It’s hard to believe that back in the mid 1990s, my husband Bill, who had a degree in international relations from American University, years of military experience as an officer, and an excellent attitude toward work, was reduced to working at a toy factory for about $33,000 a year. On that salary, he was expected to support his ex wife, their two daughters, his former stepson, Ex’s sister, and Ex’s sister’s daughter. It was not work Bill enjoyed. In fact, he had been thinking about becoming a police officer, or perhaps a parole officer. But those jobs were very dangerous and paid about the same as working at the factory did.
How did this happen? Here was this guy, still in his prime in his early 30s, living in podunk Arkansas. They were there because Ex had fantasies of living in an idyllic small town with conservative values. With Ex’s encouragement, Bill decided to leave his position as an active duty Army officer, take a $40,000 severance, and embrace life as a civilian. Upon leaving the Army, Bill joined the Arkansas National Guard.
Freed from the constraints of the Army, no longer beholden to the Army’s whims as to where they’d live, Ex decided they should to go live in a small town in Arkansas. She found a house. It looked like one she’d seen in a snow globe. Even though they didn’t have much money and the house was a money pit, Ex decided they’d make it work. And Bill, being someone who doesn’t like contention or strife, tried to go along with it.
The problem was, there wasn’t a lot for a guy like Bill to do in that part of Arkansas. In the 1990s, there was factory work. There was police work. There was probably retail. I believe Ex worked at Walmart for awhile, eventually getting into bookkeeping and/or management. But she didn’t work all the time. She only did enough so that it looked like she worked. Most of the time, Bill was left both earning the money and taking care of the children.
Bill would have preferred to do police work over factory work. But he had a family to support, and police work in that town offered long hours, very low pay (about $7.50 an hour), and dangerous conditions. So that’s how he ended up making plastic toys on the second shift… boring work in a town that offered little for him personally. Ex wasn’t all that happy, either, even when Bill later got a job working at a now defunct Whirlpool factory. It was his job to supervise a bunch of guys making refrigerator doors, screwing three screws into the doors all day. Those guys were happy to do that job, racking up years of seniority and extra dollars per hour. Bill was bored, and even though Whirlpool paid more, it was still a hell of a lot less money than he needed.
This morning, we were talking about this… We’ve been talking about this a lot since he saw his daughter a few months ago. As they processed their experiences living with a narcissist, they realized that they were conditioned to settle for crumbs of contentment. When you spend your time with a narcissist, you learn to settle for whatever they throw at you. The smallest pleasures are satisfying as you’re driven to give up more and more of yourself for the narcissist’s whims. It’s soul destroying.
Whenever I listen to Bill talk, I see the spark in his bright blue eyes as he tells me about the things that interest him. He likes talking about movies, music, history, religion, literature, and food. Since we’ve been together, I’ve watched him turn into a gourmet cook, a beer brewer, a wine connoisseur, and most recently, a beginning guitar player. When he was married to Ex, he wasn’t allowed to have hobbies. They were deemed “self-indulgent”. His job was to work, and to make enough money for the family’s survival. His happiness didn’t matter.
I remember seeing his old ID card from Whirlpool. He looked about twenty years older than he was. The jovial, kind, friendly expression I’m used to seeing was completely absent. He looked depressed, vacant, and unhealthy– used up and spent. I wouldn’t have recognized him.
After a few years of working in factories, Bill got the opportunity to go back to work full time for the Army National Guard. It would be like he’d rejoined active duty, only he’d be paid by the state of Arkansas and work as a federalized National Guardsman. Even though he would be paid over twice what he earned in factories; he’d have excellent medical benefits; and the work would be much better suited to him, Ex was not onboard with the idea. She wanted to stay in Arkansas in the house that was falling apart. She expected Bill to keep working in the factory to prove his love and devotion to her. When he asked her to give up on her Arkansas dream, she refused. So Bill went off to Kansas by himself.
It was about that time that he and I met online. I was starting graduate school in South Carolina. We chatted online for about 18 months before we met in person. During that time, he and Ex divorced. He lived on $600 a month, because the rest of his money went to her, as she shacked up with her now third husband in the house Bill bought for her. We have heard that #3 is now a certified nursing assistant. To be sure, it’s not his passion, but he’s now having to pay the bills, since Bill isn’t paying Ex anymore. They have two more children to support, and Ex has lots of debt racked up from her failed visions that were overcome by events.
