Pillars of Joy: Day 5 (Forgiveness)

“Forgiveness is the only way to heal ourselves and be free from the past. Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us.”

This is the fifth of 8 posts exploring the 8 Pillars of Joy as outlined in Douglas Abrams’s The Book of Joy, featuring the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

I’ve thought about this for two days now: what exactly is forgiveness? Is it an action? a choice? a feeling? When I “forgive” someone, what does that actually mean?

This is not really what I intended to do with this series of reflections about joy, but the more I thought about the word, the less I understood it. Rather than bore you with the specifics of my linguistic battle, I’ll just share this with you: forgiveness is giving up the desire to punish or retaliate against the offender. It’s not absolving them of responsibility or forgetting the offense; it’s recognizing that punishing them will not fix the injury that was caused. In fact, retaliation tends to multiply the hurt rather than lessen it.

Another aspect of forgiveness that really stuck out to me was this description by the Dalai Lama: part of forgiveness is “cultivating compassion for someone who may not be experiencing acute pain or suffering right now, but who is creating the conditions for their own future suffering.” This really struck me because my ex-wife frequently says very hurtful things and treats other people with great disrespect. What do you do with a person like this? How can you forgive someone who doesn’t stop hurting you and doesn’t take responsibility for doing it? Compassion.

It’s interesting to me that I’ve never really thought of the connection between compassion and forgiveness, but it makes perfect sense. When you realize that the person who injured you did not do it on purpose or by choice, it’s easier to forego the desire for retribution. When I see that my ex-wife says or does hurtful things because she is afraid, I must acknowledge that (at least in some ways) she is not responsible for that fear. She doesn’t live that way entirely by choice, so her reactions to things are not entirely her “fault.” Yes, she’s the one choosing to insult or belittle, but where is that “choice” coming from? It’s almost like a reflex. When the doctor taps your knee, he can’t be angry if you accidentally kick him in the shin.

That’s where it helps to understand what exactly forgiveness is. If I thought that she deserved to be punished for what she has done, it means that I don’t have any compassion at all for the state of fear that she lives in. I certainly don’t think she is completely blameless, but it’s interesting to realize that she does and says such things because that’s what seems right to her.

This leads into a related point, again made by the Dalai Lama. It’s important to draw a distinction between the actor and the action. This is a common refrain among Christians (at least in the US): “hate the sin, not the sinner.” It is presented less glibly in The Book of Joy“This is where the power of forgiveness lies–not losing sight of the humanity of the person while responding to the wrong with clarity and firmness.” That word “humanity” is really important. In our current social and political climate, we can see just what happens when we lose sight of this. Rather than rational debates between individual people, what we see going on is a two-way barrage of personal attacks and cruel insults.

Finally, one of the most important things about forgiveness is that is releases the forgiver from the hold of the forgiven. Until we do that, we “are bound to the chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped. Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, that person will hold the keys to our happiness, that person will be our jailor. When we forgive, we take back control of our own fate and our feelings. We become our own liberator.” The longer you hold on to that hatred and anger and bitterness, the longer you are a prisoner to it. Letting go of that negativity frees you and your offender, but it’s not always easy. Still, a little compassion can go a long way in recognizing that you have also been on the other side of forgiveness, and you know how good it feels to be let off the hook.


Next up: Gratitude

Pillars of Joy: Day 4 (Acceptance)

“When we accept the present, we can forgive and release the desire for a different past.”

This is the fourth of 8 posts exploring the 8 Pillars of Joy as outlined in Douglas Abrams’s The Book of Joy, featuring the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

I am probably at my worst when I am driving. I don’t know if I’ve always been this way, but I am impatient and aggressive. People who cruise at the speed limit in the left lane make my blood boil like nothing else. It’s completely irrational. So today, rather than cursing and gnashing my teeth, I tried to accept the reality of the situation. I acknowledged that the person in front of me was not going to speed up or get over regardless of my emotional state. My anger could do nothing to solve the problem (which, as it turns out, wasn’t even really a problem). I wanted to drive about 5 mph faster, but I was unable to. That’s all there was to it.

It worked. It actually made me less angry, less frustrated, and more relaxed. I could feel the physiological change in my breathing and my heart rate as the tension slowly released. Am I surprised? No, it’s pretty common sense that it feels better to calm down and not get riled about something beyond your control. Am I going to do this every time? No, probably not. Am I glad that I did it? Absolutely. It’s such a minor thing, but it illustrates just how much control we can have over our own experiences.

There’s something really soothing about accepting reality as it is. The Dalai Lama says many times in the book that much of our suffering is caused by our mental states. Physical pain is inevitable and not easily soothed, but the mental anguish we experience is largely optional. One particular Buddhist aphorism asks,”Why be unhappy about something if it can be remedied? And what is the use of being unhappy if it cannot be remedied?”

