Dreams of the Past III

I meant to follow up last week with a third and final post about Michael. Obviously, I didn’t, but I do want to round out those posts. If you didn’t stop by last week, you can find posts one and two here.


I want to expand upon something I mentioned in the second post:

I don’t belong here, I thought, this site is here to help real abuse victims.”

This is exactly why I’m writing my story and why it should be part of the discussion on domestic abuse. I truly thought that what I had gone through didn’t count. When I thought of “domestic abuse,” I saw bright-line definitions (a punch or slap or shove) and stereotypes (the man as the abuser, a weak-willed woman as the abused). Abuse can happen to or be perpetuated by anyone. Michael has since graduated from law school. I have a master’s degree and a CPA license. We’re smart, successful people. And yet, it happened. I have a loving family and several close friends – in other words, a strong support system. And yet, it happened. I am a strong woman and always thought I’d stand up for myself. And yet, it happened.

It sounds trite, but the first part of helping yourself out of a toxic relationship is realizing that it’s toxic to begin with. I didn’t think it was abusive until I got out of it, partly because I didn’t know what it meant to be emotionally abused. Had I thought about it, I probably wouldn’t have even labeled our relationship abusive at the time because I might have thought that it needed to be more severe.

Because that’s the thing, our relationship did not involve me sobbing in a corner for five years. We truly did have some good times. Most of the abuse was part of the fabric of our relationship, but it didn’t necessarily affect each and every day. Michael was selfish and manipulative, but I knew that and most of the time it didn’t bother me. I knew that had I been stranded on the side of the road, I could not have counted on him to come pick me up (unless there was something in it for him) and I was mostly ok with that. I knew that it would be a struggle to get him to support something I loved (getting him to go to my annual dance recital was like pulling teeth) and while it frustrated me, I thought it was something I could live with and just a nuance of our relationship.

But abuse doesn’t have to be “severe” to warrant action.

I’m in a much better place than I was then. My mental health, confidence, and self-esteem are leaps and bounds from where they were. Part of that is just growing up some, but part of it is my own doing. Meeting Luffy and seeing what real, healthy love was like helped a lot too. He helped me realize my own self-worth and helped me sever ties with Michael once and for all (Michael was still somewhat abusing me through email).

It feels good to write about Michael, to give a nod to my not-so-bright past and to recognize how far I’ve come. And if anyone out there reads this and recognizes a few things, I urge you to re-evaluate. You’re worth so much more than your partner tells you.

If you need help or want to know how you can contribute, visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline at thehotline.org or call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

Dreams of the Past II

As I mentioned yesterday, I am writing this to add to the discussion on abusive relationships. After I broke up with Michael, the abuse seemed so clear to me. But during the relationships, it never once occurred to me that our relationship was unhealthy.

About a month after I broke up with him, I went to thehotline.org (the National Domestic Violence Hotline). The site scared me, to be honest. The homepage triggers a pop-up that warns you that computer use can be monitored and if you think your history is being monitored, you should call their hotline directly. It has a Quick Escape button at the top that immediately redirects you to an unrelated website. I don’t belong here, I thought, this site is here to help real abuse victims. I don’t belong here.

But I kept clicking until I found a list of red flags. Further down the page, you could click on tabs like “Physical Abuse” and “Financial Abuse” that listed out indicators.  I really can’t describe to you how I felt when I clicked on emotional abuse and scrolled down the list of warning signs. It was overwhelming, the recognition of so many red flags, the heartbreak and the sadness I felt. Little things and big things, sprinkled all throughout our five year history. Things like “trying to isolate you from family or friends,” or “gaslighting” (a term used when your partner basically makes you think you’re going crazy). I moved to the “Sexual Abuse & Coercion” tab and saw even more familiar red flags. “Demanding sex when you’re sick or tired” and “Ignoring your feelings regarding sex” was something that occurred regularly. “Making you feel like you owe them” sex was part of the structure of our relationship; I didn’t know any other way. One of Michael’s favorite phrases (always said in jest, as was his way), was that you can’t rape the willing and he made it clear that, as his girlfriend, I should always be willing. I won’t go too far into details here; it’s not something I want to rehash.

I haven’t told many people about Michael and the five years I spent with him, but those that I have told have asked the same questions:

What did he do?

Why did you stay?

What made you see?

Even though everyone always asks what did he do, they really mean how, how did he abuse you? They want to know in concrete terms and definitions, which is hard to do with emotional abuse. Physical abuse has such a bright-line definition, a push or shove or strike. With emotional abuse, the terms are more fluid. Sometimes it’s not even what he said, but more the way he said it. Or not even the way he said it, but that he repeated it so often. For instance, Michael was very harsh on my body. He seldom complimented my body or looks (even the perfunctory “you look nice” on date night was a stretch for him). He would ruthlessly critique me and then tack on “I’m joking” at the end. He would comment on my weight, telling me I was getting “fluffy” and then remind me he was kidding. Over and over and over and over until I believed the critiques more than the jest.

