The Pathway to Abuse: A Personal Analysis
When people find out that I lived in an abusive relationship for 8 years they are often shocked. I am educated, I have a good career, I have a nice family, and grew up with an upper middle class income. How could such a person fall into such a devastating lifestyle? Why couldn’t I see what was happening to me and just leave? I never know how to answer that question because there isn’t an easy (or logical) explanation. It is hard to describe to someone who has never been in that situation the feelings of fear, guilt, and doubt that keep you locked in place. It has only been recently that I have been able to look back and make sense of the state that I was in and what was going through my mind. Years later it is coming back piece by piece. I blog as a way of capturing it, in the best way I know how.
The control in the relationship begins very early on. You will often hear people say that it was a “whirlwind romance” and that “things got serious quickly”. This was the case in my situation. He was sweet, he was charming, he did things to sweep my off my feet. Roses and date nights, trips to the city and lots of cuddling. After a month he was ready to get married and I was so smitten that I said yes. Now…why on earth would someone agree to such a big, risky change? In my world, it seemed like the best option. I lived in a small town. I had no money. I had no idea where to go to college or even how to start the process. I was a lost soul looking for what I thought was supposed to be the next stage of my life. In urban areas people think differently…they have easy access to college and can attend while staying home. They have a plethora of jobs to choose from so career pathing is easier. In rural areas it is not uncommon for people to have children and get married right out of high school. Today’s world requires two people to have an income to be able to afford the basics of living. Sometimes what starts as love evolves into dependency…a deep desire to survive and have nice things, especially if you have children. It is not uncommon for people to sacrifice who they are and what makes them happy in order to provide for their family.
I also believe that society and the media played a part in molding my young brain to believe that love and relationships played out in real life just like they do in the movies. I was a big fan of romantic comedies and the theme of these movies were often “white knight saves girl and they live happily ever after”. Each movie begins with a backstory of a girl who is living life on her own, sad and lonely. Maybe she’s a nerdy, unpopular teenager, maybe she’s dying of cancer, or maybe she’s a Type-A personality wedding planner. Then one day girl meets boy and her world is turned upside down. He sweeps her off her feet with his love and affection. He tells her she’s pretty and she’s special and no one else has said these things to her before. They face a challenge that threatens to pull their relationship apart. But they realize that they love each other and end up together, promising to live happily ever after. And because it’s a movie on a limited timeframe, all of these things happen in a relatively short time. Even though it is fiction, I had seen it so many times. Even in Disney movies, people marry young…I mean, Ariel married at 16. Anyone else think that’s weird? At the time I was growing up no one talked about the process of dating and marriage and so these fictional examples, coupled with real life examples, were what I used to understand relationships and how they should be. So when I found one that was like that I was thrilled to have hit the jackpot. And that is exactly the mindset that my abuser (and all abusers) used to trap me.
My family did not approve of the relationship. They could see the tendency for violence and control while all I could see was his love and affection. Any disputes that arose were quickly spun as my family trying to control me and that I needed to get away from their control. The constant tug of war between him and them became too much to bare. The emotional abuse and the verbal threats of abandonment or punishment if I did not comply with his wishes had begun. At this point he had not hurt me physically. I was too embarrassed to tell my parents that they were right all along. I was also scared of what would happen to me if I did tell them. He made it seems as if he could ruin my life. The fact that his mother was a lawyer somehow made me believe that he was capable of doing that. I had no education or awareness of what an abusive relationship looked like. In school we had talked about peer pressure, drugs, drinking and driving and the dangers of unprotected sex…but in my entire school career there was not a single time that we were taught about abusive relationships. I firmly believe that this type of education and awareness is needed to prevent other girls from going through what I went through.
So there I was, married to this man with children on the way. The love and affection quickly gave way to anger and resentment. I could not have dinner with my family alone without him calling me every few minutes. Sometimes he would invent a situation that required my attention or that I leave the restaurant and go to him. At first we just argued after these incidents. He would go off in a jealous rage, accusing me of “cheating” on him and that my family was “assisting the cheating relationship”. These accusations were outlandish and irrational but at the time all I wanted was to make peace and to move on. I believe that is another characteristic that abusers look for when they are vetting out their victims. They look for someone who is compliant, a peacemaker; someone who will not push back and will do everything in their power to right the situation. This aids in the control but it also means that the abuser can explode at any given time and count on having someone else deescalate them. Many years later I would work in group homes for troubled youth. All new clients would start their treatment with frequent explosions and physical restraints. The physical restraint was a way of getting attention, of talking to someone, of getting someone else to calm them down so they didn’t have to. It took years for me to make the connection between his behavior and that of the violent youth.
The control began to spill over into my job. My abuser had a poor job history and relied on me to work and pay the bills. His personality problems kept him from keeping jobs for long. He would stay an average of 2-3 months before he either convinced himself that he could make more money “starting his own business” or he would be fired for conduct (and it usually involved sexually harassing another female). I went to work and I earned the paycheck but we had a joint bank account and he spent the money, often before bills were paid. I didn’t realize it at the time but I had checked off another symptom of abuse: control over the finances. Years later I would be told by a Guardian Ad Litem that typically “the woman stays home while the man works so he can control the finances”. Somehow she had been programmed to see her victims in a certain light, thereby allowing her to miss other victims that didn’t fit her “profile”. I don’t know that this was intentional; I think it was a result of a lack of education in the legal system. A decade later education about domestic violence has grown, thanks to social media, and some information is readily available. However, one has to know to look for that information before they can understand it. Lawyers and judges don’t spend time looking for that information.
