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.