Have you ever had a loved one who was caught in a bad life situation, one that was within their power to change, but they chose not to? I have two aunts who have been in toxic, abusive marriages for years, but they refuse to break free. For the sake of privacy, I will call them “Felecia” and “Beth.”
Felecia is an outgoing, fun loving, caring woman who loves to laugh. She is always on the move and the type of person who others want to emulate and be around. Think of that popular girl in school who is always up with the latest fashion and wears it well, setting trends for others to follow. Felecia is a gifted singer too. She is about 17 years older than me, but I always saw her as a big sister when I was an adolescent. I used to watch her get ready to go out on the town. As the early evening would set in, I would ask, “Are you going out?” “Maybe”, she would reply. I would hope that she wouldn’t go out, but mostly she did. Looking dreamily in the mirror as she drew in her eye brows or curled her hair. I would be spending the night with my grandmother on the weekend and hated to see her leave me to go out with her friends. As I got older, I would ask to borrow her clothes or solicit her advice on fashion. She loved to spoil me buying me my first pair of converse sneakers when they came back in style in the late 80’s.
Felecia is feisty, especially when she perceives that someone has wronged her. If a sales clerk is rude or abrasive, she will call them on it and then demand the service she deserves. She can go from 0 to 100 in the temper department with the slightest provocation. Felecia’s temper is the source of many a funny story in our family especially for her nieces and nephews. One would never think she would be in an abusive relationship, that she would let someone treat her so poorly.
Felecia has never been at a loss for male companionship. She was in a long term relationship with a man who was nice and like an uncle to me and my other cousins. They moved in together and were a couple for years and years. I never understood why they didn’t get married, but the relationship ended and Felecia finally moved out on her own. I don’t know the exact reason for their breakup but infidelity on his part was rumored to be the cause. I think this was the first time she had lived on her own. She was always dating and telling us about this beau or that beau. After a time, she started dating the man who would eventually be her husband. I’ll call him, “Luke.” He is the opposite of the other guy. He is quiet, but far from unassuming. Luke has an arrogant air about him. Most of us perceived that he thought he was better than us because he was from the north. At that time I wasn’t impressed. I had my own bias: education. He was not a college man so I wasn’t too impressed with him. He seemed more of the street smart type. I heard a rumor that he sold drugs in the north and moved here with a bag of money. I don’t know how true that is but that was the family gossip at the time. In any case we accepted him, they married, and bought a home together. I often spent time with them at their home, staying the night when I was home from college.
I began to dislike Luke because of all the unfair rules he set up for Felecia. These rules governed Felecia in every way. They determined how and with whom she spent her time. He also berated her a lot, especially about her southern accent. We couldn’t call her by her nickname in his presence. Whenever she gave gifts to her family they had to be done in secret. Their so-called partnership was one sided since she was responsible for paying most of the bills. He frequently let the phone go out of service to keep her family from being able to reach her. He would often take her cell phone so that if family phoned, we’d reach him instead. Once they took a trip and he left her stranded. She had to pay a taxi to take her back home. Her mother-in-law is just as mean and vicious towards her. I went with them once to collect her from the airport when she visited. She called Felecia names and made jokes at Felecia’s expense. Luke moved his mother to Georgia and in with them. Now, Felecia is responsible for her day to day care and has been for many years. The mother-in-law is very cantankerous and as her health has deteriorated into dementia it is Felecia who is the primary caretaker. Luke will not pay for professional assistance. Whenever Felecia does decide to go anywhere, she must take the mother-in-law with her even if he is at home.
Once she did attempt to leave him. We believe he struck her during an argument and she called and asked to stay with me. I took her in and counseled her. I encouraged her to leave him and even went with her to remove all her clothes and belongings from the house. I helped her get a storage unit for these items. I was tremendously happy that she was finally leaving. Unfortunately, almost every night she stayed with me, she spent hours in the bathroom talking to him on the phone. In less than three weeks she was back with him.
I could fill up this post with countless stories of his vicious behavior. In essence he treats her like a door mat and not a wife. He wants her to be with him in this persona of a marriage, but the reality is a degradation of the institution. The things he does are so hateful and low down as we say in the south. Nonetheless, she takes them and moves on. I get so angry when she says things like, “I ain’t gonna let that man bother me” or “I just ignore him.” I want to scream. How can one live in the same place with someone who they know hates them? How can one exist and be sane when they have to sneak around to do regular normal things like give a family member a gift? How can one live from day to day knowing that their husband might decide to take their car away on a whim? Does she have such a low opinion of herself that she thinks she deserves this treatment? I just don’t know. It is like she is two people. The one we see seems happy and content. We don’t see the other one. On first meeting her, no one could guess that she was being treated this way. When does she reveal the brokenness that has to be there?
Most recently she was celebrating a milestone. She had completed training to get a medical license as a home health nurse. Apparently, Luke had promised to pay for the exam she had to take at the end of her program. At the last minute, he refused to pay. She was forced to get the money from one of those store front loan companies that give out personal loans at inordinately high interest rates. I didn’t really respond because I was too upset. I changed the subject because there is nothing I can do but pray for her. I learned over the years that she will not leave him. Our calls for her to do so have fallen on deaf ears. She often says, “I can take care of my own business.” Where I used to be vocal and argue with her about this, I am no longer. I don’t mention him at all.
I often wonder how Felecia’s life would have turned out had she never married this guy. She is always beginning new ventures. She will list out her plan of action and take off. I listen with sadness knowing that any effort she makes to better herself will be thwarted by this monster and it always is. Yet she smiles and goes on. I hope that one day she will wake up from her stupor and choose life. She has been a caged bird for so long. Hopefully one day she will break free. If it was within my power, I would change her situation. However, it is not and I would be lording over her in the same way he does. She has to assume responsibility for her own happiness. Maybe she has. I have a hard time accepting that this imprisonment is the life she wants and has embraced for herself.
Beth’s story tomorrow.