8 months had passed before the physical violence began. I was being harassed by a female supervisor at work. I had tried ignoring it so I could keep my job and pay my bills. But he didn’t want that. He wanted a fight. He wanted to sue my job for discrimination (I was pregnant and she harassed me about it) and win. I knew such a thing wouldn’t be possible because I didn’t have enough evidence. But his personality disorder told him otherwise. One day I came home. He asked me if I had given the notice with my intent to file a lawsuit to HR. I said no. He back handed me in the mouth. I put my hands up in defense (which I later learned would send him into a rage every time). He grabbed four of my fingers and jerked them sharply to the left. I heard the popping and snapping. I cried out in pain. There I was, 8 months pregnant with broken fingers. “I slipped in the bathtub and twisted my hand when I caught myself”. It would be the first of many lies I would tell to cover up his abuse.
As time went on I would begin to hear stories about the other victims my abuser had attacked. Many of the stories came from him but were told from his perspective – and HE was always the victim. The stories spanned almost the entirety of his young adult life. It seemed that everyone in his life had wronged him. He had been sexually abused by his uncle but continued to have to be around him. He was beaten by his mother. His mother and father duked it out for years until their children were near adults and threatened to tell on them. Every one of his girlfriends had cheated. Every friend had betrayed him. The list was endless and the stories would be recounted over and over again, changing as the years went on and his memory (and personality disorder) challenged his ability to recollect. At the time I had felt sorry for him. I was in entry level psyche classes and had learned that abuse early in childhood can have long lasting effects on an individual. I was angry at those who had wronged him as they turned him into a monster. I thought that if I made up for all the bad that had happened to him then he could see the good in people. Maybe if he saw the good then he would change and leave his anger behind. I thought I would be enough to make the abuse stop.
Trying to “be enough” consumed my life. I began to analyze every little detail of every minute of my day. I constantly monitored his facial expressions. I watched, often with a sick feeling, anticipating the moment when the darkness would cross his face and he would start rolling his eyes back and blinking; almost like he had a physical tic. I began analyzing situations and avoiding things that I knew would set him off. This meant leaving behind my family and my friends. This meant coming home at exactly the same time each night. If I were a minute or two off I began to frantically formulate a story to explain the difference in time. I couldn’t just “be caught up at work”. No. To him that meant, “I’m having an affair at work”. It would often result in arguments that lasted through the night. I would be kept awake for hours, regardless of the fact that I had to get up and go to work the next morning. It was a way of punishing me for breaking his rules and his “trust”. It ensured that I would do everything to avoid having this happen again. He also began showing up to my work. This would happen at every job I had throughout the years. My peers were uncomfortable around him. They would later tell me he gave them a “creepy vibe” but they didn’t want to say anything to my face. There were times when he would call my boss and threaten to kick his ass if he didn’t do what he told him to do (can you imagine?). I once took a night shift so that I could work at night and watch the children during the day while he attended school. He would ensure that I stayed awake during the day. I remember one week in which I only got 7 hours of sleep total. I began having strange neurological events. I would fall asleep in the middle of a sentence without realizing that it was happening. I would fall asleep driving home. It’s a miracle that I didn’t crash and kill myself or someone else. I ended up losing that job. It wasn’t the first job he got me fired from. My attendance was always poor. He would start arguments in the morning so I would run late. He would beat me and I’d have to call out of work to hide the bruises. I was so stressed and sleep deprived that my immune system was poor. I caught every virus I was exposed to. I also began to develop what was later diagnosed as “trauma induced fibromyalgia”.
One of the themes of our relationship was his paranoia and accusations of cheating. It was a difficult topic for me to argue about because he would accuse me of things when I had no proof to show him otherwise (like what I was actually doing at work). He often told me he had police officer friends of his following me around, reporting my behavior to him. He would say he had video and pictures of me with another man. I knew these things were not true and I began to grow tired of what I now knew to be illogical and erratic ramblings of an unstable man. The truth was that he was with other women. He would tell me about “studying in this girl’s apartment” and “going to class with this other girl”. I never said much but I knew what was going on. He was tired of me and was shopping for a new victim. He looked for women like me: small, sweet, quiet, loving. He wanted women who had been through a difficult situation so he could ride in on his horse and be their white night. He missed the thrill of trapping the beautiful butterfly. But he wouldn’t leave. He couldn’t leave. He was broke and unable to care for himself. I was also trapped. I had no money, I had no family, no friends. I had two children and his mother was an attorney. He made sure that I knew that if I ever left I would never see my children again. And he did follow through on that threat when I left. I’ll recount that in another post.
This is just the beginning of an analysis of what led to my abusive relationship and how I justified it in my mind. This is only the tip of the iceberg. If you or someone you know can relate to anything in this post, please seek help immediately as there is a high probability of an abusive relationship.