About three years after my divorce I was sitting in a meeting of mental health providers. We were planning a fundraiser for a local women’s shelter. One of the providers, a seasoned professional whom I respected a great deal made the comment I often hear when talking about people in abusive partnerships. I don’t remember the exact words anymore, but I remember clearly what was said.
Certain kinds of women don’t end up in abusive relationships. Poor, unintelligent women end up in abusive relationships because they aren’t smart enough to leave.
She likely said this because she looked around the table and didn’t see anyone that fit the “profile” of a person who would either enter or successfully leave an abusive relationship. She didn’t see me as the kind of woman who would have been abused by a partner. But I was.
I don’t tell people about my abusive first marriage very often, or in detail. To this day I don’t know if it is because I’m embarrassed, private, or uncomfortable with the attempts to validate my experience—the show of pity and/or compassion that a victim story elicits. Probably all of those reasons mixed together. Sometimes I acknowledge that I don’t think of my story as “that bad,” even though it caused a great deal of pain and suffering in my life and the people around me. He never beat me terribly, or sent me to the hospital, so why should my story “count” as a story of an abusive partnership?
Because it was. Because any person can find themselves in an abusive relationship—of any kind. Parent-child, sibling, friend, lover—abuse is abuse and it doesn’t get a pass because of the kind of relationship or the visibility of the wounds.
My story isn’t too complex, I suppose. I was young, he was charming and exciting, and I had been nursing some old wounds for a long time that being in love seemed to fix. He had two amazing children—whom I was lucky to parent for five years and now am lucky to share in their lives (more on that later). I was intelligent, successful at my job, and well liked. He seemed proud of that, at first.
I ignored (or didn’t understand) the early, subtle red flags—he didn’t have long standing friendships or relationships with many healthy people, he told me all of his victim stories right away, there were a great many villains in his life that made his job difficult or caused him troubles, he made me cut ties with people that didn’t like him, he policed my behavior (I couldn’t go to Starbucks because it was an evil corporation, but I could get something at McDonalds. Who knew one was more evil?), I could never trust him to take care of important details, I didn’t like how he parented his children sometimes, he stonewalled or exploded or both when he was angry, I spent a lot of time crying in bathrooms….the list could go on.
We bought the tickets and rode the abuse rollercoaster—up and down, walking on eggshells, a blow-up, and then a honeymoon. Over and over. It was an exhausting, and I always felt like I was working twice as hard at everything—all the details of taking care of a home and a family, covering up his problems and behaviors to others, downplaying my success because it bothered him, following all of his rules to keep him happy…all of that was my chore list.
Every day. For years. I was definitely exhausted all the time. There were honeymoons that kept me attached, and every time I thought about leaving I worried about what would happen to my step-kids.
As time went on, it seemed to be more difficult, but then, voila, an engagement honeymoon period led to a wedding. I thought that if I kept trying the charming, enigmatic man I fell in love with would be the one that I spent happily ever after with. But it didn’t get better, it got scarier.
Berating me. Gas lighting me. Smearing a plate of food on my chest. Telling me I was not allowed to look scared or upset or raise my voice because it bothered him. Throwing things at the wall next to my head. Punching holes in the wall next to my head. Choking me until I bit him to escape and then calling the police to file a report against me for biting him. Throwing our dog at the television in front of me. Restraining me from leaving the house until I hugged him the way he wanted me to hug him. Telling me that my family is too judgmental and we needed to isolate ourselves from them so we could get better. Cheating repeatedly with multiple women then telling me it was my fault when I caught him. He started to be emotionally abusive more in public, more in front of our friends, more in front of the children.
I was going to a therapist the entire time. For a while she began to see both of us, then asked to only see me alone again and referred him to a separate counselor. Another flag. She never told me what to do, but she did one day say to me, “We both know the truth. We both know what you need to do.” That was it, but that was powerful. That was the day I decided to leave. I’m so grateful for her and how she let me make my choice in a way that felt empowering yet gentle.
Leaving was terrible. It was punishing and heartbreaking. He told me, “I should have gotten you pregnant. Then you never would have left me.” I had to leave my step-children with him, unsupervised, without me to step in when he became too intense. If I saw them through their mother and he found out he punished them. I had to leave him in a home my family owned because he wouldn’t go immediately. I moved to another city and he texted a photo of my new front door. He stalked me on the internet using women I thought were friends and messaged people I worked with or knew from high school to say terrible things about me.
One of my friends worked at the Julian Center and asked if I needed help. It was exactly what I needed at the moment I needed. I’m so grateful for her and how she helped me file for a restraining order when he started sending threatening messages and was more physically aggressive. I had to stand up right next to him in front of a judge and explain why I wanted a restraining order. I had to tell my workplace that he was not allowed in the building. I was so embarrassed—we had only been married a year earlier, and my co-workers and friends had thrown a lovely shower for me. He showed up at my grandparents’ house on my birthday six months after the divorce. He showed up at my mother’s work the day the yearlong restraining order ended. He violated an agreement of our divorce with tax issues and cost me thousands of dollars. At this point, every penny was worth it in order to leave that man.
I went to the doctor to get screened for STIs because when he cheated it was unprotected. I cried, openly and ugly, when my doctor said, “That is one more way your husband abused you.” Up until that moment, I hadn’t accepted that I had been abused. I am so grateful to this day for that doctor and how he cared for me, not just medically. I didn’t think I was allowed to call my experience abusive. I didn’t think I was the kind of woman who could claim that without sounding dramatic or like I was taking something away from more devastating abuse stories. The consequences of not knowing what abuse really is, and that it can happen to anyone, was that I lived with it for far too long.
I’ve moved on. I’ve moved much farther away. I still have nightmares about him sometimes. I’m in a remarkably healthy and wonderful relationship. The day my step-daughter turned 18 she messaged me and now we talk almost every day. My husband and I are grandparents to her children. My ex-husband is not allowed to see her or them. My step-son was a bit more shy, but he is also a part of our lives now as well and I’m so proud of the man he is today. I think my marriage today is the product of the work I did in recovery after that divorce. It was worth it, and it makes my life so rich and beautiful. When I was in the middle of all of that it was so devastating, and so hard to see a future. I remember my dad saying to me, “If I had a crystal ball and could tell you the exact day you’re going to be better and in a healthy relationship you wouldn’t worry so much right now. Since I don’t have a crystal ball, you’re going to have to practice a little something they call faith.” Thanks, dad—it did work out pretty great after all.
As I stated in the beginning, I don’t often share my story. But as I watch younger women around me or in my family start walking down the same path I realize that I’m obligated to share—so that maybe more people understand that someone like me, now a PhD level mental health provider myself, can be a victim of abuse just like anyone else. And that, also, you can leave, you can heal, and you can thrive.
If you’re reading this and seeing yourself a bit, talk to someone about it. If you’re reading this and thinking I was lucky to have all the resources I did to leave successfully—you’re right. Think about donating to places like the Julian Center who help make up that difference for the people who aren’t as privileged as I am. Every penny will be worth it.