If you're in an abusive relationship and waiting for some big sign that it's time to break free, look at your kids and think about the damage that is being done to their hearts as they watch and experience the continual tension and strain abuse creates in a home. The damage is fairly invisible to you right now, but it will reveal itself down the road.
I will never forget the time my son told me (as a high school student), "I NEVER want a marriage like you have." I saw so much emotion on his face as he spoke those words.
Being an emotionally battered woman, I took the "judgment" upon myself and felt the need to defend our toxic relationship. Needing to feel like keeping the marriage together had some value in my son's life, I presented the defense that even though the marriage was flawed and turbulent, I believed we had at least provided an example of not giving up because things weren't perfect. He looked at me with pity. I'll never forget that day, those words.
I still stayed longer. Years longer. My son graduated from college in 2000. He got married in 2002. And the same month he got married, I filed for divorce. Finally. I had been trying to make this marriage succeed my entire adult life (starting at age 16) and it STILL ended in divorce.
In the years that followed, I learned so much about my child I hadn't known. I always believed he was passive when it came to being picked on by other kids -- even younger, smaller kids. Over time he shared with me that he always had to underreact because he feared his dad's overreactions. He feared friendships ending between adults over some skirmish between kids. He had to control situations to avoid anger and rage, to protect everyone in his dad's emotional path. This was a big weight for a little kid to carry around. All the time I thought my child was just passive, he was suppressing and suppressing and suppressing emotion. Internalizing to this degree can result in physical health repercussions as well as emotional health repercussions.
I learned that my son often felt emotionally neglected...BY ME. That was shocking. I knew he didn't have the pampered life some of his friends thought he had (because his dad enjoyed lavishing a lot of "things" on him). My son had expensive basketball shoes and the latest video games. We took great vacations to wonderful destinations like Hawaii. One summer we even took him on a major league baseball stadium tour that included Camden Yards, Yankee Stadium and The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Neglected? I never would have guessed. And then he explained the ways he felt his needs were not even on the radar because his mom was consumed with the full time job of keeping a narcissist's emotional tank full and catering constantly to his whims and demands, buffering him and others, etc.
I won't try to tell you my son came through all those years of abuse unscathed or without wounds. He wouldn't tell you that either. I've written a whole book about our life and his response after reading it was that I could never make people understand what our life was like behind closed doors by writing about it in a book -- and then he added, "Especially the way you write." He was alluding to the way I write with intentional kindness and grace. My goal was never to make his father into a monster or dehumanize him in my writing. But you know what? Sometimes that man WAS a monster to live with. And not just for me. For my son.
In spite of the wounds, my son is also a survivor. He's successfully and happily married to a wonderful woman. He's an excellent father to his four kids. He's a pastor. He's a coach. Thank God, I did not ruin his life by staying so long. But did I make his childhood better because I stayed like I always believed? I seriously doubt it.
As a couple, as his parents, the best example we were for him was what he didn't want for his own life. And we gave him a fear of commitment (which he overcame). These are not accomplishments I am proud of.
As a mother, I now know my son felt like he had to be my emotional protector -- for more years than I realized. This is a responsibility I never would have intentionally imposed, but one he carried into adulthood nonetheless. We've been enmeshed. We've been codependent. And our individual wounds impact our relationship to this day. I communicate pretty effectively with most people in my life. But I don't feel like I communicate all that well or effectively with my son. I attribute this mostly to my inability to "risk" hurting his feelings or saying something in a moment of emotion that I would ever regret. I like my record of having never inflicted a lifelong wound or painful verbal memory. And I think sometimes I put that record above real and honest communication. I hold back. I have a self-imposed expectation of myself -- to rise above and take everything in stride.
The scary thing is that I am fully aware this is the same way I interacted with his dad for all those years. It's that same type of fear; fear of my words creating a mess I can't clean up. My ex-husband did try to hurt me and I know that my son does not. But I project these feelings onto other close relationships, including my own son, to this day.
I realize that the choices I made early in my life had a tremendous impact on my son, his memories, his formative years. But every additional year of enduring and enabling abuse added damage not only to each of us as individuals, but to our relationship for years to come. It's all so clear to me now, in hindsight. Even subjecting myself to continual condescension and belittling in the presence of my son all through his formative years has a bearing today on how we interact. I see it. Sometimes I don't feel respected or appreciated. How much of it is real and how much of it is because of my own wounds, the fact that I struggle to feel that I have worth and value, I don't fully know. I do know my son did not witness his mother being valued, respected or appreciated until after I married John in 2004. All the years he lived at home, I was allowing myself to be continually disrespected, belittled, demeaned and objectified in his presence. There is no way to turn that into a positive memory for either of us. I wish I had developed some self-respect much earlier in my life.
Thank God, my son has not had to worry about me or my welfare in recent years. I still try to make sure I'm never a burden, never a bother, never in the way. And that's not ALL bad. I don't think moms should impose themselves or their emotions on their grown kids. But I recognize that I take it to a whole new level. I'm still interacting as a battered woman who mistakenly believes her value is rooted in not getting on anyone's nerves. I constantly look for evidence that I'm valued for who I am, apart from performance or pleasing people. But inside I never feel good enough. I apparently project confidence because I'm expressive and outspoken. But if you could see inside my heart, you would see something very different. You would see fear of disapproval still taking up way too much space. You would see that even though I express my opinions, I also worry obsessively over almost every word that ever comes out of my mouth.
My life today is so good. God has taken my oppressive past and turned it not only into a story of personal deliverance and liberation but also into a ministry of healing and empowerment for other victims and survivors. However, because my long history of abuse still has a pervasive presence (at times) in my thoughts and fears; because it rears its head in the most important relationships of my life to this day, I can never encourage another victim to "hang in there and keep trying" with an abusive spouse. And if you have children being raised in an abusive home, you NEED to think about them and what the stress of living this way is doing to them and their impressionable hearts and souls.
Kids don't want abuse -- even emotional abuse -- for their mothers. I cannot help but think about the words my son has said to me many times, "I didn't want you to stay for me." I remember him telling me after I finally left for good that his biggest fear was of his parents getting back together. I remember him telling me he had nightmares (I think he still does) that we are getting back together. And I remember him saying emphatically, "He will never treat you any differently. Please don't let him talk you into coming back this time." I also remember times when he hadn't given up hope that his dad might change. One desperate time in particular I felt my son's hopes and did what I thought he wanted (stayed). But even in doing that, I was putting a responsibility on him and a weight that wasn't his to carry.
It's not that God can't or won't redeem whatever length of time you give to someone who only wants to harm and oppress you. He can and He will. I am evidence of that. But that doesn't mean He wants you to continue in abuse. It doesn't mean that's His will for you and your children.
While you may think you are waiting on GOD, please consider that HE may be waiting on YOU.