Letter to Any Young Woman Dating an Abusive Psychopath (aka my ex husband)

When I first met him, I was dazzled: He was tall dark and handsome, a grad student at my prestigious university, just starting the MBA program. I had just graduated with a B.A., I had just broken up with my college sweetheart of 4 years, and I had a good job but was sort of drifting about, trying to figure out who I was, post-college. My days were filled with long boring stressful hours at work, then coming home to what? My own empty apartment. I met this new guy through friends; he was roommates with one of my gf’s boyfriend. This is how you meet people in college, right? It seems like new acquaintances are somehow “vetted” through their associations with our old friends, friends of friends, social groups we belong to, attend, etc. He was smart, funny, liked many of the same things I did: jazz, European arts and literature, Greece in particular. He drove an old classic Volvo, had nice clothes, and lived in a great old house in a cool funky part of town. What’s not to like?


With hindsight I should have known, of course. He jumped the relationship gun and started asking me to pick him up from the airport way too early in the relationship. If I had only had watched “Seinfeld” all those years ago, to warn me!  I hadn’t met him more than a few times, I am not sure we had even dated properly. There were lots of other 20-something guys and girls around- he lived in this beautiful old Victorian coop sort of home with a half dozen other MBA students. Girls hung out there like flies to honey. Yet he called me up at 6:30 pm on a Friday night, a rare one, one of the few nights where I was at home to answer the call (this before cell phones) and asked if I could pick him up at the airport – some 30 miles away, a good solid hour of traffic – RIGHT NOW. The loud voice in the front of my head said, “He likes me! He chose me, out of all the other girls around!” The quiet little voice in the back of my head said, ”Why can’t one of his roommates pick him up? Why didn’t he take a cab? Why did he wait till the last minute to organize all this? What if he called someone else, before he called me? “I didn’t listen to it, more’s the pity. I wish I’d had “caller ID” and not picked up the phone. (This was before it was widely available.) How do you get out of a phone call like that?

Soon after I picked him up at the airport, he just sort of moved in. Even now, I can’t remember exactly how it happened. Did we go out for dinner, even once? It wasn’t like dating – I’m a Southern girl, I believe in being properly dated, and in parceling out favors slowly- yet somehow, we just ended up living together. Went from 0 to 60 without the middle part. Next thing I know, we were both in my apartment – of course, I was paying the rent all by myself, and the utilities, the groceries, and for the social outings, and gas for the cars, bc he was a student and I had a great job. I was also doing all the cooking, bc, well, you know. 

In those early years, it was mostly fun, mostly pleasant. We socialized with my girlfriends and his guy friends, part of a group of “bright young thing” yuppies who lived and worked down town. We got a dog and a cat, moved from my apartment to a house with a yard. Of course, I bought the lawn mower and the washer and dryer- the things you need when you move into a home- because he was a student and I had a great job. I had the good credit to get the phone service, cable, etc., too. The thing is, his moving in so quickly sort of took over my life. Everything became about him. His friends, schedule, family, tastes, habits, hobbies, preferences, vacations. I was precluded from seeing or meeting anyone else. I didn’t have a good sense of what other young guys out there were like. Or whether or not this relationship was normal, whatever that is.

It’s not all his fault. I do admit to being naïve, gullible, and way too trusting. I came from a dysfunctional family, which made me a target for this sort of predator. Up until this point in my life, I’d only ever really dated pretty nice decent sort of fellows. I didn’t listen to my “Spidey-sense.” I wanted him to be the great guy I dreamed him into being. I loved the attention and upscale socializing. I looked the other way when he was petty, or stingy, impatient, or irritated. I learned more about him: he was from California, he grew up in a blue-collar middle-class family. He was the sort of guy who was “pulling himself up by his own shoestrings.” He had attended great undergraduate schools. His parents, siblings, and childhood friends seemed nice enough; I met them. “Fabulous potential”, as one of my gf’s said about him. His dad was a teeny bit chauvinistic, or “old world”; his parents were Greek-American. His mom stayed home and cooked and cleaned and waited on his dad.  He told her what to do and she did it. “How quaint,” I thought. “This is the’80’s. How old-fashioned.” He didn’t want me to be like that, a stay-at-home mom. He wanted me to work. I thought this meant he wanted equality in the relationship. I was wrong.

