After separating from my abusive husband, I made it clear that I would not live with him unless and until his attitudes and behaviors changed dramatically. After a couple of weeks of listening to him whine and complain about my unrealistic expectations, he suddenly entered Alcoholics Anonymous and seemingly found the will to turn his life around.
His overall demeanor took on a hue that appeared consistent with heartfelt repentance and a drastic change of character. It seemed he had miraculously been awakened from his toxic stupor. The nasty man was all at once the happy-go-lucky guy who forthrightly apologized to me and our kids for his hostile behaviors and failings. Suddenly he wanted to play with our kids at the park and seemed more sensitive and respectful toward me. He spoke in positive, glowing terms and seemed wholly committed to the follow-through to save our marriage and our family. The man passionately assured me that our dark days were behind us.
Three months after our separation and overwhelmed by his incessant petitions to return home so that we could be a family once again, I consented, feeling pressured to reward his efforts and hoping that the measure of trust I extended him would motivate him to stay the course. Although I verbally assented, everything in my being screamed “Don’t do it!” The truth is that I feared being viewed as the bad guy if I refused to buy in, realizing too late that perception is always the wrong motivation.
Only a couple of weeks after his return my husband’s cordial façade began to fracture. There were moments in between his niceness when the snippy, sarcastic, bully would return, and I made it a point to immediately confront him. I also soon discovered him drinking again. At that point, he insisted that I read a chapter in his AA book that basically proclaimed that family members needed to be supportive, even when the alcoholic relapses, recognizing that it is not the alcoholic acting out, but the alcohol, the disease at work. After reading the chapter, he asked me what I thought, and I told him straight out that I wasn’t buying it. He became angry with me for not going along with the program, and I told him that was too bad.
“But I’m going to have relapses,” he fervently insisted as he paced our bedroom floor.
“Not in this house, you’re not,” I bluntly responded.
Then off he went about how unreasonable and inflexible and selfish I was. From that moment on, he sought to claim a wide berth, a presumption that there was going to be a measure of failure involved in his recovery (including an expectation of occasional abuse) that, according to him, I was obligated to tolerate. Such incidents were not to be viewed as a big deal. His premise was that, as long as he said he was “trying,” I had no right to expect anything more. His verbalization of effort was deemed sufficient to presume him essentially innocent.
In the weeks that followed, after I would point out the ongoing manifestations of his regression, my husband would say something like, “What more do you want from me? I’m trying.” But I know now that he was only greasing the slide that would have sent us back to the depths from which our children and I had only recently begun to ascend. Three months after we “reconciled,” I asked him to leave again, a condition of our arrangement, and he did. He never returned.
I know now that the truly repentant person willing to accept responsibility for an offense says, “I’m sorry,” while the game-player who wishes to simply create a presumption of innocence and effort will be inclined to say, “I’m trying.”
The abuser’s intent is to establish an expectation of occasional outbursts and failings that must be found acceptable by his victim(s). It is supremely ironic that the man who cannot see past his nose to perceive the depth of harm he has caused expects his victims to accommodate his now seemingly fragile ego. He will assert that confronting him when he acts out only serves to discourage him, and his motivation will almost certainly wither. Of course, in that event, he will have someone to blame other than himself.
The victim needs to understand that each and every verbal slip or behavioral setback on the abuser’s part is a test of her conviction. When confronted, he will bemoan her lack of empathy and question why she doesn’t instead commend him for the most menial effort. In truth, he resents the expectations placed on him, and his push for ever more grace represents nothing more than an incremental return to the patterns which he prefers and has grown hurtfully accustomed.
“I’m trying” is nothing but a ploy, a lie, a show. He is conveying that the effort he is required to put forth to remain in the relationship is only a drag on his real intentions. On the other hand, if a recovering abuser truly sees the harm he has done and is committed to repairing the damage, he won’t have to try to love his family, nor will he resent those who are counting on him to demonstrate an appropriate measure of respect and care and protection.
If an abuser has to remind you that he is trying, he isn’t.
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