A Decade Later
It’s October, which means, in addition to the leaves turning and Halloween being right around the corner, it’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month. When I was 24, I finally wrote down and shared my story of what happened when I was 18 and the almost two years that followed.
I have shared that story every year since in October. It has now been 10 years since my 18 year old self stayed in an unhealthy relationship where there was emotional, mental, and on an occasion physical abuse. I have learned SO much.
I wish so badly that I could go back and hug my 18 year old self. I’d tell her it’s going to be okay. I’d tell her the strong woman she will become. I wish I could hug my 20 year old heart broken self and tell her that it REALLY is for the best. I’d tell her that God has plan for good in her life - more than she even knows and better than she could imagine. I’d tell her that she will heal from the experience. She’d mourn the idea of the person she thought she was dating and that someday, she’d find her voice and share. I wish I could tell myself how she would later be there for friends in similar situations. I’d tell myself that years later she’d be talking to a friend about how she use to be smaller, but unhealthy. She would show that friend a picture from when she was 19 and skinny...and her friend would comment that she looked gaunt and almost sick. Because when you hardly eat...that’s what happens. I’d tell my 19 year old self that at 28 she would weigh a few more pounds, but man she would be strong. Mentally and physically. It would take work and time and she would ALWAYS be a work in progress, but that’s the beauty of life.
When I started dating my now husband, we were at his apartment one rainy night talking and listening to the rain, and I very calmly and very factually told him that if he ever hit me I would leave. He responded with something along the lines of “okay...I would hope you would, but that’s not going to happen” in a confused tone. And you know what, it hasn’t happened. We are happily married now, and while neither of us are perfect, we have a healthy relationship. We communicate well, and we apologize when we mess up. We respect the differences we have, and we encourage each other in our chosen pursuits. It took me years to figure out what I will and won’t stand for in a relationship and how to be a better partner and also how to recognize when it just isn’t going to work with that person. And thankfully, once I figured that out, I found the one it did work with.
So why do I keep sharing this every year? Because I have friends who are still dating guys and figuring out what a healthy relationship is and looks like. I have sisters who were too young to remember these events or even know what was happening, but are now almost the age I was when it happened. I share this because I know there are others out there who can’t or aren’t ready to or haven’t been empowered to share their story. I share this because Hollywood doesn’t always give us the best examples of healthy relationships. I share this because people often don't realize that "abuse" or "domestic violence" isn't just about black eyes. I share this because I know that there are a lot of people - myself included - who still have a lot to learn.
I’ve heard comments of how women now will “accuse men of abuse for just looking at them wrong.” And I wince. Because comments like that remind me of all the reasons I didn’t share my story. All the doubts creep back in of why I should have just kept quite. It reminds me that there are people who will read this and think there was nothing wrong with my previous relationship. But it also reminds me that there is a need for education around what exactly a healthy relationship is. Just because he never hit her doesn’t mean he wasn’t manipulative and controlling and abusive in other ways.
I’ve heard comments of not believing women who are sexually assaulted and how women are always making false accusations and you shouldn’t believe them. While my story doesn’t involve sexual assault, I think the way our society looks at sexual assault and domestic violence are very similar. We don’t like to believe the victims. We like to keep them quiet.
So yeah, this isn’t a story about a woman who was physically beaten over and over again. But it’s a story about the various forms of power and control that are used in an unhealthy and abusive relationship. It was YEARS before I understood that.
So, as originally published in 2016 on Eight Flights of Stairs, here is “Why I Stayed”
"Why did she stay?" It's an easy question to ask and one asked all too frequently when we find out a woman has been abused in some way by her significant other. Goodness knows I've been guilty of asking it myself.
But I'm here to shed some light on why I stayed in hopes that it will shed some light on why others stayed and maybe help you to think twice before asking the same question. I've started to write this post many times, but each time I tuck it back away in the dark. But finally, I realized that is exactly what gives power to these situations. Silence. Darkness. And frankly, I'm done with both of those. I know what people will say: she's not over him, she's exaggerating, she's being selfish, she’s making a big deal out of nothing...but I'm not writing this for those people. Before I continue I'd like to explain that I am now in a relationship with a wonderful guy. Perfect? Nope. Wonderful? Yes. I’m happily pursuing a career working with amazing people in a job that I love (even on the difficult days). Life, has turned out very differently than I imagined it, but I wouldn’t have wanted it to go any other way. I spent years being guarded and jaded and bitter. I spent years wanting Mr. Right Now and not caring about Mr. Right. I wanted to love ‘em and leave ‘em before they could do the same to me. It's been six years since the events I’m about to write about all started and in those years I've come to terms with everything that has occurred. I’ve digested in my own mind why I acted towards guys in the way that I did, and why I felt the way I did. I've accepted and become stronger for these things, and I hope that in reading this, you will too.
Growing up, I had always been told "if a guy hits you, leave him because he'll do it again." I was 18. I was about to start my freshman year of college and was SO excited. My boyfriend and I would be at the same college after spending 8 months being in towns about 20 minutes apart. I was "smart" - like book and scholarship smart. The kind of smart that follows advice I’ve been given. He seemed to be everything I could have wanted in a guy: caring, doting, older, and saying all the right things. What more could a girl ask for from life at 18? I was days from moving into my dorm. My soon to be roommate texted me about getting an offer for a much sought after parking pass to a lot close to our dorm.. I quickly checked my email to see if I had the same offer. My boyfriend had told me I wouldn't get it - I was only a freshman, and even though I was in an all freshman dorm, he didn't get one during his freshman year, so why would I? I got one. I read the email then looked at him and jokingly let out a "HA!" Before I could throw in a sassy hair flip in (all in good humor of course) his hand had made a fist and found its way to me. Stunned I grabbed my stuff and ran to my car. I had to get out. I had to leave his apartment. I cried the whole way home.
