This is the 38th story of Our Life Logs.
I’ve been married three times to people who tried to break me. I am not a quitter. I never have been. I worked to mend my marriages when I noticed they needed intervention, but each passed a point beyond repair. I had to learn to move on from the toxic marriages to find joy within myself.
I grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. Though there were many societal hardships, my parents tried to shield me from much of what was going on—even though they couldn’t protect me from everything. My father was the city attorney for Greensboro during the time of the race riots. Much of our dinner talk consisted of politics and law. My father believed that no matter what the color of your skin, religion, or gender is, we are all human. He instilled in us that the southern idea of racial inequality was wrong. Though his principals were just and moral, my father’s job and liberal views made him a target. He received threats against him and our family. I recall having to have a police officer escort me to school in case any of the threats were true. My father raised my brothers and me up with his progressive philosophy, which I’m thankful for because they made me the empathetic person I am today.
My mother was not as much of a positive impact in my life. She was, and still is, a narcissist. As children, my siblings and I would never know what mood she would be in when we came home. We had to learn to tread lightly around her. She never physically abused us, but she did emotionally. Everything had to be about her, and she had to have all the attention. I also was able to indicate the type of narcissist she was, and I erroneously believed I could spot a narcissist a mile away. Though she wasn’t good at putting others before herself, my mother did help me develop some crucial traits. She taught me that you’re able to get whatever you want in life if you work for it. You have the power to control what you get. No one else has the power. Though her parenting wasn’t ideal, I’m thankful that she taught me these lessons because they helped me get past the difficult points in my life.
I went to Appalachian State University and changed my major about eight times before I completed a bachelor’s in communications. I hadn’t had much luck finding a job with my degree, so I went to work as a secretary for a law firm. I met my first husband soon after I graduated college and began the job. After working there for a couple of years, the partners offered to pay for me to go to paralegal school. I accepted and graduated at the top of my class. After that, I began working as a paralegal.
This first marriage was fairly benign. We were married for nine years and have a son together. I believe we ruined a perfectly good friendship by getting married. We were young, sheltered, and not emotionally ready for each other. He was and is still an alcoholic, but it took me some time to realize that. My father has lived his entire life as a functioning alcoholic. He started out small, but eventually drank more as time went on. Though he drank, it never destroyed his life. He had a good job with a great salary. I think from watching my father, I believed his behavior to be normal. When my first husband drank like my father, I didn’t see it as a problem at first. Though soon it affected our relationship, and we separated.
I continued working as a paralegal and after a couple years, I met my second husband. He was also an alcoholic, but far worse than my first husband. He was verbally and physically abusive. The abuse started out small. We had a good first few years of being married before it started escalating. He was another functioning alcoholic. He was a regional salesman at an international company and a well-respected man. His professional life was together, but his personal life was destroyed from his drinking.
I had to walk on eggshells around him. The smallest thing could set him off, and I didn’t want to be the cause of it. I was oblivious to the warning signs. I remember my son and I hiding in the barn during one of his rampages, and my son telling me he had a plan. To get us away from him, he and his friend had come up with a plan to kill his stepfather without getting caught for it. I was terrified to hear this from him. He was only 15 at the time. I knew he didn’t like my second husband, but I didn’t realize he hated him enough to commit murder to protect me. It didn’t really happen, but the amount of hatred was obvious to see.
I should have left after this exchange, but I stayed longer. It got to the point where I began to keep my car keys in one pocket, a small .22 pistol in my other pocket, and a little suitcase in my truck with cash in it. I was sick to be in a marriage where I always had to be ready to defend myself, but I didn’t see it that way until long after we had divorced.
It took him fracturing my cheekbone, being at the emergency room at one in the morning, and the police department at three in the morning to finally leave. I had him arrested for criminal domestic violence. I remember being in the lobby with my torn shirt, with my face swollen to the size of a bowling ball, and thinking, “how in the world did I get here?”
I finally decided that I had to get out of that marriage because I had a feeling that one of us was going to kill the other one—and whoever was left standing was going to end up in jail. There was so much anger and hostility between us. I knew that if he came at me again that I would have killed him. I felt like I was emotionally dying in this relationship.
I decided to make changes in my life. I stopped being around anyone that wasn’t a high-quality person. I heightened my standards. I didn’t want to be with anyone with alcohol or drug problems. I wanted someone strong that I could rely on. I stayed single and worked on healing for seven years before I met my third husband.
My current estranged husband knew how to morph himself into the man that I wanted. He came off as a stable, decent man. He came from a good family, had a decent job, and made good money. I fell in love quickly and fiercely. The first two years of our marriage were wonderful. I thought he was my soulmate, that I’d known him all my life, and that all my bad experiences with men were meant to lead me to him.
Then things changed. Just a year and a half ago, he told me that he was unhappy. I tried to do whatever I thought would make him happy again, but he was never satisfied. I realized that he had been pretending to be someone else to win my affections and was beginning to behave in his true nature. It was hard being in a relationship with him because he wasn’t interested in much of anything. I like living life to the fullest. I like socializing and going out places. He didn’t want to do any of that and didn’t have any personal hobbies he liked to do at home, either. There was no use pleasing him. Everything was about him and his happiness.
He started to show less interest in me. He wasn’t talking to me much anymore. He wasn’t being the person I had come to know. I noticed him sneaking around. I found that he had a profile on a dating website. When I confronted him, he claimed he had made it to make fun of people on it. I didn’t believe that. I began to worry that he was cheating. I knew in order to have an upper hand in the divorce, I’d have to get proof that he had committed adultery, so I set a trap. I lied about going out of town, so I could watch him go to another woman’s house as soon as I left. When he got home, I told him that it was over. That was May 26, 2017.
After the relationship ended, I saw more clearly that I married a narcissist. I had come to notice the dysfunction of alcoholism, but still hadn’t seen how dysfunctional my mother’s behavior had been. I found that the reason he married me in the first place was to make money off my inheritance. I came to realize that he was much like my mother. He had to have the attention. He wanted people to worry about him and work toward giving him happiness without doing any of the work for himself.
I have no shame in being married three times. I look at each of them as a lesson that can be learned from. If you look back at an event in your life and feel that you haven’t learned anything from it, then I see it as wasted time. I can’t change that these events happened to me. All I can do is to move forward from it and try to help people going through similar situations I’ve been through.
So many people tell me, “Erin, you’re so strong.” I think everybody is. I have come to understand that I must push through every hardship to achieve my birthright of happiness and fulfillment. If you’re moving toward happiness, it will happen eventually. If you see your life as someone pulling the strings and making your life hard, then that is the life you’re going to keep living. I had some terrible experiences, but they morphed me into the strong, independent person I am today. I have the power in my life, and I choose to be happy.
-This is the story of Erin Elam-
Erin lives in South Carolina. She has rekindled her longtime passion with horses by running a horse rehabilitation program that helps horses who struggle with behavioral issues. She offers therapy sessions to the owners of horses and to anyone who contacts her. She has learned important life lessons through the emotional turmoil of her three failed marriages and other relationships and wants to pass along her wisdom and experiences to others that are on a similar path. She runs a blog called The Breakup Warrior and coaches people who are going through the hardship of a breakup or a divorce.
This story first touched our hearts on November 21, 2017.
| Writer: Kristen Petronio | Editors: Colleen Walker; Manqing Jin|