Tripping on the Path of Widowhood: Living with Emotional Abuse

Sunset on an abusive relationship

On July 29th, my boyfriend had a public meltdown and yelled at me. For the very first time I realized:

He’s emotionally abusive.

So, I ended it.

It took the ghost of my late husband George to save me. July 29th was George’s birthday. It was my wake up call, the first time I used the word abusive. It also took a stranger to come to my rescue (but that’s in my next real article so I can’t write about it here).

But even after I’d broken up with my boyfriend, I still took him back for the occasional night or dinner. We’d been together for over two years. I missed him. Not who he was now but the guy who was sweet and sexy and crazy about me when we first started dating. The guy who took me to see Todd Rungren on our second date and Lake Tahoe on our fifth. The one who saved me from the tedium of online dating and the gray haze of widowhood.

But he wasn’t who he used to be. He was angry and depressed. He hated the world and, by extension, himself and me. He wasn’t getting help for his depression.

When I finally broke up with my boyfriend he still wouldn’t leave me alone. He kept coming to my house without calling, refusing to leave when I asked him to. I finally called the police. They hauled him away in handcuffs as he blathered on that it wasn’t his fault. “Alcohol makes people do strange things,” said one of the officers.

I should have ended the relationship far sooner. I saw who he was, but shut my eyes, trying not to see the real him. I was embarrassed to tell you about it. But I have to if I’m going to continue to write about my journey through widowhood. It’s a dark, meandering journey full of holes. Sometimes I fall into one of them and twist an ankle.

Loneliness made me accept the unacceptable. Loneliness plus inertia. When you’re happily partnered, life floats along companionably. Not being alone when you’re single takes work. I spiral through endless text threads to organize a dinner with friends, a movie with the girls, a date with a stranger.

All of which could get cancelled at a moment’s notice. And the date often felt like working a job I never wanted to apply for. I’d come home to stare at my ex-boyfriend’s photo, looking at his almond-shaped green eyes, then almost involuntarily, responding to his texts that he missed me.

And ignoring his texts that I was a jerk for dumping him.

I have no excuse for taking him back time after time. Just a penchant for darkness. If this is what fate has dealt me, let’s go with it. Prematurely dead husband? Yup, time for make-up sex, whiskey and nihilism.

The loneliness of widowhood made me vulnerable to being in an emotionally abusive relationship. Despite my financial security. Despite my great dad and step-mom. Despite my yoga and my girlfriends. Despite my 32 years of having been in a loving marriage. Despite an outward appearance of confidence.

The Signs that I ignored:

Of course there was stuff I noticed, I just chose to ignore it.  Maybe you recognize some of these signs in someone you’ve dated:

1. My boyfriend was negative and unsupportive. Did that make him emotionally abusive? No, but it made him a jerk sometimes. And from there, he sometimes slid into angry and insulting.

2. My girlfriends didn’t like him and kept telling me I could do better. I thought they were being sweet. They were telling me to run.

3. I felt sad and agitated. My instincts knew to end it, but my brain kept rationalizing why I should stay with him. I could help him change. He was just in a bad mood. He loved me in his way.

4. He had addictive behaviors. When he drank, he drank.

5. He couldn’t control himself when he got upset.

If you relate to this post, maybe you’re in, or have been, in a similar situation. Maybe you’ve rationalized that it’s okay. But it isn’t.

We deserve to be treated with kindness.

I should’ve ended it far sooner. But it’s hard. One minute, life’s great with travel plans and hiking meet ups, the next it’s looking around a preternaturally quiet house with only ghosts to talk to.

I tripped on the path of widowhood. Have you? Please share if you know someone who could relate to this post.

Love, Debbie




















  • Quinnland23 says:

    Bless you for writing this! There are many subtle signs of abuse and even more of broken relationships, but what you say about the excuses we make to avoid being alone permeates all of them. Its scary how our minds can dope us with all the sweet sappy memories and dampen the pain we struggled with along the way. Hearing someone else express the very same doubts and fight against loneliness helps me see the relationship (and how I approached it) for what it was.

