Why you should care
There is a fallacy in the saying “Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you.” Here’s my story about a verbally abusive relationship.
Last week, if you had told me a hashtag would compel me to share a deeply private and painful story on the Internet, I would have laughed at you. #YesAllWomen took me by surprise.
I processed the effect #YesAllWomen had on me in stages. I read about the Santa Barbara campus murders and the misogyny underlying the killer’s motives. I heard about the hashtag and read numerous articles about it, realizing that misogyny had been rendered almost invisible because it was so deeply ingrained in my daily life.
Once we accept such behavior as normal, we allow it to go unchecked. I wanted to add my voice to the conversation, but I didn’t know if I had anything original enough to say.
This is why it was so easy to pretend it didn’t exist.
Then I read Rachel Sklar’s poignant and brave piece about her own abusive relationship. As I read Sklar’s account about gradually finding herself in an abusive relationship despite being a strong and intelligent woman, and the shame and secrecy that clings to keeping that internalized, the familiarity moved me to speak.
I, too, was once in a relationship with a man who verbally abused me. It has taken every ounce of willpower I have not to add the word “I think” to that last sentence. And therein lies the problem. Unlike Sklar’s ex, mine never hit me or threatened physical force. The most he ever did was slam a door in my face, grazing my nose. I don’t have any physical evidence of the abuse, nor did I ever. This is why it was so easy to pretend it didn’t exist.
If my ex read this, I think he would be shocked if he realized I was talking about him. He wasn’t someone who screams misogynist. In fact, he considers himself a feminist, the kind of person to march for women’s rights. When contemplating whether to write my story, I worried about his feelings if he were to read this. I mentioned my idea to write about our relationship to a few friends, and the first question from almost all of them was: Would I name him? Another red flag ingrained in our society — worrying about the abuser. The truth is, it is not about him. It’s my story to tell.
I’ve often been referred to as “feisty,” and I am not one to shy away from heated debates. My relationship with my ex was full of this tension and energy, and at first, it was healthy. But at some point, I don’t know when, something shifted. Well, after our break up, a friend of mine told me that, in the beginning, it was interesting to be around our passionate arguments. “But then, you just stopped fighting back.” My ex’s condescension toward me increased, and as we made different decisions in our social lives, I was constantly aware of how critical he was of my choices. The occasional cursing in arguments eventually became so frequent that being called a “stupid bitch” was the norm.
I looked up an old poem I wrote while we were together. “you’re breaking me,” it reads. “chipping away at me slowly / as if i am your ice scultpure / to be changed and molded / into someone more perfect / for you.” The entire poem is written with the “I” lowercased, and ends: “my insides scream so loud / i don’t understand how anyone can sleep through the noise.”
Eventually, we broke up. I wish I could say it was because I had had enough, because I stood up for myself. In fact, he broke up with me. We had been growing apart for some time, as people tend to do, and we were both to blame for a lot of it. I was deeply depressed and he told me depression was a choice, and he couldn’t be with someone who chose to be sad.
Verbally and emotionally abusive relationships make a person question whether they are imagining the abuse.
We stayed in touch. Distance, as it usually does, gave me perspective. I had moments of realization, like when I teased a friend at dinner, then cringed as we were walking home because I was waiting to be told all of the things I had done wrong while out in public.
Then there was the final time I saw him, months after we broke up. He drove us drunk down the wrong side of the road, refusing to let me take the wheel and calling me a hypocritical bitch for visiting him without the intention of hooking up. “Do you want to know the last time someone called me a bitch?” I shouted back. (Apparently, even back then, I had a journalistic instinct for accuracy, so I added, “At least to my face?”) The last time had been when I’d last seen him.
In the many years since then, I have moved on, and so has he. We left things on decent terms, and although it may sound difficult to believe, the emotional abuse did not define that relationship. I am happy now, and when I read my old poem, I barely recognize that person anymore. But here’s the worst part, the darkest part, the part that I have never shared with anyone: At the lowest point of our relationship, when he was screaming at me and telling me everything that he thought was wrong with me, I wished he would just hit me.
I know that sentence is an ugly and fucked up one to read. Trust me, it’s even uglier and more fucked up to feel. Time and space have given me the clarity to realize I was incredibly lucky to have never been physically attacked. I know there are so many women who have had so much worse happen to them, and many women who never escaped their abusive relationships that resulted in tragedy. At the time, I thought that if he would just hit me, that’s where I would draw the line and leave him — but how am I to know that is how I would have reacted?
On average, a woman will leave an abusive relationship seven times before she leaves for good.
The pain of verbally and emotionally abusive relationships is that it makes a person question whether they are imagining the abuse. Him hitting me wouldn’t have solved anything, it would have made things worse. At the time though, I thought that maybe if I had a physical mark I could point to, it would show him, show my friends, and most crucially, show me, that I was not inventing the abuse. That I was not exaggerating, overreacting and being a stereotypical, sensitive girl. The non-physical wounds make things all the more confusing when you look at your significant other and he’s making cookies with your little sister, his kindness putting concealer on your bruised insides, so you can’t see the wounds when you look at yourself in the mirror.
The few times I’ve mentioned my abusive relationship to others, I find that they become quickly dismissive of it when they realize he never physically attacked me. I can almost see the internal eyerolls. Rachel Sklar, Amanda Hess and the thousands of ladies of #YesAllWomen have formed a platform, inviting others to speak about all of the varied forms of abuse. Whether your story is original is not the point. Our stories are sadly all too similar. I stand with them in support, and hope my story allows others to do the same, until people can’t sleep because they hear the tremendous and powerful noise.