Walking You Through "Walking on Eggshells"
Apologies for the first draft of this week’s blog that was mailed out. I had a difficult week which always means my writing and proofreading suffers. Being able to write was one of the most catastrophic losses PTSD held for me, and the long fight back to being able to do something decent means it’s still a vulnerable spot for me. I have learned to forgive myself and keep going.
Last week’s blog seemed to nudge folks into some serious reflection. That’s always good. One person said how she looked back before discovery and for the first time saw how much tiptoeing she was doing to navigate his moods, accommodate his withdrawals and absences, and keep his demands met. Another person was really troubled to see that after years of her husband’s recovery programs, she was still doing those things and whole lot more! But some readers weren’t sure what I meant by “walking on eggshells.”
Walking on Eggshells—let’s take a closer look
I’m dividing it into “before discovery” and “after discovery,” because the dynamics of recognizing it are different for each, as are the implications. But the cycle of behaviors remains pretty consistent in both cases. We’ll look more closely at that cycle in another blog.
Looking back, you realize:
You often would prepare for him to come home from work in a bad mood.
You often worked on creating activities for the children that didn’t include him.
You sometimes would forget to be careful, and spontaneously ask a question and his surly response made you regret that mistake. Other times, you would ask a simple question like when he would like supper, and he would give you the silent treatment.
You notice that he began to stop taking his turn with household chores and family care, and soon you were doing almost all of it.
He began to look at you with disdain or turn away mumbling something under his breath.
When you tried to initiate sex, he would reject you with some gesture, words, noises, that communicated that you were the problem.
He would announce decisions without inviting you into the decision-making.
He spent large amounts of money on things he wanted, and even took trips without you.
He criticized your family or friends—not long drawn out complaints, but small, cruel observations or judgements that were not discussed because they were not open to discussion. They were rulings.
When you needed his listening ear, he would give silence and nothing more.
He made very personal critiques about you, turning up his nose at the way you smelled, for example. (I can’t emphasize how common this nastiness is reported. And it’s very effective.)
Sometimes you struggle to get your debts under control because of spending sprees he takes. When you raise concern, he accuses you of being ungrateful for the chocolates he brought home. You know that chocolates didn’t get you this far in debt, but his anger is showing, and you are afraid to push it.
If he was late, you learned not ask him why because he bit your head off, usually topping off his anger with some sort of “I don’t intend to be questioned every time I’m late” declaration.
Every once in a while, he would be all happy and excited, bringing flowers and talking to the children and wanting to do things with them, but it was hard to accept because you begin to fear what this will cost you.
He seems to have bouts of depression where he’s not really angry with you, but he is unavailable to you.
He will make increasing use of gaslighting to ensure you doubt yourself from time to time, as well as blame shifting to trigger your readiness to take responsibility for problems and for fixing them.
When you have been with one of these men for many years before you discover his secret life, it’s hard to see these things unfolding in your life. They happen gradually, with increasing frequency over time. At first it seems like a stressful time at work, or a bout of illness, or just a bad patch. You make allowances, and excuses. And you don’t notice how the frequency, variety and intensity escalates steadily. More and more that is about keeping the family life look and feel normal falls to you. You become the primary parent (as in 80-90%.) Why does all this happen? Because he actually believes his life is more important than yours or your children’s lives. And he must gather all the power in the family system to himself so that he has control. It’s a covert operation. Not as obvious as smacking you upside the head and verbally belittling his children. But just as effective. And just as damaging. Soon you are all walking on eggshells.
In the days since you discovered his secret life, you notice:
There are dramatic mood swings from day to day that are difficult to manage and make communication difficult because you are still reeling from something horrible he said yesterday, and today he’s all about being the good husband act.
He slowly and steadily builds his new secret life of recovery, unexpectedly throwing at you the various prohibitions and boundaries that involve you, with triumphant looks as he does it.
In spite of the confidentiality of his program he likes to drop newly-learned wife put-downs into your relationship when he needs to demonstrate that while he may be found out, he’s still in control.
You are dying inside, and he offers no consolation even though he is responsible for causing your trauma.
He becomes even less reliable for just about everything it takes to keep the household running, the family going, and everyone clean, fed, and put to bed. So, you do even more and are hanging to sanity by a thread. But if you ask him to pick up his share of things he goes into victim mode or attacks you.
He spends days (or longer) largely incommunicable.
He may have crying jags or threaten suicide. (If you report it, however, and he ends up in hospital for three days on the psychiatric wing, you can usually shut this one down. Always take those threats seriously. It’s always the right thing to do).
