October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and I would feel remiss if I didn’t provide my own commentary on it. If you’ve read some of my other blog posts, you might know that I was in an abusive marriage. Aside from the physical violence, I didn’t know why I couldn’t leave him on my own until I began working nights at a Domestic Violence shelter. I was introduced to the Power and Control Wheel before, but it never made sense to me in my case until I was staring that black and white sheet of paper in the face. So it was then I realized that he was abusing me in every possible way and the only relief was that we were without children or property together because we’d only been married 1 1/2 by then.
Here’s a bit of my story: When we were dating, people referred to us as the perfect couple: “Barbie and Ken”. Later, during our engagement, we lived apart while I shared an apartment with my mother and he would come down from where he lived working his dream job nearly three hours away. We rarely fought. When we did, it was out of fear that he wasn’t ready to get married since he had never really been in a serious relationship.
Once we were married, I joined him away from friends and family and he seemed to change instantly. Before the ink was dry on the marriage certificate, the strange behavior began: no sex, no affection at all, no emotion. He was just this blank walking, talking, taunting monster. The physical abuse was close to follow. I was miserable. I felt lower about myself than I had ever felt. Being constantly rejected makes you truly feel low. I learned later that he was using emotional and mental abuse. He liked to call me names and bring up things from my past that had nothing to do with him, but I felt were mistakes. When I got accepted to the Master of Social Work Program, he was surprised that I had gone through with it. He said “Well, I guess we’re putting off having children” (despite the fact that we had never discussed having kids at this point in our marriage and he knew my educational goals came before trying to start a family before he married me). “Good luck,” he snorted with derision, “we can’t afford it because of all of your bills”. He liked to blame me. For anything and everything he could. But then he played the victim. To top it off, my “friends” had disappeared from my life and making new ones was a challenge because I didn’t want anyone to know what was happening.
When I started working at the shelter, it all started making sense. Why couldn’t I just leave? Well, I got my answer and more working there. Now I’m going to share it with you:
The kids: Some men will use the children to control the women that they are with telling them that, if they leave, he will get custody because she can’t support them alone. I did not have to consider this thought, but many women caught in a domestic violence situation have to consider their children first and consider their own health and safety to be second. Any woman stuck in this cycle worries about what her children will see and do because of this.
The honeymooning cycle: And round and round it goes, the build-up, the “explosion” (in whatever form it takes), and the honeymoon phase. In my experience, the honeymoon phase didn’t always come. Sometimes, the violence, the stalking (and, yes, you can be stalked by a spouse), the blaming, the belittling, the name calling…they never stopped. Then, there was a rhythm: 2 weeks of “Capt. Crazy Pants” and 1 week of “Mr. Nicey Pants”. Like clockwork. I never could understand it. During the two weeks, he would text me non-stop, accusing me of sleeping around (little did I know it was because he had my phone bugged and knew each time a new fellow student would text or call me about a project), I would find him randomly waiting for me to leave outside the apartment building, just watching me. The physical violence was intense, but he took a job back in our hometown and I wanted to finish school where I had started so I stayed up north, three hours away, so he had less access to me. I slept with a chair under the door on the couch just in case he decided to come and attack me in the middle of the night.
Some women will stay because that honeymoon phase will increase the chances of forming a trauma bond, which is a bond based on a physical shared trauma (in the simplest terms). This phase also looks much like their relationship did in the beginning, he does all of the sweet affectionate things he did before, buying flowers, apologizing, promising it will never happen again, etc. Knowing that this will come combined with the fact that he’s likely told her some variation on what I was told: “who’s going to ever want to be with you?”
Economic abuse: This one is simple, she fears she cannot survive financially without him. Even without children, she fears she cannot leave because he has lulled her into a false sense of security in thinking that she can rely on him financially. This can happen to even the most independent women because, again, that emotional abuse is so difficult to overcome. When your self-esteem is at it’s lowest, you don’t think that you have the capacity to do anything.
Isolation: My experience was the perfect storm, marriage, honeymoon, complete isolation created the ability for him to change immediately. I was 3 hours away from friends and family and all of my “friends” disappeared immediately. He made sure that I felt completely alone. But you don’t have to live hours or miles away to become isolated from friends and family. He slowly (or quickly) convinces you that he is all you need and that they are toxic in some way so you stop going to functions and gatherings, birthdays and holidays, reunions and parties.
Low self-esteem: This might be the overarching theme as to why she (or he) can’t just leave a toxic, abusive relationship. In this category comes the minimizing, denying, and blaming-in short-making you feel like you’ve lost your mind and question everything that you’ve done. Name calling and put-downs come in this category as well, these are the backbone of causing low self-esteem. No one understands the power of this until they themselves have been victimized. I went from being someone happy in my skin, felt good about myself. Sure, I had some flaws, but, overall, I was happy with myself and my accomplishments. He took it all, and I let him because I didn’t know any better. I felt terrible about myself, he called me “fat”, “lazy”, and told me that “no one else will ever want you”. I was broken down.
Because of this severe emotional abuse, I never left him. I couldn’t. Namely because I believed that when you promised to be with someone forever in front of God, you kept that promise. I was also too low to think that I could go anywhere. He left me. The day after I bought and began using a new cell phone that he didn’t bug, he filed for divorce. And I was crushed. People would say “you should be glad it’s over”, but I wasn’t. It still hurt and I felt abandoned, which left me open to the possibility of quickly jumping into another abusive relationship, thus continuing the cycle. That’s something that people don’t understand about the repetition of the domestic violence cycle. It’s so hard to break the cycle, especially if someone grows up around it.
What Can YOU Do?
- If you are in this situation, familiarize yourself with shelters in the area. You will likely be able to find a domestic violence shelter in a general google search. Beware of the possibility that he/she might have bugged your phone/computer/tablet so research things carefully.
- Gather documents that you might need for yourself and your children and put them in a safe place (SS card, driver’s license, etc) in case you need to leave in a haste.
- Do not hesitate to get a restraining order.
- Come up with a game plan: plan to leave while he’s at work, for instance, and just go. Take what you can fit in a suitcase or a bag, important documents, and just go. Stay focused and stay determined, you will land on your feet. I promise you this. I’ve seen so many success stories. But I’ve also seen horror stories. Just go and don’t look back.
What YOU can do as a supporter:
- Believe her/him. If they reach out to you, you might be the only one person they reach out to so please, listen. You could save a life.
- Help her/him with an escape plan if needed. And be prepared for the fact that she or he might go back to the relationship. It can take more than 7 times of leaving to stay gone. Some leave and never look back and some leave and go back and go back. Do not think “well its their own fault” or wash your hands of this person. Remember to keep healthy boundaries, but not to completely cut that person out of your life. Again, you might be able to save their life.
- Be prepared for a long recovery. The wounds from the abusive relationship can take years to become scars so please be patient.
- It’s OK to call them out if they try to jump into another relationship too soon. But be a cheerleader. “You deserve so much and I’m afraid that you won’t get it now if you’re in such a hard place”, etc.
- Be gentle. Some folks are just naturally animated and loud. Someone just out of a loud and violent relationship will be frightened by this likely.