Gretchen von Mering, 59, of Florida, fell for her abuser two decades ago in a pretty usual way couples meet, the two “kept bumping into each other” at social events. He was “sort of charming, cute and a little mysterious,” she recalled.
She was an accomplished health care administrator, a Boston University graduate, and an independent, middle-class woman by her own right.
Over the course of several years, she and her abuser moved from social acquaintances to serious item and then quickly to married with children.
“I liked that he was very spontaneous,” she said. “It was excitement, fun, in the moment and I very much believed that I loved him.”
During their courtship, he seemed to always be jetting off to some far-flung continent or was preparing to spend a year working in the IT field in Iraq. Gretchen believed he was a very important person in the information technology field. She believed him when after just after a month gone in the Middle East, he returned from Iraq declaring that he could no longer stand to be away and had spontaneously quit his high-profile job to be with her.
“I was softened by it and it opened me up to allow him in,” she said as she remembered those early days of their romance, long before the trouble began.
Just a few years later and while pregnant, Gretchen experienced the first of many episodes of physical abuse. She was punched in the stomach. Increasingly more violent attacks soon followed. In one dramatic attack, Gretchen was strangled nearly to death on their bed while her children were in the next room. She was only able to get him off her by begging him to stop. In another attack, she was sexually assaulted, she recalled.
Years of abuse, lies and lots of couples counseling didn’t seem to help or end the trauma in her marriage. Gretchen never considered herself the victim of domestic abuse per se, despite the growing list of actions her abuser did against her that fit every definition of the crime. Instead, She thought that she had married a man who didn’t know any better, had a temper and needed the kind of love and help that she was strong enough to give.
She took the “high road” over and over but slowly became afraid of her husband.
“I didn’t like making him mad. I was walking on eggshells,” she said. And back then, she thought, “there has got to be something mentally wrong.”
After too many beatings, body checks, discovered lies and financial abuses, Gretchen decided that enough was enough and she made the move to get herself and her children out safely.
At first she tried to continue to hide the abuses she endured in the marriage as they moved through the divorce process, again in order to take the high road. She didn’t want revenge, just “out with her kids.”
But, that has proven to be a whole new challenge she wasn’t expecting. The documented abuse was considered in family court, at first, and supervised visitation was part of the custody agreement for their young children in the beginning. But, seven lawsuits and court motions later, Gretchen lives with new abuses, legal abuse. This form found on the power and control wheel used to describe a domestic abuser, uses the last of the collateral they both share, their children.
It makes for a difficult life filled with lawyers and judges, motions and court orders and uncertainty and hurdles most don’t understand. She has spent thousands on legal fees and lost more in financial abuses over the course of the marriage than she can talk about in one interview.
Today, Gretchen doesn’t believe much of what people say. She holds back her trust in new people in her life until she sees real proof that they are who they say they are. She doesn’t ever want to be conned again. Despite what a court order says, she doesn’t count on her ex when it comes to co-parenting, either. Her ex-husband has never told her where he lives, how much money he makes, and will often change at the last minute where he will take their children on his occasional and often spontaneous visits, she says. She knows very little about him.
On the other hand, she follows her agreement to the letter and never deviates from what it tells her to do as a mother co-parenting with her abuser. She fears one slip up by her could be used against her in yet another court action and endanger her children’s custody. She doesn’t ever want to be responsible for that.
She no longer holds a high-paying job. Her life-savings and retirement has been cleaned out. She lives paycheck to paycheck and does her best to continue to take the high road, this time for the sake of her children.
Gretchen has a great circle of friends that give her the support she needs as she continues to face this challenge. Her oldest child is almost 18 and her second isn’t far behind and both will soon be of age. When they are, the court will no longer force interaction and “cooperation” between abuser and victim.
But, her life has been forever altered and her trauma may never be fully healed from decades of abuse that despite her best efforts, she has never really been able to get herself and her children away.
Julie Boyd Cole
Julie Boyd Cole is a mother of two sons, a journalist, writer, and businesswoman. She has written for the Miami Herald, the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, Yahoo.com, divorcedmoms.com, among many publications around the country. She is the author of "How to Co-Parent with An Abusive Ex and Keep Your Sanity."