After a few years, he was ready to graduate from his MBA program. All his friends were getting engaged to all my friends. He started talking about taking an extended vacation to celebrate his graduation from MBA school, spending 4 months in Europe before he started his fabulous “adult” high-paying post-MBA job. He wanted me to go with him to Europe. I was flattered. Somehow, together, we developed this plan: I would quit my job, spend 4 months in Europe with him, and then start graduate school. He would start work once he got back from our trip together. It would all be great. The important part of this discussion, however, we never had: Who would pay for what (and all that this implies.) He did not ask me to marry him, or get engaged.

So I quit my job – I didn’t really like it, anyways – and went off to Europe for 4 months with a group of friends.  I had the savings, the credit cards not only to finance all this, but to keep our house going, and sublet it to a friend who took care of the pets. He kept saying he’d “pay me back.” Don’t ever be this naïve, my friends. We travelled about in a flock, from London to York to Edinburgh, then Paris, then Heidelberg, Berlin, Salzburg, on to Italy, then  Athens, Crete and the other islands, and then home. It was a “Grand Tour” and it was wonderful. I am glad I did it, and I would do it again – travel is my unrequited passion. We stayed at nice hotels, not youth hostels, bc that is what he preferred. We ate well, we drank well. He drank rather too well, and slept in many mornings. I toured about with his friends. Yet we thought of ourselves as a couple; I put everything on my credit cards. He would pay me back, he said. At the time it felt incredibly romantic and adventuresome.

When we came back to the states, back to our home, we settled back into the pattern we had before. He started his glamorous high-paying job. I enrolled in grad school. Months passed. My friends started asking me, “So, when are you getting engaged? Married? We thought you guys would elope while you were in Greece.” I think, at some level, I did too. It didn’t happen. I continued to pay for my college costs, the house, utilities, food, etc. bc I always had – out of my savings. The weird thing is, in writing this all out, it makes me sound very insecure and passive, and I am generally not that kind of person. I’m pretty independent, a responsible, take-control of your own life sort of person. It felt like I was living the dream, doing what I wanted. I just neglected to sit myself down and have a bare-bones conversation with myself. As my sister once said about him, “What does he contribute to anything?”  At some point, the conversation to marry began, and we picked a date. With hindsight, it was me that pushed it. He did buy me a ring that I picked out – put it on lay-a-way. (It was the only thing he ever bought me.) I happily planned the wedding – paying for everything, even though I was unemployed. Blinding myself to the truth.

Shortly after we were married, my grandmother gave me a nice chunk o’change to use towards buying a house. I put it in our joint checking account, then was surprised a few days later when I wrote a small check against it and it bounced. I called the bank and discovered that he had moved it to another account and spent it. Why did I not divorce him, then? He told me he had used the money to pay off his student loans….which was probably true. When he graduated, he had over $100,000 in student loans (in 1980’s dollars, back when a good private college was $5k a year for tuition AND room and board- my alma mater - to $14k a year, for the Ivies.) He just hadn’t bothered to share this with me. All those jobs he’d had….I’d thought they were work-study. That the summer internships, etc., paid for the schooling. Nope. Or he didn’t apply the funds, maybe he just lived high on the hog.

