How quirky behavior in my marriage became terrifying
Recently I wrote about how I finally realized the controlling behavior of my husband was abuse, and how long it took me to realize this. We often normalize things that if others could see would be immediately called out as red flags and unacceptable treatment. No one really knows what goes on in a marriage or family, and we all put on masks to show society what we want to show.
Abuse is often creeping, insidious, and begins just a half-step to the side of normal. The first sign is not a person punching their spouse. It’s the everyday normalization of control and small acts of intimidation that eventually lead to violence. In my case it started with my ex talking in his sleep.
You can read about how I first realized I was in a controlling abusive marriage here:
How Twitter Helped Me Realize I Was in an Abusive Marriage
My ex had made my world smaller, but my online friends still got through
My ex husband and I met as teenagers and even back then he had quirky sleep issues. He would mumble and twitch, flail his arms, talk, and sometimes shout in his sleep. This intensified during times when he was stressed and got little sleep — in undergrad and grad school, for example, and then his sleep issues would minimize during the summers or when there was little stress in his life. He settled on a career where he was often working odd hours, and that exacerbated his sleeping issues.
Abuse often begins as behavior only a half-step to the side of normal
At first, I shrugged off the odd nighttime behavior. I mean we all act differently when we get exhausted, right? And he was working in a state of exhaustion much of the time. When he was extremely tired, he would lose control of his emotions, laughing hysterically at something he said, or something on TV. When this happened we would joke around and make up ridiculous sayings that brought him to hysterical laughing tears. It was fun and silly, until I started realizing the exhaustion led to challenging nights. He would flail around, talking in his sleep about work, reaching out for nonexistent items. Sometimes he would grab me and hold me close, “I love you, I love you” he would say in his sleep, holding me so tight I woke up and could barely breathe. In the morning I would recount his behavior and we would laugh. He told me he never remembered those incidents, although sometimes he had dreams that matched his movements and words.
We tried to arrange our schedules so he could get at least 8 hours of sleep, going to bed by 9 pm most nights. However, no matter how tired he was, he couldn’t sleep much past 5:30–6 am. When we were on vacation, he still got up at 6 but would take a nap during the day and after a week or so the nighttime flailing and talking eased as his sleep deprivation lessened. I also used these vacations as a time to catch up on my own sleep, as I was constantly waking through the night as he moved and talked.
Once in a while his sleep issues hurt me. He would flail around and hit me in the head or body. Since we slept right next to each other, snuggling up, I understood that he couldn’t help but hit me when he was overtaken by these sleep issues. He continued to insist he didn’t remember talking or flailing. I accepted it as a weird sleep quirk he had.
As the years went by his nighttime behavior became more bizarre and more frequent. It wasn’t every night, but it was every week. We started calling it “night-rage”. He would yell at people in his sleep, shouting obscenities and throwing punches. He still claimed he couldn’t remember anything about the behavior.
Suddenly his weird behavior started to begin before he went to sleep. He would sit on the couch and balance a plate on his head. “What are you doing?” I would ask, and he would reply that his head felt good with a plate on it. He seemed to feel better with more clothes on and would put on multiple coats and scarves and a hat before bed, which I now recognize could have been a response to anxiety. Sometimes he would go to sleep with all these clothes on and wake up in a puddle of sweat in the middle of the night. One night he put on his jacket and his motorcycle helmet. “Where are you going?”, I asked. “Nowhere” he replied and continued to watch TV. I was concerned about this pre-bedtime odd behavior and carefully picked a time when he was well-rested and in a good mood to discuss it. He shrugged it off as just eccentric behavior that happened when he was exhausted. He told me I didn’t need to worry but I could go to bed with him at 9, or even 8 pm to make sure that he got enough sleep. After all, we both knew he couldn’t sleep if I didn’t go to bed when he did.
So here he was, a step away from normal, and subtly blaming his sleep issues on me. I shouldered the responsibility, going to bed when he needed to sleep, and changing my normal night owl behavior in order to sleep and get up when he did. Since I was a business owner, going to bed at 8 or 9 meant that I had to creep out of bed once he was asleep to answer emails or talk to my business partners or employees. Between that and being startled awake by his night-rage, I also was chronically exhausted. Although I too was exhausted, I did not lash out or yell at night.
