Many unhappy couples stay together for the sake of their children, and it can be especially hard to leave a marriage when you have a disability. I put up with an emotionally abusive relationship for years for the sake of my children, enduring being manipulated into believing I was worthless as a wife, a mother and a person.
Two years after finally filing for divorce, I’m a single mom with multiple sclerosis and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been, and more importantly, my self-esteem and my relationship with my two sons are stronger than ever. But it was a long and painful road to get here.
Ignored Warning Signs
Before I met Michael, I wasn’t interested in getting married or having children. My relationship with him changed all of that. I was diagnosed with MS right after we got married and just the fact that he didn’t bolt made me love him more.
The emotional abuse started while we were still dating, and I didn’t see it at the time. There were many red flags — the anger, the cruel words, the shaming — but I was so in love and wanted to be with him so badly that I ignored them all. I’m a people pleaser and don’t like to rock the boat, so if he got upset with me, I always conceded and just kept any complaints to myself. I wanted to make him happy, but even before our children were born, I was having trouble meeting his standards.
Motherhood started out well for me. Michael and I parented as a team, and we had a great system in place for our first son. He was an easy baby, and although I had an MS relapse after his birth, I recovered in a month or so and was still able to walk. I went to playgroups, story time at the library and met other mothers. I felt very comfortable as a mom and fortunately didn’t have too many physical limitations. Looking back, I think the three of us were as happy as we could have expected.
But something shifted while I was pregnant with our second child. We had just moved to a new home, and I remember fighting with Michael and crying a lot during my pregnancy. He was feeling unloved, and I was afraid of him. I remember worrying that the negative emotions might somehow affect my second child before he was even born. My professional life was growing and going extremely well, but it seemed like the more I accomplished with my work, the less pleased Michael became. My health also started to decline, at least partly due to the stress of Michael being gone for work for several months. I was constantly relying on a cane, the walls, or furniture for support. MS was visibly slowing me down and making it harder for me to keep up with two children and a house to clean.
However, I found some relief when Michael was gone, and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Even though I was on my own with a toddler and an infant, I was able to establish a routine that worked well. I had a great nanny and intermittent help from Michael’s mom and my own. I started to figure out that things were calmer for me because I wasn’t always being second guessed or criticized for little things. If I didn’t fold the laundry right away, I knew it would get done the next morning. If the dishes in the sink didn’t get washed right away, I was OK with that and knew I would get to them soon. If the house wasn’t perfect, I knew it wasn’t a reflection of my competence as a wife or mother.
Unfortunately, that comfort and confidence started to deteriorate after Michael returned. He was so excited to reconnect with our children, and I was thrilled to be a family again. But as the months passed, I started to feel like a fourth wheel. Michael lost any interest in spending time with me outside of family outings. He felt that any time I dedicated to my work was time being taken away from the boys. I stopped sharing my professional successes and accomplishments with him. If I took any time for myself to relax or relieve some stress, he called me selfish.
What made things harder was that I felt like I had really bonded with our kids while he was gone. But as soon as he returned, he was the star of the show and I was back to being in the background, just keeping the household running. I still couldn’t do anything right in his eyes. At one point, I tearfully told him that he and the boys might be better off if I left. He didn’t argue with me.
We moved again two years later, and both parenting and being a good wife became increasingly difficult. I was using a walker full time, and within a year I started using a power wheelchair. My relationship with Michael was more strained than ever. I felt like I had a good relationship with my children, but I had the distinct feeling that they favored their dad. I took care of all the boring logistics — getting them to and from school, helping with homework, making doctors’ appointments, making sure they did chores, etc. Although the boys never said as much, he was the “fun parent,” and I couldn’t help but always feel left out, even when we were all together doing the same thing. I started to wonder if this isolation was intentional on Michael’s part, but felt guilty for thinking that way since he was — and continues to be — such an amazing father.
The fights started getting worse, and so did the emotional abuse. I will never forget sitting on our couch in a puddle of tears and asking Michael if he truly felt I was good enough as a person, wife and mother. He responded that I was good enough, but I could be better.
A few months later, he fell in love with another woman and had an affair. By then, he had done such a good job of convincing me that I was worthless that I begged him to try to work things out and not to leave me, despite how destroyed I felt.
