I am so unhappy with my husband — whom I met in 1971 when I was 16 and he was 21. Three months later, Don asked me to marry him. Within two years we were married with a baby, and I knew by then what a dreadful mistake I’d made.
I felt trapped and didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t able to go back to my parents because they were very much opposed to the marriage. They and both my older brothers (sadly, passed away now) told me what Don was like, but I was too young to see or believe it.
His violent temper has frightened me many times and he has been physically abusive, threatening, and emotionally cruel. The latter has gone on for decades.
I have tried so hard to stop him but nothing works. Some years ago we had counselling at Relate, and he was told that he is a bully. Lots of things were talked through, but after a few weeks of slight improvement he quickly reverted.
Five years ago, I had breast cancer, and thought it might make Don kinder, but it didn’t.
Just over a year ago, I was taken to hospital with chest pains, palpitations, vomiting and very high blood pressure. The paramedic thought it was a heart attack, but it was diagnosed as extreme stress. Talking things over in A&E, I was told that Don is gaslighting me. Now I know what that manipulation means I can see clearly that he always has done this. I was also told that he is either trying to kill me, or doesn’t care if he does.
I sleep badly, never feel truly happy or peaceful, and always know that something else will happen soon.
When his outbursts are over, he sometimes says sorry, but not convincingly. He never understands what his behaviour is like and I always feel manipulated.
At other times, he’ll be hearty and cheerful then chide me for not being the same. It feels like a cruel game.
He’ll make himself a hot drink, never offer me one, but expect all his meals on the table. I should have left him years ago, but this life is all I have known and I’m now 66.
The thought of leaving my home and garden after so long feels impossibly daunting, and I know it would be traumatic for our children and grandchildren, too.
I am really worried about my health though, and the effect of living with constant stress and unhappiness. I’d be glad of anything you could suggest to help me.
This week Bel Mooney advises a woman who has been gaslighted by her abusive husband for five decades
One of the most extraordinary details of this sad, disturbing story of a marriage, is that you had a most unusual heart-to-heart while in A&E.
Since, in my experience, few medical staff would go so far as to talk of ‘gaslighting’ and guess at a husband’s near-homicidal intentions, I can only assume that your distress was so great that a nurse (I’m guessing) provided an informal, kindly ear while you poured out your unhappiness.
Did you follow up the thoughts she/he put into your head? Did you wonder if your husband could be guilty of coercive control?
‘Gaslighting’ comes from the 1940s play, Gaslight, in which a husband attempts to convince his wife and others that she is insane by manipulating small things and insisting she is delusional.
Thought of the day
Why is it when I am in Rome,
I’d give an eye to be at home,
But when on native earth I be,
My soul is sick for Italy?
Dorothy Parker (American writer, 1893–1967)
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that can insidiously undermine all the victim’s confidence in his/her judgment and — ultimately sanity. It’s a common aspect of coercive control. You should research this anew.
You are bitterly unhappy yet cannot imagine leaving your prison. That understandable fear of the unknown is a common response to a bad marriage — though to me a ‘home and garden’ is a heavy price to pay for such a miserable existence.
But you don’t mention ‘children and grandchildren’ until the end, and I wonder whether your adult children are aware of your misery.
They will surely have witnessed their father’s bullying tendencies in the past, so should they be protected from their mother’s present misery? I think not.
And should you continue submitting to this bully in order to protect them from some ‘trauma’ you imagine they would feel if you left him? I think not.
You need to confide in them as soon as possible. What if one of them were to say, ‘Mum, I wish you’d just leave and come and stay with us?’ What then?
You could go back to Relate (perhaps online), this time alone, in the hope that counselling might give you the strength to leave the marriage.
I also think you should start keeping a detailed notebook recording his behaviour — every outburst; every word; every act of selfishness that sabotages your self-esteem; every moment when you felt ‘manipulated’ — and why.
This dossier is important. Keeping it will give you back a sense of control, and it could be useful evidence should you seek legal advice. You have been living with the ‘terrible mistake’ of your youth for half a century.
Do you want to crawl towards the end of your life in abject fear and misery?
Or could you summon up the strength to stand tall at last and say, ‘Enough’? That’s what I pray for you, Mavis, so please seek help.
I was an only child (after a long wait) and my besotted parents let me rule the roost. I became a nurse, then went on to have a big family of my own.
My youngest is now 20, my eldest 28, and four are still at home.