This reminds me of the serenity prayer my mother had taped to the refrigerator for all those years. “God, please grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I grew up with that idea bored into my subconscious every single day during my childhood, and it’s as valuable now as ever.

Especially in the throes of recovery from an abusive relationship, survivors need to understand the importance of accepting their new reality. There are so many emotional traps that can hinder their progress, such as escape through drugs or alcohol, avoidance through overworking or heavy socializing, stagnation through anger or self-pity. The Archbishop warns that “We cannot succeed by denying what exists. The acceptance of reality is the only place from which change can begin.” You cannot heal if you do not acknowledge that you are wounded.

Fortunately, acceptance is exactly the kind of step that can be taken at any point in the recovery process, and it doesn’t have to be a complete and total acknowledgment of all of your suffering at once. Today, I was in the middle of sending an email to my ex-wife that wasn’t necessarily mean or spiteful, but I was trying to argue a certain point with her. A friend of mine stopped in for a little bit, and as we talked, I mentioned The Book of Joy. He seemed interested, and we ended up discussing the importance of acceptance. When he left, I returned to my email and realized that what I was going to send was not only in vain, but probably counterproductive. I retyped the email using a more neutral tone and cut out some of the extraneous points I was going to make.

Her response was no less bitter or angry than usual, but it didn’t bother me because I accepted that I simply have no control over what she says or does. I can perhaps prevent things from escalating, but that’s about it. It made the exchange at least a little less unpleasant to know that I had done the right thing.

Because “stress and anxiety come from our expectations of how life should be,” according to the Dalai Lama, we have the ability to combat that kind of suffering by changing our mindset. I have long been fascinated by meditation, but my few attempts at it were predictably unsuccessful. Still, it is something I would love to explore further because of its benefits to mental and physical health. I like the way Abrams describes how it works: “Meditative practice allows us to quiet the distracting thoughts and feelings so that we can perceive reality, and respond to it more skillfully.” Clear away some of the clutter, and we can see what is really going on.


Next upForgiveness

Pillars of Joy: Day 3 (Humor)

“If you start looking for the humor in life, you’ll find it. You will stop asking, Why me? and start recognizing that life happens to all of us.”

This is the third of 8 posts exploring the 8 Pillars of Joy as outlined in Douglas Abrams’s The Book of Joy, featuring the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

I have never really understood gloomy people. Sure, maybe some of them are harboring serious trauma or painful secrets, but I get the feeling that many are just sour by nature. Why? There is so much absurdity in the world. There is so much to laugh at all the time, right? Well, to be honest, I haven’t been in very high spirits lately, so I guess I can see why people aren’t always bursting at the seams with laughter.

That’s what I realized today: my ex-wife no longer has control over what I do, but her shadow still lurks in the edges of my mind. It’s not really fear; it’s a sort of peripheral dread that prevents me from completely letting go because I know there’s going to be a next time. There will always be another fight, another accusation, another paranoid retaliation, and my kids will always be in the crossfire. She stole more than a decade of my life, and she will continue to pilfer every bit of happiness she can.

Still, I am not dead inside (or outside, thankfully). Since I got out, I have experienced some of the genuine laughter and enjoyment that I missed for so many years. My family and friends have not treated me with pity or with kid gloves. We have had some hard conversations, and no doubt there are more to come, but we have laughed so much that it’s like I never disappeared at all. I miss my children more than I can even bear to think about sometimes, and the sound of my own laughter is a rare source of hope for me.

In The Book of Joy, Abrams describes how humor is a powerful tool for defusing tension and reducing conflict. Studies have long shown that it has physical health benefits, giving credence to the adage, “laughter is the best medicine.” I absolutely believe that because I’ve seen what it can do. Maybe it doesn’t cure cancer or prevent epidemics, but it most certainly soothes a weary soul.

Archbishop Tutu put it this way: “Life is hard, you know, and laughter is how we come to terms with all the ironies and cruelties and uncertainties that we face.” It’s why movies have this trope where a really tense situation will be resolved by some unexpected silliness that disarms the characters who are in conflict with each other. (Of course, I can’t think of an example off the top of my head, but I’m sure one will come to me at 3 am when I’m lying awake thinking about it). Truly, there is sometimes no other response to the unrelenting insanity we see in the world around us. The United States is currently in a bizarre, simultaneous state of utter horror and absolute hilarity. You just can’t make this stuff up.

That’s why I like how Abrams explains the nature of humor. He says, “Jokes are funny precisely because they break our expectations and help us to accept the unexpected.” Comedy is often about defying our expectations (or perfectly meeting them in surprising ways), so it’s easy to see why finding the humor in our lives is so important. If we took everything as seriously as some people think we should, no one would ever laugh. No more chuckles or giggles, no more titters or guffaws, no more synonyms for laughter at all.

