The question that changed everything for me.
“You are married to a very nasty man and you need to leave immediately.” It’s the only phrase I can reliably say in a half decent South African accent because it will be forever emblazoned on my brain.
I had gone to my first marriage counselling session — alone — because I couldn’t figure out why my relationship felt so different than in the beginning. Why I didn’t feel able to inspire the same kind of love in my husband as I did when we first met.
In that moment my brilliant counsellor, I think, dropped all her professional boundaries and just told me what I needed to know. She wasn’t going to dance around the situation, helping me explore my relationship with my parents for months on end before giving me a hint that I was married to someone who was emotionally and psychologically abusing me.
No. She too had been married to a narcissist. A man who had gaslit her and cheated on her, and in that moment she dropped her guard and became less of a therapist and more like an Aunt, who was just sharing her life’s wisdom with me. I’ll be forever grateful to her for that.
But I’ll also never forget what it felt like for someone I instantly felt I could trust, to pull out the pin and throw a grenade into my life. For the whole rest of the session, and for several days following that revelation my head was swimming. I was in turn, afraid, in denial and paranoid. I started to check for signs that I was being surveilled in my own home. Where there cameras and recording devices around? Had he put a tracker on my car? Did he know that I now knew that he was a narcissist?
And between the grenade and the paranoia, something else. Something I never expected: Shame. I never knew until that moment how harshly I had judged divorce and those who got divorced. That wasn’t meant to be me. I was special. I had chosen the right man and our union was forever. We definitely weren’t going to be part of the statistic: 42% of marriages end in divorce in the UK and over half of these fail in the first 10 years.
It was the shame that made me think the craziest thoughts. (Yeah, crazier than “Can he hear my thoughts now I know he’s a narcissist?”) Thoughts like “getting divorced is shameful enough. I’ll stick it out for 10 years. That’s a respectable length of time to be married. Then we’ll get divorced.” Thoughts like “I’ll fulfil my life with my friends, my dogs and my career. I’ll just keep my marriage ticking over in the background.” (As long as I was successful enough and not becoming overweight or complaining, my husband would have never left me — I was his narcissistic source.)
Thankfully, after these bordering on insane, self abusive thoughts had subsided, a question appeared in my mind. “What will your 60 year old self say to your 30 year old self?”
To expand, a vision of my future self, 30 years down the line, would come to me. She would be lying in bed, the morning sunlight dancing across her face as she roused from her slumber, in her bought and paid for Brooklyn brownstone. She ran a successful coaching and speaking business and was an author several times over. She had much of what she desired in her life. But next to her lay a husband, 14 years her senior, ageing ungracefully, having systematically drained the life out of her as he drained the love, energy and finances out of her too. He had spent the last thirty years riding on the coat tails of her success, her fame, her wealth, her status. He had gotten his dream of living in New York thanks to her. She would slip out of bed quietly, so as not to disturb him — so she could take some time for herself alone, to try to recoup her energy, to connect with those friends she loved so dearly and her beloved fur babies. She would sit at her marble kitchen island sipping a cortado, and she’d look down at her aged hands and think of her 30 year old self. She’d think “Why didn’t you leave when you were young? What were you so afraid of? That you wouldn’t be able to start again? Why have you given your life to this person? Why have you given your opportunity to be loved and have a family of your own — if you so wanted — away? How can you coach women to leave abusive and unsatisfying situations when you’re too scared to leave your own— don’t you feel like a fraud?”
I couldn’t answer her. I couldn’t let 60 year old me down like that. I knew in that moment that I would rather feel ashamed and alone and like a failure for a few years in my early thirties, than look back on decades of my life and regret everything I had chosen to sacrifice, for fear of being divorced and judged.
Tomorrow would have been our 4th wedding anniversary. I’ve been separated from my husband for around 18 months and our divorce was finalised just over 9 weeks ago, at the time of writing. I can tell you that I feel no shame about getting divorced. I feel no shame about choosing a better, more honest, more loving life for myself. I feel no shame about speaking about my codependency and my experiences with narcissistic abusers. I feel no shame that I was brave enough to do something that terrified me and live to tell the tale. I feel no shame that I picked myself up, figured out my life and got myself into a situation where I could support myself and leave. I feel no shame.
If you are stuck in an abusive situation and shame holds you back from speaking your truth to whomever can help you get out and get safe, take my story as an example of someone who has walked the path before you. Reach out, organise your shit and for the love of all that is sacred, leave while there is still life in you. No. Shame.