Domestic Violence and Conditional Friendships
We moved to North Carolina right after my first daughter was born. We attended a local church and liked it immediately. There were many couples our age with young children and we bonded quickly with them, especially after I suggested starting a playgroup.
We had a solid group of stay-home moms that attended playgroup every Thursday morning. The group took off quickly and evolved into holiday and weekend family events and vacationing together. We were happy in our new home with our new social circle.
Time went by and we had a second child. My marriage had never been great and I knew before my second daughter was born that I would get divorced. My husband was verbally abusive and on a couple of occasions had punched me. He was angry and critical every day.
The kids and I began to dread when he came home at night. Although they did not articulate this, I could see and feel the tension build as 5:30 neared. They would stop playing in the living room and move into their bedroom. He would walk in the door scowling, walk up behind me in the kitchen and start yelling about what I was cooking or how I was cooking it. When he started physically abusing our daughter that was the end for me. He would scream at her, shake her, cover her mouth when she cried, and, throw her on the bed when he was angry. She was three years old when this started.
I asked for a divorce and he refused. We went to counseling which was simply an opportunity for him to hear himself talk and try to convince the therapist he was a great guy. Nothing changed. His hostility got worse, especially with the kids.
One particularly volatile night he screamed at our not yet four-year-old daughter and picked her up so suddenly and violently she lost her breath and began shuddering in a seizure-like way. I tried desperately to intervene. I calmly suggested that he go relax and let me bathe the girls and put them to bed. Marching towards the bathroom with our child under his arm crying hysterically, he turned around and slammed me against the wall. He closed and locked the bathroom door. I felt a cold terror and thought I might vomit as I banged on the door and yelled at him to stop. I heard her crying “mama!” over and over. Something snapped in my brain.
I became very calm and began calculating the best way to get him out of the house permanently. I reviewed scenario after scenario, playing out all the possibilities. When he was finished abusively “bathing” our toddler, he shoved her into my arms and walked out the door. I held her until she fell asleep that night and I knew what I needed to do.
Not one of our friends knew about the violence at home. I didn’t know how to talk about it, especially with such happy loving families that seemed to have it all together. Once, on a group camping trip, my husband lost his cool when he realized he had not packed the tent poles. I laughed with the other moms over the idea of tying up the tent to trees, while he raged, throwing camping gear around. Our friends stared at him and kept a distance. It was the first time they had ever seen his temper.
I approached him the next evening after dinner. My goal was to have him believe I was giving him a gift and that it was his idea. Divorce meant loss of control and I knew he would never accept that.
“You must be tired,” I commented as he sat and scowled at the tv remote. He looked at me unsure how to respond and shook his head. I continued, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have your own space to go to after work or whenever you wanted, where you wouldn’t have to deal with the kids, or even me?”
“Hell, yeah,” he bit.
“You should. You should have your own space. You work hard.” He looked up at me suspiciously. “We could probably find you something. You could go there when you need to and come here whenever you want.”
“Really? You would do that?” suspicion passing with the dreamy idea, he took the bait.
“Yeah! It would be so much easier for you to relax and the kids and I would still be here for whenever you want to be home. I think we could find something small and affordable.” I was gentle and sweet as if simply musing.
I could see his wheels turning. His dark eyes darted back and forth and a smirk appeared on his lips.
Two weeks later he came home somewhat cheerful on a Friday afternoon. “I was looking at apartments. I need my own space. I think I found something. You wanted a divorce anyway and this way we don’t have to get divorced.”
I cringed a bit. My breathing was shallow as I responded carefully. “That’s great! Can I see it?”
“Yeah, you want to go see it now?”
The day he finished moving out of our home was a sunny Saturday. He pulled out of the driveway and the girls and I stood silently in the living room looking around. I felt so light at that moment I thought I might start floating. Instead, all three of us spontaneously began to dance! There was no music except what arose from our souls as we spun around smiling and kicking our feet and fluttering our arms in pure joy and relief. Then I called our landlord to change the locks.
His first visit was on Tuesday evening and he simply walked in the door I had not locked. We were all surprised to see him. Our attempts at good cheer were lame as we were caught off guard. He asked if I had made anything to eat. I fixed him a plate and he played with the girls a while. After about an hour he stood and looked around as if he wasn’t sure what to do next. He scowled at me for a long moment. I busied myself cleaning up toys and casually suggested we schedule his visits so I would be sure to make enough food for him and be home waiting. He agreed and told me what nights were best for him. I locked the door behind him.
That Thursday at playgroup Carrie immediately asked me, “I heard that your husband moved out of the house? John said he called him and found out. What happened?”
“We decided we were better off living separately,” I said uncomfortably. Everyone else was quiet and looking at me.
“I am so surprised!” Carrie said. “I don’t understand why. I thought things were fine with you two.”
“You never know what goes on inside a marriage,” I said defensively, “Things were not good. Not for a very long time.”
