6 Lessons My Abusive Relationship Taught Me
As I stand on a stage, facing those gathered to hear me talk about my book Not Exactly Love, I need to take slow, deep breaths and remind myself why I am there, in the spotlight, speaking with unflinching honesty about being married in the ‘70s to a physically abusive husband. Exposing that dark time in my life is something I could not have imagined I would ever do.
But your heart can surprise you. I learned this several years ago when I took a personal stories writing course and needed to find a prompt to inspire me for an essay to bring to the next class. I scanned book after book until the words, “If only…” seized me, and I spilled out the story of an incident that happened on the day I married Jack that made me almost call off the wedding.
The group demanded to know more, probably looking for an explanation of how someone like me—a longtime teacher and school counselor, happy person, creative person—could have lived in an abusive situation. Once I opened that door a crack, I saw that I, too, wanted and needed to understand more. There was no stopping me from that point on. As I wrote over the next years, I did whatever I could to reconnect with the twenty-something woman I was then and asked myself questions as the memories flowed. What did I want from life? What made me choose to marry Jack?
How could I bear the abuse? Why didn’t I tell anyone what was happening to me? Why did I stay? How did I get the courage to leave?
These are some important things I’ve come to understand.
- Don’t get into a relationship for the wrong reasons. The simple answer for me was “desperation,” wanting badly to be in love and have someone love me. I accepted the cultural expectation at the time for women—marry early and start a family—and as a twenty-four-year-old single teacher with only a roommate and a dog, I felt left out watching my friends marry and have babies. I feared life was passing me by. So when Jack, a good looking hippie-type just back from Woodstock, joined my school’s faculty, I moved in with him right away in spite of things he said and did that made me uncomfortable. I was influenced much too strongly by the fact that he and I were sexually attracted to each other. That fades, believe me.
- Recognize the early signs of controlling behavior. I should have trusted my gut early on about small, unnerving things I noticed that were hinting at the depth of his problems. He constantly complained about insignificant things others did to him that made him furious, never acknowledging his role in it. He was quick to interrupt our conversations and silence me, often by stepping close to me or putting his hand on me. During the workday he frequently sought me out to grouse about something, as if he’d needed me (or required me) to attend to his bad mood.
- No matter how good it feels, adoring attention can be a trap. I was hooked right from the start, because it was easy to rationalize that he was just angry some of the time. A lot of the time, he made me feel special. He surprised me with little poems he wrote. My body was the most beautiful he’d ever seen, he said. I was the best thing that had ever happened to him. So it only felt natural to me that he wanted me all to himself, with little time to spend with others. But isolating me from friends and family served his purpose of controlling me and how I lived my life.
- Fear should never be part of a relationship. I was afraid a lot of the time in our relationship—afraid he’d hurt me, afraid to speak up, afraid to call a friend, afraid to say “no” to him for sex. I remembered how I usually drove home from work thinking about the day, but felt my stomach drop as I got closer to home, not knowing what to expect when I opened the door. Looking back, I understand that living in a state of fear was the worst part of being in that relationship, more so than the punches, kicks and slaps. To dread going into your own home is a nightmare.
- Finding someone to talk to is vitally important. Jack’s physical attacks were a shameful secret to me, and I couldn’t bear telling others. At the time of my relationship, there was no such term as “domestic violence,” no such place as a shelter for abused women, and no protective or restraining orders which now give abused women options. I didn’t think anyone could help me; I was stuck. Friends might not have had ways to help me then, but I missed the comfort it would have given me to have someone who listened to me and believed me. When I finally found a therapist to speak to regularly—Jack and I went as a couple, but he stormed out when asked to examine his issues—a world opened up to me where I could find the support and strength to take care of myself.
- You can’t change them. I had trouble accepting that I could not change Jack. It was hard for me to learn that the loving feelings and concerns I had for Jack couldn’t do it. He had grown up with a father who was horribly abusive to him and his mother. The fact that he had lived through that allowed me to make excuses sometimes for what he did to me. Yet when I started talking to my therapist, it became clear that I was the only one who could help myself and he was the only one who could help himself.
Each time I talk about my experience, I am reminded why I’m coming forward as a domestic violence survivor when I see the faces looking at me with rapt attention. I suppose I’m saying things some have never heard. I often think of a pronouncement the best selling memoirist, Mary Karr, once made in a workshop, using her Texas twang: “Memoirs are the only way ya’ git to find out how another person lives.” By sharing my story with others, I hope to help people become more aware of what domestic abuse is like for a victim, but also to help others make better decisions in their relationships, and to give support and inspiration to those living in an abusive situation.