It took four times for hands to be clasped around my neck in blind rage before I googled the term domestic abuse.
Four times! And each time I felt like I gifted him the chance to do it again. And after each one, I waited expectantly, not for the groveling apology or the request for forgiveness, which I didn’t get, but the appreciative thank you, which I also never got. Didn’t he realize how lucky he was to have a girlfriend (and then a wife!) who kept his best interests at heart and didn’t call the police or tell anyone what happened? Wasn’t I owed at least a pat on the back for my loyalty?
When I finally broke my silence, first to a domestic violence counselor, then to my mother and a few friends, I was shocked when it was assumed by the non-professionals that he’d hit me. Then I realized that is what we collectively presume when we think of domestic abuse.
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I did too, before he skipped right over pushing and hitting and went right for the jugular. Literally.
It was my best friend who called my bullshit when she asked why I kept calling it “what happened in Vegas” instead of “when he strangled me … again.” She also reminded me that not every time was a drunken stupor, which I kept conveniently forgetting because it made it all easier to swallow.
This opening up and starting to take my power back led me to question everything. Especially my values as a woman. A mother. A strong independent professional.
I talked. I read. I researched. I highlighted the shit out of the book Why Does He Do That: Inside The Mind of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft. I realized that abuse comes in many forms. I wrestled with being a victim versus being a perpetrator. I was not innocent of never acting violently toward a partner. I believed this was my payback. My relationship karma. What I came to understand is that the difference between violent outbursts, anger, and abusiveness is the element of power and control. Neither form of treatment to anyone is okay. Let’s be clear. Both are wrong and both require hard inner work. It’s when it is a pattern for power and a “dismantling of equality” where it becomes a much harder road to walk.
Another thing I learned is that abuse is a choice. It’s not the alcohol’s fault. It’s not the military’s fault. It’s not an absent parent’s fault. It is learned and can manifest into many forms. Substance abuse and hard life experiences can exacerbate it, but they are not the cause. And neither is the victim. The only way to overcome abusiveness is to deal with the choice of abuse.
My marriage broke. My wires changed. My new trauma response took hold when any situation between us escalated even a little, especially when alcohol was involved. On those nights, I slept with sharp things, hid my keys under my pillow, unlocked windows, and texted neighbors or my mom “just to see if they were home and awake.” My body shook uncontrollably and my jaw quivered.
Look, I’ve been in arguments, fights, disagreements, and all out yelling matches with people, replete with thrown phones and broken glass. People I love. And the feelings that came up during and after were always a hot mix of anger, annoyance, guilt, or anxiety. But never fear. Never the cold loneliness of terror. The safety planning aspect was new and wildly uncomfortable.
So why am I here? What a piece of shit my confidence has become. The juxtaposition of guilt and gratitude jacked with my head daily. Guilt for staying, for being weak, for hiding my feelings, for being so inauthentic. Gratitude for a home, an income, a partner who helps with housework and parenting sometimes. A man who acknowledged what he did and started therapy for a little while. But if I’m honest, the damage is done. The fact that moving forward together had to be on his terms alone was just another form of control. He said to keep those feelings inside, tell no one, not to ruin his reputation, and that it wasn’t that big of a deal in the same breath he begged me not to leave. It’s so textbook and yet when someone has moved into your head like that and decimates your resolve, it makes “just leaving” extremely complicated.
I’ve decided that my healing was going to be on my timeline with no one else’s imposed conditions. If you try to play by the abuser’s rules, you only become more afraid, more easily manipulated, and more hollow … exactly where they want you. Then there is but a shell left and so the cycle continues.
So now I know. Here is what I’ve learned.
Reach out immediately if you suspect abuse of any kind.
Arm yourself with information. I googled things like “can someone stop being abusive” and “can we go to therapy together for abuse.” The answers respectively are yes and no. The first takes a significant amount of work, both group and individual. And most marriage counselors will not see a couple when physical abuse is present or in the recent past because it is an abuser problem, not a couple problem. A good counselor will not put any part of the blame on the victim.
Put a safety plan in order ...
… even if you think you’ll never need it.
Remember who you are.
Your strength. Your programming. Your wiring. Nothing you’ve done should be reacted to with violence. You do not deserve it, no matter how much your partner manipulates you into thinking you do. This is not your fault. No matter how hard your partner tries to blame you.
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Don’t do it alone.
What I found when I finally spoke out is that no one abandoned me. No one. They were afraid and honest. And, most importantly, by my side, while I started the grueling process of leaving.
In the aftermath of the last “incident,” when I couldn’t breathe on the dirty floor of a Las Vegas hotel, as he tried to minimize me again and again by reminding me that I’m not dead, I finally took the first step. I’m not dead. I am here. I am strong. And I knew if I stayed, it would happen again. And I’m afraid he did, too.
Editor’s Note: Liz Bailey is a survivor, published author, fierce feminist mama, and co-host of The Pretty Truth podcast. When she isn’t writing, speaking, or doing the mom thing, she can be found working as a pediatric Speech-Language Pathologist. Liz has written for online publications like Scary Mommy, Thrive Global and Imperfectly Perfect Mama. This article originally appeared on scarymommy.com. It is reprinted with permission.
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