#WhyIStayedPosted: September 20, 2014
Several months ago I wrote, “Stopping the Violence,” a blog post about a verbally abusive relationship I was in. He and I were together for nine months—longer, if you count the times we got back together. While nine months might not sound like a long period, the emotional injuries I sustained from those months with him were significant. It took me years to recover.
Yes, I stayed. Even after he punched a wooden fence one night in a jealous fit because I’d said hello to an ex-boyfriend. Yes, I stayed. Even after he swung his fist at me, stopping just before making contact with my face.
I definitely have had my issues, some of which I was working out with him. For a long time, I used to think that it was all my fault. If only I had been stronger or tougher, or perhaps less broken. Maybe I wouldn’t have gotten involved with him at all.
Then again, some of the strongest and smartest women I know have been in relationships where domestic violence was involved. These are women that if you looked at them you’d think twice before messing with them. These are women that on the outside appear nothing like what you would expect a victim of domestic violence to look.
And like me, it took them a while to realize what was going on. Most of these women didn’t leave right away. One of them is in her abusive relationship still.
At first, I stayed because I didn’t realize that his behavior was abusive. I mistook his jealousy and temper for passion. At that time in my life, nearly twenty years ago, I was numb and out of touch with emotions. The yelling, the torrid makeup sessions would get my adrenaline rushing. The highs and lows created by our dynamic together allowed me to really feel.
I also was under the false impression, thanks to the patriarchal and misogynistic society that I grew up in, that “real” men should want to dominate their woman, “wear the pants.” I found that behavior sexy back then, not offensive and harmful like I do now. Not to mention that the stereotype disparages and is harmful to men.
When the angry outbursts turned into verbal fists and put-downs, I stayed because by then I was emotionally invested in the relationship. I loved him. And it’s not like I sometimes didn’t give as good as I got.
Maybe he was right. Maybe I really was too sensitive. Maybe I needed to toughen up or get a better sense of humor. And like he said, did I really need to talk to my guy friends anymore now that I had him?
Looking back, I realize that, all my rationalizations, this was the abuse talking through me. Blame the victim until she starts to blame herself.
But I was so deeply involved with him, I couldn’t think or see clearly. I no longer had a handle on the relationship. The abuse was handling me.
In her book The Verbally Abusive Relationship, author Patricia Evans lists the numerous effects of verbal abuse on women, including:
- A distrust of her spontaneity
- A growing self-doubt
- An anxiety or fear of being crazy
- A desire not to be the way she is, “too sensitive,” etc.
- A reluctance to come to conclusions
- A hesitancy to accept her perception
- A concern that something is wrong with her
I hadn’t understood how abusive his behavior was until I read her book. She described our dynamic, and all my feelings, perfectly.
If I can just make him understand what he is doing, he will want to stop, I thought. But all attempts to explain ended in fights.
I started thinking up reasons I could give him for why we needed to break up. “I want out because you’re abusing me” didn’t feel like it was going to cut it.
I worried about hurting his feelings or making him mad. I felt obligated to give him a reason he would find acceptable. I tried to get him to break up with me instead.
During one of our horrible fights, I gave him an ultimatum that I knew he wouldn’t agree to. I wanted him to think that ending us was his doing.
You’d think I would have been relieved to be done with him. But when he reached out a few months after our break up, I decided to try again. And again. Maybe we just needed time off from one another. Maybe this time will be different. It never was.
After him, I became wary about men who liked to fight. I became wary of most men, really.
Years later, I dated a man who appeared to hate conflict. He would shut down at the hint of an argument. He would spoil me, taking me on trips abroad and showering me with expensive presents.
But over time he’d start to tell these jokes. There was the one about how I needed stop wearing my red high heels because they made me look like a slut. Just kidding, sweetie! Or how when people saw us together they looked at me and immediately thought “mail order bride.” It’s just a joke, honey!
Sometimes, he would imitate me when I smiled. Only, he would scrunch up his eyes and twist his mouth sideways into these grotesque expressions. This is what you look like, sweetie! Then he would lean over and kiss me.
His remarks, cushioned in teasing, affectionate tones would catch me off guard. The “jokes” would usually happen at the most unexpected moments—a romantic dinner at an expensive restaurant, while laughing with friends at a wedding. I’d be feeling happy and relaxed or confident and that was when he’d strike.
Until this man, I had no idea that domestic violence can happen even when there is no yelling or fighting involved. I had no idea that it could be doled out so tenderly or take place in such public, even fancy, settings.
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence says that approximately 42.4 million women in the U.S. have experienced intimate partner violence. Domestic violence impacts individuals of all ages and from every level of education, economic background, gender, race, and nationality. Often, intimate partner violence happens behind closed doors.
I doubt that NFL player Ray Rice ever thought that anyone would be watching him punch out Janay, his then-fiancé, inside an elevator. She later married him.
Many women are too ashamed or terrified to admit to anyone, including themselves, that their boyfriend/fiancé/husband/wife/the father of their children is abusive. It is not uncommon for a victim of domestic violence to refuse to press charges against her partner.
When a woman is deep in an abusive relationship—which is often when the violence starts—the abuse happens enough times that her tolerance level goes up. Someone going into a rage in the middle of the night for the smallest reason starts to feel like normal, instead of unacceptable, behavior. Leaving him, which would seem like the obvious, logical choice, gradually turns into the last resort.
Maybe a woman has come to depend on her partner financially. Or maybe he is the father of her children. Maybe she is afraid he’ll kill her if she tries to leave. Or maybe she can’t imagine living without him.
I am in no means advocating for anyone to stay in an abusive relationship. Leave immediately, if you can, is my advice. But I do want to honor the many reasons why women stay with their abusers, as evidenced by everyone who tweeted their own reasons under #WhyIStayed.
Their reasons may not make sense to anyone else. Some of their reasons may not even make sense to these women. Then again, nothing about domestic violence makes sense.