According to Elton John, ‘sorry seems to be the hardest word’. But for some of us, sorry is consummately easy to say and to feel. We’re often not even to blame, yet others seek to lay the blame squarely and unfairly on our shoulders to avoid admitting their own culpability. We’ve been trained to say sorry with the precision of an army drill by people whose methods make a drill sergeant look tame. ‘Sorry’ is easy. ‘No’ is virtually impossible.
Why? Because we’ve also been trained that to say ‘no’ is to have punishment after punishment heaped upon us by those who have chosen us as targets for their abuse. Right from the beginning of my marriage it was made clear that my differences were not to be tolerated, my preferences not to be listened to, and if I attempted to exert my right to have equal input into family decisions or the running of the household, I would be accused of trying to make their lives a misery; of holding standards that were too difficult to attain; and of actively wanting to harm them. The last accusation was a clear case of projection – an abuser will always try to convince you you’re the controller; that you are in fact, the abusive one.
It took me a while to learn. At first I thought it would settle down and that tensions naturally run high when families are first thrown together in a new blend. Had my own children been with me, the balance might have been less skewed, but my children were both grown young adults with their own lives and families. I understood my new step-family had all been through significant trauma with the violent death of their mother by her own hand, so I made allowances for some extremely bizarre behaviour. But I expected my husband to exercise some wisdom and to consistently reign the children in for the sake of their own character and soul development, but, to my mind, he took the opposite path. He seemed to believe they’d suffered enough and that their lives should, from this point forward, be cushioned against every discomfort and inconvenience. Mostly, he seemed unwilling, to me, to hold them accountable for their open acts of hostility and irresponsibility. And I was instructed to keep quiet, no matter what. Sometimes that instruction came by means of glaring at me in such a way as to dare me to speak; and I quickly learned what the consequences would be if I disobeyed that silent command. Not only did I feel I was not allowed to say ‘no’, it seemed I was not even allowed to think it. If a look crossed my face that might be interpreted as opposition, even if that interpretation was incorrect, the result would be the same.
I experienced this ‘result’ as extremely punishing; and this punishment seemed to be stunningly swift. I would watch my then-partner down drink after drink and as his inebriation level rose, so too did his aggression escalate. It invariably ended with me being belittled, shamed, attacked for my values and ways of ‘being’ in life, accused of things I knew in my heart were untrue. At no point did I act against the best interests of the family, yet I was manipulated into believing the lie that I am a monster; that my values are sick and twisted, that I’m out of my mind. And I would reach up for him, crying, saying I’m sorry for doing something I hadn’t done; saying sorry for not understanding why he was so angry; but never saying what should have been said. ‘No! Don’t you dare treat me this way.’
And so I learned never to say ‘no’. Fear is a brutally effective control measure. It was such a distorted way to live that it was only in looking back I realized that in nearly three years, I was ‘allowed’ to watch only one half-hour television programme of my choosing. For this to happen, the rest of the family had to be consulted days in advance and they then sulked and complained about my ‘asking’ to watch something they didn’t like. ‘What if there’s something I want to watch then?’ (The only correct answer to that is, ‘Who cares? You’ve watched whatever you wanted every day and night for months; in fact, years; on end.’ But I didn’t dare.) Their father was very stressed about the possibility his kids might not be able to watch what they wanted to – for a whole half hour out of their lives – and offered to rush out straight away and buy a recorder. Yes….it was far from normal. It was as sick and twisted as I was accused of being.
During our relatively short marriage, I opposed my husband on some (well, nearly all) of his financial decisions, which have left us all much poorer than we need have been. It will reduce my property settlement to a mere trifle; a situation that wouldn’t have arisen had my input been considered. But when I said, ‘No. I don’t want to do it that way. It worries me. It will drain the bank account dry. We can live within our means,’ he went ahead anyway. My ‘no’ had no meaning for him. For me to persist would have likely led to his stand-over tactics, stone-walling, coercion, accusations of my positively evil intentions, and the banding together of the rest of the family against me. I often experienced ‘mobbing’ at their hands, instigated by one or the other of them, but usually by the man who had promised on our wedding day to nurture me to my fullest potential.
Before too many months had passed, I actually felt physically sick at the thought of saying no to anything and to anyone. Within a short time, the only person I said ‘no’ to, was me.
Today, I am slowly learning to say ‘no’ again and I am surprised at just how difficult it has become. I still feel sick when I exercise that right but have decided to push through, to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway.’ Avoidance will only lead to never facing and overcoming the fear of ‘no’, the fear of judgement, the fear of punishment and abandonment. I am saying a particular ‘no’ to my soon-to-be-ex-husband and he isn’t happy, but I don’t allow him to abuse and intimidate me now. I understand I have a responsibility to act in my own best interests, to use my God-given wisdom and to direct my own life. For once, my decision is impacting him and I can’t imagine how that makes him feel. Before you think I’m acting just like my abuser, let me assure you I’m not. I am not motivated by bloody-mindedness; the thirst for revenge. I am not shaming, belittling, denigrating, coercing or manipulating. He is not being punished for his opposition. I am simply standing my ground quietly. I am doing what is best for me at this point in time, and I understand it will affect other people. However, it will not harm them, and I’m not apologizing for putting myself first at last. My own children would say it’s about time.
I earnestly hope that whatever he and the rest of the family are experiencing at this turn of events, they will learn and grow from it. There is no shortage of compassion in my heart for their struggles. The biggest change for me is that there is now equal compassion in my heart for myself.