For several months, we attended joint counseling and I began seeing a therapist on my own. It was clear Michael wasn’t interested in ending his relationship with his mistress. Although he attended all the counseling sessions, it was also clear his heart wasn’t in them and he was putting forth little effort to save our marriage. We tried our best to shield the boys from everything that was happening, though we may not know for many years what they saw, heard or understood during this time.
Four months after I discovered the affair, the sessions with my therapist gave me the courage to tell Michael I wanted a divorce. I thought he would be relieved because he seemed to have no interest in keeping me as a wife. Much to my surprise, he was shocked. He started to backtrack, saying he didn’t want a divorce. I kept asking him why he wanted to stay married to me, and he said he didn’t know. Throughout this period, he never told me he loved me and never asked for forgiveness, so I didn’t understand.
Filing for Divorce
I got some clarity when the emotional abuse ramped up to a new high after we met with a mediator and I officially filed for divorce. It wasn’t that Michael didn’t want to get divorced; he didn’t want to be divorced. It was a black stain on the perfect image he projects to others. Being divorced would say to the world that he (at least partially) failed at something. So he did what any good narcissist would do — he blamed me for everything.
Michael reminded me time and again that any suffering our children went through would be my fault since I was the one who filed for divorce. He asked me how I thought I would survive on my own as a woman with MS in a wheelchair, and who would love me or take care of me. I didn’t have an answer for him, but things were so bad that I was prepared to go broke paying for help and never be loved again if that was the price of my freedom from the abuse. He cited my alienation and withholding of love and affection as the reasons he sought comfort from another woman.
We “discussed” custody at a time when I was still under the impression that I was an incapable parent. I assumed the boys would live with me after the divorce. However, Michael made it very clear that if I ever planned on pursuing primary custody, I was going to be in for the fight of my life. Some quick research informed me that courts are often biased against parents with disabilities in child custody hearings, and my physical limitations could be used against me. This, combined with my desire for my kids to have an active childhood, led me to agree the boys would be better off living primarily with their father. To this day, I still deal with feeling like I abandoned them.
I kept seeing my therapist during the mandatory 60-day waiting period after I filed for divorce, and she helped me rebuild my confidence and self-esteem. She helped me understand what Michael had been slowly doing to me over the years through control and emotional manipulation. She also helped me remember who I was before the emotional abuse started, and guided me toward reclaiming who I really was.
Knowing that the divorce would result in not being near my children was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with. I moved across the country after the divorce to be near my family for support. Around the same time, Michael’s work forced him to move to a city only a full day’s drive from my new home. While the transition for the boys wasn’t easy at first, it could have been a lot worse.
An Unexpected Outcome
Fast forward two years, and I’m now wrapping up my second full summer with my boys since the divorce. Under the terms of our custody agreement, they live with Michael during the school year and with me over the summer break. We alternate holidays, and I can visit them or have them visit me whenever I want.
I run three successful businesses and travel extensively. I’ve also started introducing my children to world travel, and I learn new and amazing things about them every day I’m with them. I have a great circle of friends who have shown me nothing but love and support. I haven’t dated much following the divorce. I’m so busy with other things, and I’m in no rush to get into another relationship.
Michael and I are on very good terms, his family and mine are still close, and all of this is because I chose to forgive him. He never asked for that, but I needed to move on for my sanity and for my children’s happiness. I wanted them to see their parents at peace after years of dysfunction and conflict. Michael recently got remarried, and his new wife is a wonderful person. It’s heartbreaking to know another woman is spending more time with my children than I am, but the boys love her and her son, and they love my boys. I can’t ask for more than that, although I think I will always be concerned for her. I don’t know that Michael can change.
As for me, my relationship with my boys is better and stronger than ever. My confidence as a mother grows every time I see them because I don’t have a shadow of criticism, belittlement and condescension hovering over me. I don’t have someone constantly gaslighting me and making me question my decisions, my memory and my very sanity. I’m OK with making mistakes, and I can forgive myself for them. I have the option of doing things my way. I’m free to be proud of my accomplishments and show my children what a strong woman looks like. I’m free to be myself.
It took me a long time to realize that my insecurity and unhappiness were having a negative impact on my parenting and my relationship with my children. But now, as I’m enjoying one of the happiest periods of my life, I know I made the right decision to leave. I’m also reminded of that with every smile, every hug and every peal of laughter that comes from my two amazing boys.