Sometimes it’s not what he said, but his motivations behind the words. I only realized after our relationship that he degraded my family, my close friends, and my mentors because he wanted to isolate me. He wanted to drive a wedge between the people I loved (and who would support me no matter what) and me. Honestly, what brought the behavior to my attention was when he tried to do it with Jasmine. He could see how important she was to me and that she gave me a confidence boost (first-time kitty mom!) and he wanted to prevent that. He wanted me to be alone if I left.

And sometimes it is what he says. Michael used to tell me that I was so lucky to be with him. In the midst of our breakup, Michael promised me that I would never, ever find someone who treated me as well as he did or who loved me as much as he did – I would never find anyone better than him.

Which leads me to my answer of the next question. I stayed because I didn’t know any better. He was my first boyfriend and I didn’t know how true love and a healthy relationship felt. I couldn’t recognize that mine was broken. I stayed because he told me I’d never find anyone better and I believed him. Even when I left it was my biggest fear – that I’d leave and never find anyone and spend the rest of my life alone. I stayed because I thought it was acceptable to live in a one-sided relationship for the rest of my life. I stayed because breaking up with him meant hurting him, and his family, and even though he was hurting me, I didn’t want to hurt him back.

I didn’t see the abuse though until afterwards. As I said, looking back, I could see it so clearly, but it’s not the reason I broke it off. I think the enormity of for the rest of your life hit me after accepting his proposal and I realized that I couldn’t live like this for the rest of mine. I couldn’t be in a relationship with someone who took but never gave. I couldn’t have children with a man who would belittle my self-worth, and possibly theirs. I owed it to my future self to stand up to him, to face him and say the words that would hurt him and set me free.

Dreams of the past

I had a disturbing dream last night and it brought my ex-boyfriend to the forefront of my mind. I am happily married now, in a loving and secure relationship, and yet memories of my past relationship can still come careening through. Even dreams, like the one last night, can unsettle me and take me right back to that girl I used to be. I broke up with him (we’ll call him Michael) shortly before I left my hometown and moved to Dallas. It took a long time, and a lot of love from Luffy (and myself), to help pull me out of the place I was.

Before I go down this path, I want to start off by saying that I’m not writing this story for sympathy. I am writing this story because it needs to be told. A story like this should be part of the discussion of abusive relationships because for five and a half years, I did not recognize that it was indeed abusive. I always told myself that I would never let myself be in an abusive relationship, and yet I did, because I didn’t understand what “abusive” meant. I didn’t understand that hurtful words were just as abusive as a slap and that the damage those words could inflict would last far longer than a bruise or broken bone.

Michael* and I went to college together and started dating in the fall semester of our first year. He was my first relationship, my first boyfriend, kiss, everything. We had fun through the years, attending football games and helping each other with homework (actually, it was more me editing his essays than him helping me with any of my accounting work). It became understood, as it does in long-term relationships, that we’d get married after graduation. When it became clear that he was going to attend law school and I would attend graduate school, we decided we would get married after he graduated law school.

In May 2011, a series of events unfolded. First, I graduated from school with my master’s degree and accepted a position with a large accounting firm in Dallas. Second, I adopted a tiny 10 week old kitten, naming her Jasmine. And last, Michael proposed to me (two years earlier than expected). On a sunny day in June, Michael got down on one knee in my childhood bedroom and asked me to marry him. I enthusiastically accepted and rushed off to tell my father. I remember us synchronizing our status updates on Facebook. I also remember being very tipsy because of his failed attempt at a proposal at a vineyard earlier the same day.

And then something changed; a switch flipped. To this day, I’m not sure what exactly brought it about, but a few triggers stand out in my mind. First, my cousin got engaged almost at the same time. I saw a Facebook update from her, saying she was so happy to be engaged to the most wonderful man in the world. I remember thinking that while I certainly loved Michael, I would never label him as “the most wonderful man in the world.” I decided that I was being a realist and that it was healthy that I could recognize the faults in our relationship. A nagging voice at the back of my mind said that as a newly engaged bride I should be over the moon and exceedingly romantic, but I ignored that voice.

Second, Michael did not get along with my aforementioned new kitten. He seemed to resent the intrusion she presented, even though she was an animal. He constantly picked at me, making demands on how to discipline her or train her (hello – she’s a cat! Have you ever tried to train a cat?!). I thought it ludicrous that he disliked her and attributed his callousness to the summer heat.

However, my most startling realization revolved around my future, our future. I have always wanted children and even at the young age of 23, I was ready to get started on a family. With a ring on my finger, I eagerly looked forward to a pregnant belly and little toddlers waddling around the house. A few days after accepting his proposal, I knew, in no uncertain terms, that I did not want Michael to father my children. I did not want him to teach my children anything for fear that they would learn his habits and ways, his beliefs. I did not want my children to grow up anything like Michael.

This forced me to take a hard look at my relationship and, suddenly, I saw it for what it was and saw Michael clearly for the first time in five years. Our relationship was one-sided and abusive; he was self-centered and manipulative.

This post is going to get lengthy, so I’ll pause here and resume tomorrow.

*Some details have been changed a bit more than unusual.