Let us today try a thought experiment.
Imagine a husband and wife. They live in a house owned by the husband’s father and have two adorable little daughters.
But the husband also has an ex-girlfriend he can’t live without. Instead of turning to his wife for emotional support, he can’t resist texting his ex-girlfriend at least two dozen times a day, and telling her all his wife’s secrets even though he knows his ex-girlfriend likes to interfere in his relationship. He even texts his ex-girlfriend from the marital bed, despite his wife asking him not to.
To make it more current, let’s suppose that there’s a virus infecting the country, and people have been asked to stay at home in order to protect the NHS and save lives. Fantastical, I know, but bear with me here.
Now let’s suppose the wife is a long-term blood donor and former nurse who believes in following these rules to the letter, and asks her family to support her in this commitment to do what the Prime Minister, the Queen, the Cabinet, the scientists, the police, the newspapers, the doctors and the nurses have all asked us to do. Let’s pretend that the husband agrees.
But let’s also pretend that every day when the husband takes his kids out for ‘exercise’, they actually go to his ex-girlfriend’s house, where she cooks them a meal and smothers all three of them in hugs and kisses. Then they say to the children, ‘Don’t tell mummy what’s going on or we’ll all get in trouble. You don’t want to get us all in trouble, do you?’
And then, when they get home, they don’t want the meal that the wife has cooked because they’re already full.
Let’s pretend that, kids being kids, they can’t keep secrets, so the wife finds out about the visits to the ex-girlfriend, and knows she’s being lied to. Let’s suppose she confronts her husband, who says he’ll keep visiting whoever he damn well pleases, and there’s nothing she can do to stop him, and by the way, did you know this is my father’s house and since we’re in the middle of a lockdown there’s nowhere you can go?
What can she do then? Let’s suppose that the wife decides to appeal directly to the ex-girlfriend, from one woman to another. She asks her to please not come between a wife and her husband, or a parent and her children. She acknowledges she can’t stop her husband from visiting his ex-girlfriend, but she’d hope they’d at least be careful and follow the social distancing rules. They’re all adults so there’s no need to sneak around, and it’s really not appropriate expecting children to lie for them.
Imagine the ex-girlfriend replies by telling the wife to go screw herself, and that if she wasn’t such a terrible wife and terrible mother, her husband wouldn’t feel the need to visit his ex so often. Imagine the husband witnesses his wife’s humiliation and approves of it with a knowing smirk.
Now imagine the wife tells her husband she knows she can’t stop him from seeing his ex-girlfriend, but can he please take some precautions and just be honest about what he’s getting up to. He says he will.
But imagine he doesn’t. Imagine he keeps visiting his ex-girlfriend with the kids every day, and tells his wife he hasn’t seen her, despite the lipstick on his cheek and on his children’s faces. Imagine he tells his wife that nothing is going on, despite the children saying, ‘We saw her again, but they said not to tell you.’ Imagine the wife begs her husband to just be honest with her, and the husband continues to lie in the face of overwhelming evidence.
Imagine that eventually the wife breaks down and tells her husband that she feels betrayed. She feels heartbroken he’s chosen his ex-girlfriend’s short-term happiness over his wife and his marriage. She wishes he would stop visiting his ex-girlfriend and stop lying and getting the kids to lie and start respecting his wife and show some consideration for her feelings. And she warns that this will very likely end in divorce if it carries on.
If you’re expecting a tearful apology, you’re new to this game.
Imagine instead that the husband tells his wife she’s got it all wrong. He loves her and respects her, and is 100% committed to his marriage. True, he goes over to his ex-girlfriend’s house every day, but that’s not to see his ex-girlfriend, you see, it’s to exercise, and if she just happens to be there at her house when he visits, it’s happenstance. And of course, if she chooses to cook him and the children a meal, or kiss them and cuddle them, well, there’s nothing he can do about that, is there? It’s not his fault. Can’t his wife see that he’s doing absolutely nothing wrong? He’s the victim in all of this. And the reason he didn’t tell her, and asked the kids to lie, was because he didn’t want to upset her. But don’t worry, sweetheart, just be a dear and ignore it in future. I mean, if you look the other way it won’t bother you so much. Surely you can see that you’re the one with the problem? And you know what? You’re not a very good wife and mother anyway. You never trust me or give me any thanks for what I do. In fact, you should be grateful to me. You should be thanking me for taking the kids to my ex-girlfriend’s. Everyone knows that you’re the one being unreasonable here. It’s all in your head. And how dare you accuse me of seeing my ex-girlfriend? I haven’t seen her in weeks. If anyone’s ruining our marriage, it’s you with your paranoia. Now be quiet and do as you’re told and I don’t want to hear another peep out of you!
In the above example, it would be very hard to defend or justify the husband’s behaviour. You’d be forgiven if you think he comes across as a selfish, deceitful, manipulative douchebag who doesn’t even have the balls to take responsibility for his own decisions. From a psychological standpoint, I’d say he’s gaslighting his wife, a form of abuse that undermines a person’s reality.
Now, for the last part of our thought experiment, I’d like you to imagine that the roles are reversed. Imagine it’s the husband staying at home and the wife who’s sneaking off with the kids, not to see her ex, but to see family members. Imagine they’re the ones who told him to mind his own business, they’re the ones who own his house, and they’re the ones who’d rather his marriage fail than suffer the indignity of staying away from children for a few weeks. Imagine she’s chosen their desires over her husband’s scruples, that she lies about seeing them, lies about the kisses and cuddles, asks the children to lie to their daddy, and when confronted, denies she’s doing anything wrong and suggests that he’s the one with the problem.
Does that make the abuse any less real?