Content warnings: sexual assualt, rape, isolation abuse, financial abuse
I was married for six years to a man I had been with for two years prior to our wedding. That marriage had a ton of issues, created a ton of trauma, and involved a lot of damage. For reasons that I will save for another post, my ex-husband and I were basically set up for failure, and while leaving that relationship was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do, it was also one of the most necessary.
But the next man to walk into my life following my divorce would manage to do more damage in one year than my previous relationship had done in eight.
This is the story, not of my broken marriage, but of the devastating relationship that immediately followed it.
Serial abusers have a pattern to how they acquire their new victims. Each new relationship is generally preceded by a dramatic life overhaul on the part of the abuser, which involves burning any bridges of people who know them “too well,” isolating the new victim, and conditioning them to 1. never interact with anyone who could give them an unflattering perspective on the abuser, and 2. feed them enough lies about those people that if the current victim and the previous one ever had the option to interact, the current victim would truly believe the previous victim to be crazy, evil, or some combination of the two.
The setup was textbook. My abuser built our relationship upon a number of factors: the number of years we have been out of contact and out of each other’s lives following our initial meeting a decade before, and the loyalty that came from our newly reestablished friendship, the fact that both of our marriages imploded at roughly the same time, the reality that I was a brand-new mother, sleep deprived and overwhelmed, and the financial and physical dependence I had on him and members of his family. I was fragile from new motherhood (my daughter was only three weeks old when we left my ex-husband), broken from my divorce, and isolated from friends and family. The only support I had I met through him – again, specifically chosen people he knew would only speak positively about him.
He told me what I would later discover to be outlandish lies about his ex-wife, and, at the same time, lied to her about me, to be sure we were thoroughly pitted against each other and kept apart. Even now, as I have had the privilege of reconnecting with her and sorting through our mutual manipulation, it is devastating to realize the extent to which he deceived us in order to preserve his facade.
I struggled during that time to determine what I wanted from my faith, and engaged with the church community that he had been a part of for many years. The people there welcomed me, offered me love, financial support, and relationship, but they neglected to warn me about the ugly facts of this man’s past. Mark (a name I have deliberately chosen to avoid giving him any notoriety or future ammunition against me), had committed multiple acts of sexual violence in his previous marriage, and thoroughly manipulated, controlled, and abused his wife until she had no choice but to flee. The handful of the new friends I had in this church community knew the reality of the situation. They had heard confessions of this abuse directly from Mark’s own mouth.
But the Christian teachings of unconditional acceptance and forgiveness were manipulated by this man, who knew exactly what to say and how to present himself in order to seem remorseful and changed. In the spirit of forgiveness, they welcomed him with open arms, offering him shelter under their roofs and places among their families. They trusted him, and I felt that if they trusted him, there was no reason for me not to.
There were people who might have been willing to tell the truth about what they knew of him, but Mark went well out of his way to be sure that I thought so little of those people that I would never take them seriously should their opinions find their way to me. In the time that we were together, he turned me into a weapon against his ex, selling me his version of an evil, manipulative woman who would do anything to hurt him, and then using my loyalty as a tool to hurt her. She was the enemy, and since she had fled to the opposite end of the state, unable to share her story, I had little reason to believe otherwise. I took up arms on his behalf, and he had no need to personally defame her while he had such a willing foot soldier who would do that dirty work for him. It makes me sick to think about the dishonest gossip I spread about a woman who has not only been gracious to me in our reconciliation, but did in fact try to warn me ahead of time about what he was capable of doing.
The first time he assaulted me, we were in the middle of an intimate encounter when he decided to ask me for something specific. I told him no – that act made me emotionally uncomfortable and caused me physical pain. He used the dramatic difference in our sizes to his advantage and forced me to perform it anyway.
The second time, we began an evening of hanging out with me stating clearly to him that I did not want to be physically intimate. Within an hour he had manipulated and coerced me into “changing my mind” by using his own sadness and needs to make me feel guilty for saying no.
Following both of these encounters, he apologized, putting on a very convincing show of remorse and shame, admitting that what he had done was wrong and disgusting, and asking for my forgiveness.