    • Debbie says:

      Thank you so much for chiming in. This was a hard one to write, and it is subtle. Almost instinctual…

  • Betsy says:

    Hi – Yes we do need to be treated with kindness.

    I have not been so lucky in finding another partner, or even friend. I am a good person, fun and loving. I care about other people, and do not intentionally hurt anyone.

    I keep asking myself, why can’t I meet someone? People and websites tell me that I am enough by myself. Having said that, I may be, but I continue to remain lonely. I guess I don’t need someone else to complete me, but being by myself all the time is very lonely. I just can’t get past that. I try. I enjoy being able to go where I want, or eat what I want, but it is always by myself. I just want to be wanted again by someone else.

    Thank you Debbie. I enjoy your words.

    • Debbie says:

      Betsy, I can tell from our correspondence that you are a lovely person. And loneliness is just so hard. I found joining a few meet up groups ( to be helpful. Not always, but I’ve found a few people I relate to. Even a couple possible dating interests. Take care my friend.

  • Cindy says:

    Oh, Debbie … first, I’m so glad you’re ‘back’. I’ve misssed your unique brand of honesty and wisdom something fierce.

    Second, I did exactly what you’ve described here (post divorce) but stayed for four long, miserable, years. I could never say why. When I finally got up enough courage to get out, I felt stupid beyond words, as all the signs and warnings from family and friends were there, had I dared to be honest with myself and look.

    Third, the truth of the matter is that when we’re alone we’re alone, and no amount of yoga or self-help books or girlfriend outings can change that, as friendship is never the same as partnership. It sucks, but it’s true, and your honesty about that is profound.

    All I can say from the place I’m in now (eight years post shitty boyfriend) is this: life got really, really good. Good in ways I never even knew to imagine. Good in ways that blow my mind even now.

    So don’t lose faith and don’t waste time berating yourself for what’s happened — I doubt George would want that for you, as it’s pretty clear he loved you fiercely.

    We’re all just human, sometimes wrong and sometimes right, but at the end of the day, your honesty and open self-reflection gives me utter faith in your journey being nothing short of brilliant.


    • Debbie says:

      Thank you sure much Cindy for the beautiful words. My life has been been better lately with travel and a few dear friends. But I needed to hear that! I’m so glad your life got better over time and hope mine will too!

  • Michael says:

    Hi Debbie —
    Your articles have been missed, I wondered at times if I inadvertently unsubscribed or did something that caused my email address to be removed. Good to be reading you.
    Though I never dealt with the traumas of death taking away a partner/girlfriend I did suffer through situations that parallel your recent abusive relationship.
    Yes, during that period, I found numerous “good reasons” to remain with her despite friends and family, coworkers, and often strangers advising me to get out. Yet I allowed the relationship to endure for far longer than it should, than I should. Eventually it reached its breaking point and it was I who was labeled “cruel” and “evil.”
    Seven months have passed, and since then I have spent most of my days, evenings, and nights alone. I moved hundreds of miles away (not to escape, though putting distance between my present and past made sense then and still does). I restarted my online approach to meeting/dating, made some friends, went out on more first dates than I care to admit to numbers wise, and realized it may be a long while before I to awaken in the night to someone with whom to cuddle.
    I tried, in vain, to repair the damage of that previous relationship. I admitted my errors, and removed all fault from her. Regrettably her responses were more brutal than her angry tirades of our days together.
    My fix is in realizing the importance of heeding the advice and recommendations of those who know me best; to accept that some things fall apart and can’t be put back together regardless of the “glue” and “tape” and wishes we apply.
    I turned my lens inward and focused on the one person I know will be with me forever — me. I date myself. Give myself the gifts of notes and flowers, good food and wine, and enjoyable getaways. I create memories of me, myself, and I.
    Eventually the other dating will resume and one of of those first dates will be the last of them. I will meet her and she me. And she will be the one whom I won’t need to be cautious with because I won’t have to; or, worry that my friends and family won’t like her because they will. Abusive relationships will be part of the past, and the past will be no more.

    • Debbie says:

      You have a way with words Michael. I, too, date myself sometimes where I treat myself to indulgent take-out etc. I’m impressed with the work you’ve done and send my wishes for finding happiness and love.

