Suppose he had changed? It struck me as I was about to sit behind my desk the other day. Let me just say, I would not swap my current life or husband for anything or anyone. Even Robert Redford. (sorry Bob.) This is just a hypothetical question.
Suppose, if just before I left - say a month- my former partner had come to me and said, “Wife, I am truly sorry for the way I’ve been treating you. I was wrong. I’m sorry.”
First, I would have wondered what he was up to. Is he toying with me again? Is this another opportunity for him to build up false hopes in me, only to pull the rug out from under me? This would have been the first apology I'd ever received from him. Usually he said things like “If only you had...” or “You needed to be knocked you off your pedestal.” So, toward the end of our relationship, his apology would have come too late.
Let’s take the apology and insert it at ten years into the relationship. We’ll also use a few of the techniques from batterer’s treatment.
He says, “Joanna (he calls me by name to prove he sees me as a living, breathing human being) I know I have treated you terribly (he acknowledges that his behavior was wrong.) I have called you a worthless woman, slapped you, broken your eardrum, pinned you against the wall and choked you with my arm across your neck...” (He goes on listing all his offenses against me and, maybe, ones against our children, too.) He finishes with, “I am deeply sorry for my past behavior and will prove that I will never again do those things to you. I’m going into treatment. My therapist will report my progress to you. You can contact him/her at any time to verify that I am attending appointments and working my program.”
At ten years, I might have taken him up on that. But then what? In all honesty, within me, anger and resentment would have simmered and sounded like this, “Oh, sure, now you say this. You put me thorough ten years of hell and now you become Mister Wonderful? How come you suddenly got it? Why now and not nine years ago? Why’d you even start abusing me? If you see this now, you must have known what you were doing all along.” Those thoughts would have turned up the heat under my resentment. Rage would have kicked in.
Trusting is crucial in a relationship. I don’t think that after ten years of abuse I could have trusted that it would never happen again. And how could I trust that his kind words or actions was genuine when they hadn’t been before? Or feel safe opening my heart and sharing my feelings, knowing that he might laugh them off or use them to hurt me? How could I stop walking on eggshells around him when all I’ve known is that one misstep on my part causes him to explode? I couldn’t help but think, How will he make me pay for having to be kind to me? It’s hard to rebuild a broken trust. And besides, I don’t want someone who treats me good because he feels forced to, but because it’s in his nature to treat others with kindness.
Then I’d need to forgive. That takes work. Abusers usually expect victims to accept their apology and instantly wipe the slate clean, forget all the pain and and become vulnerable again. Forgiveness doesn’t work that way. If a batterer is truly sorry, he/she may understand this. The point is, forgiveness takes time and moves at it’s own pace.
I’m not sure that ten years into the relationship, even if I had wanted to forgive, I could have moved past the anger and resentment. Every kind action from him would have become a stab in my heart. Why did you wait so long to turn around?
Trauma is not forgotten. Victims of abuse remember what happened. Yes, we may minimize and deny for a time. But deep down, we know. The hard part is learning to deal with those memories. Seeing him every day would have been a constant reminder of the pain. I believe it’s easier to forgive abuse from a distance than up close, especially if trust cannot be restored.
I have never doubted that It was better that I ended this relationship. Thinking about what might have been if he’d changed made me examine myself. Who knows what my smoldering rage would have conjured up to punish him? That’s a scary thought. That’s not who I want to be.