I'm in a loving but violent marriage

The hot line says I should leave him, but I'm not sure they understand us


Cary Tennis
August 2, 2010 3:01AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I love my husband greatly. I think of him most moments, and in the moments I don't, somewhere in me I miss him. He is fun, he is amazingly sweet, caring and loving. I don't fear him. He has hit me twice. Once a long time ago, I hit him, and he restrained me very tightly and crushed me. I was bruised for weeks, and while he received no injury from my strike, I still consider, often, that once in rage I struck him. We decided that day that that wasn't how we would handle our problems, that we would never touch each other again.

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He has hit me twice since then. Once, after days of fighting and no resolution, I said I wanted to spend a few days at my friend's house. He pushed me out of my house, assuming I was ending it, and when I wouldn't go, he punched me in my chest, successfully launching me out the door. He had friends there, and while they seemed disturbed, they took his side, and nobody helped me. I was left stranded outside until I convinced someone to open the door. (Back then he always had someone over, so there was no time I could speak to him alone.)

The second time I was pregnant. I was not planning on going through with the pregnancy, so I'm not sure if it's relevant. We were fighting over dishes and at the same time a million bigger things, the way we seem to from time to time, and he was ignoring what I was trying to say and he left. I threw a bowl at nothing, and he came and restrained me, like I was some out-of-control harpy who had tried to murder him. He was nowhere near the bowl, or even the room. I asked him to get off me, I told him no one had any right to touch me without my permission, even him. I moved and tried to get him off, and somewhere it went from him restraining me, to him with a red face and spit coming from the sides of his mouth punching and kicking me, I lay there and covered myself while I could, and eventually he stopped.

Outside of struggling to get away, or pushing him away, I have not hit him since our first incident.

This is not an accurate snapshot of our relationship; while I can go through every moment he has physically hurt me, I cannot go through every moment in which he has held me, loved me. I can't explain our relationship, not really to the extent that it deserves, but trust me, I have never loved anyone or anything as much as I love him. Does he love me? Yes, I don't doubt it for a second.

I didn't go through with the pregnancy, but as a side note the event didn't seem to affect the fetus at all.

I told him he needed help, that it was wrong to hurt me like that. "But what about what you did?" he asked; he meant the bowl, he meant my anger, or maybe the moodiness I'd had during my pregnancy. I explained there was no comparison. That they were two separate events, the one in which we were having a silly fight, and the one in which he thought it was OK to beat me up. Are they really separate? I don't know, but it's simpler to think of it that way.

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This was over six months ago. I told him if he didn't go to counseling I would leave, that I would have no choice, that the person I want to be can't exist if I do nothing and just forget. He has gone to counseling, maybe not comfortably, or happily, or without some insistence and a little begging on my part, but he has gone.

I don't know if going means anything to him though, if he sees he has anger problems, if he even wants to fix them. I talk to him, and he says he does, but when the time for the appointment comes, he whines about it, as if expecting me to excuse him. "I'm so tired, and I have to go counseling tomorrow, and work a late day," etc. I don't know if he is simply uncomfortable with counseling, or if he isn't taking this seriously.

I am crushed by this whole series of events. I met him when I was 15. We both grew up in the "ghetto." (I hate that word, in that usage, but what else can I call it?) He was so different from anybody I had ever met. He treated me with respect. When I said "no," he respected it, always, and never pressured me to go further; we ended up waiting until we were married to have sex, and he never complained.

When I got kicked out of my of my house for the last time, he drove from a few towns away to get me, and we slept in his car (he was more or less homeless too). We have so much in common; we like all the same things and never run out of conversation topics. He was just different from everyone I'd been close with. He joined the military and I waited for him, and we eventually married. I am 21 now, and he is 23. He has been out of the Marine Corps for a year. We've been married for two and a half years, We have no children, and I'm trying to see if I'm in the wrong place, because I'm starting to want them — not now, but two years down the line, I see myself with a child.

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I'm struggling as to how I can build a healthy family in the shadow of this, how I can help him get over his anger problems before they affect a new life, and I need your help. I've spoken to a hot line counselor, and they don't listen to me, they don't care about what I want, they just say, "Leave him." But is that really the only solution now? I don't want to. Day to day, I am just far too happy. He is my husband, and I don't take that lightly. Is there a way I can make this work? Can a man change? If I choose to have a child, am I setting up myself, the child, and my husband for a terrible life?

The One Who Thought She Got Away

Dear One,

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Women have lost their lives because they did not leave a violent man when they had the chance. I suspect that is why your phone counselor advised you bluntly to get out now.

