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Internet Time Machine

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

Photo: Sohl/E+/Getty Images

This story is part of the Internet Time Machine, a collection about life online in the 2010s.

ItIt was 2008, and I had just joined Twitter. Although I’d joined to promote my retail business, I soon realized the social media platform could also connect me to other people. At the time, I was living in a rural area in a tiny Midwest town and had many acquaintances, but few true friends. On Twitter, fast friendships could be formed with people from all over the world. In fact, one of these Twitter friendships changed the course of my life.

Although it was over 10 years ago, I remember it vividly. My husband and I were in a hotel room during a weekend getaway. He was watching TV, and I was discussing weekend plans with my Twitter friends. One of my friends in California was going to a swingers event to cover it for a local online publication. She didn’t plan on participating; she was just going to interview people and soak up the ambiance of this adult party.

“Wow, your husband will let you do that?” I asked.

My friend replied: “LOL, what do you mean ‘let’?”

A series of disjointed tweets followed (this was back in the days of 140-character limits) as she and I discussed further, with other friends chiming in with their own perspectives.

I explained my confusion. Wasn’t marriage supposed to be a partnership? And in a good partnership, wouldn’t you ask your husband before going to a party where you could potentially see people interacting sexually? Just a few months prior, my husband hadn’t even let me go to a bar with women from my tap-dancing class.

I started realizing that I didn’t have real-life friends because my husband subtly, and not-so-subtly, discouraged it.

My friend Kerri explained that she always told her husband her plans, and if he had any issues, they would discuss it. But he couldn’t prohibit her from going anywhere.

I could not understand that amount of freedom in a marriage. After all, my husband was my best friend, and we generally did everything together except for going to work. Even then, we called each other at least once during the day. If my husband didn’t want me to go to a bar, I didn’t go to a bar. Sure, I was a bit resentful, but after all, it was a small town and we couldn’t risk my reputation. I told my friend I couldn’t imagine his reaction if I were to ask permission to attend a swingers party.

Again, Kerri picked up on the relevant word. “Does your husband ask your permission to do things?” she asked.

“Of course not,” I said. Actually, we didn’t really do things separately.

Over the next few months, as I became closer to my online friends, I started questioning my life: Why didn’t I have my own circle of friends in “real life”? Why did my husband and I go almost everywhere together? Why didn’t he like me to spend time with my family? Why did I ask permission to do things?

I started realizing that I didn’t have real-life friends because my husband subtly, and not so subtly, discouraged it. “She is not good enough for you,” he would say dismissively when I met someone I started to bond with.

Sometimes the objection was that she smoked or drank too much and, therefore, wasn’t good enough. Or there was always the small-town excuse. Any new friend was the in-law, cousin, second cousin, or some relation to someone he or I worked with, and we didn’t want people gossiping about us.

I accepted this logic, just like I accepted that I wasn’t allowed to park on the same block where the strip club was, in case someone saw my car and wrecked my (and his) reputation. Not that we would ever go to a strip club, of course, but it was on the same block as our bank.

Once I thought I had made the perfect real-life friend. She was the wife of a man who worked in the same profession as my husband, but held a more senior position. Since my husband never thought my blue-collar friends were good enough, surely this woman would be acceptable given her husband’s prestigious job. Plus, our husbands were friends. We had been to their house for social functions. I couldn’t think of any objections my husband could have.

However, after several months of my spending time with her, I was told that my new friend was not good enough. She was “white trash” because she was the second wife of my husband’s friend. She and her husband had also had an affair before getting married, which apparently meant she wasn’t good enough for friendship. Soon, I was again left with only my online friends.

As my friendships with my online circle grew deeper, my husband started judging them as well. Their jobs were not prestigious enough; they didn’t make enough money; their family situations were messy.

His objections to my friends’ supposed lack of prestige weren’t even based in truth; my friends were mostly other professional businesswomen. Once I asked why he thought a contract manager for a large pharmaceutical company wasn’t prestigious enough to warrant friendship. “You know she was texting me from Switzerland where she was leading negotiations, right?”

He replied that she wasn’t good enough because she had been married twice.

It took a couple of years before I realized that my husband’s controlling behaviors were signs of abuse.

Soon I was inventing professions and promotions for my friends. My contract manager friend became the vice president of her division. My IT manager friend was promoted to head of IT. When I talked about friends, I automatically upgraded their professions to something I thought would be acceptable to him. I found myself making my friends into caricatures of themselves in order to earn approval. My friends never smoked or drank or fought with their husbands. They always had the same opinions as my husband, and they never went to church because he didn’t.

Sometimes I didn’t know the professions my new friends held. Once I came home from work and he said, “Why didn’t you tell me so-and-so was a professor at the medical school in her state?” He had Googled her. I explained that we mostly talked about things other than work. That friend was approved until I let it slip that she only worked part-time. Part-time professional people were not good enough.

“LOL, what do you mean ‘let’?” My friend’s offhand Twitter reply stayed with me as I began thinking about my friendships, the concept of being a separate person within a marriage, and my routine of asking another adult permission to do things. It took a couple of years before I realized that my husband’s controlling behaviors were signs of abuse.

I tentatively started telling my friends about other incidents in my marriage that I thought were normal. I was shocked by the answers. One friend told me she had never, in her 20 years of marriage, been called a “cunt” or “bitch.” I was called those names on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

Seven years passed between the moment I read that magic sentence on Twitter and the day I had the courage to leave my marriage. By then, emotional, verbal, financial, and physical abuse had joined control.

As I took that step, my circle of online friends stood by me every step of the way. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart: Kerri, Veronika, Lanie, Wendy, Phil, Kim, JJ, Berly, Ela, Blakeney, Paul, Mike, Brad, Holly, Jeremy, Lara, Jean, Nancy, and Ash. I’m certain I am forgetting a few of you, and I am sorry.

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.

Keep exploring the Internet Time Machine.

Feminist, dirty liberal, thoughtful absurdist.

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