No list holds the power to change a person’s heart.
It finally arrives – the heartbreaking yet liberating moment when you simply cannot live the lie for one more minute. The loneliness, shame and exhaustion can no longer be rationalized or minimized. There is nothing left to sort out or piece together or hope for, and you finally break through the wall of dysfunction you had foolishly accepted as normal. And you leave.
As the first days pass, you find yourself moving tenuously through the haze of disillusionment and exhaustion and catching a glimpse of clear sky, relishing every breath of free air and then falling into bed at night in peace. If you are lucky, in the abuser’s absence, the numbness of soul to which you have become accustomed gives way, and you find yourself savoring the joys of a few days, hours or minutes free of constant fear and confusion.
Unfortunately, it will not be long before your sweet respite is interrupted. Your abuser is not done yet. He shows up on your doorstep and leaves countless messages on your phone. He might arrive at your workplace, send flowers, bring gifts and make every promise imaginable. He insists he has been awakened to the truth and is intent on securing any opportunity to prove himself. So he asks, “What can I do to assure you of my love, to earn your trust and prove my sincerity? Name it.”
Those are dangerous words. He wants your checklist.
It is tempting to offer one. How many nights have you lain awake strategizing how you might reach his angry, calloused heart and get him to see you, to cherish you?
“Maybe this is it,” you say to yourself. “Maybe he has finally reached a point where he can hear me.”
It feels like an open door, a precious opportunity to set the stage for real healing and change. You feel confident, even eager presenting him with your checklist because he has evoked a genuine desire to make things right. You put it out there, believing that you are giving him some helpful direction, maybe even inspiration. You might insist on counseling, treatment for his addiction(s), corrections to his irresponsible spending, acknowledgement of and elimination of his abusive behavior. You might also ask that he help more with household responsibilities or give you more freedom to pursue your interests.
Only these many years later can I see the absurdity of enduring however many years of abuse, and then handing the abuser a short list of concessions he must make to get things back to what he considers normal. Step back for a moment, and you can see that his request of you at once infers that he is mystified as to what the issues are and how he has hurt you. If he is counting on you to explain to him what he needs to change, then in his mind, he doesn’t need to change anything. And your willingness to offer him a checklist is accepted as a promise that you are willing to reconcile with him as soon as those line items are checked off.
As well-trained enablers, we almost always fail to realize that the checklist is a trap, a teaser in the abuser’s game, and many of us are drawn in. We continue to act on the premise that relationship is the mutual goal. Not so for the abuser. Remember: he wants control.
So what we see as a solemn opportunity to restore genuine relationship is to the abuser a trivial matter of a few small hurdles, temporary obligations, or just another opportunity to perfect his art of manipulation. The checklist becomes the very mortar the abuser will use to rebuild the walls that held you captive.
Go to counseling? Sure. Several weeks later, the counselor has bought in to the abuser’s “sincere” efforts, and the victim has lost her voice. In fact, she is probably under the gun now for being slow to forgive or accommodate him. Nothing has changed, but he has fulfilled the mandate.
Get treatment for his addictions. He goes to meetings and expresses confidence in his progress, but there will be occasional lapses. What do you expect – perfection? To be encouraging, you commend him for his progress believing his addictive tendencies will decline over time, but only time will tell.
At first, his commitment seems admirable, even believable. And you may optimistically give him more credit than he is due. Not only that, but many of your checklist demands are subjective and can be molded and twisted in a manner that can be accepted as a good effort. Speaking cruelly to you or your children? That’s a matter of opinion, isn’t it? Perhaps you’re overreacting again or expecting too much in too short of a time period. In no time, he will have found a way to document some measure of success in every area you asked.
Check. Check. Check.
If you’re a strong one, maybe you can resist the tearful pleas of your children who want daddy to come home, and remain a little skeptical when his friends and family members remind you of how hard he is trying. You do not have the measure of peace you need to consider reconciling. That is when the checklist becomes his tool and your enemy.
“I’ve done everything you’ve asked,” he reminds you. “What more can you possibly expect from me? You are being unfair to me. Don’t you want to save our marriage? Why are you doing this to our children?” And the pressure is on.
Has he really changed? No. But you have set yourself up for Checklist Blackmail. The abuser will use the checklist you gave him to contain and define and limit the scope of necessity in the relationship. Your checklist leaves the intangible, immeasurable substance of his character immutable.
Even though the abuser has met the obligations, you still feel unsafe. To his way of thinking, that’s your problem. Should you refuse to receive him, he will emotionally pummel you with the checklist you gave him and angrily affirm your response as proof that you are absolutely unreasonable, overly demanding and even cruel. You have put yourself between a rock and a hard place – and your abuser knows it.
Just say ‘no’ to the checklist. No list holds the power to change a person’s heart. If you leave your abuser, and he tells you he wants to change, to make things right; let him. He’s a grown-up. Let him go get counseling on his own and figure out what needs to do to get healthy without harassing you or promising you the moon or extracting agreements or timelines from you.
While he does his share of the work (I write with great skepticism), you can take some time to educate yourself about the abuse dynamic and focus on your healing – not on his. If one day he shows up on your doorstep, accepts full responsibility for all of his cruelties, humbly seeks your forgiveness, seeks help of his own volition and agrees to leave you alone and honor your need for time and space and room to heal without limits…then there might be a basis for entertaining the remote possibility of reconciliation.
From what I have witnessed in my dealings with abusers, they prefer the game of Checklist Blackmail. Don’t play. It is just one more game you simply cannot win.
Though you pound a fool in a mortar with a pestle along with crushed grain, yet his foolishness will not depart from him. Proverbs 27:22
Copyright 2013, All Rights Reserved