I find it absolutely unbearable to deal with all their bad moods because small things (like food) displease them. Frankly, I wish most of the time I lived on my own. When do your kids actually grow up and give you some peace?
I love them all dearly and would do anything for them but feel completely under-appreciated. My husband is disabled, which is like having another child who’ll never grow up.
I took my daughter and her baby in when her boyfriend kicked her out. Now I find myself suffering the very treatment he complained of — she speaks to me like dirt and expects me to do everything for her and the baby.
I love that baby girl — but I’m on my knees trying to cope.
I’m overweight, with health problems and consume food and alcohol for comfort. I could be lying dead on the floor and they’d all just be shouting at me for being in the way.
I don’t expect life to be fair, but feel I’ve cared for people all my life and no one has ever truly cared for me except my parents.
Why do some people turn out to be takers and others givers? It’s beyond me but I feel very sad.
Your final question has often puzzled me, too. Is it that some people allow themselves to be exploited, thus giving others carte blanche to use them?
I once knew a woman whose brow was permanently furrowed with tiredness, who turned herself into a martyr who waved off thanks — and was then sulky when people missed the birthday she’d told them not to bother about. Sometimes people are the architects of their own misfortune; sometimes they need to say ‘No!’
It must be quite hard for a child put on a pedestal to cope with the real world; nevertheless you chose a caring (giving) career, then had a big family — probably to assuage a childish longing for siblings.
The trouble is, large families are demanding and it sounds as if you allowed yourself to become a slave — because if parents don’t teach children that they must do chores, pull their weight, earn that pocket money, those kids will turn into ‘takers’.
I’m sorry, but a young woman only speaks to her boyfriend and then her mother ‘like dirt’ because she’s been allowed to get away with a sense of entitlement.
You tell me nothing about your husband, but most people reading this will be thinking it’s quite enough for a middle-aged woman in poor health to look after a disabled man without being turned into a dogsbody by her own children. You sound depressed and in need of help on many levels, and the pressures of lockdown can’t have helped.
Since nobody will stand up for you, you’ll have to do it yourself. First, make an GP appointment. He/she ought to instruct you to stop abusing food and alcohol — ‘comfort’ food brings no comfort and a permanent faint hangover depresses mood.
As a former nurse, you know the harm you are doing — and if you want others to respect you, you must start respecting yourself. Then call a family meeting and tell them you have been firmly told to rest.
Therefore they must draw up a cooking and cleaning rota. Put the daughter with the baby in charge of this rota, and say you will look after baby at just a certain time every day to leave her free to sort things out. Then if things don’t get done, jolly well leave them undone — and if your demanding offspring start mutual recriminations, withdraw to your bedroom and leave them to it.
It is the only way you can take back control of your life.
And finally… Bravado can be good for the soul
Let me introduce you to Sandra W, from Lincoln, who cheered my week with this: ‘Dear Bel — I wanted to tell you about our community of elderly people living in retirement apartments. We have been so good following the Government guidelines on isolating ourselves, but after many weeks, mood was falling and some people were struggling.
‘So over a week ago, at the suggestion of one of the residents, we all met in the garden with a glass and some wine. Someone brought out a CD player; we listened to some jazz, Vera Lynn and other music.
Bel answers readers’ questions on emotional and relationship problems each week.
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‘We sat in the sun, drinking wine, laughing and chatting for a couple of hours. It was lovely to see all the smiling faces. For a short while, the fear of corona- virus did not exist — and was not the topic of conversation.
‘As they left our little gathering, people were saying how good it had been and how it was needed to forget the world’s suffering for a while.
‘How much better they felt. It was also a bonding thing, a community thing. I hope you like my heading!’
Yes, I did! For Sandra called her email, ‘Bravado’ — it went straight to my heart.
A group of elderly neighbours chose to take the law and their lives into their own hands — and mingle. I’m sure they’d have socially distanced; what mattered was that sharing of time and space, cheering each other up.
It also happened chez nous last weekend, when my mother celebrated her 96th birthday with our whole family. My daughter gave her a huge hug for the first time in three months and Mum’s face was a picture.
I confess my own ‘bravado’ pre-dated any instructions (no government could keep me from my parents), and now I rejoice life in general can slowly be picked up.
We’re social creatures and need each other. Of course people have their reasons, but please let’s break out of the culture of fear. I raise a merry glass to ‘Bravado’ and to you, Sandra W!