But in between the acts of physical violence, there was a much more subtle abuse taking place.
Mark had dramatic financial issues, often running himself into a huge amount of debt over frivolous purchases. He was the classic cautionary tale of retail therapy gone wrong. But even in instances of generosity, he had convinced me that gifts were the only language his heart understood.
During this time I was in job training, and had no regular income of my own. I could not reciprocate the lavish gifts he would bestow upon me after he had done something that hurt me. One evening, he made a terribly cutting remark and left me in tears, and I was so terrified of losing him by “reacting badly” to verbal abuse he had committed against me that I actually spent a ridiculous amount of money from my tax return on a gift for him as an apology.
Apologizing and feeling guilty for things that were done to me became a regular occurrence. If I stood up for myself, he would compare me to his ex-wife, who he claimed was “vindictive and emotionally manipulative.” I would apologize. If I called him out on abusive behavior, he would tell me that I was being “unforgiving and unchristian.” I would apologize. If I expressed fear that he was harming me or using me in any way, he would act betrayed by the insinuation, and blame my previous marriage for trauma that he claimed I was “projecting onto him.” I would apologize.
We quickly and easily fell into a pattern that was dramatically one-sided: me running to keep up and anticipate his every whim, making him food, bringing him coffee at work, doing his laundry, bending over backwards to make him happy and walking on eggshells to prevent him from being unsatisfied with me. Him using every fear I had against me in order to keep me in line and trotting along at his heels.
And all the while, we lied.
My church community knew that I had some major issues with the Bible and its rules, and that certain things commonly accepted in Christianity – like extramarital sex being a sin, for example – were not moral hangups for me. They knew we disagreed on those topics, but they loved and accepted me anyway.
Mark, on the other hand, went to great pains to hide where his opinions differed from those of his church. He reframed this dishonesty in terms of “privacy.” I would try to communicate how uncomfortable it made me that I felt like I was being hidden. Privately, beyond closed doors he would tell me that he loved me, that he intended to marry me and be with me forever, that he hoped one day to adopt my daughter. Publicly, he asserted that we were “just friends” and, I would later discover, that I was unstable and attention-seeking, and his friendship with me was one of pity.
For six months we carried out this ruse, him hiding the reality of his life from his church, me dutifully and loyally protecting his reputation and his privacy. It would ruin his life, he said to me, if people in the church knew that we had been sleeping together. He claimed his ex-wife would maliciously use it against him and find ways to punish him if she knew the truth. He claimed his church would tell him he could no longer lead worship or participate in the small groups if they thought he was sinning. His entire life, he insisted, hung on me keeping his privacy intact.
And so I did. Of course I did.
I wouldn’t see until much, much later how this disguise of our “friendship” actually enabled him to play the field behind my back. He once made the mistake of allowing me to see his phone being messaged over and over by a girl from his gym who he had never mentioned to me. When I pressed him, he insisted that they were only friends, but upon further questioning he admitted that they had gone on a date the week before and he had intentionally hidden that fact from me. Months later I would discover they had been sleeping together behind my back. To this day I honestly don’t even know if she realized he was in a relationship.
Around the six month mark, a dramatic shift occurred in our relationship. He pulled away suddenly, distancing himself from me emotionally, refusing to talk to me, and ignoring my pleas for any sort of communication. The only time we would interact was late at night when he would text to ask if he could come over. I would beg him for some sort of explanation, or at the very least, an ultimatum or definition of our relationship. He flat-out refused to give me either. Finally, I asked him for one thing: that when he decided he was done with me, he should say so. “Don’t just let me hang here,” I begged. “Just be direct with me when you have decided that this relationship is over. Have enough respect for me to at least break up with me.” He said he could promise that much. He couldn’t, and in the months that followed I finally grew so devastated and hurt by his neglect of me that, eventually, I was the one to break things off.
