an act of imagination and will, I impose on this bafflement and uncertainty a pose of clarity and resolve. The imposition of that clarity and resolve is, if I might say so, almost an act of theatrical magic: It is heartening to observe, but it is a fiction. If I have anything of value to share with you, it is only because first of all I share your bafflement and uncertainty. How could it be otherwise? If I cannot know what it is like to be baffled and uncertain, I cannot know how to strike that pose of clarity and resolve in the midst of it.

Now that we are talking honestly one to another, I can tell you what I observe: You yourself know what you must do. So trust yourself. Honor yourself. Honor your own knowledge. Honor your own desire for safety. Honor your own desire for respect. Honor your own desire for dignity. Honor your own life.

You know what to do. All you need is the courage and power to act. How do you get that courage and power? It took courage and power for you to leave your husband's family's house and return to your family without him. It took courage and power to go back there and discuss the situation with his parents. Where did you get the courage and power to decide to stay in Bombay? Where did you get the courage and power to write to me? (For it does take courage and power to tell the truth, and you have told the truth.)

Wherever it is you find the courage and power to act, I suggest -- nay, to be blunt, I implore you: Find that courage and power and do what you must do.

And know this: You will hurt someone you love by doing this. You will hurt this man, make no mistake about that. He will feel the pain of losing you and it will be real pain. It is natural to feel empathy for those we love who are in pain. It is natural to shrink from causing them pain. So remember this: You and he are in a battle for your lives. And in this battle he will use many weapons. He may moan and make the most awful sounds. You stand a real chance of losing this battle if you shrink from doing this painful but necessary thing.

So when he complains of the pain you are causing him by leaving, think of it this way: For a man who has abused you to complain of the pain it causes him when you leave him only suggests that it is in his abuse of you itself that he finds pleasure and comfort. That is a chilling thought. But it is unavoidable: If the object of his abuse causes him pain when it disappears, then it must be in the abuse itself that he finds pleasure.

Is that blunt enough?

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