If you’ve ever heard a toddler let out a genuine belly laugh, you know exactly what joy sounds like. That’s what we should all sound like. Not all the time, obviously. Grandma’s funeral is hardly the place for that kind of thing (depending on your family, I suppose). There is so much suffering, so much strife, so much hatred and anger and jealousy and fear and cruelty in the world. If we don’t find ways to laugh at it, it will consume us. It turns out, laughing is pretty serious business.

Up next: Acceptance

Pillars of Joy: Day 2 (Humility)

“Arrogance is the confusion between our temporary roles and our fundamental identity.”

This is the second of 8 posts exploring the 8 Pillars of Joy as outlined in Douglas Abrams’s The Book of Joy, featuring the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Throughout the book, the Dalai Lama repeats a certain concept over and over again: he is just one of 7 billion people on this planet. He is just like the rest of us. According to him, recognizing that you are the same as everyone else is a fundamental element of being joyful. One significant cause of suffering is when the belief that we are somehow better than others or special is pulled out from under us and we are made to look ridiculous.

I hate to sound ironic, but I’m pretty good at being humble. What I mean is, I find it really comforting to know that I’m not that special, that I’m just one of all these billions of people struggling to live a life of purpose and happiness. It’s not hard at all to accept that I have weakness and problems just like literally everyone else. That’s the beauty of perspective: you can see yourself in others just by watching how they struggle.

The Archbishop put it this way: “Our vulnerabilities, our frailties, and our limitations are a reminder that we need one another: We are not created for independence or self-sufficiency, but for interdependence and mutual support.” Humility isn’t just about debasing yourself; it’s about recognizing that we need each other to survive. No one is able to do it alone, and that’s what connects us.

Douglas Abrams explains that humility comes from the Latin word humus, which means earth or soil. Humility is being able to recognize where you come from, that you exist from a common source with everyone else. In a very literal way, humble people can be described as down to earth. It’s important to recognize also that the ground is as low as you can go in this metaphor. When all people are brought to this level, they are quite equal; you don’t have to dig a hole to achieve more humility than others. We are all the same, not better or worse, by our very nature.

I think it’s worth pointing out that there are ways in which we can measure ourselves against each other. I doubt it would surprise anyone to learn that Michael Jordan is a much better basketball player than I am or that Yo-Yo Ma is a superior cellist. So what do we do with such obvious disparities in talent or ability or other gifts? Well, we acknowledge them. There is no harm in taking pride in our accomplishments because what we are able to accomplish is not contingent on our nature. In other words, Michael Jordan and Yo-Yo Ma are valuable because they exist, not because they have extraordinary talent. I am valuable because I exist, not because I’ve done anything to “earn” it.

It seems to run both ways: we are capable of doing great things, but we will never be capable of doing everything alone. Whether we like it or not, we need each other to survive and flourish. This is probably the most important lesson I’ve learned in the last year or so: it can be very humbling to ask for help, but it doesn’t have to be humiliating.


Pillars of Joy: Day 1 (Perspective)

“Changing the way we see the world in turn changes the way we feel and the way we act, which changes the world itself.”

This is the first of 8 posts exploring the 8 Pillars of Joy as outlined in Douglas Abrams’s The Book of Joy, featuring the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

This morning, I learned that my Memorial Day plans had been canceled because of bad weather. My immediate reaction was mild disappointment, but I was somewhat expecting it. Had I not known about the weather situation, I would probably have been more upset. This is a simple example of how perspective can change the way we feel, but it reveals a pretty profound truth about the relationship between what we know about the world and how we respond to it. The more we can “zoom out” and see more than what is right in front of us, the better we are able to manage the difficulties ahead. Just like we don’t stare at the road immediately in front of the car when we drive; we keep our heads up and look to see what is coming in the near future. This helps us avoid potential disasters, or at least minimize their risk.

In another context, the importance of perspective is the “ability to reframe our situation more positively,” according to psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky’s definition. It means more than just mitigating disappointment by expecting bad news; it means recognizing that bad news isn’t all bad. For instance, though I missed out on some fun times with friends, I had more time to do other things I wanted to do (namely rest and read and write).

Now, I know this is way easier said than done, especially when it comes to situations that are more serious than rained-out recreational plans. You can’t tell grieving parents whose child succumbed to a battle with cancer that they should just “look on the bright side.” At least you shouldn’t do this; I have a whole diatribe about the “everything happens for a reason” cliche and what people can do with such a pointless statement. No, reframing isn’t always the easiest (or even the best) option when pain is new and fresh. It may take some time and healing before we can see how our suffering was actually beneficial in any way.

