Imagine that your neighbor built a section of fence from wooden posts and boards. At first the fence stands solid and straight, but after a couple of years, it begins to lean. You discover a secret; the posts weren’t sunk deep enough, so with each windstorm, the boards become sails and intensify the lean. A stick is braced on the diagonal to resist the wind and gravity. But eventually the stick snaps, and the fence crashes to the ground.
I compare my abuser to a leaning fence, initially so solid and straight, but soon betrayed by his secrets. For over 20 of our 30 years together, he threatened suicide if I should leave him. When convoluted arguments, threats to harm me, and violence didn’t control me, his threats to kill himself did. Just as I believed walking on eggshells controlled his rage, so I believed staying in the relationship prevented his suicide.
Unsettled by reports of my estranged mother’s battle with deadly cancer, I began to challenge those beliefs. I’d heard that narcissists are so self-absorbed, they would never harm themselves, but I wasn’t willing to base my actions on this broad generality. Through social media, I asked Sam Valknin, a self-proclaimed narcissist who openly describes his tactics and motivations, whether the abuser would kill himself if I left him. Sam answered “he might do it, but why it that your concern?” He claimed the abuser’s decision to kill himself was his own decision and not mine. His shocking answer stirred questions about my responsibility for the abuser’s life and how to detach from it.
My mother’s death opened the door to detachment. The abuser had insisted upon my estrangement from her; but he caved in the end, allowing me to briefly visit her before her death and to attend her funeral. In both brief contacts with my family, they showed me the loving acceptance I would receive if I re-entered their lives. While driving home from the funeral, the abuser angrily pulled off the road and demanded that I stop my grieving and reapply myself to my obligations. Contrasted with the loving support I’d just received from my family, his rage at my grief was beyond my comprehension.
So I started watching him. While still behaving as the dutiful spouse, I started to watch for patterns in his behavior. I’d predict here comes the part where he tells me I’m stupid. And sure enough, he’d tell me I was stupid. I began to doubt that he accurately defined me. It was difficult to challenge his opinions, but my growing sense of control over my life urged me to question more. If he was incorrectly defining me, I wondered why. Could his intention be to damage and control me? My growing awareness was difficult to contain. When manipulating my emotions stopped working, he heightened the violence.
One month from my mother’s death, I fled in the middle of the night and sought shelter with friends and family. During our eight months apart he’d been in counseling and felt he understood and could overcome his urges to abuse me. Despite his newfound optimism for our future, he hinted that he might kill himself if I didn’t return. Lured by the false hope of finally resolving our 30-years of tortured marriage, I returned for another try, still hostage to his threats of suicide.
Within five months, his promises for improvement faltered, and the suicide threats intensified. One night he held a gun to his head and screamed that he’d pull the trigger if I didn’t beg him to stop. Of course, I begged. But, he’d blown his last chance with me, and I began plotting my final escape.
Through the threat assessment model at http://www.mosaic.com, I learned how law enforcement and the personal defense industry predict when someone might escalate to dangerous behavior. Here I learned that some suicidal people overcome resistance to death by first completing a horrific act that leaves them with no choice but to complete the suicide. Usually that horrific act is to kill someone close to them, explaining many of the homicide/suicides reported in the news.
My abuser fit most of the model’s indicators for dangerous behavior. I decided to leave for good and fled to an undisclosed location.
After a week of haranguing my friends and family for information about my location, the abuser sent me an email about his plans to kill himself. His message included a list of tasks for me to complete upon his death. Law enforcement confirmed that he’d shot himself while in our bed.
He killed himself the day he received a letter describing my intent to divorce. He’d lost control over my physical presence, so the only avenue to control me was through his death. He would end his life under his terms in a way that set me up for maximum emotional damage. This interpretation fits well with everything I know about him. I believe that his thoughts of ending life on his terms felt empowering.
He might have thought I would relate to his suicide from my own experience. When in the deepest despair from mind control and violent abuse, I wanted the pain to stop, and considering my death was comforting. I was convinced that I mattered so little that no one would even notice if I were gone, but a glimmer of hope kept me from killing myself. If I looked at his suicide in the same way, I’d spend the rest of my life feeling guilty for his deep pain. He couldn’t know that I would recognized his suicide as his ultimate act of control.
His suicide note was written to ensure maximum interaction between me and his proxies. These proxies had controlling tendencies of their own, and the tasks he outlined for me would have required frequent interaction with them. Fortunately, I recognized this tactic and quickly resolved my business with them, cutting short their influence. His attempt to control me became my route to freedom.
When a teen demands the parent comply or he will kill himself, what does the parent do? When a controlling wife demands the husband comply or she harms herself, what does he do? Caving to these demands confirms them as effective control techniques. Defying them risks suffering the loss of a child or spouse and the resulting social shame. Having experienced the suicide of an abuser, I would still answer the same as Sam Valknin, “they might kill themselves, but why is that your concern?”
Just because the abuser falls when you stop propping them up, it doesn’t mean we’re responsible for their fall. Do we blame the stick when the leaning fence falls?