I was once involved with a woman, I'll call her D for this purpose, who was verbally and physically abused by her father. I had understood from prior conversations with mutual friends her dad was a Holocaust survivor, and he had been in therapy much of his life to curb his PTSD-related violent impulses.
In his case, the therapy did not work. He regularly bragged to anyone who would listen that he only attended his sessions as something to look forward to in an otherwise dead-end existence.
The complexity of the situation was considerable, as I myself am a Jew who had been taught to treasure survivors of our greatest catastrophe.
He, though, was someone I could not respect.
My girlfriend’s mom passed of cancer years before. I had been told by D she and her mom were inseparable, which I questioned as D’s mom had apparently ignored what was happening within her household, by her husband, to her very own child.
When I later confronted D about her dad’s abuse in a bid for transparency, she explained she did not want to say anything to me as it would risk our new relationship. I understood the sentiment, though for precisely that reason I needed her honesty. To her credit, she shared some tough truths: Her mom suffered from bipolar disorder. Her parents remained married as her dad was the only man in her mom’s life who had never left her.
And therein lied the other problem: When her mom was in the midst of her own rages, D bore the brunt from her as well. Verbal, not physical.
D was told by her mom her hair was “ugly,” or she was “grossly overweight.” Or, she had “horrible skin.”
The difference was Mom usually apologized within an hour.
The longer D and I had dated, the more severe her own mood swings had become to a point where, at times, she could barely contain them.
At my urging, we visited her doctor together.
Following an initial diagnosis also relative to PTSD, D was eventually re-diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Like her mom before her.
I was never informed of any violence between husband and wife, nor on the part of their other three daughters, though D's dad himself once called us pleading for me to break up with his daughter. I said “no,” and finally questioned him on his past.
His response: “I got a little angry when my wife died of cancer. So shoot me for being heartbroken.”
D’s version was he lied to me. “He’s been beating me since I was a kid,” she said. “At least it was never anything sexual. Maybe I’m fortunate.”
D’s dad would never hold back when the three of us were together. He would swear at her and insult her, as if he was regularly inciting me to swing at him so he could justify his efforts to split us.
I was not used to this family dynamic. I thought my upbringing was typical, one of loving parents and close siblings. Clearly, I was wrong.
D’s dad typically took to the bottle upon returning from therapy, bemoaning he’d have to wait another week between sessions. He became emotionally vulnerable a few drinks in, and when questioned in this state his words usually went something like this: “I love my daughter … but you can take better care of her than f-up me ever could.” When I said maybe his daughter needed some emotional distance from him, he told me in no uncertain terms to kiss his ass.
Time went on and there was no progression on the part of either father or daughter. Gradually, D and I devolved as a couple. She would regularly swear at me. She would lose control in supermarkets and incite fights with customers.
I once caught her punching herself in the face. Still, we tried to work out the issues ... but I put my foot down and told her I would leave if she did not seek professional help.
"Trust me," she said. "You see my dad. In my family, therapy doesn't work."
My relationship with D died when we finally tried focusing on our own relationship, as opposed to that of her and her father. I realized I had become emotional support to D but little else.
“Do you think you’ll ever propose to me?” she asked. “Or am I wasting my time?”
“We’ve been dating barely a year,” I said. “Can we continue to work on existing issues and take it from there?”
“You think you’re better than me and my dad because you come from a family where everyone loves each other, that it? I got news for you. You’re nothing. And your family is nothing!”
We were in a park and she walked off. We didn’t speak for a week until she called. She apologized, but insisted again she did not need any help and what went on with her and her dad was something she could handle. In that event I didn’t have it in me anymore to continue. Any sincere thought of marriage with this woman was now, to my mind, a thing of the past.
I had to get on with my life.
When all of this transpired, I was in my 20s. I am 56 now. Perhaps I could have been a better and more understanding person back then. Perhaps not. Regardless, I hope she has done well in her life and found her peace, and if she happens to see this I would like for her to know I never blamed her for anything other than not taking steps to help herself.
None of what had happened with her dad, or her mom, was her fault. I made sure she knew I believed this to be the case.
The lesson I took from my relationship with D was substantial, and I’ll offer up a piece of unsolicited advice to any reader who can relate to my story: For anyone from a healthy family involved in a relationship with an abused partner, I encourage you to be better than me.
Whatever it takes, encourage your partner to get help. Be aware of the signs before your relationship gets serious. You will not be doing your partner any favors by just being another person to walk away from them when the going gets tough, but nor will you be doing them any favors by sticking around if they refuse to help themselves.
In disclosure, if I delved into my own extended family in the context of this article we would find depression, suicide, imprisonment, and more. I say this to make a perfectly clear point: Who am I to judge?
You should not either.
We learn these things as lines crease our faces, hair falls out and joint pain becomes unmanageable.
If you can appreciate all families are different, and much of what forms anyone’s personality emanates from their environment, overcoming such obstacles should be workable if you work as a team. If your partner sees you are making a real effort to understand who they are, you just may be in for a wonderful life together.
I am speaking from experience, as another similarly complex relationship has so far lasted 20 years …
Photo Credit: Paola Chaaya, courtesy of Unsplash