My Abusive Relationship Is Over, So Why Do I Still Behave Like A Victim?

Photo: Roman Chazov / Shutterstock
sad woman laying in bed

I didn't think anything of it when my daughter took a bottle of food coloring outside to play in the snow.

"Be careful," was all I said. 

But the next morning, when I looked out the window and saw the snow on top of our retaining wall dyed a deep green, my heart started to race. That wall is brand new. The top is light-colored granite. If the food coloring made it through the snow and dyed the stone, my husband was going to be pissed.

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The kids were still in bed and my husband was out getting donuts, a special treat for a snow day breakfast. So I went out to assess the damage. But as soon as I placed a toe on to the stone steps that lead to the driveway, my entire body went flying. 

One leg remained in front of me, leading downward as I tried in vain to catch myself with my hands. The other folded up underneath me, my shin absorbing the impact of each step as I slid helplessly down.

I came to a rest at the bottom and pushed myself up, testing my legs. I would have some ugly bruising, but nothing was broken. I hobbled around to the wall and brushed the eight inches of snow aside, relieved to see the bottom half was clean and white. 

But when I returned to the house and sat down to take a closer look at my injuries, I realized I didn't feel relieved. I felt angry.

Angry at my kid for not having the forethought not to put food coloring on top of a brand-new, expensive piece of hardscape. Angry with my husband for being so particular about things. 

But it's not their fault I went out there. My reason for wanting to keep my husband happy has nothing to do with my husband.

In an abusive relationship, your survival depends on keeping the other person happy.

Sam and I met on the first day of college, and we had some really good times together. 

We would play pool in the Student Union building, dig into a pint of Ben & Jerry's while we sat on my bed, listening to The Grateful Dead and studying calculus, and borrow my friend's car for long drives around town. He even wrote me a song. Come January, he was basically living in my dorm. 

When he felt like it, that is. 

I never went to his dorm. I never met any of his friends. I never knew when he was going to leave or when he would come back. 

And I never knew when he was going to turn on me

During the good times, I could pretend it would be good forever. We were finally going to have a normal relationship. We'd put our troubles behind us.

The bad times, though, felt impossible to live through. He never touched me; he didn't have to. His words were enough. 

I never saw it coming. One minute things would be fine, and the next his eyes would darken and I knew it would be hours of running in circles before we emerged, dizzy and breathless. 

I had to prove I wasn't the "worthless slut" he said I was, and he had to interrogate me from every angle until he was satisfied. When would that be? I never knew, but I wouldn't let him leave until we had smoothed things over. 

We would hug. We would kiss. We would go to sleep. And a day or a week later, we'd be right back where we started.

If only I could figure out what set him off, I would be able to set up our little world just right. I could keep the darkness at bay and we would finally be happy.

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I've been playing peacemaker all my life.

I didn't fall in with Sam by accident. 

Something in him attracted me like an anglerfish, luring in unsuspecting fish and clamping down before they can get away.

I didn't see it at the time, but the unpredictability of his outbursts and the way I had to shapeshift in an inert attempt to keep him happy now scream "MOM" to me in flashing neon letters. 

Mom drank every evening, and some nights I'd stay up with her. At first, she would be downright pleasant to be around. Then something would change. Her eyes would cloud over, her words turning to venom. 

She called me names, pounded my already fragile self-esteem to bits, and the next day pretended it had never happened. 

These encounters would leave me sobbing and broken, at a time when — due to sexual abuse and just being a young girl — I was already pretty raw.

I would do anything to avoid a fight with her. I found myself massaging my words before they came out, watching her carefully and bracing myself in case they landed the wrong way. 

No wonder I didn't think twice about working so hard to keep Sam happy. I'd done it all my life.

I've cut the abuse out of my life, but I'll still do anything to avoid conflict.

I moved out of my house and away from my mother two months after I turned 17. I broke up with Sam the summer after sophomore year. 

In the years since, I have formed strong relationships with people who are not abusers — including my husband.

My husband is kind and caring, and he would never lift a finger or say an unkind word to me or anybody else. He loves me, and he loves our kids.

But since the day we met, I have done everything possible to make his world comfortable.

I've foregone going to events because he didn't want to go. I've devoted at least 50% of my waking hours to cleaning because he is a neat freak. And I've intercepted our kids' antics before they reach him because I know how particular he is about certain things.

I'm not afraid of him. I know he won't do anything except be mad. But that compulsion to keep the peace has somehow survived the last 20-plus years of our very healthy relationship.

This, I realized as I iced and elevated my left leg, which was already beginning to turn purple from a fall that never would have happened if I'd just left the damn green snow alone.

Do I want to give up this survival mechanism?

My husband once said to me that it's impressive how deeply I know the people I care about. I'd never really thought of it, especially since the same man always told me what a poor judge of character I was. (He was right, but I've gotten better, I promise!)

But it's true. I know when this kid is going to explode with anxiety, when that kid needs alone time, and when the other kid needs to go to the bathroom. I can sum up what motivates someone in ten words or less. I've become an astute observer of the human condition.

Of course, I have. The survival of my psyche depended on it for the first 20 years of my life.

My deep understanding of people, knowing how to avoid conflict and manage situations, is a byproduct of some really shitty relationships. But when I channel it in the right direction, it is an asset. It makes me a good friend and a good leader. 

So maybe it's not time to give up this long-lasting survival mechanism. Instead, maybe it's just about being more conscious about knowing where to use it — and knowing when it's okay to let go.

RELATED: 21 Signs You're In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship

Nikki Kay writes fiction, poetry, personal essays about parenting, mental health, and the intersection of the two. Check out her column at Invisible Illness.