By JOAN THATIAH
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He was both appealing and appalling. He was loveable to the outside world but behaved very differently inside the confines of our home,” Maryanne*, 39, sums up the character of the man she lived with and tried to love for half her life.
She was only 19 when she met Joshua*, who she thought was her greatest love. He was good looking, charming, with a good job, and she was young and impressionable.
He did everything he could to impress her. And he certainly did, with holidays abroad and shopping excursions.
She fell pregnant after just 10 months of dating, and Joshua seemed so happy that he proposed and planned the wedding himself.
All of this happened in the span of a few short weeks. It would be easy to assume that Joshua was so in love with Maryanne that he couldn’t wait to start a family with her, but as is typical with narcissists, he was moving very fast so that the red flags wouldn’t register.
THINGS FALL APART
After the wedding, it didn’t take too long for things to start falling apart.
One evening, Maryanne, who had been pregnant six months and married for only two, was ironing her husband’s jacket when the hot iron caught the nylon lining leaving a burn mark. When he saw it he hit her so hard that she fell.
“I rationalised his outburst. He had been so good to me that (I was sure I had done something to deserve the beating). I lay in bed later that night, berating myself for failing to be more careful with the jacket,” she recalls the instant he got power over her.
In retrospect, she says the red flags had always been there; she just didn’t see them.
She remembers how possessive he was of her, and demanding of her full attention. He expected preferential treatment. But he was also quiet and hard-working, and he rose up the ranks at his place of work, and she was impressed by this.
So she let the incidents of violence go, writing them off as isolated.
Wrapped up in wedded bliss with the man who wouldn’t let her out of his sight, Maryanne had four children in as many years. Then things began changing – and not for the better.
She can’t put a finger on the exact point she began feeling different about her relationship. The transition was so gradual she didn’t see it coming. But about seven years in, she realised that she was walking on eggshells.
COULD DO NOTHING RIGHT
“I didn’t dress right in his eyes. The food was not good enough. I was not strict enough with the children. Even my best was not good enough. I began stopping to think about how he would react each time before I did something. I felt drained, both emotionally and physically, but I kept hoping that if I did things the way he wanted we could go back to our earlier days,” she recalls.
Then her prince charming began interfering with her relationships. He would call her friends and her sisters complaining that she had become a drunkard and that she was sleeping around.
“He was like a chameleon,” Maryanne says of her husband’s ability to pull the wool over other’s eyes. He made great impressions on anyone outside their home that they met, so it was easy to believe that he was the long-suffering husband of an untamed woman.
“One Saturday, during one particularly troublesome year, he gathered all my sisters at my house when he knew I would be coming home late so that they could catch me in the act. My siblings believed him.”
Why did she stay? Broken self-esteem, she explains. “By this time, he had gotten under my skin and taken over my thoughts. He made sure to remind me how ugly and half-baked I was and for some reason, I believed him,” she says.
Also, Maryanne was financially dependent on him.
It was interesting how he had put her in this position; rather than stopping her from working, he allowed her to go back to school to acquire a diploma – and then made it impossible for her to keep a job.
“My first job was in IT at a school, and he hounded the management with complaints that I was coming home late. They laid me off. He went to my next employer and warned them that I was known to sue employers if I didn’t have my way. I didn’t last the month.”
She is a staunch Adventist, and her greatest support at the time was the church. She sought counselling a couple of times only to be referred back to what the Bible said a good wife should do.
This further reinforced the belief that something was wrong with her.
“I began doubting my sanity. I would ask for school supplies for the children and a few days later he would insist that he had bought them and given them to me, sometimes claiming to even have the receipts. I had become conditioned to take blame for all wrongs in our union, so I began thinking I was losing my mind. Surely, I must have forgotten where I kept the children’s school supplies, I must have done something wrong to make him so angry that he hit me, I must have behaved in a manner that warranted me being called a slut. I was a mess,” she says.
FIFTEEN YEARS LATER
Fifteen years in, she had lost a tooth to the physical abuse and her body was painted with marks from the beatings.
She was also sexually starved, her man only getting intimate her occasionally when and how he wanted it. When she saw condoms in his car, instead of getting angry that he was cheating, she thought that it was good that he was protecting her.
To the outside world, this was the perfect family with a quiet, hard-working husband who had put up a big mansion for them and whose children all went to expensive schools.
“What they didn’t know was that behind closed doors, my children and I went hungry some nights because the kitchen supplies had been locked up. While I should have been proud to be going home to a big house, each time I stepped out of the gate, the house boy would have to ask him whether or not to open the gate for me and sometimes he said no. He was also very guarded with his money, preferring even to shop for the groceries himself.”
The variety of fuel guzzlers in their car park were all for show and for the dogs to sleep. Maryanne was only given money for the bus.
Once, she attended Joshua’s graduation in a neighbouring country; he gave her the exact amount of money she needed to purchase her bus ticket and flew there by himself.
“My daughter attempting to commit suicide was my first wake up call. I was still unsure whether there was a real problem and thinking that I was not good enough, but I left my four children and moved out of my matrimonial home.”
Alone, away from her husband and children and feeling rejected, belittled and isolated, Maryanne began looking for answers.
She wanted to know what was wrong with her, why she had failed as a wife.
One night, she went to the Internet, looking for reasons why a man would hate his wife so much. She instead found a list of personality disorders that her man could be suffering from.
Days of reading and research and a visit to a doctor confirmed that her man was indeed suffering from pathological levels of narcissism.
“Understanding narcissism literally lifted my stress. For the first time in so many years, I knew that nothing was wrong with me. I understood that narcissists are attracted to the best and the brightest and then live off tearing them down over a period of time.
“I was not incompetent, neither was I needy otherwise he would never have been attracted to me in the first place,” she says.
MONTHS OF COUNSELLING
Months of counselling and support from a psychotherapist friend have provided Maryanne with the perspective she needed to rebuild her self-esteem.
She moved back into her matrimonial home six months ago after her child maintenance case was thrown out of court so that her children can get the financial support they need as she awaits for her divorce to be finalised.
“This time round though, I am better prepared. I have given up the idea of trying to fix him and I’m instead focusing on protecting myself. I know that he doesn’t have much to give and thus I expect less of him. The best part for me, however, has been knowing that behind that mask of self-inflated confidence is a deeply sensitive individual, and putting me down is the only way he knows how to stay afloat. If he attempted to do it now, I wouldn’t take it personally.”
Her only prayer is for her children who have witnessed it all not to think that this is how a normal relationship looks.