  • Tim says:

    Another post both beautiful and meaningful. And I reckon you already know but I’ll say it for good measure, the important thing is that you realized it was a wrong relationship and ended it, not the timeline. Progress happens when it happens. As do vague statements of dubious usefulness.

    And thank you for the reminder/statement that backsliding and getting off track happens. I’ve been looking at my past and seen it too. It is a heavy thing to accept. But none of it negates the progress and learning. If we were perfect, we wouldn’t have been reincarnated. 😉

    If you’d like a regular social engagement (that won’t cancel on you cuz there’re a dozen people involved) that’s also very casual, and don’t mind being part of a Bay Area cliche, then you should come to our rock climbing group on Mondays and/or Wednesdays. Good people. Exercise that doesn’t feel like it. And a remarkable shortage of jerks.

    • Debbie says:

      Thanks Tim. I admire your blog so your words mean a lot to me. I agree, better to look at overall progress than points on a timeline. I have found some very nice, open, friendly folk at an East Bay hiking meet-up I go to. Could you message me with the rock-climbing info? (Although I’ve never done it before and am adverse to injury…) Take care my fellow blogger.

      PS. I just got back from Italy and the girlfriend I was with got so sick of hearing me refer to Rick Steves.

  • Therese says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience, as I had a similar experience and it shook my confidence. I dated a widower one year after my husband passed away. I was not initially interested in dating him, but he was so engaging, kind and empathetic and I desperately needed a momentary distraction from grief. The first date was amazing. He took me to a nice restaurant, brought flowers and made a special music playlist for me knowing I loved music. We could talk for hours. This behavior continued for a couple of months until his true personality emerged. He became very controlling and would frequently become angry and verbally abusive when things did not go his way. He isolated me from friends and talked bad about them. He was systematically critical of me and made me feel broken. The tipping point was when he started making disparaging comments about my husband. The relationship lasted a year and really compounded my grief. It has been a learning curve for me.

    • Debbie says:

      Thank you for sharing your story with me. It resonated. And I’m sorry you had to go through it. We can say that we’d learned from our experiences. (Hugs).

  • I’m so sorry this happened to you. I was in an emotionally abusive relationship in my 20s and like you, ignored a lot of telltale signs until it became painstakingly apparent. I assure you that no matter what redeeming qualities a person can have, you’re better off to leave them. There is someone out there who will treat you the way you deserve to be treated. xo

  • Jeanette says:

    Debbie, I related to this in a couple of ways. First, I was involved with a man (Gary) in my mid 20’s who had a subtle way of making me feel inadequate. A look, or a back handed compliment was not easily identified at first, so I stayed, all the while thinking I wasn’t good enough. The insults got more and more obvious until one day, he woke up and expressed an opinion out loud that was so incredibly blunt: “You are nothing but a cocky little uneducated bitch who makes too much money for her own good”. WHOA! I got up, had a good walk to the beach, crying all the way – but there was a metamorphosis going on. I found a new place to live and moved on. ( A month later he knocked on my door and got down on his knees and hugged me around the lower half, and begged me to marry him. Are you f-ing kidding me? I metaphorically flicked him off my thighs like a troublesome fly.) I never, ever put up with that kind of insulting personality again. If someone questions my character or the way I dress, or how I look or behave.. I ask “What did you mean by that?” or I just tell them, that’s how I roll. The thing is, I thank him in my mind quite often because that nasty comment prompted me to finally start the process of getting my degree (achieved at the ripe old age of 33), and because since then, I only let men in who like me for who I am. It turns out he ended up in AA (but I have yet to receive his apology) and his behavior was partly due to a fondness for crack. Who knew?
    The other reason I related: Ignoring the advice of friends and relatives. My most recent relationship was with a man who was brilliant with his ability to make people think he was generous and kind, while actually being one of the most selfish spirited people I have ever met (hindsight’s 20/20). He alienated my friends and relatives by shutting them down if they asked about his work, and found it impossible to have fun in a roomful of people. He was all talk in so many ways, and I finally figured out that his professed love for me was actually his need to make himself look good. I ignored so many comments from friends and relatives because I thought I wanted an intellectual, and he fit the bill. I wish I could spend time with him because he is a spectacular conversationalist but he isn’t willing to be just friends. I knew it was over on our 4th date – but I hung in there for over a year, against the repeated urging from the people I love to get the hell out. Listening to the people who actually know and love me is another lesson learned.
    Thanks for your honesty.