My daughter and I, since leaving my ex-husband, had been graciously and generously sheltered by Mark’s mother. She could tell a dramatic change had happened, although she didn’t at the time know the full extent of our relationship. He insisted we keep her in the dark as well, threatening that if she discovered he and I had a romantic relationship, she might evict me and my infant. This sweet woman who had become like a second mother to me and a grandmother to my daughter found me crying in the bathroom one evening. I finally confessed to her, leaving out particular details that Mark had been adamant she should never learn, that not long ago he had been making promises about forever, and now he had abandoned me with no explaination. That night she confessed to me that she knew he was a monster, and sometimes wished that he had never been born.
Mark’s mother knew – and knows – the truth about him. Unbeknownst to me at the beginning of our relationship, she had sat across from Mark’s ex-wife and heard all the abuses that had been inflicted upon her. Like the other members of our church community, she knew that he had a history of abuse, and she knew that he and I had a close intimate friendship, but she chose to use the excuse of forgiveness not to warn me. My heart breaks when I think of how trapped and controlled she is by him.
At the end of the summer, after my daughter and I left his mother’s house and found our own apartment, I confided to a mutual friend of ours that if Mark were to knock on my door and asked to date me properly – openly, honestly, and without fascade – that I would tell him no. I had finally seen him for the sort of person he was, and I didn’t want to be with him anymore. I felt very free.
Several months later, I began to date Jordan and experience my first truly healthy relationship. All the while, Mark remained on the edges of my social circle, and we ran into each other more than once. We still engaged in the same church community, and I still kept his secrets. Periodically he would text me to “chat” about his new life, his new girlfriends, his promotion, etc. I kept a careful distance, knowing that this behavior was intended to elicit jealous or insecure reactions from me. Then in January, a little more than a year since we first got together, he texted me to ask if we could meet for coffee. Hesitantly, I agreed.
He led the conversation, as he usually does, and unsurprisingly the topic revolved around his romantic life. He wanted me to know how many women he had been with since me, how many relationships he had started and ended since we broke ties six months before. But he made a crucial error in telling his story, and accidentally admitted to me that had been with a number of these women long before our break up. All of the hurt and anger came flooding back as I realized that he had cheated on me.
After a year of suffering in silence and isolation, I finally made the decision to come clean to the leaders of our church. These dear friends, who had shown me so much love, made time in their day to allow me to tell my story and bring the deceit, manipulation, and double life Mark had led to the surface. When he was finally confronted by our pastor about his lies, he chose to abandon the community entirely, yet again burning bridges and severing ties with anyone who knew the truth about him.
The wheel turned. Nothing changed.
I carefully separated myself from him, changing my phone number, and blocking him on social media. I created a safe buffer between us, so that if he or his new significant other wanted to interact with me they would struggle to find a medium through which to do so. I created new space in my life, went back to therapy, and began to heal.
Since his departure from that community and most of the people who now know the extent of his deceit, he has created a brand-new social group. It has been more than a year since the last time I had to speak to him. He has surrounded himself with people who have little or no knowledge of his past, found a new significant other, and weaponized her against me in the exact same way he weaponized me against his previous ex. She fights his battles for him, and recently did hunt me down online to attack me for sharing (what he has undoubtedly told her are) lies about him. To my knowledge, she has no one to tell her the truth. In reality, I can’t even be angry at her. I did much the same to his ex, and if their relationship one day ends, his next victim will do the same to her.
This past Easter, nearly a year ago, he went to his mother and “told her the facts of our relationship.” To this day I have no idea what he could have said to her, but immediately following that conversation she pulled the chute, blocking me on social media, blocking my phone number, and refusing to answer any of my emails. He severed my relationship with a woman who held such an important place in my heart, and I will likely never get the opportunity to tell her my side of the story.
The devastating reality of this story is that it is not an original one, and while the signs are clear and textbook, it is almost impossible to see them while you are in the maelstrom. My hope is that by sharing this tale, I will shed light on the common abusive practices of isolation, forced silence, casual assault, and dramatically lopsided relationship that defines abuse. I know Mark would rather this story never be told. I know his significant other has been conditioned to disbelieve it, and I know the people who are still loyal to him have a desire to discredit it. But I will not be bullied into hiding my story. After a year of psychological, physical, and emotional abuse, he does not have the power to control me anymore.