by Christina Enevoldsen
It was the first time in weeks since my husband and I had been on a date. Don held my hand and I rested my head on his chest while we waited in line for the planetarium show at Griffith Observatory.
The young couple a few feet in front of us caught my attention. The woman appeared to be about seven months pregnant and was struggling to reach the price sticker that her companion stuck on her upper back. The man with her seemed to delight in placing the sticker just out of her reach.
They were both laughing, though she was noticeably frustrated. When the sticker fell off, he flicked her hair. She tried to smooth it out. He poked her in the stomach. She poked him back but he seized her arm and forced her to hit herself. When he let go, she grabbed his arms, but he easily broke free and gripped her wrists tightly enough to leave red marks. She gave up. He won.
It was easy to recognize the true motive behind the seemingly playful exchange. It was the same “game” my ex-husband played. I’ve lived with abusers for most of my life and though I wouldn’t have called them abusers at the time, I’ve come to easily recognize the quest for power in most of what they do.
My former spouse placed a high value on good food. Part of his definition of a good wife meant being an excellent cook. I’m a good cook, though I didn’t know it when we were married. He was constantly dissatisfied with what I made or how I made it. Sometimes, he’s throw away what I’d made him and he’d make something else. Other times, he’d take over the cooking as a “favor” to me, though he had a smug attitude, gloating that he was better than me. He won no matter what. If I cooked, I lost because it wasn’t good enough. If he stepped in, I lost because I wasn’t a good wife.
That gave him power. I felt like a bad wife so whatever he did to me, I deserved it. In my eyes, he was tolerant of my inferior quality so I was lucky to have him.
I was terrorized by the way he handled our finances. I craved financial stability, but when I asked about our bills or bank account, he talked in circles. I felt stupid. He made major financial decisions without consulting me, yet dictated how I earned and spent money. When I refused to work for him, he shut down his lucrative business in retaliation. I was defeated and deflated, but blamed myself.
Being in a relationship with an abuser was extremely frustrating. It was like trying to figure out the rules to the game, but the rules kept changing. I knew our marriage had problems, but I thought I was the problem. No matter how hard I tried, it never helped. I always felt like the loser.
In a healthy relationship, there is equality and mutual respect. Both people work for the benefit of each other. There’s a desire for communication, cooperation, participation, understanding, support and validation. When problems arise, they are solved together. Compromises are made. In a healthy relationship, nobody loses because neither party thinks in terms of winning or losing; it’s not a competition.
But you can’t have a healthy relationship with an abuser. Abusers must dominate. Everyone is either a superior or a subordinate; there are no equals. Abusers have no sense of personal power so they gain power by controlling others. Their personal worth is achieved by one-upmanship. If you try to assert your own power with an abuser, he will escalate until he wins.
The game you play with an abuser is really war. He may make light of things, “I was only joking,” or “You’re being too sensitive” but each move you make to explain yourself or question him is seen as an act of hostile aggression. The abuser thinks in terms of defending his territory. Attempts you make to understand the situation is a challenge to his power. He rarely shares his thoughts, feelings or plans and you don’t get the clarification you ask for because in the abuser’s eyes, that would make him vulnerable.
I know this about abusers now. Although my ex-husband was the most damaging abuser in my adulthood, he wasn’t the only one. I’ve had abusive friends, bosses, coworkers, teachers, and pastors. Abusers come in all packages, male and female, large and small. I’ve found them everywhere I go and they all seek power. But they won’t steal mine anymore.
I’m Christina Enevoldsen and I’m the cofounder of Overcoming Sexual Abuse and the author of The Rescued Soul: The Writing Journey for the Healing of Incest and Family Betrayal. I’m a Strategic Interventionist and Certified Professional Life Coach with a specialty Life Story Certification. As a survivor of incest, sex trafficking and a 21-year long abusive marriage (now remarried to an emotionally healthy, loving and supportive man), I bring personal experience, empathy, and insight as well as professional training to help childhood sexual abuse survivors thrive.
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