His pre-bedtime behavior escalated again into even more weirdness. Again, this wasn’t every night, but it became more frequent — twice a week probably. And it scared me. Sometimes he would take a book and hit himself in the head with it, repeatedly. He might bark. Yep, that is right, he would bark like a dog for no reason, with no provocation. I would ask if he was ok and he would reply by barking louder. We would go to bed and I would worriedly ask him if he was ok, and he would bark and giggle as a reply until he fell asleep. I was worried that he had something physically or mentally wrong with him. He continued to refuse to go to the doctor, as he said, “illness is a sign of moral weakness”. When I insisted he was acting bizarrely and there must be something wrong, he shut down the conversation saying it was simply exhaustion. And it did seem logical — he didn’t act this way when he wasn’t tired.
His career was thriving while our marriage was descending further into abuse
During this time his career was taking off. He won multiple awards for his work at the local, state, and national level. His income increased and we moved to a much larger house and started taking more expensive vacations. He took on more responsibility at work in response to the positive feedback was getting. From the outside, we seemed like a perfect couple, but the nighttime behavior was getting worse.
If I didn’t go to bed with him he would get very angry, so I would lie next to him until he was asleep and then sneak out of bed to spare myself the yelling and flailing for a while. Sometimes I would sleep in the guest room for a few hours, crawling back to bed before his alarm went off so he didn’t realize I was gone.
Suddenly, when we were under some financial pressure in our lives and he was stressed at work, the night-rage escalated. At first it was verbal. I would awaken with him up on one elbow shouting at me, telling me what a horrible cunt I was, or how shitty a wife I was. I would reply sleepily, “hush now, you love me” and he would settle down and go back to sleep. In the morning he would swear he didn’t remember his outburst. He didn’t apologize, because according to him, since he didn’t remember it, it would be like apologizing for his actions in a dream.
I didn’t recognize the signs of abuse
The incidents became closer together and started becoming physical. Sometimes it was mild — he would take the blankets off me and tuck them around himself. When I woke up cold and tried to get the blankets back, he would hold them tightly until I gave up and got more blankets. Sometimes he would laugh hysterically while keeping the blankets from me. I started keeping an extra blanket next to my side of the bed. Sometimes I would wake up because he pulled the pillow out from under my head; “Give me that, bitch”, he would say matter-of-factly. I would sleep the rest of the night with no pillow.
Note that I said these incidents were mild — but truthfully, if he had abruptly started ripping my pillow away, keeping the blankets from me, and laughing at me when I was cold, I might have insisted he go to the doctor or a therapist, or realized it was abuse. Instead I was slowly socialized to accept that sometimes a husband is cruel, that his job was more important than my feelings, and that I should be grateful that he was providing such a good life for me.
The night-rage continued to escalate. I woke up one night being beaten over the head with the pillow he had just pulled away from me. Being beaten with a pillow didn’t exactly hurt but being woken up out of a sound sleep being beaten with a pillow was scary and disorientating. The next week I was woken up as he tried to punch me in the face. He was yelling and his fist just grazed my jaw. I was scared and shocked and went to the guest room to try to sleep. He came in around 6 am, saw my tear-stained face and asked what happened. I told him about the yelling and punching. This time, he apologized and said he had a nightmare about getting in a fist-fight and that must have been where it came from. He said he loved me.
All this time I didn’t believe I was in an abusive relationship. We went on fancy vacations, we ate out a lot, I could spend money on anything he approved of, we had a beautiful house and we hung out with couples every once in a while. Most importantly, these incidents only happened at night when he was asleep, and he swore he didn’t remember them or do them consciously or purposely. I believed him. I believed him for far longer than I should have.
He put his finger to my temple, “Bang! Bang! You’re dead”
It continued to get worse. One night I woke up with his hands around my throat “I could kill you right now” he said. “Yes, you could” I answered quietly, trying to diffuse his anger, and when his hands loosened I went to the guest room. By then I was sleeping in the guest room most nights, creeping away after he fell asleep. Some nights when he did not display any strange pre-bedtime behavior, I let my guard down and slept curled up next to my husband, me being the big spoon. During these ‘good’ nights he insisted that I snuggle next to him, and he held my arm tightly so that I couldn’t move away from him until he fell asleep. I thought that was sweet, a sign of his love.
