Women Lead
January 07, 2021

How I Escaped from My Toxic Marriage After 9 Years

As the lockdown COVID-19 pandemics intensified the abuses, she finally gained the courage to walk out of her toxic marriage after nine years.

by Josephine Phoenix
English
Cerai_Broken Home_KarinaTungari
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“Happy New Year 2021, my New Me!” I said to myself today when I woke up on the first day of the new year.

It was a brand new day, marking a brand new year that I hope will bring more peace and ease for me. The year 2020 was a rocky year that put me on a roller coaster of emotions and psychological turmoil. While it is not really over, at least I am legally free now from a toxic marriage in which I had been trapped for nine years.

It all began on Sunday April 5th last year, when I gained my courage to write an email to Devi Asmarani, Magdalene’s Editor-in-Chief.  

“It’s 2020. This year is my spiritual awakening moment when I finally I have no other option but to follow my calling. A year that firmed my step to go with the path no matter what others will say about my decision. It's my time to heal, and serve,” I opened my email to her.

Further down, I began to drop some hints of my situation: How after years of depression, I’d finally reached my limit, how I had decided to end the constant fear and torture and how I deserve freedom from “a cage called marriage”.

“I am seeking help, please set me free,” I wrote. “It’s been nine years I've been living with a monster…. I have been numb for any apology, and I don’t want to be a victim anymore. Even for fulfilling his self-centered, ego, and his social status, he forced me to stay and pretend that everything is just fine, as if we are a normal couple, a normal family. But it is not okay anymore. I can’t take any humiliation anymore; I can’t take another abuse anymore ….” And on I continued.

Also read: Not Just Physical: Gender-Based Violence in Private Space

Opening Up was The Hardest Part

Finding the right person that you trust enough to understand your situation without being judgemental was not easy. I barely knew Devi through the circle of Indonesia senior journalists, of which my ex was a part. We met only once during her housewarming. But I decided to open up to her because she co-founded Magdalene a media platform that supports and advocates women’s rights and gender equality.

I was convinced that she would not have established a niche media on women’s issues in the first place, if she didn’t walk the talk. So I reached out to her through the email and she responded immediately to ask if I was OK. She knew my ex long before I did and that made it easier to start opening up to her. We exchanged emails and it helped me understand my situation, and what I needed to do.

Then the day came when I finally escaped from home with only my hand bag, the office laptop and the clothes that I wore. Her home was the first place I stopped at, and sitting on her couch crying, I told her everything I wanted to say. I was so relieved that finally I had the courage to leave him.

I made my first step, but the real battle had just begun.

The Signs of Toxic Marriage

Back in 2011, I was approaching 36 and single—a critical age for a woman in this country, and a fact that was increasingly bringing shame to my mother and her conservative Muslim family. I had met this guy from the journalists circle many years before. He was good looking, the kind of man I am physically attracted to. He had a permanent job, owned a house, and was a divorcee with no kid. Most importantly, he is a Muslim. All boxes for my mom’s ideal son-in-law are checked.

Ilustrasi oleh Sarah Arifin.

At the time I was also about to leave the country to continue my postgraduate study overseas. My mom feared if I didn’t get married then, her only unmarried daughter would remain single for the rest of her life. We prepared the wedding in six weeks.

In hindsight, I had only known him at a glance. Eventually the signs started to emerge, but I ignored them, thinking they were not problems and that things would get better with time.

The signs were:

  • He lied many times.
  • He broke his promises easily.
  • He calculated every single cent spent on us.
  • He disrespected me in front of others.
  • He forced his ideas/ways of doing thing on me and would get angry if I insisted on doing things my way.
  • He became emotional for every small thing.

My biggest mistake was that I had faith he would change for the better as he grew older, but I was wrong. He failed his first marriage, so I thought he had learned his lessons, and would do better to make the second one work. But he kept repeating the same mistakes. He couldn’t accept that he had emotional problems and he insisted that I was the one who triggered his emotional outburst and violent nature.

For years I accepted this, and endured the emotional torture, the intimidation and humiliation for the sake of our daughter. For nine years I pretended that everything was fine and joined him in putting a social mask that we were a happy family, something that was important to him because of the failure of his first marriage.

