It was 20 years ago yesterday that Charlotte O'Donnell met her husband in the cafeteria at Catholic University.

In law student John Fedders she saw her dreams for the future: the chance to marry an ambitious and intelligent former college basketball player and raise his children. But, she said, there was a dark side to the marriage. She suffered nearly two decades of domination and humiliation at the hands of a man described by a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge yesterday as "compulsive" and "manic depressive."

Today Charlotte Fedders is a changed woman, a far cry from the reclusive 21-year-old nurse who became John Fedders' wife, the mother of his five children, and the woman he has admitted to physically abusing during their 18 years together.

No longer the victim, she has emerged during their divorce trial as strong, self-reliant and self-respecting. An attractive and outgoing blonde, she has read books about spouse abuse, sought psychotherapy, talked to a wife abuse expert, and opened herself up to friends. Most of all, her friends said, she has cared remarkably well for her five sons, who range in age from 6 to 16.

"I can't redo my marriage now," she said yesterday during an hour-long interview in the living room of her Potomac home. "But I am very happy now. Actually it's kind of exciting, to grow out of that past."

For too long, she said, she was "the classic abused wife."

"After the separation [18 months ago] I did a lot of reading about abused wife syndrome," she said. "Even as a nonpsychologist I could see I almost fit entirely into the pattern. It is so obvious now. It's crystal clear. But I didn't see it when I was in it."

She grew up in Towson, Md., the oldest of five daughters in a strict Irish Catholic family. Her father was a doctor, her mother a nurse. Her father, she said, was a strict and domineering figure in their household. She attended Catholic girls' schools and earned a nursing degree at St. Joseph's College in Emmitsburg, Md.

Then she met John Fedders.

"When it came to getting married, he didn't propose to her, he told her they were getting married," said one person familiar with the relationship. "She worshipped him, and therefore she accepted a degree of abuse."

Now Charlotte Fedders sees that she went from one strict man, her father, to a second, her husband.

"I had no contact before that with any men but my father," she said. "A domineering man was what I was used to. I had never been emotionally or physically abused by my parents, but when I got the abuse from John I thought it was because I was a bad little girl."

At John Fedders' hands, she suffered emotional and physical abuse that crushed her self-esteem, according to her friends.

"When I met her 10 years ago I was struck by her fearlessness, and I've always thought of her as a very strong person," said neighbor Denise Gogarty, a close friend who testified she found Fedders crying on her doorstep after her husband had beaten her.

"The only place she was afraid of her shadow was at home. She was afraid to spend money, afraid to have friends come over, afraid friends would call her when John was home." No one was allowed to wear shoes on the carpeting and neighborhood children had to leave the house when John Fedders returned from work, Gogarty said.

The turning point for Charlotte Fedders was gradual. She tolerated the abuse for years, she said, "because I thought I was the only one [subjected to it], which is a common misconception among abused wives." And like many other abused wives, she blamed herself for not pleasing her husband.

"Some [beatings] are not as bad as others," she said, "and afterward they [the husbands] feel bad. Then there is like a honeymoon period where everything is wonderful for a few weeks. It's the sickness of both people . . . . She gets rewarded for taking him back."

After her infant son died of spinal meningitis in 1977, she began to develop a new appreciation of the value of life, according to one of her sisters, Mimi O'Donnell.

Five or six years ago she began to assert herself. A friend persuaded her to coach a first-grade soccer team. "I realized, 'Hey, I can do something,' and people thought I was terrific," she said. "Suddenly I wasn't Mrs. John Fedders, I was Charlotte." Then she joined a reading group and also became a member of the board of trustees of her sons' private school.

She began therapy before she separated from her husband, and has since taken a part-time job as a coordinator for development at the Woods School, which four of her sons attend.

Now her husband says he wants a reconciliation and has been writing her letters, including one which reminded her of the date of their first meeting 20 years ago. He did not speak to anyone in the family for most of last year, she said. A few months ago he resumed contact with his sons, and she said she is pleased about that.

"John is apparently getting some help now, and I'm delighted," she said. "Hopefully he will renew his relationships with his sons."

She is doubtful about a reconciliation.

"I'm not saying he isn't sincere," she said, "but it is part of the pattern [of abusers promising to change their behavior]. But I don't want to discourage him from getting help."

And what would happen if a man ever tried to abuse her again? "He wouldn't get a second chance."