Melissa sat on my black leather couch, head bowed, eyes tilted upwards so I could see how she felt.
“When George threatens me with divorce unless I comply with his wishes, I feel enraged inside. I know he is far beyond his bounds as my husband of 14 years.
"I know his threats tear me up inside and infuriate me because they leave me feeling victimized and helpless, but I give in. It is the only way to placate him, and I hate him and myself for doing this.
"I imagine leaving him, but I am too practical and do not want to be lonely. Dating to find someone else is both exhausting and depressing ... at age 47 I am no longer slinky."
She looked up to see if I was listening. I was listening so she continued.
“My body carries the abuse for me. I now weigh 20 pounds more than is best for me.
"The sugar helps me feel better after he threatens me. I have read enough psychology to know this is not smart, but it is the best I can figure out.
"I literally carry the weight of his threats with me wherever I go. I feel enraged at his yelling at me, and frightened when he threatens me, so I comply.
"I am assertive most places and I keep this a secret from friends and family. They would tell me to leave if they knew. What can I do?”
I nodded my head and sighed deeply. I knew this pattern all too well from other clients who had tolerated threatening warnings for decades in what looks to outsiders like a delightful marriage.
Melissa was wise not to bolt and run. The luxury of leaving would have cost her financial security and disrupted the foundation of her children’s lives at home.
How could I help her free her body from literally carrying the weight of this marital abuse? I knew that she had also stopped attending her belly-dancing class because she needed to be home to have dinner ready when George returned from work.
His income was primary support and he liked to eat prior to watching the news before selecting his evening entertainment. After dinner, Melissa did the dishes and often sat next to him until he turned the TV onto topics that disgusted her.
He liked to watch violence at night because it gave him an escape from his busy day. After dinner, Melissa snacked on low-calorie, low-sugar, and low-fat sweets, like Cool Whip and low-fat ice cream. As her unhappiness increased, so did her poundage.
Research tells us that intimacy done well can be good for you and intimacy done poorly can be very dangerous for you. Did you know that caustic, biting language hurled at your partner sends your partner's nervous system into a tizzy?
Our body responds with danger signals if someone yells and screams or looks at us hatefully. Within seconds, your heartbeat increases, and your tension increases until you get emotional flooding and feel anxious and uneasy.
What can you do to avoid some of the dangers in intimacy gone awry? Here are two pointers to help partners avoid the dangerous impact of abuse on our bodies and our spirit:
1. At the Coche Center, we teach partners how to do active listening. They pay full attention to every word and nuance of their partner's communication.
This is a lot harder than it sounds but very valuable to learn, so I encourage you to find a place where you can learn how to do active listening with your partner.
2. Once you enter a fight, learn to do a timeout. Breathe deeply to remain calm.
Say, “Stop. This feels dangerous." Wait until your nervous systems calm down, which may take at least 20 minutes, but could take more like a day or a day and a half.
Then sit down quietly and try to talk with your partner about how you feel about what is going on rather than what your partner ought to do.
Awareness of the severity of the danger of abuse on your body and spirit can alert you to develop coping mechanisms that enable things to go ever so much better. Here's hoping that you have the kind of relationship that you want.
To consider: Might my body be carrying more stress, anxiety or weight as a result of what I begin to understand is abusive? If so, what shall I do about this?
To explore: Patricia Evans has written a classically helpful book on the subtleties of verbal abuse. "The Nature of Verbal Abuse." Find her at www.patriciaevans.com.
Find Dr. Judith Coche helping clients with mental health concerns at The Coche Center in Stone Harbor and Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. Contact her through www.judithcoche.com.