He may become even more arrogant and escalate his emotional abuse of you. It’s like the burden lifted of keeping the secret gives him a certain bravado. You will need to keep your head down during these periods.
You will be drafted into various “hall monitor” roles, to see he keep his appointments and group meetings, avoids whatever it is he needs to avoid, etc. This will mean you have to become the parent while he indulges his adolescent angst at your expense. Good luck avoiding the predictable resistance of sarcasm, insult, blame shifting and gaslighting.
He will try to seduce you into forgetting everything that he has done and how it has killed you inside by saying things like “we can start over and just put this behind us if you would just forgive and forget.” When you hesitate, you will be blamed and accused of all kinds of character deficits.
He will use gaslighting to ensure you have periods of doubting yourself.
Blame shifting will increase as he learns how the treatment model is primed to do that already, and how his new friends at the “addicts” meeting share their trade secrets in that area. You will never know how much is going to end up as your fault.
No one—not him or his treatment group—will lend any reality to the risks that he infected you, any unborn or nursing children with diseases. There will also be no concern for how your post-traumatic stress is harming your health now. You will hesitate to raise your concerns, get testing or medical opinions because it will look like you are trying to cause trouble.
What this is really all about is his attempt to restore the balance of power within the relationship in his favour. The secret part of his secret life was, for him, a way he celebrated his power over you, and exercised control. The secret ensured you could not object, call him to keep the word of his promises to you, protect yourself from disease and/or criminal elements, protect your children or their friends, hold him accountable in his family or professional life, or take steps to financial protect yourself. He had control. Abusive people do not give up control. So, everything he is doing now works to find new leverage and opportunities for control. Triggering your fear is one way he does that. Working with the treatment teams’ disrespect of you is another. Shaming you spiritually is yet another. The possibilities go on. He’ll have you walking on eggshells in ways you never yet experienced.
It’s always about control. He gets control by establishing his life as more important than yours or your children’s lives, using emotional, mental, spiritual, and financial tactics as outlined above to do this. After discovery he may also use a treatment model that does pretty much the same thing.
Now, I know I missed an awful lot of examples in both categories, but I think you get the idea. Walking on eggshells is never feeling secure enough to just “live” into the relationship without strict vigilance and self-surveillance. You monitor everything and everyone so thoroughly because you are afraid you will miss the one thing that will set him off. You take responsibility for trying to imagine everything that could go wrong “for him” so that he doesn’t react negatively in ways that hurt you and your children. This is why emotional, financial, spiritual, and mental abuse are real categories of domestic violence.
Becoming aware of these dynamics is not a pleasant piece of work. It was humiliating for me to see clearly how he had bent my love and loyalty into abusive compliance. I understood how each step in my grooming was a victory for him and afforded him opportunities to be more brazen in acting out his disrespect for me. Looking back, I could see how happiness drained out of me and resignation set in. I nearly lost myself. I very nearly let him (and his abusive mother) wipe me off the face of the earth. It’s terrifying to think about how close I came to disappearing for good into a black hole of hopelessness.
For me, researching the sex addiction treatment model led to my breakthrough. It was in my refusal to accept the irrational and preposterous made up recovery con that I also woke up to the domestic violence in which I tried to live, study, work, and raise a family for nearly three decades. The strange absurdities of his program that were supposed to signal “progress” were laughable in any other context, but brutally insulting in this one. I could see my past in this relationship in a new light. He and his mother had brought me to the edge of wanting to die. They were not going to get a second chance.
When survivors of domestic violence talk about their “before” and “after”, they often talk about the slow, steady tearing down of their personhood, their sense of agency, value, and meaning. The two bullet lists above describe how that is accomplished.
But there is also the “after” to describe. It is the sense of safety and freedom in your own place, the simple pleasure of a making your coffee in a morning unshadowed by his darker purposes and secret life plans, and your evening tea in your favorite mug knowing that it won’t soon be “accidently” broken when he finally takes a turn loading the dishwasher. None of that. Just a good cup of coffee and brand-new day! And later, just a comforting cup of tea after having finished your work in that same day! Simple pleasures are the tender mercies of an ordinary day. No more walking on eggshells. Your life comes back to you bit by bit. For those of my vintage who remember the old Crisco oil commercial: “it all comes back but one tablespoon.”
Maybe it’s time to talk. Your story is safe here, and you can book a special discounted trial session here: https://www.yourstoryissafehere.com/coaching/ If you have further questions, contact me: Diane@yourstoryissafehere.com
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