As my mind wandered in search of insights on perspective today, I thought about the recent “Laurel vs. Yanny” debate, which of course resurrected memories of the “white/gold vs. blue/black” debate several years ago. In both instances, we are faced with a terrifying fact about ourselves: we quite literally do not perceive reality the same way as other people. Yes, this is somewhat obvious and has provided centuries of fodder for philosophers. However, it cannot be understated what is happening here. Two people standing next to each other, listening to the exact same word being spoken, actually may hear two different words. The same with the dress debate: looking at that image, your mind chooses to see either white and gold or black and blue. We don’t even have control over how our mind interprets information about the world. If this doesn’t bother you and make you question your grip on reality at least a little, you should just stop reading this now.

I do take some comfort in knowing that illusions of this kind are rare examples of how different our perceptions can be, and for the most part, we tend to agree on basic facts about reality. Still, it makes me wonder about all the arguments and problems I had with my ex-wife. How many of those truly were my fault? How often did I do or say something that genuinely warranted the kind of anger she felt? This is where I ended up after thinking all this over: I often did not understand where she was coming from, or at least I didn’t empathize very well. I knew when she was upset or angry, and I often knew why, but it still didn’t always make sense to me. I did not view things the same way, so I found it hard to understand why something  that seemed harmless to me would be so loathsome to her. What I have come to learn (through repeated conversations with family, friends, and my counselor), is that as much as I didn’t understand her point of view, she was equally ignorant and dismissive of mine.

Probably the single most important decision that has helped me reorient myself in terms of recognizing truth is this: I have questioned my own perceptions. Rather than trust solely in my own ability to interpret reality correctly, I have enlisted the help of allies who helped me see where I had made mistakes and where I had held on to the truth. My ex, as far as I can tell, has refused to do this. She is unwilling even to consider the possibility that she is not the pitiful victim she believes, nor is she able to recognize just how much damage she is doing to our children in the process.

Finally, that brings me to the kids. Reading The Book of Joy helps to manage some of the grief I feel, but there is still so much pain in the memory of my beautiful children and their utter rejection of me. So far, I have been fortunate to remember that their current feelings are not permanent, and their opinion of me and my actions has been quite perniciously colored by my ex-wife. Still, I have to try to think of what this situation has looked like through their eyes. I had promised them many times that I would be a part of their family and a part of their lives. I had given them some measure of relief from the emotional turbulence of their mother’s reign. Now, it must appear that I have abandoned them. Are they terrified without me there? Are they relieved that at least they no longer have to see me bruised, bleeding, insulted, emasculated? I don’t know. I simply cannot discern what they are thinking or feeling, but I know they are suffering one way or the other.

The book says that recognizing the limitations of our perspective is important because only then can we begin to adjust our vantage point. If we can see threats as challenges, we can find the courage to overcome them. If we can see failures as opportunities, we can turn our despair into hope. When we do this, we can begin to understand how it is possible for joy to exist in a world with so much suffering. We can’t always change the facts, but we can change how we respond to them. That is how we find joy again.

Tomorrow’s post: Humility.

The Book of Joy

In 2015, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu spent a week together discussing the concept and the practice of joy. These conversations were recorded and in some ways guided by Douglas Abrams, who compiled and edited them together in The Book of Joy. It is an incredible book for many reasons, not the least of which is the surprising familiarity with which these two supposed holy men treat each other. They frequently laugh and tease each other about all kinds of things, even cracking jokes about the Dalai Lama’s inevitable destination in the afterlife (hint: it will be rather warm).

“Joy is much bigger than happiness. While happiness is often seen as being dependent on external circumstances, joy is not.”

–Archbishop Desmond Tutu

A friend of mine loaned me the book several months ago, and I have just now taken the time to read it. I cannot recommend this book strongly enough, especially for people who are recovering from abusive relationships or virtually any traumatic experience. One of the things I realized I had almost completely lost during my marriage was joy. Sure, we had fun together sometimes, and I really loved watching my kids grow and learn and play sports. However, in my efforts to dull the pain of living with someone who was so often disappointed, dissatisfied, or just downright angry, I inadvertently dulled all of my emotional registers. Maybe it was my attempt to remain at even keel; maybe it was the exhausting effort of constantly scanning the environment for threats to her personal happiness. Whatever it was, I lost the ability to experience the full spectrum of my emotional life, preferring the cool, gray plateau of okay. Though I succeeded in protecting myself from (most of) her attacks, I also robbed myself of the joy that so many other fathers and husbands know.

“I have tried to make people aware that the ultimate source of happiness is simply a healthy body and a warm heart.”

–The Dalai Lama

Back to the book: after discussing what joy is and how we can expect to find it even amidst all the despair and cruelty in this world, Abrams identifies 8 “pillars of joy” that were distilled from the conversation. The first four are qualities of the mind: perspective, humility, humor, and acceptance. The others are qualities of the heart: forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity. Though the whole book is excellent, this section is absolutely worth reading again and again. Here, the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop identify a very reasonable and practical set of principles that we can and should follow in order to achieve joy.