    • Debbie says:

      Thanks Jeanette. I feel less alone in this. It took me so long to recognize how wrong this guy was and I’m in my 50’s. I think it’s because he acted so differently than what I was used to. Bad treatment but combined with passion and protestations of love. And my guy too begged for me to come back, but at least I finally said no.

      I too ignored all my friends saying he didn’t sound like a match and that I was too good for him. I thought they were just trying to make me feel better, but they saw things I didn’t. I could talk about his faults but I couldn’t really SEE them. I just saw a good-looking guy who was crazy about me. I didn’t see the crazy. Feeling older and wiser. Trying to fight feeling disillusioned overall.

  • Jean says:

    It took courage to write this and more importantly take the actions you did to free yourself from this situation. Good for you! Being lonely while part of a dysfunctional couple is so much worse than being lonely by yourself.

  • Jacqueline says:

    Debbie, hi.
    I think I already sent you a FB message about how brave you were to share this but want to thank you again and congratulate you for looking after your own heart.
    Did I tell you that I too got free of a toxic man? I discovered M’s alcoholism in summer 2016. As I’d persuaded him to go into treatment I was giving him a chance, but he didn’t properly engage with the treatment. Apparently it was my fault he drank so much! Then, like Therese’s experience, he made a disgusting comment about my husband that made me say, “Enough!”
    That was October 2016 and I have been single since. I have tried online dating, but you know how dispiriting that is, so I’ve quit.
    Weirdly, my ex’s new girlfriend recently got in touch out of the blue to tell me “things don’t add up.” She was desperate to talk and we discovered he’d been lying to both of us, chasing her for almost a year, pretending he was single, meanwhile protesting his undying love to me, telling me I was “stuck” in my grief and didn’t love him enough. He obviously didn’t have the inner resources to be alone while he figured out what he wanted. When I got him out of my life he was trying to get me back while redoubling his efforts to get involved with her. She says she gave in because she was lonely.
    He’s continued to lie to her, some of the stories would be laughable if it wasn’t all so sad and unnecessary. Apparently he once told her he had been with me only because I had threatened suicide if he left! I told her that having been dealing with the loss of my husband I was hardly going to commit suicide over a drunken, lying toad like M!
    I am much stronger than him, maybe I have transformed my vulnerability into strength? Sadly I am stronger than his new girlfriend who keeps “trying” to finish with him but keeps him in her life. I hope she gets free too. Maybe alone he’ll have to face himself and get treatment, though he seems to be lining up the next vulnerable woman to shore up his shaky self-esteem.
    I guess I’ll probably stay single. The online guys my age (early 60s) predictably want young flesh and I don’t want to stay in front of the TV with the guys in their late 70s and 80s who contact me. Some are older than my stepfather who I notice is starting to decline mentally and physically. I’m still growing, I have discovered a small talent and big passion for painting. In the real world I don’t seem to meet single guys – work is female dominated and the friends I see most are pretty much in the same boat as me – lovely, strong, single late fifties/early sixties women making their own lives. Better single than lonely in a wrong relationship. It is hard, because no matter how life can be rich with friends and experiences it’s not as rich as being loved.
    Well done, Debbie. You are amazing. xxx

    • Debbie says:

      And Jacqui,I think you’re amazing. I’ve seen your work on Facebook and it’s great! I admire how you’re nurturing your painting with classes and trips.

      You too recognized your guy was toxic and that he had to go. My ex-idiot was similar, professing undying love, but his actions didn’t match up and he lost no time dating again. We are stronger without them.

      The weird thing: After my ex, I went back online with the intention to find someone with long-term potential and I think I have. This may be my next blog post. Sending Love. xo

  • Jacqueline Mitton says:

    Oh, Debbie, I hope so! You are such a wonderful person, a beautiful woman, you deserve to be loved!
    Much love,
    Jacqui. xxx