The first time he hit me was two weeks after we started dating. We had been napping. My head was tucked up under his outstretched arm. When I rolled over, apparently my head caused a piece of the skin under his arm to be pinched… He went ballistic.
He accused me of hurting him on purpose and went running into the bathroom to inspect his injury in the mirror. When he emerged from the bathroom, he called me a stupid, careless bitch and punched me on my right upper arm. I told him how sorry I was, how it was purely an accident and that I would be more careful in the future. Then I cried. Once he saw that I was hurt too, he apologized, saying he didn’t know what came over him, and that such a thing would never happen again.
Thus began our ten year cycle of abuse.
Why, you may ask, didn’t I cut and run that very moment? Frankly, as I write this I ask myself the same question. I do have the answer… Not an excuse, but an explanation.
The allure of this relationship blinded my better judgment. I met him in Psychology 101 my first semester at college. I was 18 and he was the “older man of my dreams” at 26. He, I told myself, was the type of man who was attracted to me. It took being away from the “boys” in high school to find someone who would appreciate my maturity and intelligence. To have this man desire me was very ego-stroking. He told me early on in our relationship that I was the woman for him. He wanted me at his side as he pursued his career. How flattering at such a young age to have this grown man rely on me! It was accepted that his career would be the focus of our life. He needed further training, so I left college after two years, we were married and moved out of state to continue his education.
For many years, I did try to fulfill the role of helpful wife. I made study cards for him in school, let him talk me into letting him submit papers I’d written to his professors, cooked, cleaned, washed laundry, paid the bills, and performed every other homemaking task, so his energies could be focused on school and work. When he quit the career for which he had prepared for so long and went back to school full time, I even supported him emotionally and financially. How was I repaid for my loyalty?
Verbal and emotional abuse, drunken (among other drug-fueled) rants, physical intimidation and abuse, belittling, name-calling, not to mention public embarrassment. He would call me stupid, ugly, and conniving. I’ve been pushed down the stairs, shoved, had my hair pulled out, been punched in the face, bitten, strangled and spat upon. I have been threatened with a gun, a knife, and anything else he could get his mitts on. Instead of feeling a sense of outrage at these times (it wouldn’t have changed the course of events anyway) I would lapse into a state where I didn’t care what happened. I would just wait for whatever was going to happen to happen so it would be over…until the next time.
And still I stayed.
I wasn’t exactly on auto-pilot, but with every hateful word or gesture, a little of my identity died. His unquenchable thirst for control and domination consumed my spirit. After a while, I just accepted it as the way things were in the life I’d chosen. I felt that I had made a promise to this man to be his helpmate, and if I could just help enough, I could make him happy. Once he was happy, I rationalized, he would show his appreciation for all I’d done to help him succeed by treating me with love and respect. Somehow the victim misconstrues it as her shortcomings that cause the problems.
I felt true pity for him when he told me about his miserable childhood… being an only child, enduring frequent moves for his dad’s career, and supposedly being sent to a mental institution when he was a teenager. What kind of caring person, raised in a loving, stable home wouldn’t cry for this poor soul! What I didn’t know is the “charisma” I fell for was actually the spiel of an emotional con man. To this day, I don’t know –nor do I care at this point 16 years later –if any of that sob story was true. Regardless, it worked its magic on my tender heartstrings.
At several points he swore off all drugs and alcohol, convinced that all his problems stemmed from his abuse of those. Later, when his personality hadn’t changed an iota, even without the substance abuse, he would start back up again. His next manipulation was to convince the doctors and therapists that he suffered from everything from chronic back pain to schizophrenia, psychosis and various personality disorders. He was convincing and adept at making people believe he was whatever he wanted them to believe. When last I saw him, he was back into Alcoholics Anonymous. Personally, I believe he is not an alcoholic but an assholeaholic!
I am lucky on a couple counts. We had no children, so I never felt compelled to stay in order that the children be provided for. I’d like to think I would have left even sooner to ensure their emotional and physical safety, but I can’t honestly say what I would have done given those circumstances. I am also fortunate that I was not injured more severely, as he was 6 feet tall and 300+ pounds to my petite 5 feet and 125 pounds. I know he would have been a bully even if our sizes were more similar. He didn’t abuse me because I was small and vulnerable — he abused me because he felt small and vulnerable.
How did I finally decide to put an end to it?
I became aware that every man did not act and react to things the way he did. I became aware of a man who spent his time in similar pursuits, yet also had integrity, peace and passion in his life. I became aware of Scott. At first he was an acquaintance of my husband from college, but his company was so enjoyable he became a frequent guest at our home. I began to regard him as first, a welcome breath of fresh air, later, (as my husband became increasingly out of control) my light at the end of a long, dark tunnel, and ultimately, my lifeline. Once I saw that life could be joyful and not always dismal, it was as if my eyes were suddenly open for the first time in a decade. I actually began entertaining thoughts of a different life than the hellish nightmare in which I’d been drowning.
When my husband took a job in another state, expecting me to abandon my established daycare business and follow him again, this time I said “No.” At first I didn’t know it would be forever. I took the opportunity for some breathing room away from his influence to mull things over. After a week I felt like a new person… I felt like a whole person! With time to think clearly, my course of action became obvious.
Until the time was right for me, no advice anyone could have given to me would have made any difference in my decision to stay. The same stubbornness that compelled me to continue trying to make him happy compelled me to stay until I released myself from my sense of obligation to him. It had to be my own idea, in my own time.
It was during this emotionally turbulent time when I made the decision to file for divorce and reclaim my life that Scott’s and my friendship really bloomed. His support and belief in me made it possible to survive those many angst-filled months. That is when we realized we had fallen in love. He’s my silver lining!
It has taken many years to reach this day where I can reflect objectively about my past. I have never spoken about it to many people – even dear friends and family know very little about this. Scott is the only person who has known about it all. More recently I have thought that my story of escaping an abusive relationship may be inspirational to a victim, potential victim or loved one, but I’ve never really put words to the thoughts before this moment. I suppose I needed a reason to go to the emotional and physical effort. All I can do is tell my story, with hope that it serves as guidance for someone in need of support.
Why did I allow myself to become trapped in this type of relationship the first place? I simply didn’t know any better. Domestic abuse was not widely discussed back then, especially in my family. Not to assign blame to them in any sense, but my family was too loving and caring… and sheltering. They did not know that there were manipulative people like him in the world, so they did not know how to prepare me. They taught me that unconditional love, loyalty, and patience are the qualities that make a good marriage. It turns out that is only true if both partners are sane. I can only say to those who may be suffering through a violent relationship –your situation is not as unique as you think, and there is a better life out here on the other side of it.
I want to help people avoid becoming involved in abusive relationships.The most important thing is to educate young people about healthy relationships…we can learn to protect ourselves from falling prey to predatory personalities. It isn’t possible to “fix” an abuser any more than it is to “fix” a serial killer. The things we can control are our vigilance, awareness and action. We teach children about appropriate boundaries to arm them against sexual abuse…those same lessons need to be extended into the realm of relationships. Teach that when a partner is abusive, the only
thing it means is that there is no love or respect for you. In the same way children are taught about “stranger danger,” they need to be taught how to recognize and deflect manipulative people.Surviving such turbulent times has rewarded me by teaching me some important truths about myself. I would not be the person I am today had I not weathered this storm. I don’t just think – I know – I have untapped stores of emotional strength within me. Had I never felt so weak, I would never have learned what I’ve got within me. The thing I’m most proud of is that I never really lost myself… and now I’m better and stronger for the experience.
Gina blogs at Upside Down Cats.