I continued dating him for almost 2 years.
Why didn't I leave? Or, as society prefers to ask, why did I stay?
"It was only once."
It only happened one time the 2 1/2 years we dated. I didn't think one punch was with leaving him. How do I explain that? Can you see me trying to explain that to EVERYONE who knew us for six months or more afterwards? "Yeah we broke up." "Oh no what happened?!" "He punched me one time." That to me seemed like a cop out, a stupid reason to leave. What I didn’t know is that abusive relationships thrive on a cycle of power and control, and that physical violence is only one of the ways that is accomplished. So yes, he only hit me once, but that doesn’t mean that they cycle of power and control wasn’t in play.
I didn't want to tell my parents.
I was 18. They still paid for my car insurance and health insurance and sometimes helped me with gas. The last thing I wanted to do was send them into a tizzy. I didn't want to cause any uproar or rock the boat (which I'm probably doing with this post). I just wanted to pretend it didn't happen and go on. To make it worse, the next day my boyfriend went to my mom and told her some other reason for our fight (she knew I'd been crying when I got home), so it seemed like the story had already been written. How could I go back on that? How do you even tell your parents something like that? I was afraid of their reaction to it. I was afraid they would over react. To clarify, I wasn’t worried they would be mad at me, but I was worried about their reaction towards him. If I was going to leave, I wanted it to end quietly and be done, and I knew that if I left him at that time, that wouldn’t happen.
I felt guilty.
I have friends who have been beaten, like actually beaten by their boyfriends. Repeatedly. I have friends who have been pushed into walls and thrown through doors by the men who told them they loved them. Me? I just got punched. That's like nothing compared to what they went through. Who was I to whine about one punch? My situation wasn’t as bad as theirs so why should I make a bigger deal out of it?
I was scared.
Hello! I was an 18 year old about to start college. I was so scared to go through that alone that the thought of staying with someone who was willing to raise a hand to me sounded easier than facing college alone. I was insecure, and those were my own issue, but they didn’t help. To hide this insecurity, I was incredibly prideful, and there was no way my fear hidden by pride would let me leave. While I have now been diagnosed with anxiety and know that probably had something to do with it, I didn't know at the time. I sincerely didn’t think I could face college alone.
So yes, I stayed. No. He never hit me again, but the manipulation and emotional punches I took over the years left me with scars deeper than the surface. It was as though he could always spin things so that he was the victim. Always. I was always the crazy, needy, demanding one. I was the one who did wrong. I was the selfish one. I didn’t realize that I was slowly being more and more isolated from my family, potential friends I could have been making at college, and friends I had. It was as though he wanted to keep me at an arm’s length from the world. Always fanning the flames of my own insecurity. Getting mad if I didn’t tell him where I was all the time. Showing up at places I had said I was to make sure I was actually there...like when I would study with classmates (which in finance, my major, was mostly guys) While the facts I later found out about him explained a lot, they didn't give me back the 22 months I spent with him after he punched me. In the time I stayed with him, I became more and more isolated from everyone else and more and more dependent on having him in my life - even when our relationship was toxic. So much so that when we broke up, I didn’t feel like I had anyone I could go to.
That’s how power and control works. The world manipulated around the victim through physical and emotional abuse becomes so twisted and confusing that it can be hard to know which way is up; it can be hard to see what’s right in front of you when you’re so wrapped up in it. Thankfully, I found the sorority I joined right as this breakup was happening and the timing was so perfect it had to have been divine. He had convinced me I wasn’t good enough for anyone else. I needed to go to the gym more. I needed to be less whiney. I was so stuck in the world he’d manipulated around me that I didn’t know what was normal and what wasn’t. This sorority I joined helped open my eyes to what my relationship was. They became the ones I could go to. They were the ones who helped dispel all the lies he had built up around me. The only thing better than being surrounded by a community of love, support, sisterhood, and hope when you are at what feels like your lowest of lows is being surrounded by this community who has chosen Domestic Violence Awareness as their philanthropic platform.
Relationship abuse/domestic violence comes in forms other than physical. While he did only hit me once, I was in what would be classified as an emotionally abusive relationship. I didn't fully understand what I'd been through until it was over. The more I learned what a healthy relationship looked like the more I realized how unhealthy my relationship was. The more I learned the more I understood that the power dynamic that comes into play in abusive relationships is not black and white. It’s my hope that by telling this, someone else will be able to see the situation she's in (because I didn't even know what I was in) and is brave enough to seek help.
I'm now at a point in my life where I can be thankful for what happened only because of where it has led me. I can be thankful that he never physically hurt me beyond that one night and that I finally feel like I'm in a better place emotionally. I’m thankful because it’s made me a better friend to other women in my life. I’ve been the one my friends feel like they can come to when they are in similar or worse situations. I see red flags in relationships, and I’m not afraid to be the voice calling what I see. I'm a stronger woman because of this, and, yes, I'm channeling a lot of that strength to write and publish this post. I know what I- and my fellow women of the world - do and don’t deserve in a relationship.
So, to answer your question, “she” probably stayed for a complicated mix of reasons. She probably stayed not because it was easy but because she thought it was best for everything at that moment in life. Because there was no exit. Because she didn’t even know she was trapped. Because she thought it was her fault. Because the thought of facing shame and judgment from the world is more painful than the punches. And you know what, why she stayed is none of our business. Our business is not why she stayed, but helping her leave. Supporting her as she leaves.
-The Twenty Something
1-800-799-7233 The National Domestic Violence Hotline // www.nomore.org