Tori* gives a furtive glance at the clock as she places the bowl of potatoes on the dining table. Her green eyes widen. Six o’clock. The ancient Seth Thomas clock that belonged to her great-great-grandparents begins its slow marking of the hour. Her heart pounds in time to each strike of the hammer. The whirring of its ancient gears matches her racing thoughts. Her neck flushes and the familiar tightening in her throat returns.
“Adam will be home any minute,” she says to no one in particular.
She checks the table to make sure everything is in place just as he wants it. His car pulls in the garage, and for a moment she freezes in place. Suddenly she notices she doesn’t have his iced tea by his plate.
She races to the kitchen, her hair streaming in her wake. With a trembling hand she jerks open the cabinet and grabs a glass. In a perfect pirouette she flings opens the freezer, throws ice into the glass and kicks the door shut. She pours the tea while hurrying to the dining table.
Then Adam opens the door.
Tori and Adam had met on the tennis courts when they were in college. Though his dark features and striking blue eyes had enticed her, she’d thought of him as arrogant and his competitive nature had rubbed her the wrong way.
He’d found her stunning features and athletic build irresistible. He’d charged after her with the tenacity of a hound after its prey.
His persistent pursuit and attention had made her feel special. She’d found herself enjoying his high-spirited, fun loving lifestyle. He graduated with an MBA, and she got a teaching certificate. Marriage followed that summer.
The early years were some of the most wonderful Tori had ever experienced. Adam showered her with attention, something she’d never seen growing up with her mom in a single-parent home.
But after five years, his attentiveness smothered her. He didn’t like her going places without him. He called her multiple times every day and was upset if she didn’t answer him immediately. She made excuses to her friends for not staying in touch.
After ten years, his temper became more explosive. The smallest thing would set him off. He would scream and yell at her if anything wasn’t the way he wanted it. Adam’s tirades left Tori bewildered, wondering what she’d done to set him off, and she often cried herself to sleep.
Now, twenty years and three kids into the marriage, Tori feels broken and like a failure. She bounces reactively to Adam’s moods. Her nerves are frayed on the edges. Hopelessness has pitched a tent in her heart.
With Adam’s entrance into the house and the ringing of his keys dropping on the counter, the children scramble into the dining room one at a time. Adam strides purposefully into the room. He scans each child, then Tori standing by his chair. She nervously tucks her hair behind her ear and forces a pleasant smile.
“Don’t do that to your hair,” Adam snaps. “How many times have I told you it makes you look like a silly school girl?”
Adam’s words are like a punch in the stomach. The rest of the evening passes as a blur, just as countless other evenings have. She berates herself over and over. Why didn’t I leave my hair alone? Why can’t I ever do anything right? Why can’t I make Adam treat me like he used to?
Tori arrives at my office one summer afternoon, slump-shouldered and heavy-hearted, weighed down by her emotional baggage. Her carefully applied makeup cannot hide the premature creases at the edges of her eyes or the furrows on her forehead. As she sits down, a sigh escapes that carries the weight of hundreds of tongue lashings, disapproving scowls, and harsh critiques. I can practically smell the despair.
For the next several weeks Tori vomits the emotional residue that has accumulated over the past twenty years. As if the lid of an ancient sarcophagus has opened in an Indiana Jones movie, all the disquieted spirits escape.
Again and again she asks the questions that have tormented her during her life with Adam.
“Why does he treat me the way he does?”
“What have I done to make him hate me so?”
“Why am I so stupid and clumsy?”
“Why can’t I make him love me?”
“What can I do to change him?”
I listen empathetically during these sessions, patiently waiting for the tsunami of Tori’s misery to ebb. Experience has taught me that no one is interested in feedback from their therapist until they feel he has honored their story by an attentive listening.
As Tori begins today’s session, she relates another episode of Adam’s exploding and railing on her. She quickly shifts to questioning herself and what she did wrong.
I pause for a moment, like a surgeon about to make the initial incision for a delicate surgery. Then I forge ahead. “Tori, have you ever considered that how someone treats another person says more about them than the other person?”
With a puzzled expression Tori says, “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Think about this. Two people are in a museum gazing at the same painting. One of them says, ‘That is the most beautiful painting I have ever seen.’ The other one says, ‘That painting is a load of crap. I wouldn’t put it in my garage!’
“Listening only to their comments, what do we learn about the painting?”
Tori pauses thoughtfully. “I guess we really don’t learn anything about the painting.”
“I agree. The only thing we really learn is what the two individuals like and don’t like when it comes to paintings. And if a human life is a ‘work of art,’ then what people say about it only gives insight into those people.”
Tori is silent. Her wary gaze tells me she is sifting what I have said, trying to discern my point and predict where I might be trying to lead her.
“Tori, I thought about this concept a long time before I started sharing it with people. After spending over half of my life trying to make everyone around me happy, I experienced an emotional and physical breakdown. I had to reassess how I viewed life. I suddenly realized I can’t make anyone happy. Their happiness is their responsibility.”
Tori’s broken sentences reveal a shift is beginning: “But Adam always said – ” “You mean I couldn’t – ? ” “I thought if I – ” “Are you saying – ?”
“What I’m saying, Tori, is that how Adam treats you is about him, not you. It’s not always about you.”
She eases back in her chair, appearing relaxed for the first time since we met. In a quiet, resigned voice she says, “I can’t make him love me like I want to be loved.”
My silence acknowledges the truth she has spoken.
That session with Tori marked the beginning of change for her. With much hard work over several months, she learned to avoid the mental calisthenics she used to put herself through, trying to predict what mood Adam would arrive in and how she should behave. She refrained from letting him draw her into pointless, circular arguing, the kind that used to leave her dizzy and confused. She began living a proactive life, rather than a reactive one.
Her self-confidence grew. She reconnected with friends. She stood straighter and smiled more.
Unfortunately, Tori’s marriage did not survive. Adam did not react well to her healthy changes. He refused to accompany her to counseling. He’d grown accustomed to her accepting a subservient attitude and cowering in response to his rages. Tori’s growth destabilized the homeostasis of the life he’d grown accustomed to beyond what he could to tolerate.
But even though divorce resulted, Tori maintained a positive outlook on herself and her future. She realized that Adam’s rejection of her was not about her. It was about him.
*Names and characters are composites of real people, but modified to protect confidentiality.
Widely recognized signs of emotional abuse include:
- Rejecting or denying a person’s value or presence and communicating devaluing thoughts and feelings to another person.
- Degrading, ridiculing, insulting or name-calling to lessen the self-worth and dignity of another person.
- Terrorizing by inducing intense fear in someone.
- Isolating, physically confining or limiting another’s freedoms.
- Exploiting someone’s personal rights and social needs or using another person for profit or advantage.
- Detaching and denying emotional care or affection.
National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE for advice and referrals.
SIDEBAR #2: The result of living in the reactive position:
Waiting on another person’s actions before you act, places you in the reactive position. Your thoughts focus on the other person first, then on how you should respond. Living in the reactive position results in increased anxiety. The constant scanning of your environment, trying to anticipate the other person’s behavior or mood, creates an incalculable amount of stress. Living the life of a chameleon fatigues you. Ultimately you lose a sense of who you are because you only know yourself in relation to the other person.
The way of escape from living in the reactive position is focusing on being proactive. Decide what is healthy behavior for you, then act upon it.