I withdrew myself from my own social life, no hanging out after office and no meetings with friends without his permission. I cut off all friendship with all male friends and colleagues, keeping them at a safe distance to avoid troubles at home.  

Also read: COVID-19 Pandemic Worsens Domestic Violence, Hinders Case Handling

Everyone thought we had a great marriage. We had houses, a beautiful and smart daughter, and good jobs. We went on vacations at least twice a year. All looked perfect as he would show on his Facebook.

Inside closed doors, however, I shivered in fear when he was near. I was happiest when he wasn’t home, and would feel relieved if I had to go on a business trip. It was the only time I could feel free to be myself, to do what I like to do, sleep peacefully, watch the TV channel I wanted, or read a book uninterruptedly. It also felt as if I was the only adult at home, having to care a family of two kids: our daughter and my ex, wo refused to take household responsibilities and threw tantrums when he didn’t get what he wanted.

I tried to help him overcome his psychological issues to manage his anger, from referring him to psychological therapy, registering him for a tapping course, to inviting a meditation teacher – all to help him discover the root of his problems and deal with it.  Nothing came out of them. He did not have enough motivation to help himself and accused me of not helping him. He had never been taught to take responsibilities for his action, and would blame me for everything.

When the COVID-19 pandemics hit, and we were forced to work and attend school at home during the lockdown, the intensity of our turbulent marriage became unbearable. After three weeks, I started my escape.

Be aware of the signs of toxic relationship from the very beginning, take them seriously and never ignore them. Don’t rush into a relationship or marriage, and get to know your partner better.

Bloody  Battle and Ugly Truth

It has been a long and painful journey to leave him, but I had a lot of support from friends who trusted me and helped connecting me to Yayasan Pulih, LBH APIK, and KPAI. I prepared my legal process for separation and to take the custody of my 8 years old daughter.

Witnessing her mother being abused by her father for many years has left my daughter deeply traumatized. Although she was never abused by her father, often times she instinctively acted as my shield and protector when her father was around, even today after the divorce. She asked me to hide from him, and was against the idea of my meeting her father alone. She wanted to make sure that I was safe and that her father would not hurt me again.

Her father always denied having abused me, claiming he never laid a hand on me. Never mind the verbal abuses, psychological terrors and emotional intimidations, he would point out there were never any bruises or wounds on me. 

The court process was miserable and felt intimidating to me. At first the court tried to abort my legal case and encouraged me to forgive him and for us to reunite, but I brought some solid evidence and two witnesses. Finally, I won the battle. After five gruelling months, in November I became legally divorced from him and was given the custody of our daughter.

The unexpected part that came with this separation process is finding out  who my true friends are and who are not. Some people I had thought were my best buddies took his side and turned against me. Many of my friends bought his version that I was an evil person who ran away from home, took our daughter and our money, while he was an angel and a victim. Still, I would happily lose a husband and close friends who choose to believe him rather than being around these toxic people.

Also read: How Being Raised by a Single Mother Has Shaped Me

I wrote this so that other women can learn from my mistakes and can avoid the trap of toxic relationship. Be aware of the signs from the very beginning, take them seriously and never ignore them. Don’t rush into a relationship or marriage, and get to know your partner better. Because once you’re locked in that marital cage, it is difficult to escape. Being single is so much better than being stuck with an abusive partner.  

For those who are already trapped in a toxic relationship, find someone you trust to talk to and seek help. Once the first step is done, don’t look back! Keep walking and move forward. Believe me, these men will never change. Once an abuser always an abuser. Their words are meaningless; their promises cheap.

An important reason to do this for me is that I have a young daughter. I have to be a good role model for her. She has to know that it is not okay to be abused. It is not okay to stay in a toxic relationship. Girls deserve to be treated well and respected. She should never be afraid to speak her mind, and fight for her right. I am her mother and I chose to fight for our freedom to live free from fear, and to live in peace and abundance.

Illustration by Karina Tungari.

Josephine Phoenix is a storyteller who writes to be better. She lives in Bali.