According to my ex-husband I was stupid, bad with money, insecure and carried so much baggage it’s a wonder our honeymoon flight got off the ground. Like most verbally abusive men he didn’t start off by destroying my self-esteem on our first date. It was a gradual process. Over time the barbed comments grew more pointed and more frequent. His general behavior grew meaner and meaner, hidden under the guise of “just offering constructive criticism.” And what kind of person isn’t open to criticism and growth, right?
The way I’ve described verbal abuse in the past is like you’re a frog in a pot of water. The person abusing you turns up the heat to five, you threaten to jump out, so they turn it back down to two and shower you with compliments. Next time, the heat goes up to eight and you’re not as quick to threaten to leave, so they turn it back down to five this time. Fewer compliments, the bouquet of flowers is smaller. Until you’re living a life constantly apologize for who and what you are, tiptoeing around a man who once promised to love you, wary of his temper and how he might lash out.
The decision to leave him was the culmination of years of hard work in therapy, friends’ expressing their concerns about how he was treating me, and the realization that if I ever, someday, heard my son talk to a woman the way his father talked to me it would break my heart.
As my head cleared in the wake of my divorce I could hold up my accomplishments against his harsh accusations. I’m not stupid – I graduated from college summa cum laude in three years, I speak two languages, and I’m one paper away from finishing my MBA. I’m not bad with money – I bought my first house when I was twenty-five and I kept us afloat and debt free while he was unemployed for six months. But the words that were hardest to shake were those related to my body.
“I hadn’t realized your hips grew so wide when you were pregnant,” when I proudly modeled my purchases after a postpartum shopping spree. “I remember your beautiful flat belly,” with a wistful sigh as I was getting undressed for bed. “Guess you’ll never get back to size zero,” the day I cleaned out my closet and threw out the pre-baby clothes.
It is deeply hurtful to have a man who once pursued you and express his admiration for and sexual attraction to your body act like it is now a chore to make love to you. To be told you should feel grateful he still wants to sleep with you, because so many men just have to force themselves to go through the motions after their wife has a child. Those words cut my self-esteem into ribbons.
When I re-entered the dating world after my divorce I felt confident and strong in every other area but the thought of getting naked with another man filled me with dread. My insecurities ran so deep that I even asked the first man I slept with after my divorce, “Have you been with a woman who’s had a kid before? Do you know what a postpartum body looks like?” He responded with the right mix of gentleness and urgency, and while our relationship didn’t end well I’ll be forever grateful for what he gave me that night and others.
“My ex was right, I’ll never be a size zero again. But my dress size doesn’t define my worth.”
No more negative self-talk. Shedding the harsh words he used to attack my intelligence was as easy as taking off my wedding ring the day I left him. It’s time to get rid of the rest. I’m giving myself permission to acknowledge and claim my own beauty.
Those stretch marks on my outer thighs? Worth the beauty in my son’s smile when he throws his arms around my legs, tilts his head back and says, “I love you, Mommy.” The new softness to my stomach? Sometimes C leans into me, says, “I was in there,” and kisses it. My ex was right, I’ll never be a size zero again. But my dress size doesn’t define my worth. It says nothing about my character, my heart, or my soul. And I will happily trade in the three carat diamond ring I once wore for the knowledge that who and what I am now shines far brighter than it ever did.
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