The rest of our marriage went just like this. Again and again. I blame myself bc I had so many chances to get out but didn’t. He did sweet-talk me into a rosy vision of the future, the white picket fence, all that.  Just as soon as he had paid off his student loans, we would do it, he would pay me back – for Europe, for the house money, for taking care and supporting him in grad school – for everything. It just never actually happened. Our future was constantly put off into the future. Shortly after we were married, he changed from his stable, well-paying job with an oil company to one that paid more and involved 100% travel. We never discussed this; I was never part of the consideration or conversation. He just took the job and then told me he'd done it. He would be sent somewhere to work for weeks or months - flying back and forth on weekends, always first class. Frequently he was provided with an apartment to live in, fully furnished, at the city where he worked, far away from where I lived. He flew home when he felt like it, stayed, bc he was “working”, even when he didn’t. He only once in all those years flew me out for a weekend, for a social event with his boss, probably only bc he needed a suitable wife-type figure produced on demand. With hindsight, I can see that he had, in his own mind, just moved out and moved on. He just hadn’t bothered to let me know, and I didn’t/couldn’t see it. (Reminds me of the serial killer in the book Devil in the White City, by Eric Larson.)

I was trying not to drown in ferocious waves by treading water. It didn’t occur to me to swim to land.

I kept plugging away at grad school, paying for it myself, graduated, and got a job. I stayed where I had been living; my job was not transient or portable. I ran /managed/paid for our home, our pets, our cars, our life. I had some health issues, the dealing of which distracted me from the bigger picture.
From the outside, looking in, everything seemed ok, even glamorous: two highly-educated professionals, two well-paying jobs, nice house, nice cars, exotic travel.

He wasn’t as pleasant or fun, any more, as he had been when we first met.  It was a gradual change; he always apologized, at first, his rudeness or anger were bc he “was stressed from ……..” (Fill in the blank: work, finances, etc.) or he was “tired”. He began to berate me for spending money, when the simple fact was that I was still a) self-supporting, b) living very modestly, and c) HE was actually the one taking MY money. Just like Donald Trump, a narcissist will always accuse you of doing what he, himself, is in fact doing. My ex was the one who used my mother’s second gift of a hefty chunk o’change to pay off more of his loans, and the third one to buy himself a luxury car.

My ex complained about everything: where we lived, the pets, my grad classes and later my job, my health problems, my family, my wants and desires, me. What I said or did or wanted was contradicted on a daily basis. He argued with me about everything, often into the night, and just wore me down with it. What I didn’t know then, that I know now, is that is called “gas-lighting.” It is a form of psychological abuse. My bff was the one who called it – told me that’s what this guy was doing to me. The abuser cuts off the abusee from others, so all the abusee knows is the version of reality the abuser presents. He began to talk up to everyone he knew what a screw-up I was. He began changing friends, and hanging out with a new friend who had self-destructive habits and problems of his own. 

He coerced me into moving every 6 months, to this part of town and then that one, so he could be closer to this new friend of his. My wishes, my job, my friends, my needs were never discussed or considered. We lived in a huge sprawling metropolis and these moves were 20-30 plus miles apart. Each time we moved, it was to a smaller, more transient home – even as his salary increased – from a house, to a townhouse, to an apartment. If he was never there- why did he care? Less ownership/involvement from him. He decided that we needed to get rid of our pets and took some of them to the pound when I wasn’t home. He started to refer to “women as vaginas with teeth”. Whenever I got a nice little gift from work, such as a gold pen, he took it. There were a few really scary irrational freak-outs on his part: one time we were speeding down the freeway and he “heard” (none of the other 3 passengers in the car heard this) a sound and he screamed at me to climb half-way out the rolled down car window to check it out…..he never slowed down or stopped the car. I said “no” and blood vessels began to pop on his face. Why did I not react? Bc at this point, I was just trying to survive. The constant moving was putting pressure on my job; my previous 5 minute commute was now an hour+ commute. To keep up with new costs, I took on a second job which was also wearing me out- double shifts. I couldn’t’ think straight. All the while, he was telling me what a bad, irresponsible person I was, someone who “couldn’t be trusted” and “was dishonest”. About what? What I didn’t realize at the time is that he was talking, really, about himself.

