In 1998 I had recently started a private counselling practice in which were several women in therapy for a myriad of different issues. Some claimed to be anxious and depressed or experienced themselves as not coping with their home lives. All talked of the disappointment linked to their marriages. Over a period of weeks they spoke of incidents that were happening at home around which they sought help, guidance and feed back. In truth it occurred to me that they were married to destructive, narcissistic and insensitive men. I was quite often aware of a fundamental brutality and cruelty that was imbedded in these marriages. None of them were asking for assistance to get out or get divorced. To the last they were seeking ways to live in the marriage differently.
Then one of the clients arrived at the session with Susan Forward’s book, “Men who hate women and the women who love them.” That book described the marriages of at least half a dozen of the women in my practice. Dr. Forward’s book was the most precise description of six different marriages. Finally we had a label, a diagnosis – they were married to misogynists. They were in abusive relationships. These were emotionally abused women. They weren’t stupid or inadequate. They weren’t the labels that were given to them daily.
I promptly bought six copies and gave them to my other clients and suggested we start a support group. A support group is living proof that you are not in this alone. I extended the invitation to each of them and placed an advertisement in the local newspaper. Women who thought they might be in emotionally abusive relationships were to call me.
I wanted to interview them to ensure that they were in fact in abusive relationships. It was essential that they met the criteria of an abusive relationship. Often relationships go through difficulties. During those times we often feel ignored, misunderstood and abused. However, those times will not comply with the characteristics of an abusive relationship.
The pattern of abuse is unnervingly consistent. In an abusive relationship the damage is aimed at the person’s self esteem and anything qualifies as their support network. Finances and sex are tools of manipulation and conflict resolution is impossible.
We began our support group on Thursday nights in the summer of 1988. We all agreed that it was a closed group after the second session which meant that no new members could join. We also contracted that the group would exist for fourteen weeks. There were ten women none of whom knew each other, all of whom were tired, unhappy, and feeling inadequate. They all just hoped that something might help.
No one could go to their husband and say they intended to go to a support group for emotionally abused women. Everyone stayed but it required a huge effort to do so. Some told their husbands they were attending baking courses, others said it was flower arranging or sewing classes, and one even claimed to be doing music appreciation. She spent hours in the library learning about symphonies in case she was questioned. On Thursdays they had flowers, cakes and cookies delivered to the house so that after the group they could take home the evidence of their labours. We even messed flour on the clothes of those who said they had been baking. The laughter helped diminish the shame and every successful attendance empowered the women each week.
Six weeks later I received a call from a national radio station.
“I saw your ad and wondered if the support group ever started,” she asked.
I was reluctant to respond as the protection of the group was critical.
“Why?” I asked.
“If it has, would you all be prepared to be interviewed?”
I told her I would get back to her.
As a group we decided that I and one other person would speak on behalf of the group. The others were afraid their voices would be recognized. We left the studio thrilled with our performance and of course the group agreed with us. Part of us was disappointed that our anonymity was so diligently protected and we only had our small group to bask in our moment of glory.
Time passed, we forgot about it and we moved on with our Thursday covert meetings. One afternoon I received a phone call from the radio station asking if they could deliver the mail that had arrived after our interview. Expecting a handful of letters, a sack arrived with four hundred envelopes. Dazed I emptied them onto the carpet of my living room. I was paralyzed as to what to do with them. Whenever I tell the story people ask,
“So what did you do?”
With shame I confess I did nothing. I had no idea what to do.
The fourteen weeks passed and the group came to an end. Life moved on. In January 2014 I bumped into Anna, one of the women from the support group of 1988. I had thought of her often over the years because she was adamant that “no matter” what she would stay in her marriage. I wanted to hear with the benefit of hindsight if she had any regrets that she had stayed.
“ I believe I did the right thing. I have learned to be comfortable in my skin. Not in my life but in my skin. I crossed the Rubicon, I don’t know when that happened but now I’m OK.”
“I’m glad it worked for you. Some of the other women elected not to stay and that’s worked for them. Each person with their personality and their circumstances create a right solution for themselves.”
Like me the bags of unopened letters played on her conscience for twenty-five years.
“It’s so difficult to ask for help. It was so wrong of us not to have provided it,” she said.
“I agree which is why I decided to write this manual, The Codependents Guide Dog to Recovery.
This is my way of answering those letters now. It is 25 years later and my answers are wiser and hold beauty and wisdom of hindsight and experience.