Over the next 8 days, I am going to focus on exploring and practicing one principle each day. My goal is to report back each night and reflect on how my attention to that day’s pillar affected my experiences. If these men can find ways to enjoy life despite the pain and suffering they have witnessed (most notably in the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the atrocities of South African apartheid), surely anyone can.

Tomorrow, I will begin with perspective.

Step 4: Assess your situation

Here’s the short version:

Before deciding how and when to leave (remember, it’s not about if), you need to take stock of your situation. Some of these are probably obvious, but it helps to consider everything in one list. Answering these questions will help you formulate a solid plan to leave your Abusive Partner (AP).

  1. How long have you been together? Are you dating, married, or something else? If you’ve been dating for a few months and have no other attachments, you are lucky. Getting out of such a relationship is relatively simple compared to others. I’m not saying it’s easy; there are just fewer variables to worry about. If you are married or living together, this can make everything more complicated.
  2. Do you have any children? How old? Are they biologically yours? If there are no children involved, the task of getting out is greatly simplified. If you do have children with your AP, they can and probably will be used against you. To be honest, children are often the most complicating factor in getting away from an abuser. Their ages may be a factor: younger children actually seem to fare better with a change in circumstances than older ones. Teenagers can be especially sensitive to the trauma of a divorce or separation. Non-biological children (stepchildren or adoptions) can also make it more difficult. Being a legal custodian and being a legal guardian are two very different things in terms of your rights.
  3. Are your finances mostly divided or intertwined? Do you have any significant assets (either singly or jointly)? How much debt do you have, and what kind? This is probably related to the length and nature of the relationship. If your financial lives are still fairly separate, try to keep them that way as long as possible. The more intertwined they become (joint accounts, mortgages, investments, assets, etc.), the harder it will be to untangle them. If you have little to no debt, then there isn’t much of an issue. If you have a lot of debt, especially jointly, then you’ll have to figure out how that’s going to be handled.
  4. Do you still have close friends and family members? Have you been alienated from anyone who can help you? Who could you turn to if you needed help right now? If you still have close friends and family members, hold on to them. They will likely make a huge difference on your chance of success in getting out. If, like many victims, you’ve been alienated from these allies, you should begin trying to reestablish contact as soon as possible. I promise, you will need help.
  5. Do you have any money saved up or stashed away? Are you able to begin saving immediately? Who can help you out financially until you are on your feet?  If you have a lot of money that can be redirected or your AP already doesn’t know about (legally, of course), you have an advantage. Likewise, if you have a good network of allies who can help you with living arrangements and other physical needs, great. However, if you have no money saved and no allies yet, there is still hope. Shelters and abuse hotlines (like can help you. 



Keep reading for more detailed explanations.

Length/status of relationship

How long have you been together? Are you dating, married, or something else?

  • Short time: If you’ve been together for only a few months and have no other attachments, you are lucky. Getting out of such a relationship is relatively simple compared to others. I’m not saying it’s easy; there are just fewer variables to worry about. No matter what, if you are in an abusive relationship, the best time to leave is now. Do not wait any longer; it will only get harder.
  • Long time: The longer you are together, the more invested you feel. Even if you aren’t married, a long-term relationship comes with lots of emotional ties that can be difficult to sever. This goes for both of you; your emotional attachment to the AP is one of her best weapons against you.
  • Dating: It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been together, if you are not yet married or engaged, get out while you can. If she can get you to make any sort of commitment, she will. Even if you are living together, you are still in a better position to leave now than if you wait until a marriage (and/or child) is on the horizon.
  • Married: This is by far the toughest spot, especially if children are involved. If you’ve been married for only a few months, you might be able to go through a relatively painless divorce. Obviously, that’s no guarantee, but there’s a chance that your stuff and her stuff are easy enough to distinguish, and you may not have gone through the process of joining bank accounts or financing a home together. If you’ve been married for a couple of years or more, prepare for the worst. Though this list is meant to be helpful, I can’t pretend like some situations aren’t simply harder than others.
  • Something else? There are a number of possible scenarios that don’t fall under simply dating and being married. One of the most common is probably the “on-again-off-again” cycle. You date for a while, and things seem great. Then the inevitable fight begins that leads to a “We are done!” kind of ending. Of course, it’s not over. Eventually, you end up back in the same place, thinking this time it will be different. Then, without warning, the same fight, the same breakup, the same reconciliation, and so on. This can easily happen within the boundaries of marriage as well. In any case, it is unhealthy at best and catastrophic at worst.


Do you have any children? How old? Are they biologically yours?

