Last night, I had the privilege of counseling a young woman named Jane (not her real name). Without giving too much away, Jane’s fiance had recently been abusive toward her and she was wondering what to do. They’d been together for several years and this was, she said, only the third time something of this magnitude had happened. We talked for a little over an hour and she asked me several times what I would do in her situation.
I told her that only she could make that decision, but we explored her support networks (friends, family, and so on). She said she doesn’t feel comfortable telling them about what’s been going on because she wants her friends to like her fiance and, in her words, she wants everyone to get along. She wants the abuse to end, not the relationship, which is not an uncommon sentiment.
This got me thinking about my own experiences with relationship abuse and, by extension, the cycle of abuse. My fiance and I spent some time discussing the cycle of abuse after my shift had ended; I don’t often identify strongly with my texters, let alone experience such a visceral reaction to their stories, but my conversation with Jane really got to me.
My fella stated he doesn’t quite understand why victims of abuse stay with their abusers, so this morning we had a follow-up conversation about the cycle of abuse (pictured below).
I explained to him, using my own experiences, how someone can end up so thoroughly entangled in the messy web that is an abusive relationship. The concept was so utterly foreign to him that he’d never given much thought to it, and we had a very productive and healing (for me) dialogue about it.
At the Risk! live show in Milwaukee in November 2015, I spoke about my relationship with “Chad,” which was profoundly abusive in every way and lasted from when I was seventeen to age nineteen, when I had a moment of clarity and decided I was too young to live that way anymore.
In the beginning, there’s the “honeymoon” period. The exact length of this period varies from person to person; in my case, things were dysfunctional from the very start, but I also grew up in a fundamentally dysfunctional family and was already carrying around over a decade of trauma from my childhood. To this day, I believe that those early experiences led me into the relationship.
I’m not blaming my family at all–I was loved and cared for, though there were some serious problems (mostly stemming from witnessing my mother’s own abusive relationships and later, her internment in a state correctional facility). However, early relationship modeling is profoundly important when it comes to developing a lovemap (a person’s view of an ideal relationship or partner), and I simply didn’t witness any functional, respectful romantic relationships when I was growing up.
Back to the story. You can listen to my Risk! story here for a more in-depth description of the abuse–obviously, the content may trigger some people, so please listen at your own discretion.
My “honeymoon” period with Chad–that period where the excitement of a new relationship is especially intense–lasted only a few months before the emotional and verbal abuse began. He never trusted me around other men; even being friendly and occasionally chatting with coworkers was a cause for suspicion and accusations of cheating (which I later learned was him projecting his own behavior onto me).
As this was my first “real” relationship where I actually cared deeply for and trusted my partner, his words were incredibly damaging. Deep down, I knew how wrong this was, but my self esteem had already been so low when I entered the relationship that I didn’t think I deserved better. I remember crying a lot in those days. After a while, I just went numb.
I can’t even remember how many times we broke up and got back together over the course of those two hellish years. Every time, I begged for him to come back. He apologized, albeit in the “I’m sorry, but you made me ____” way that is so typical of abusers.
One time, we were having our reconciliation in the basement of my grandmother’s house, where I grew up and lived until age 20. We were sitting on a couch taken from my great aunt’s house when she moved in with us, and I remember him brushing my hair away from my face as I cried and apologized over and over again. I had no idea why I was even saying “I’m sorry.”
He looked into my face and said, “You have the most beautiful eyes. They’re like glaciers, and when you cry, those glaciers melt.” I will never forget those words. I knew how messed up the whole thing was, but all I felt in that moment was relief–relief that he had taken me back, broken as I was, and relief that I had someone who truly cared about me (although I suspect some part of me knew that this was nothing like “love” was supposed to be).
We went back into the honeymoon period, and then the whole mess repeated itself. Over and over and over.
In May of 2008, when I was nineteen, there was a huge thunderstorm. The power went out and I was sitting on the floor of my bedroom, back propped against my bed, looking into a candle. At that moment, for no particular reason, I decided that I didn’t want to live like this.
I went into my aunt’s bedroom, which was across the hall from mine, sat down on her bed, and said, “I don’t think I want to be with Chad anymore.”
She looked up from her book, patted my hand, and said, “That’s okay.”
He was on his way home from his cousin’s graduation when I called him. I broke it off and actually told him verbatim that he’d been abusive to me. He freaked out and accused me of being the abusive one. Other words were exchanged, but the point of the story is that I finally broke it off.
In the weeks and months that followed, he blew up my phone with apologies, claimed that he was going to hurt himself, and eventually threatened suicide a few times. I responded by calling his parents and telling them what was up. He never bothered me again.
But I still feel those effects like an aftershock to this day. They don’t come knocking often, but when they do, I instantly feel like that sad teenage girl who was so lost and frightened and desperate for love that she stayed with a profoundly abusive man for two years. Two years.
I don’t view that period of time as a “waste” or anything similar. I learned a lot about myself and after it ended, I found a level of freedom and, for lack of a better word, lightness that I had never before experienced.
I plunged headlong into a less abusive but highly dysfunctional relationship only a few months later which culminated in a desperately unhappy marriage. My divorce was finalized in October 2015 after nearly two years of emotional estrangement (we were, for all intents and purposes, broken up but were stuck living together for financial reasons).
I still say that the divorce was the best thing that ever happened to me.
I met a great guy, got into my first relationship that was truly loving and respectful, and got into graduate school. I am now a student at Johns Hopkins and am engaged to said fella–we’re going to get hitched next November!
The point is, readers, that it can take a while. As depressing as it sounds, your first abusive relationship may not be your last. The patterns we learn from being abused “stick,” often in insidious ways. It’s not uncommon to be totally unaware of the lasting effects of the abuse. If anyone has a statistic for this, I would love to see it–for some reason, I’m unable to find the actual percentage of abuse survivors who end up with another abuser.
In my case, I thought I was totally fine–a newly single, empowered woman who had survived something terrible. In reality, I had not given myself enough time to process and heal, which led me into another unhealthy relationship because I was afraid of being alone.
LoveIsRespect.org is one of my all-time favorite resources for abusive relationships. The website provides a chat, warning signs that your relationship may be abusive, and a quiz, among other information that can help you (or a loved one) escape an abusive relationship.
Until next time, readers, stay safe and lovely. And most importantly, remember to be kind to yourselves.