He announced that he was taking a new job, this time across the country. He announced it – no forewarning, no discussion- and said he was seriously thinking of not taking me with him. Why did I not just let him go?

The movers just showed up and moved everything one day – even though 100% of our furniture was mine, from before we were married. He made a big conciliatory gesture, as if to say, “Just this one more time,” and I went with him. He stayed 6 months and was fired. Then we moved back. This left me in a career tailspin; he neither supported me, the house, nor allowed me enough time to find myself a job commensurate with the ones I had had, previously. He was just out there on his own, doing what he wanted for his career and interests as if he were single. I was handy to trot out once in a while as needed, the rest of the time I was emotionally, verbally, and financially abused.

At this point, I found myself unexpectedly pregnant. I had spent years dealing with reproductive health issues and was joyous. He was not. He decided that I needed to “go on a diet”. He began to demand more and more of me in terms of work at home and a career, he refused to contribute to the household expenses; I scrambled to try and find a job with serious morning-sickness. One night we had a fight about something- I can’t even remember what- and he began screaming, pushing and shoving. He grabbed my arm. I broke away and locked myself in the bathroom. He put his fist through the bathroom door and unlocked it. I boxed his ears, poked my nails hard into his eyes, grabbed my purse and ran out the door. The dog and cat ran out the door with me.

I drove to the bank to pull out some money. He had already closed my access to the account by reporting my ATM card as “stolen”, in the 10 minutes it took me to get there. I looked in my wallet: 35c and a gas card. I drove to a gas station w a truck stop to think, ate dinner, put it on the card. Considered my options. Filled up the car, and decided to drive to my mother’s house, 250 miles away, to think things over. The next day he filed for divorce. He also filed for sole custody of our unborn child, bc I was “mentally unstable.” Classic abuser. 

The divorce took 2 years, bc he dragged it out at every turn with various stalling techniques. It’s was so pointless, and obviously about control: Texas is a “no fault” divorce state. Texas doesn’t get into questions of alimony, special visitations, etc. Texas takes the couple’s assets (in our case, at this point: none) and their debts (plenty) and divides it down the middle, regardless of which spouse earns more, or who put the whom through graduate school or whatever configuration the debts are owned between them. Down the middle. Texas also awards child support, as well as child visitation/custody by the standard formula. No exceptions.

The only “smart” thing I had done, and it was quite by accident, was go home to my mom when I had nowhere else to go. He served me the divorce papers there, and thereby established my residency as being 250 miles away. He tried very hard to force me to move back to his jurisdiction, but couldn’t. And in the end, that one little thing saved me. He tried driving up to visit, so he could stalk me a few times while I was still pregnant, but soon grew tired of the hassle involved and let it go. His attempts to file for sole custody were pointless, as I lived outside the jurisdiction of the divorce. He never even visited his child until 4 years later, when I remarried and moved away. At that point in time, he claimed that our child – who looked just like him – wasn’t his, that I had been unfaithful to him, and took our beautiful little boy to be paternity tested. Of course, it was his child.

I will tell you this about a divorce: you will learn who your real friends are, and who are not. My entire social world divvied up – half went to him, half went to me. Few, other than the bff who had told me I was in an abusive relationship, believed anything I said about my ex. That’s how good a liar he was. That’s good I had been at hiding our struggles, bc that sort of thing doesn’t happen to “people like us.” People don't want to believe that "nice" people can be abusers, too. 

If any of this sounds like your life, reach out to someone. It doesn’t have to be someone you know. Go to a social services agency, a church “to pray”, a store “to shop” and say “I need help.” If you are afraid of your abuser and can’t speak, draw a black dot on your hand, like this:


If you can, no matter how destitute you are, get away. The further, the better. Hop on a bus, visit family, cross state lines in the middle of the night. Head somewhere that has social services. Look for a church or college/university, or homeless shelter then ask for help. Make a plan and keep it to yourself. Put away some cash if you can. Get the hell out. You can figure out what you will do, later, once you are safe. 

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