  • No children: If there are no children involved, the factors that affect when and how you can leave are significantly reduced.
  • Young child(ren): If there are young children, this can put extraordinary stress on the victim of abuse. First, you are afraid for their own safety and well-being. Second, you are afraid of the long-term effects of witnessing the abusive behaviors towards you. Third, you are obviously concerned about the implications of leaving the children with your AP. However, younger children may actually handle a divorce better than older ones, even adults.
  • Older child(ren): If the children are of a certain age, you may be able to explain some of what is going on to them. That is not to say you should unload on them or expect them to be your emotional support. Still, older children may be more likely to feel threatened by your decision to leave and may feel abandoned.
  • Stepchildren: If your AP has kids who live in the home, be prepared for a serious loyalty split. No matter how close you are to them or how long you have cared for them, you can bet that your AP will do everything she can to show them how much better she is or how much more she loves them. If there are biological children and stepchildren, then the lines of loyalty could fall in many different directions. In any case, you very likely have no legal standing in the lives of your stepchildren. If you leave, they will almost certainly stay with their biological parent.
  • Adoptions: If you and your AP adopted a child together, you should be able to maintain legal custody even if only jointly. In this case, I suspect that the custody situation will largely follow the same arc as a biological child. It all depends on what the paperwork states about legal (not just physical) custody regarding the adopted child(ren).

**Because of the extremely convoluted nature of the subject of children when it comes to divorce and abusive relationships in general, I am going to write more extensively in a separate post.


Are your finances mostly divided or intertwined? Do you have any significant assets (either singly or jointly)? How much debt do you have, and what kind?

  • Mostly separate: If you and your AP are still somewhat independent as far as finances are concerned, you are in a good position. Keep it that way as much as you possibly can. If she starts pushing for a joint bank account or to refinance your home, stall her. Do not commit to any financial decisions that will further entangle your life with hers.
  • Mostly intertwined: If you have already reached the point where your finances are pretty much inseparable, you will run into a number of problems you might not have considered yet. Again, like everything else discussed here, there is hope. There are certainly ways to untangle the financial mess, but you probably won’t be able to do that without serious help.
  • Few assets: If you don’t have much in the way of physical assets, that’s good. It means that there are fewer things to argue about in terms of ownership or legal rights. This is particularly important when it comes to marital assets (which by definition are those assets you accrued during the marriage).
  • Many assets: If you share a number of valuable assets with your AP, she will likely use them in a variety of ways to control you. Even things like retirement accounts can be hotly contested in divorce proceedings. Take stock of ALL financial assets, both individual and joint, so that you know what to expect.
  • Little debt: If there isn’t much debt between you and your AP, there won’t be much to argue about. If either of you has outstanding personal debt incurred before being married, then it shouldn’t be considered marital debt (things like credit cards and student loans are likely to fall into this category). Anything taken on during the marriage (i.e. mortgage, car loan) will probably be considered marital debt and will be divided equally.
  • A lot of debt: If there is any significant debt, this is another possible means of control for your AP to assert. In general, it makes sense to split marital debt evenly and for each person to take on his or her own personal debts. Obviously, APs don’t always do things that make sense. You should once again take stock of your debts just as you did your assets.

**As with the issue of children, the financial stuff can get really complicated. I will write more extensively about that later.


Do you still have close friends and family members? Have you been alienated from anyone who can help you? Who could you turn to if you needed help right now?

  • Family: If your family is still in your life, they might just be the most important people you have. Parents and siblings (and extended relations with whom you are close) can be powerful allies. Chances are, they’ve been waiting to help you since the moment they realized what was going on. Even if they don’t know yet, hold onto them tightly. Don’t let your AP isolate you from them.
  • No family: If you are in the unfortunate position of being isolated from your family, don’t despair. Many families are able to reconcile with relative ease once they know the details of what you’ve been through. As discussed elsewhere, you should definitely not be afraid to tell them. If you have no family to speak of, then you will have to make do with friends. Don’t worry, though, your friends can be just as supportive as family.
  • Friends: If you are lucky enough to still have friends, you have an excellent chance of getting out. Again, you may have to tell them what’s going on, but don’t worry about being abandoned. What kind of friend would actually want you to remain in an abusive relationship? This group of people can be extremely helpful in finding a place to live, securing a job, locating child care services, and all the other things you aren’t even considering right now.
  • No friends: If you have lost contact with your friends, you are certainly not alone. Alienation and isolation are absolutely devastating tools that your AP has been wielding long before you knew it. Still, you can make new friends or reconnect with old ones. Doing so may make all the difference. Leaving an AP is extremely hard even under the best of circumstances; you will need all the help you can get.


Do you have any money saved up or stashed away? Are you able to begin saving immediately? Who can help you out financially until you are on your feet?