A few moments of silence was followed by Kirsten beginning her usual endless babble, this time about her cousin who got divorced. I was never so grateful for it before.
Carried turned to Kirsten and interjected, “Well, they are NOT getting divorced! They just separated for a bit. Right?” she turned to look at me.
“We are getting divorced,” I responded firmly. Carrie looked shocked.
Two weeks later was a potluck dinner at Donna’s house. I walked in a bit late with my vegetarian dish. The room fell suddenly and completely silent. No one looked at me this time. Two women left the room. I sat at the dining table. “Some folks are eating in the living room,” Carrie said. I wasn’t sure if this was a cue. Carrie had been my closest friend of the group, especially after Trisha moved to Florida. She looked down at the table in front of her. After a few minutes, I wandered into the kitchen. Several men were there completing some dishes and chatting. They also fell silent when I entered and two walked immediately out to the living room.
“Can I help with anything?” I asked feeling awkward. Surely I was imagining the pregnant silences having anything to do with me. I left early without eating. I skipped the next playgroup as well. After church, no one approached me to talk to me as usual. They huddled together in the hallway outside the playroom. I received a couple of cool ‘hellos’ as I walked by to get my kids.
At this point, I was three months separated. One afternoon my husband came by unexpectedly and we weren’t home. He realized the locks were changed and he was furious. He raged at me over the phone that I had no right and that he wanted the kids for the weekend. I told him our youngest was too young to be away for the weekend as she was still occasionally nursing. He said he didn’t care and that I’d better bring them or he would take them and I would never see them again. I brought them. As he carried their bags up the stairs I followed pleading with him to let the baby stay home. I feared that if she cried too much he would hurt her. At the top of the stairs, he turned to me with a sinister look and shoved me backward down the stairs. I hit my head on the wall at the bottom. He laughed. For the first time, I went to the police and filed a report. I refused to press charges since he had told me long ago that if I ever called the police on him he would kill me. I believed him.
One Thursday playgroup was at a park. We sat at a picnic table while the kids ran around. My daughter and another girl about 6 years old asked if they could go wash their hands which were covered in sand from the sandbox. “Sure!” I said. The bathrooms were about 25 feet directly in front of us. “I’ll take them,” I said to Jenny, the other mom.
“No, I’ll go,” she responded. We both stood up.
“We can go by ourselves!” The girls informed us.
“Oh!” I smiled at their adventurous desire to handle this task on their own. “Are you sure you can reach?”
“She can lift me if I can’t,” my daughter said. Her friend was only a year or so older but much taller.
“Ok then.” I sat back down. Holding hands, the girls walked off to the bathroom.
“What is wrong with you?!” a voice shrieked behind me. “What kind of mother lets a child go to the bathroom by herself?”
I turned around and Virginia, a tall, boney blonde woman was staring angrily at me. She stepped closer until she was leaning over me. Jenny began to explain from across the table. Virginia merely held her hand up in Jenny’s direction without taking her eyes off of me.
“You are a pathetic excuse for a mother! …” her rant continued, at times not even coherently. Spit flew from her mouth and I thought she might hit me.
Shocked, I looked around at everyone who mostly stared at their hands or busied themselves with a child. No one said a word after Virginia stormed off. No one looked at me. The girls returned from their hand-washing.
That evening the girls’ father came to visit. He got out of the car scowling darker than usual. We were in the yard swinging. “Why aren’t they wearing sweaters?!” He yelled. “It’s cold! Its the fall! Can’t you even dress them right?”
It was September and well over seventy degrees, but for a moment I looked at them and felt their arms to see if maybe they were cold.
The next morning I hired an attorney and the long, ugly two-year battle over nothing more than his attempts to terrorize me began. We had no possessions to divide other than a car. When we finally had our child custody date he didn’t show up to court. The judge granted him visitation every other weekend.
Through all of this, every time I called Carrie she rarely answered the phone. When she did, she claimed to be busy. I was told there were no family events scheduled “right now”. I stopped at Carrie’s house one afternoon to pick up a dish of mine from an event long ago.
She hesitated in the doorway a full minute before finally speaking. “You know, I am very disappointed about your divorce. It hurts me that this has happened. I believe people should stay together and work things out.” She handed me the dish.
I stopped calling and stopped going to playgroup. No one contacted me. I stopped going to church. I got a part-time job.
One rainy Saturday I met a woman in a coffee shop with two young boys. She was also going through a divorce. Her kids were running amok and she occasionally reached out and grabbed one as he ran by saying, “STOP, or we will leave.” I knew that would be more punishment for her than for them, but they didn’t know that. I told her some of what had happened with my former friends.
“Oh it’s like a virus!” she said, “They think that now you will try to steal their husbands. They’re afraid you might put divorce poison in their coffee and it will spread.” We laughed. For the next ten years, we parented our children together, shared dating horrors, and learned how to be single moms. Mostly, we healed from the abuses and losses of our marriages and former lives.