91. The Ex Ms. Miserable

91. The Ex Ms. Miserable

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength

The Ex Ms. Miserable

Other people’s opinion of you does not have to become your reality.

~Les Brown

“Hi Ms. Ruble!” my neighbor’s son called from the yard as I pulled into my driveway. He said my name as if it was one word: mizzruble.

“Hi John,” I replied through the open window. “Hi Richard.” My husband was out front too, mowing the grass as he did every Friday whether it needed it or not.

“Where have you been?” Richard scowled, emptying the grass clippings into a lawn bag.

“Matthew’s six-week checkup with the pediatrician,” I answered. It seemed pointless to remind my husband that we discussed this appointment just last night.

“Oh, yeah. What’d he say?” Richard was already pulling the starter on the mower.

Tears I learned to suppress — “You’re way too emotional, Anne” — burned as I blinked them back. “He recommended we take Matthew to see a neurologist. He’s concerned about his lack of eye contact and something called abnormal posturing. He gave me a referral.”

Richard’s eyes blazed. “Jesus Christ! Why in hell are you telling me this now? Can’t you see that I’m cutting the grass? Goddammit, Anne. Your timing sucks! And where did you find this quack doctor anyway?” My husband stomped off, his posture as rigid as the parallel lines running across our manicured lawn. I berated myself for not rehearsing the conversation beforehand. After ten years of marriage, I knew better than to approach Richard unprepared or uninvited. If I wanted to avoid his rage, I had to adhere to the unwritten rules that usually protected me: pick my words, plan my defense, prepare to surrender.

Looking back, my bridesmaids should have carried red flags instead of roses when they paraded down the aisle. Richard’s narcissistic view that the world simultaneously revolved around him and conspired against him was evident even back in college when we first met. But instead of dwelling on his inability to empathize, I redefined Richard’s stoicism as strength, his perfectionism as persistence, and his adherence to regimen as admirable. Wanting “college sweethearts live happily ever” to be our story, I eagerly returned the feelings Richard professed to me. My grandmother’s mantra: “Love him for who he is, not who you want him to be,” reinforced my determination to love unconditionally.

When Richard finally proposed, I chastised myself for being disappointed with the ring he slipped onto my finger. “I know you really wanted a princess cut,” he said. “But the round is a better investment, and really, how important is the ring?” Richard kissed me and added, “Besides, no one will ever love you as much as I do.” I ignored my unease that his words rang more like a threat than a promise and accepted his proposal.

Richard’s anger, when it was first directed at me, was unexpected and confusing. His senseless and unbridled temper ran contrary to the calm, controlled demeanor of his public self. This volatile side of Richard’s personality scared me, but I faced the glare of his anger through rose-colored glasses and went to great lengths to appease him.

When Richard lashed out at me for staining his favorite spatula with spaghetti sauce (“How stupid can you be? Everyone knows to stir tomato sauce with a wooden spoon!”), I purchased new utensils. When he criticized my dream of becoming a writer (“Who do you think you are — the next J.K. Rowling?”), I respected the feedback as a healthy dose of reality. And when he protested (“There’s something fishy about these monthly father-daughter dinners with your dad.”), I acquiesced and invited Richard along. Not realizing that I was ensnared in an emotionally and verbally abusive relationship, I redoubled my efforts to be more loving, more accepting, more forgiving.

Olivia, our three-year-old daughter, hopped out of the van. “It’s okay, Mommy. I didn’t see Daddy cutting the grass either.” She scampered toward the house with her stuffed bunny clutched to her chest. Once Olivia was safely inside, I pulled the van into the garage and turned off the engine. Deep breaths, I told myself, as I unbuckled Matthew from his car seat and carried him into the house. Placing my son in his swing, I watched as his gaze settled — on nothing. His stare was as empty as I felt.

Yes, John, I thought. I am mizzruble. Miserable Ms. Ruble.

The next four years were consumed by appointments with neurologists, nutritionists, optometrists, physical/occupational/speech therapists, and sensory integration training. Despite overwhelming evidence that Matthew was on the autism spectrum, Richard denied that there was anything wrong with our son; I denied my growing fear of my husband. I believed I had to make my marriage work, if only for Matthew and Olivia’s sake. I hoped that if I were a better wife, a better mother, a better person, in time things would get better.

And for Matthew, things did improve. Thanks to a devoted team of therapists, our son began to meet developmental milestones. First steps, first words, first bites of real food — I cautiously shared these victories with Richard, who was relieved but also patronizing. “See, Anne? I told you there was nothing wrong.” I desperately wanted to believe he was right (in regard to both Matthew and our marriage), but the more Matthew progressed, the more our relationship deteriorated.

It wasn’t until Matthew strung together a litany of swear words in precise imitation of his father’s tirades, and Olivia again questioned: “Why are Daddies always angry?” that I knew I could no longer stay married “for the sake of the kids.”

Emboldened by all the years I had advocated for our son, I told Richard that I wanted a separation. He countered that I didn’t have the right to leave him, that I owed it to him to put more effort into our relationship, and that we couldn’t afford the financial drain of separate households. “Besides,” he chided. “You can’t cut the grass or shovel snow.” The next day I packed up the kids and moved in with my parents.

I was terrified but determined that my children would not grow up in a household fraught with anger, disrespect and manipulation. Marriage counseling quickly proved ineffective — the demise of our relationship was, according to Richard, all my fault. Realizing divorce was inevitable, I found a therapist who helped me understand that abuse, like autism, has a spectrum. The absence of broken bones and bruises only meant the abuse wasn’t physical. Richard’s belittling comments and vicious outbursts controlled me as much as an actual slap to my face or punch in the ribs. Contrary to the childhood chant regarding sticks and stones, words can and do hurt.

In the year that it took for my divorce to be finalized, I adopted a new mantra: to love myself for who I am, not who someone else wants me to be. I have regained my self-confidence, my self-respect, and my self-reliance. I have stopped scripting my conversations and cowering at the sound of Richard’s voice. With the judge’s scrawl across my divorce decree I took back my maiden name and ultimately, my life. I am Miserable Ms. Ruble no more.

~S.A. Thibodeaux

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