  • Money: If you have some independent source of income or previously acquired wealth, then you are lucky. You should start squirreling some away as soon as you possibly can, preferably in such a way that your AP can’t find it. She would love to claim your money as her own, so as long as it is legal, you need to keep it far away from her.
  • No money: If, like most people, you are not independently wealthy, you need to begin thinking about what you are going to do when (not if) you leave. How are you going to pay rent or buy groceries? The ideal solution is to begin saving money in any way possible. Get a little cash back at grocery stores, stash some of your paycheck each week/month, pick up some extra work. Do whatever you can to begin preparing for your departure.
  • Allies: As explained above, your allies are going to be invaluable to you. They can give/loan you money, they can give you a place to sleep, they can help you put your life back together. If you have such people in your life, then be sure to lean on them as much as you need.
  • Other options: If you don’t have the resources to leave, what are you supposed to do? If you can, take some time to get your situation together in a way that will make leaving a little easier. Save a little money, reach out to your allies, get whatever support your can. If the worst happens and you find yourself basically on the run, then, shelters and abuse hotlines (like can help you.

Reminder: All opinions presented herein are my own and are not mean to be taken as legitimate legal or financial advice.

Step 3: Tell someone

Here’s the short version:

  1. Tell someone what is going on. A friend, a counselor, a pastor, a coworker, a teacher, a family member. (For obvious reasons, I don’t recommend telling anyone who is a “mutual” friend.)
  2. No matter how embarrassing you think it is, you need the perspective. Your AP has likely been working very hard to disconnect you from reality, and someone outside of the situation is often able to see it better than you.
  3. Resist her appeals to privacy. What goes on in your home or your relationship is “nobody else’s business,” right? In a normal relationship, yes. In an abusive one, no. Silence is the abuser’s best friend, never the victim’s.
  4. Once you establish contact with an ally, maintain communication as if your life depended on it. If your AP suspects that you may be regaining your senses, she will probably redouble her efforts to isolate you. Don’t let her!
  5. A counselor can literally be the difference between life and death. If you can afford it, do it. If you can’t afford it, borrow money.

Keep reading for more detailed explanations.

Is this normal?

Once I was able to start talking about what was going on, I found myself asking my allies what was normal. Is it normal for a wife to rifle through your discarded emails looking for things to fight about? (No.) Is it normal for a wife to call your children into the room to take part in an argument? (No.) Is it normal for a wife to threaten to kill you, your family, your kids, herself? (No, no, no, no.)

Now, when things like this occurred, I often had a sense that they weren’t exactly “normal,” but I became an expert at justifying them. Several people, including my counselor, called me out for doing this as I told them what had happened. I would tell them about crazy things that my AP did or said, but I would frequently explain the behavior away as if it weren’t really that bad or that important.

For example, if someone points a gun at you, it doesn’t matter whether it’s loaded or not. First of all, you can never be certain it’s unloaded; even if you think you are certain, that’s not a belief worth losing your life. Secondly, if she thinks or knows it’s unloaded, why is she bothering to aim it at you? Because she wants you to be afraid of her, which is sick on a number of levels. She is interested only in making you afraid because fear is an effective tool in controlling you.

So this list is about finding someone to help you regain your sense of what is normal. It’s like being tossed around by the waves and suddenly finding the sand under your feet. You’re still going to get knocked around some, but if you keep your balance, you can walk right out of the mess onto dry land.

Tell someone

I would say it doesn’t matter who you tell, but that’s not entirely true. I would avoid mutual friends and pretty much anyone in her family. Also, be wary of coworkers; you don’t necessarily want the entire office (or any workplace) finding out about your situation.

If you’re like most victims of abuse, you probably don’t have a lot of friends or close family relations. This, of course, is by design. The more your AP can isolate you from people you care about and trust, the more she can twist your understanding of reality to match her version of it.

While a counselor is probably the best option (see below), there are other people who can help you. If you still have a best friend, he may be the most obvious choice. Also consider someone like a pastor, someone who you know will respect your privacy and listen without judgment. Family members, parents and siblings especially, can be of immeasurable value. If you think your estrangement from them has caused them to hate you or write you off, think again. That may happen in some cases, but you may be surprised to find how ready and willing they are to help you.

Whoever it is, find someone as soon as possible. Do not wait any longer. Seriously, the more you put off telling someone, the harder it will be to do.


How do you know what color your eyes are? Well, you were no doubt told as a child, but you also have seen yourself in a mirror and in photos. Obviously, you believe what you see and hear regarding your eye color. You don’t have much of a choice because you simply cannot see your own eyes. The only way to see them is by reflection or by another person’s word.

How do you know what kind of person you are? Can you “see” yourself directly, or is it kind of like trying to see your own eyes? Even among perfectly normal, healthy individuals, the act of introspection can only provide so much information about your inner self. After all, you are the one who’s doing the looking and being looked at. It seems hard to judge or even observe yourself with any objectivity. I always think of it this way: when I look over something I’ve written, I am either far more critical or far less critical than other people. I assume this has something to do with bias, but that’s not exactly in my purview.

