The first time that my ex-boyfriend hit me, he caught me trying to unlock his phone. I had a nagging suspicion that he had been cheating, and one night after we spent a night out with friends, I decided to do some snooping. We had been drinking, so he quickly fell asleep, and I tiptoed out of our room determined to find some answers. Unfortunately, he woke up before I could do that, and it was all a blur from there. I found myself on the floor in the fetal position with him repeatedly kicking me in the stomach, and I was in such shock that I couldn’t react—I didn’t even fight back. My friend was spending the night, and she tried to stop him, and he hit her as well. We eventually were able to run out of the apartment and call the police, and they came and took him away. That night I went through his closet and found out exactly how much he had been cheating on me, as most of his extracurricular activities were taped on his video camera.
I left that night, with all my belongings in trash bags, and spent the night at my friend’s house. The next morning, I woke up in her bed with dried blood in my hair from where I hit my head when he threw me against a wall, and with all the images from the night before coming back in flashbacks. I felt nauseated, empty, broken. However, within a few days, I moved back into our apartment, he was out of jail, and I refused to press charges because he convinced me that we belonged together. We were closer than ever; it was us against the world. I told myself it would never happen again, that he only hurt me because he had been drinking and that it was a one-time incident. I overlooked the cheating because he assured me that I was the only one he loved, and I believed him.
Years passed—the good times we spent together were amazing; the bad were traumatic. The physical abuse wasn’t constant, so I deluded myself into thinking that it was over. The verbal abuse remained, through which he convinced me that this was as good as it was going to get for me, that no one could love me as much as he did, and most of all that I was just as crazy as he was—that we belonged together, and no one could understand our love. The last time that he hurt me, I spent two days not being able to hear out of my left ear from the impact of his hand against my jaw; I had bruises on my face and a busted lip, and I had finally had enough. Something inside me just clicked—I realized that he could actually kill me. Leaving that relationship was one of the hardest things that I had to do in my life, and yet when I look back now, I cannot believe that I stayed as long as I did—almost seven years, although the abuse only took place in the last three.
There are many reasons that women stay in abusive relationships. While some of these reasons are external, most are psychological. External factors include financial stability, not having anywhere to go, wanting to stay together for the kids, or societal or cultural ideologies shaming women who leave their partners. Internal factors are a little more complex, and, in my opinion, harder to get over. Many abusers are aware of these psychological factors, and use them to their advantage to keep their partners from leaving. A very interesting recent study analyzed the reasons that women stay or leave abusive relationships, as posted by countless women on Twitter with the hashtag: #whyIstayed and #whyIleft. This was precipitated by the recent incident in which NFL running back Ray Rice punched his fiancé rendering her unconscious, and was caught on camera dragging her limp body out of the elevator. They got married shortly after that. The study, named “Why I Stayed/Left: An Analysis of Voices of Intimate Partner Violence on Social Media” lists the most common reasons that women gave for staying with or leaving their abusive partners. Here are the most important ones that kept me from leaving mine:
- SELF-DECEPTION is a big one. Most women, as was I, are in denial that abuse is happening and try to either minimize or rationalize their partner’s behavior. They make excuses for him, such as, “he was drinking, he would never have done this sober,” or, “he is going through a really rough time, and did not mean to take it out on me.” They want more than anything to believe these excuses, and that the abuse will never happen again. Their partners know this and encourage these excuses.
- SELF-PERCEPTION gets more and more skewed as women stay in abusive relationships. Whether the abuse is physical or verbal, women develop the mindset that they do not deserve any better. This stems from continuous reaffirmations from their partners that they would not make it in the world if they were to leave the relationship. I was constantly told that I could never find someone who would put up with me, or who would love me as much as he did. The longer the relationship, the deeper this mindset is engraved in the abused woman’s brain, and many simply give in and stay, doing all they can to please their partner and avoid the abuse.
- FEAR may cripple an abused woman and prevent her from getting help. Most abusers, when feeling like they are losing control, resort to threatening their partner. Threats come in different flavors, such as threatening to hurt or kill her, her children, other family members or friends, pets, or even himself. My parents got a drunken phone call one night during which he rambled about how worthless I was, and that he was going to kill me; this was the first time they realized what I was going through because I had been too ashamed to tell them. I had also distanced myself from them because I knew that they disapproved of our relationship, which happens frequently to women in abusive relationships.
- GUILT is also a factor that keeps women in abusive relationships. My ex always told me that no one could understand him like I could, that he had no one else. I knew that he had been a victim of abuse as a child, and I knew that his alcoholism stemmed from it. I felt that it was my duty to be there for him, and to help him work through his demons and his pain—after all, he had no one else.
Leaving an abusive relationship is a process. Mine was, admittedly, a simpler situation in the sense that we did not have any children, and I had a good support system. My parents and I mended our relationship when I told them that I was ready to leave him, and they helped me get my own apartment and start a new life. My friends were there for me when I needed a shoulder to cry on, or when I was lonely and depressed. I was lucky to be able to get out of my relationship unscathed. Several things had to happen in order for me to finally make the decision to leave; mostly, I had to accept certain facts and reach a new level of understanding of my situation. I finally understood and accepted the following:
- He was not going to change.
- The abuse was real, would continue, and would only get worse.
- He could actually kill me, and I was in real danger.
- He was an adult and did not need me to take care of him.
- I deserved and could do better.
- I could live without him.
- This was not what love or a healthy relationship was supposed to be.
Having accepted these facts, I could see more clearly—I was ready to leave and start the healing process. For women dealing with the external factors that I mentioned above, leaving may be harder but is not impossible. It is crucial to understand that. Once a person sets their mind to do something and truly believes that this is necessary, other factors can be worked out. It is important to know that you are not alone; one in three women will experience some sort of domestic violence in their lifetime (Garcia-Monroe et al. 2006). The first step is to tell someone, tell anyone who will listen—people will help, or direct you to someone who can.
It took me several years until I was ready for my next serious relationship, and I missed my ex terribly at first. However, as cliché as it sounds, time does heal all wounds. I did not know what my next relationship would be like, but I did know what it wouldn’t be like. I knew that I would never let another man treat me the way that he did, hurt me physically and emotionally, and make me feel like I was absolutely worthless. I have a scar on my left shoulder that will never let me forget what I went through, the tattoo of his name on my hip is still visible to me even through the cover up, and the flashbacks still come back every once in a while. However, the pain associated with these things have dulled over the years, and they no longer haunt me. I am so much happier than I could ever have pictured myself being back when I was in my abusive relationship and could see no light at the end of the tunnel. I have a job that I am good at, and that I enjoy, I am almost finished with my graduate degree, my relationship with my family is closer than it has ever been, and I have amazing friends, old and new, who brighten up my days. Most importantly, I wake up every day knowing that I create my own destiny and that I can achieve the things that I set out to achieve. I will never let anyone, no matter how important that person may seem to me, make me feel like I do not deserve to be happy, successful, and confident in my own abilities; and I wish I could relay this feeling to the countless women who are now in the same situation that I was in just a few years ago and tell them that the path to a new life begins with just a few moments of clarity and adjustments to our belief system.
Cravens, J., Whiting, J., Aamar, R. (2015). Why I stayed/left: an analysis of voices of intimate partner violence on social media. Springer Link. doi:10.1007/s10591-015-9360-8
Garcia-Monroe, C., Jansen, H., Ellsberg, M., Heise, L., & Watts, C. H. (2006). Prevalence of intimate partner violence: Findings from the WHO multi-country study on women’s health and domestic violence. The Lancet, 368, 1260–1269. doi:10.1016/ s0140-6736(06)69523-8.