When Bill and I met in person, he’d been divorced for almost a year. He showed up at my apartment in bedraggled clothes that were several years out of style. Ex had bought them at yard sales. I remember wondering how I felt about him. Common sense would have told me to run the other way. But there was something in those startling blue eyes. He was so kind-hearted and intelligent… I wonder how it must have felt to be with someone who valued his opinions and didn’t see him as a slave with no right to enjoy living.
Last night, Bill made a Jordanian dish with tomatoes, peppers, and lavash (pictured above) as we listened to music on Alexa and I tried to play along with the Eagles on my guitar. Then he got his guitar and I showed him a new chord. Neither of us plays well yet, but this is something we can share.
Bill now makes over three times the money he made at the factories in Arkansas. He’s earned two master’s degrees since he left Ex, who seemed to resent that Bill had a bachelor’s degree (when they were married, she hadn’t finished college). He works mostly from home right now, doing work that interests him and suits his talents. Today, we’re going out to lunch at one of our favorite restaurants, where I’ll watch his eyes widen as he tastes something interesting… something that didn’t come out of a can or a box. When I met Bill, he could only cook a few things. Now he tries all kinds of recipes. He’s not afraid of attempting things that are beyond his comfort zone.
I think about what Bill settled for in those years. He would have tried to keep going, but it was impossible. If he had kept living that way, I have no doubt that he would not be who he is today. He would definitely not be as healthy and happy as he is. There was a price to be paid. He missed out on watching his daughters come of age, and they also suffered under their mother’s tyranny. I know he wishes he’d fought harder for them now… or better yet, not settled for marrying their mother. She never did offer more than crumbs of contentment, even early in their relationship.
Somehow, when he was growing up, he missed the very important lesson that you can’t help others until you help yourself. He saw Ex as a damsel in distress needing someone to save her. He felt valiant by rescuing her, but deep down, he felt that she was all he deserved. He thought no one else would value him and, in fact, didn’t actually value her that much, since he settled for her.
She reinforced the idea that she was the best he could do repeatedly, telling him that no other woman would want him and convincing him that she was right. So he stayed with her for almost ten years and settled for what she deigned to let him have. By contrast, we’ve been together for almost 18 years, and those years have been a hell of a lot more fun for him. One time, not long after their divorce, Ex actually accused Bill of taking Rogaine. His hair was fuller and he looked healthier. I look at pictures of Bill as a 56 year old man and he STILL looks younger, healthier, and happier than he did in that Whirlpool factory ID he had when he was in his early to mid 30s.
I don’t blame Bill for staying with Ex. Leaving an abusive environment is difficult. Abusive people have a way of convincing their victims that leaving them is worse than staying. In an abusive situation, a victim can start to believe that the next situation will be worse. They’d rather stick with what they know. I’m not immune to this issue myself. I originally didn’t want to move to Wiesbaden because I was afraid we’d wind up in a worse living situation than what we were in. I was wrong. We ended up in a much better situation. There are things I miss about where we were before, but overall, moving on was the right thing to do.
The last point I would make is that sometimes it takes time to get where you’re going. The first five years of our marriage were lean as we tried to pay off debts and Bill supported his kids and former stepson. But we knew it was a temporary situation if we just worked together and kept our eyes on the prize. We made small financial changes that helped us get ahead on debt and eventually retire it. We stayed flexible toward each other’s goals and needs for happiness. And in spite of everything, we’re still very much in love. We have our ups and downs, like everyone does. But I don’t get off on sabotaging Bill’s successes. I like it when he succeeds, and I do what I can to help him get ahead. Likewise, he wants me to succeed, too, and he does what he can to help me.
Your life is your own. Sometimes you have to make concessions in order to survive. But when it comes down to it, settling for crumbs tossed out by an abuser is not productive. It doesn’t lead to anything good. If I had ever had a child of my own, I hope I would have taught him or her not to settle for crumbs of happiness. Don’t marry someone because you don’t think you can do better or you think they need rescuing. Don’t stay somewhere toxic because you don’t think the next place will be better. Sometimes, you have to take the plunge. Or, as my spirit animal George Carlin would say, you have to “take a fuckin’ chance”.