So, it makes sense that you may not be able to observe your own thoughts and behaviors, much less evaluate them in terms of mental and emotional health. Having someone else’s perspective can make a huge difference in your ability to make corrections and reground yourself in reality.


If your AP is anything like mine, she puts a high premium on personal privacy. This is not to say that she cares about anyone else’s privacy in principle (or in practice). What I mean is, she is desperately afraid of revealing too much about herself to other people. The reason is fairly obvious, but I didn’t realize it until it was far too late. She doesn’t want anyone to know how weak and unstable she is, so no matter how she acts in public, she will almost always try to hide her craziness. If she does do something outrageous when others are around, she’s likely to play the victim or cast blame in any direction other than herself.

The problem is, at least for most people, we want to respect the privacy of others. It only seems natural that you would not share personal information about anyone if it weren’t necessary. However, when dealing with an AP, you have to understand that privacy and secrecy are very different, but they are all too easy to conflate. If you are physically injured, your assailant no doubt wants you to stay silent so she doesn’t get into any trouble or face any consequences. This is not privacy; it’s complicity. You are silently protecting the very person who hurt you, which makes you an accomplice to your own suffering.

Based on my own experience and what I’ve read so far, this is beyond typical. It is downright predictable in abusive relationships. Silence is always going to favor the abuser, never the victim. While you may want to protect her “privacy,” remember that it is your life (and possibly the lives of your children) at stake. No amount of public humiliation is worse than the psychological, emotional, and physical scars you will carry if you refuse to tell anyone about the abuse. I’m certainly not suggesting you take out a radio ad or post everything on Facebook, but don’t be afraid to tell a few trusted individuals who can help you.

Maintain contact

Once you have an ally or two, keep in touch with them regularly. I cannot stress this enough; one emotional, open-hearted conversation is not enough. You will not automatically heal just by saying a few things out loud. You need a relationship with another person. That’s where healing comes from.

Also, and you probably already know this, it is extraordinarily hard to get out of an abusive situation. You really need to have someone close who can help you get and keep your bearings. There will likely be many times when you think you can handle it on your own or you are in danger of getting sucked back into the arms of your AP. An ally can prevent you from backsliding and putting yourself in greater jeopardy.

Email, text, face-to-face, it doesn’t matter. Talk as often and as regularly as you can. The more you share, the more you will get a sense of who you are and what you want.



One of the best things you can do for yourself is find a counselor. There are a couple of reasons for this:

  • Counselors are literally paid to listen and not judge you. Whatever the method or the philosophy behind the approach, most of them will give you an objective ear.
  • They can help you re-establish your grip on reality. Your AP’s voice is likely so embedded in your psyche that you don’t even hear it anymore. That’s because it sounds just like your voice now. You have thoughts and feelings and sensations and desires and fears that weren’t there before; she hasn’t just recorded her own ideas onto yours, she has reprogrammed the way you come with ideas in the first place.
  • They are bound by confidentiality. What you tell a counselor stays there, so you can actually be honest. I remember the first time I opened up to my counselor; I sobbed as I blurted out all the crazy stuff I had seen, heard, and felt. It was simultaneously excruciating and liberating, and I can say without hyperbole that I am probably alive because of it.
  • Finally, you have probably sustained significant psychological and emotional damage from the abuse. These are not wounds that will just heal with time, nor are your loving friends and family generally qualified to aid in this kind of recovery. A professional is likely the only way for you to find your way back to a healthy place.

Of course, there are some drawbacks, the most obvious of which is cost. Yes, counselors are expensive; however, many of them take insurance or calculate fees on a sliding scale. Frankly, the money you spend on therapy is an investment in your life and general well-being. You probably can’t afford not to see one.

Also, if you are in an abusive relationship, it may be very difficult to make the time to go to a therapist. After all, your AP probably loves to know where you are at all times, right? If you need to, tell her you want to see a counselor to help you be a better man for her. (I will have an entire post dedicated to honesty later). Borrow money if you have to, but do whatever it takes to get some professional help. Remember, you’re not crazy, you’re hurt.

EDIT: For the sake of clarity, I want to state that I am not at all suggesting or condoning any sort of smear campaign. By telling someone about your experience, you are trying to build a network of support, not aimlessly badmouthing your AP. As difficult as it is, you must always be the bigger person. Don’t engage in gossip or passive-aggressive warfare; these are tools of abuse, not recovery.

Circular Arguments, Emotional Reasoning and JADE (by Dr. Tara Palmatier)

Yet another fantastic article from Dr. Palmatier. It perfectly illustrates the insanity of trying to reason with unreasonable people.

Circular Arguments, Emotional Reasoning and JADE

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