One thing I can tell you about living in a situation of ongoing abuse is that most women on the receiving end won’t admit it or reach out for help – or even emotional support – until they’re ready to do something drastic about it. Like leave. Women will cop to all sorts of other unsavory aspects of their relationships – drinking problems, porn addictions, financial ruin, in-law issues, you name it – but abuse? No. Because the thing is, everyone knows that nobody is going to support staying with a man who’s smacking you around, and once you start talking about it, you better be ready to extricate yourself from the situation.
Here’s something else I can tell you: you don’t really know how you’d deal with a situation until you’re face to face with it. Oh sure, you can sit there and say, “I’d NEVER put up with a man hitting me. The first time he laid a hand on me, I’d be outta there!” It’s very easy to say that – to believe it – when that situation is only hypothetical. When it actually happens, though, it’s a whole different story. You tell yourself all kinds of things to try to rationalize the situation.
I know these things from experience.
I lived with an abusive man for many years. I honestly can’t even remember the first time he laid a hand on me in violence, but there are many, many episodes that I remember, starting before he and I even ever got married. The night of my dad’s funeral may have left the most livid scar on my psyche, but it certainly wasn’t an isolated incident. I look back now and wonder: who was that girl who put up with that?
At this point in my life, all these years later, she’s someone both strange and intimately familiar to me. She’s like someone I knew in a dream.
I know she learned about how relationships work, like most kids do, from watching her own parents, and because of that, violence was nothing new to her. Some of her earliest memories are from toddlerhood: the sounds of shattering glass, flesh impacted by flesh, bodies being shoved into walls, shouting, screaming. I know her mother spent the first half of her life tearing her down, telling her how bad she was, so that when this guy came along and paid her some sweet attention, she ate it up. I know that he represented a way out for her, and she had no idea that she would only be trading one hell for another. I know that he wanted someone to rescue, someone weak and needy so that he could feel big and powerful. I know that for a long time when she grew up, she believed that this was just her lot in life. She wished for something better but didn’t believe it was her due to have something better, and had no idea how to attain something better, anyway. I know she was scared. I know she felt trapped and very, very alone. I know she told herself over and over, “If I could just be a better wife, a better person, he would stop hurting me.”
Part of the method the abusive man uses is emotional warfare. He tears her down to the point where she believes it’s her fault, that she’s brought this all on herself. He used to tell me, “I’m not like this. You bring this out in me. You make me do this to you.” He leads her to believe (because she’s susceptible) that there’s no possibility for a better existence outside of the relationship. The message is, “I hate you because you’re unlovable, but I still love you more than anyone else ever would.” The message is, “Nobody else would put up with you. You’re lucky I do.” The message is, “I hate you because you’re a miserable piece of shit, but you better not ever leave or you’ll be sorry.”
Yes, I was trapped like that for years.
So how did I finally get out?
It’s complicated. But in simple terms, Kevin and Michael were both the impetus for my finally extricating myself. It’s bitter irony that Kevin was one of the reasons I stayed as long as I did; once we had him, I thought about leaving all the time, but I couldn’t bear – absolutely couldn’t bear – the thought of having to share him, to give him up to this horrible man on alternate weekends or whatever the court might come up with. In the end, though, it came down to realizing that it’s one thing to put up with a hellish situation yourself, but to subject your kid to it is a whole other story. There came a night when he was coked up, and he took Kevin and disappeared for an entire night. I was frantic. To this day, I have no idea where he took him or what Kevin was exposed to. He came back the following morning, and I met with a divorce attorney that day, and took Kevin and left the following day.
And Michael came along. And he saw me as a person with value, someone worthy of goodness. It was the first time I began to believe that something else, something better, was possible. It’s probably sad that it took something, someone outside myself to see that, but there you have it.
There are many reasons women stay in abusive relationships: financial dependence, lack of a safety net of available friends and/or family, fear, and not the least, self-esteem. It really all boils down to that, I think. And I think that for anyone who has a daughter, instilling in her a strong sense of self – of self-value, self-esteem – needs to be an absolute priority. By the same token, raising sons into healthy men requires instilling the same positive sense of self, as it is the broken man who will lash out and victimize someone.
I know now that it wasn’t about me, it was about him. I’m as flawed as the next person, but I’m not a worthless piece of shit. He would have abused anyone he ended up with.
It was a hard road to travel, but I got out. And I am thankful.