So we are on dangerous ground here, for while you place a certain faith in me, I am not a therapist or a doctor; legally, I have no "fiduciary duty" to you. I am in the business of dramatic verbal encounter; I am in the entertainment business, if you will.

The dark and troubling implications of this often cause me to say, Go to a professional. This is too much for me.

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At the same time, I remain keenly invested in this sacred moment of question and answer for its existential implications, what it says about who we are.

So if I am not your advisor, if there is no fiduciary duty between us, what am I to you and what are you to me? The inescapable conclusion is that you are a character in my fiction. We live in a fictional world, you and I; that is where our dialogue takes place.

In this fictional world you are safe. So I can speak to you one soul to another. I can grant you the freedom to see yourself as the object and creation of your own limitless imagination. Then you are free to inquire: What do you want, O dish thrower? What do you want, O restrainer, kicker, puncher? What is it that you are hungry for?

But this sounds impossibly fanciful. "Who we are" cannot be divorced from "the world we live in." Whatever you choose do about your violent marriage becomes a political statement and an example to other women. The ways in which the intimate sphere of marriage has been melded with the dark purposes of state control in order to use women as slaves and servants make it impossible to view violence between a married woman and man as "private." It is not private. It echoes throughout our world, throughout our schools and neighborhoods, and throughout history.

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Still, I believe that you and your husband can embark on a journey that will bring to light what you are actually fighting about and show you ways to have conflict without throwing punches or bowls. You will need someone trained in the arts of soul journey, or therapy; you will need someone who is not afraid of letting your voices speak. But you can do this.

So that is my answer to you: Go deeper, my friend. Go into these dark places, aided by a trained guide, and find out what frightening parts of yourselves you have found it necessary to suppress and slowly let them emerge in a safe setting.

I suggest you work in three distinct areas of counseling: 1) He continues with his program of anger management. 2) You also get anger-management training. 3) The two of you work with a therapist to learn interpersonal conflict-resolution skills.

If you decide to stay and work on the marriage, there has to be a deadline. You have to be ready to leave. You cannot force him to change if he doesn't want to or isn't capable of it. You must be clear-eyed about this.

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Let's put a time limit on this of, say, one year. Put one year into this marriage, learning anger management on your own and conflict resolution with him, and then keep at it. If you backslide, if he hits you again after that time, then it's time to leave. Whether you have kids, a house, friends, family, whatever ties you have, at that point, your strategy of risk management says, Now the risk is too high and it's time to leave. Now.

The stakes are high. You are not equal combatants. He has been trained to kill. He is stronger than you, and he has been conditioned not to stop meting out violence until his adversary is incapacitated. So when he seemed to lose his mind and become someone else and would not stop hitting and kicking you, he was doing what he has been trained to do. That is what is frightening.

In order to decrease conflict, you are going to have to identify what you are actually fighting about. You have said that you don't fear your husband. Perhaps you are not aware of your fear. Perhaps what you feel is anger. If we look at areas in which we are angry at our spouse, we discover what we are afraid of. Are we afraid of being abandoned, and so become angry at our spouse when she displays independence or unpredictability? Are we afraid of financial ruin, and so become angry at how our spouse handles money? Are we afraid of public ridicule, and thus become angry when we feel our spouse is acting in an embarrassing way? What fears are behind our anger?

What were you arguing about when you threw the bowl? The dishes and a million other things that seem to always come up. That's a classic arena for the embedded feelings of male privilege to surface, and that's why your arguments about the dishes spiral out into so many other areas: In the kitchen is where the vast scope of male privilege first and most notably becomes apparent.

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The areas that are most painful and baffling, where we genuinely do not see what we are doing, are the areas that have the most potential for growth. Hence, for many, it is in the area of dishes and laundry.

In the arena of dishes and laundry you see right before you the historical tale of women's uncompensated labor. It's right there in front of you. The woman is doing the laundry and not being paid for it. It's as clear as day. That's what you are fighting about. And it is there that his superior strength finds its expression. If he cannot win the argument on logical, just grounds — and he cannot, because it cannot be won there — then he is in a bind, and he lashes out.

Finally: You wonder if it is significant that you were pregnant in one of your battles. I think it is significant. Pregnancy confers upon a woman the status of a life vessel; it makes her body sacred; the fact that you were not going to go through with birth does not change that: You were pregnant and he assaulted you. That is enough. In fact, that incident and the incident in which you were forced out of your house were traumatic incidents whose full impact may be yet to come.

So there you have my response: I am obviously a little bit crazy, but I speak to you from the heart. The decision is yours. Godspeed.

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Cary Tennis

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