One night he grabbed my hair and pulled me to a sitting position. He held his hand cocked like a gun and put his finger to my temple. “Bang! Bang! You’re dead.” he said and fell back onto the pillows.
Week after week after week this went on, for years. I still did not consider it abuse. How could stealing blankets, or a pillow, or talking in ones sleep be considered abuse? I felt helpless, I worried about him, I asked him to change his work situation so that he could get more sleep. I cried myself to sleep often or fumed after being woken up being called “cunt” or “bitch”.
My breaking point came when I woke up with him kicking me out of the bed. He had kicked me out of bed before, but then it had been a steady slow pressure of his feet that slowly pushed me out of bed with plenty of time to wake up and catch myself. This time, I woke up in midair, hitting the ground with a thump and my head hitting the night stand, hard. I screamed and burst into tears. He ‘woke up’ seeming startled, “What’s wrong??!!”. I shouted through my tears, telling him what he did and that he hurt me, and this wasn’t ok. He apologized over and over and went into a different part of the house. I stayed up and typed out a huge list of the things he did to me over the past years during his night-rage. I put it all down, all the crappy behavior, the names, the physical violence. I also wrote how much I loved him and that I know he didn’t realize he was doing this but that I didn’t know what to do anymore.
I emailed the list to him and went to find him. I was scared, not knowing if I would be punished for talking about something we didn’t talk about. He had already read the email, and was sitting at the computer, head in his hands, the picture of shame. He apologized profusely, and said he would start meditating before bed, and if that didn’t work, he would go to a sleep disorder clinic. I cried, he hugged me, and we went back to bed.
The night-rage stopped. Abruptly. I didn’t once see my husband meditate, but he no longer ripped the pillow from under me, stole the blankets, shouted, or hit me in his sleep. For eleven months I slept mostly well, still waking in terror whenever he moved too much or muttered in his sleep. I thought things were better.
I dreaded nighttime; yet there were still normal nights where he was charming and loving
Eleven months later the night-rage started up again. This time it did not slowly escalate, but picked up right where it left off, hitting kicking, and swearing at me at night. He also added in a new twist; during his pre-bedtime routine he started calling me names and acting out. Once I got water to put on my nightstand but didn’t get him any and he told me I was a selfish bitch. He burritoed himself into the blankets before I came to bed and laughed while he said I didn’t deserve any blankets. He would take my pillows before I came to bed. I would lie in bed, no blanket, no pillow, and when I said something he would yell “shut up! SSSHHHHH!!!”. I would put my arm around him when he insisted and moments later he would fling it off yelling “fuck you!” As soon as he fell asleep, I moved to the guest room. I dreaded going to bed. And yet, through it all there were normal nights, when he would be charming and loving and we would go to bed like normal people.
I asked him to go to the sleep disorder clinic like he had mentioned before. He refused. I asked him to go to counseling. He refused. He still claimed he didn’t remember doing anything to me at night, and he was just teasing with his bizarre and cruel pre-bedtime behavior. He told me I needed to stop being so sensitive and get a sense of humor.
I wasted so many years believing him. He groomed me well to accept his behavior.
When I finally left my marriage, I was hesitant to bring up the night-rage incidents with my divorce attorney. Finally, I told him and heard the most common-sense reply: “He stopped for 11 months with no counseling or sleep disorder treatment? This is abuse”. Until then I truly just thought he had a sleeping quirk.
I am free now. I am half the country away. I have as little contact as possible with him although he sometimes tries to control me long distance through various means. I even have taken the bait on occasion, emailing him when he contacted me through my mother. I sometimes have problems sleeping next to my boyfriend, and I am absurdly grateful my boyfriend just sleeps, with no talking or much movement. Sometimes he has to wake me from nightmares where I am yelling and moving around, scared of some unnamed thing in the bed. I’ve never hit my boyfriend during these nightmares, and don’t scream obscenities at him. I do have one other leftover issue though; if my boyfriend is staying the night, I can’t fall asleep without him next to me.
Audrey Zetta is a pseudonym for a writer living in LA. When she writes about her former life she is purposely vague about people and places to remain safe.