I grew up hearing the simple expression: He can dish it out, but he can’t take it, and many times I’ve looked at my husband and thought of those words. More accurate in his case would be, He can dish it out, but he won’t take it. One time when we were in an aftermath winding down discussion from an episode where he’d been hurtful, I asked him (in one of my many appeals to awaken a conscience), “Tell me the truth. How long would you tolerate it if I treated you like that? Would you even put up with it at all?”
He replied, “Probably not.”
(When someone tells you who they are...)
There have been those countless times over the years where I’ve been left in a confused, demoralized puddle, and felt like gum that was scraped off his shoe. I’d feel like just a worthless eater, that my survival was dependent on his inexplicable wish to have me in his life. I’d ask myself and him if he loved me, and why he loved me. In the darkness, I couldn’t see why anyone would love me, and then I’d feel desperate gratitude that for some reason he cared about me.
There were times of sitting in a fetal position, rocking and crying, and feeling numb despair. Most of those times he would behave as though absolutely nothing was happening, while I’d look at him with the eyes of a soul dying. There were also those times when I sat on the edge of a bed with tears gone silent coursing down my cheeks, involuntary tears that betrayed my intent to move beyond being hurt. The silent tears would also be seen and ignored by him. As though I were just filing my nails, or sorting socks.
I don’t know how to explain the confusing numbness when you’re given the wordless message of being nothing. This was what I’d come to. I wasn’t always like that!
For many years, he dished it out without rules, without limitations, and without boundaries.
In the very beginning of our marriage, I used to fight back when he behaved badly, hurting, ignoring, punishing, withholding or lying. In the early days, I’d rise up with fire in my eyes, outraged, with words of protest, and stood at the brink of leaving. Oh, so close to walking away more than once, when he’d revert so completely that the other person seemed like a bad dream.
It was as though he’d been under the influence of some bad drug or episode, but now the real him, the caring, interested, loving him was back to stay. I had no way to know that the enmeshment and trauma bond was growing with steel webs below the surface. His seeming penitence, reaching for me, pulling me to him, his need and renewed affection, were even more powerful when I was emotionally bruised and vulnerable.
My fatal blindness was naive unawareness that my strength was young, it was finite, and it was diminishing.
Our history went somewhat like this: He would do or say something wrong, disrespectful, or crush a sane boundary. I was extremely young and a spitfire, and would rise up to fight the wrong. He would do something totally out of the bell curve that would emotionally traumatize me; but back then, even those extreme behaviors didn’t knock the fight out of me.
Finding out I was pregnant changed all that for me. I remember feeling as though an enormous adult weight had settled on my shoulders (rightfully so), and now I had someone else to consider in everything and at all times. This new someone had a father, and I wanted her to have a good father. I think I really believed that in time, he’d mature, learn, and grow like everyone else does.
As the fight weakened and dimmed in me, I slowly eroded. Bit by bit, my hopes and dreams were sublimated. I recognized his need to be in the spotlight, to be appreciated, to be respected, appreciated, and basically hold the power. I really knew he needed to hold the power years ago. By then I’d learned much more of his childhood, of his father abusing him and all the family, of feeling betrayed by his mother, and so in a way it even made sense to me. I think I thought that if I didn’t care about holding ‘power’ in the relationship, if he saw that someone unconditionally loved him, supported him, believed in him, and showered love and affection on him, that he’d eventually realize he was fighting an unnecessary battle to ‘control’.
I thought he would grow in time, and I just needed to forgive him and love him.
One huge glitch was that I lacked the foundational and healthy love and care for self. Of course, if that had been healthy within me, I would never have married him. I think I tried over and over to address that. I can look back and see where I kept trying. Instinctively I would strive to grow and mature, but repetitively I was punitively taught that my focus and my energy needed to be directed at him. While I understood that on some level so many years ago, my younger self didn’t comprehend the price I was paying. My younger self didn’t see what it would lead to. I was so strong that I couldn’t comprehend myself as being what I eventually became.
I made efforts to be happy outside of my marriage, and outside of my relationship with him. It was difficult to do that when my being happy seemed to be something he was driven to sabotage. My success at anything was resented, and he seemed driven to diminish or ignore it, and sabotage whatever I’d found to succeed at or whatever made me feel happy and hopeful. Whatever gave me strength.
Even when diminishing me meant that he would lose out somehow. I couldn’t get him to see that a strong and happy me was only going to be mutually beneficial to him.
It all eventually led to a traumatic event that precipitated a breakdown for me. It’s been a long, slow crawl back from that. In truth, I’ve never fully come back from where I was at before that crash.
Am I stronger or just harder? I don’t know. He can still hurt me, but when he does, the fight in me is alive again, like defiant flickers rising from resolute embers. If he dishes it out now, he’s likely to share the pain he inflicts (because boundaries do seem painful and outrageous to him). Maybe it’s from going through menopause. Maybe it’s because so many of our kids are older, and I’ve seen more of the big picture. Maybe it’s because it’s been toxic to my physical health, making me more dependent physically while my spirit finally regains independence.
Now I say, If you can’t take the heat, stay out of my kitchen.
Pajama warrior with a bad knee that needs to lose weight and get a haircut, but the roar hasn’t been snuffed out.