What if you saw a couple sitting at the back of a diner in a booth, his arm around her- she's smiling and he's laughing- would you think they had a good relationship? Probably... and I would too.
But what if you didn't see them when they got alone and he cussed her out? What if he had to give her permission every time she wanted to go somewhere? What if he accused her of being a liar or told her she was worthless? What if he manipulated her to think her world revolved around him?
How often do we hear about- or know about- a person that gets involved with a significant other that threatens them, manipulates them, controls them… anything they can do behind closed doors that won’t leave physical evidence?
It’s not very often, right? But when we do hear about these kinds of relationships, we know it’s logical to simply get out of the relationship- how hard could that actually be? You just get up, and leave.
But when they stay, we don’t understand.
I can tell you why… because I was one of those people that was in a relationship with an abuser, and stayed.
And even though you can’t understand, you can’t blame us for staying because you don’t know the whole story. It’s confusing. It’s exhausting. Frankly- it’s messy and not as simple or easy to “just get up, and leave.”
I would like to say I wasn’t blind to the fact I was in an emotionally abusive relationship… but I was... most of us are.
Because it usually starts out normal... at least it did for me- maybe even better than normal. There were butterflies, he sent the kind of texts that make you look down at your phone and smile, his hugs were comforting and when his hand held mine, I felt safe. We would talk on the phone late into the night about anything and everything. It was easy to believe he loved me, it was easy to see he wanted me; he even started planning a future for us.
There were really good times.
But then he changed so fast (or maybe so slowly that I didn’t realize it until one day), that there was no time to comprehend what had happened or how it got to this point.
The butterflies of excitement turned to anxiousness. I would look down at my phone and freeze because he was upset with me over something I didn’t even realize I did. The hugs turned into my arms crossed over my chest as he yelled at me, and he would kiss me as an apology. The phone calls were used simply to find out where I was and what I was doing, or to cuss me out. He became a stranger that made me feel belittled and emotionally taken advantage of.
It became a mind game. I knew that he was hurting me, I knew that our relationship didn’t look like other people’s relationships… but I thought maybe he was just going through something I couldn’t understand. Maybe we had hit a rough patch in our relationship. The word abusive never crossed my mind because there were no marks. There was no physical evidence he was abusive, so I didn’t think that it would be considered abuse.
Usually outsiders (friends and family) will notice that the relationship is unhealthy. Whether it's because they see it first hand, or they can tell that something isn't right from when the person tells them about the relationship they're in, it can be easy to see from an outside perspective that the relationship is toxic. But for the one who is in the relationship, it can be really hard to see what is actually going on.
Even when my friends told me things weren't okay, I attempted to justify every action he did and every word he said. I stuck up for him. Because he was a good guy, and I wanted to give him the benefit of doubt.
So when he would cuss me out, I would shake it off and tell myself that he didn’t mean it.
When he would tell me what I could and couldn’t do or create double-standards, I would say that he just wanted what was best for me.
When he didn’t respect me, I justified it and let it go.
When he would grab my arm just to turn me around so he could continue to yell at me, I would agree with him that I should’ve listened in the first place.
When he would always need to know where I was and who I was with and what I was doing, I thought it was simply because he cared.
Finally, when he had to have a say in every decision I made, I thought it was because we were building a life together.
Like me, most of those who are in an emotionally abusive relationship begin to confuse intensity with intimacy, obsession with care, and control with security.
So when things didn’t go back to how they were in the beginning, instead of thinking that this was abnormal, I began to think that maybe this is what love and relationships were supposed to be, I thought this was our normal... because our hearts tend to get confused when it’s constantly told “I love you” by the same person who destroys it.
After an argument he would apologize over and over again until I’d forgive him. After he would yell at me he would take my hand and kiss it, knowing it would make the past hour disappear. He would cry to me saying I didn’t deserve this and that I should leave him, knowing that because of my empathy, I wouldn't actually leave. He would promise that things would get better, that he was going to work on it. So I’d believe him and give him a second (and third, and fourth) chance because he sounded sincere...
It became somewhat of a routine that I knew, and routines are safe. He would get mad, we would fight, he would yell, I’d shut down, he’d apologize, I’d forgive him… and it would start all over again.
But at the end of the day, he was sorry and say he loved me, and there would be a glimpse of the guy I fell in love with- I knew he was still in there. It was just enough to give me hope that this time he would keep his promise, and that things would really change.
And he would change, for a little bit… because abusers don’t abuse every day. They have good moments, days where they do the right things, say the correct words. But it doesn’t change the fact of who they actually are: an abuser.
So the good days reminded me of who he actually was, of what we really had, and even though I had come to accept our new normal, I so badly wanted him to be the guy he promised he was. I wanted him to love me the way he did in the beginning. I got caught up in trying to make things better that I couldn’t see this wasn’t love anymore, and it never was.
“And that’s why we stay longer than we should… because it hurts to watch something you love transform into something you should hate. We sit and wait for it to return to its original state, in denial as we ignore the fact that what we see was always there and what it is now, will always be” (R.H. Sin).
But you finally hit a point that you just can’t wait any longer, and I finally got angry. Angry for every time he lied and let me down. Angry for every moment that he said I couldn’t but he could. So angry for when he thought it was okay to disrespect me. But anger doesn’t work with abusers.
“Your abusive partner doesn’t have a problem with his anger; he has a problem with your anger. One of the basic human rights he takes away from you is the right to be angry with him. No matter how badly he treats you, he believes that your voice shouldn’t rise and your blood shouldn’t boil. The privilege of rage is reserved for him alone. When your anger does jump out of you – as will happen to any abused woman from time to time – he is likely to try to jam it back down your throat as quickly as he can. Then he uses your anger against you to prove what an irrational person you are. Abuse can make you feel straightjacketed. You may develop physical or emotional reactions to swallowing anger; such as depression, nightmares, emotional numbing, or eating and sleeping problems, which your partner may use as an excuse to belittle you further or make you feel crazy” (Lundy Bancroft).
When it finally gets to a point that you don’t want to give them a second chance (after the many chances you have already given) they make you feel as though you are being unfair.
They guilt trip you into staying with them by saying “I can’t do this without you,” as they are breaking down; so if you do leave, you look like the bad guy.
If you try to point out something they did or they said that hurt you, they turn it back on you as if you are the one causing all the problems. They will twist every word you say to make you feel like the toxic one.
If you ever get to your breaking point, they make it seem like you are being dramatic.
And the worst: they’ll tell you that you would be nothing without them.
I remember hearing the words “No one will ever love you like I do.”
Hearing those words come from the mouth of a man that tore me down, wrecked me. Because I started to think that not just that this was our normal, but that this is the kind of love I deserved. Maybe I wasn’t worthy of respect, or kindness. Maybe I didn’t deserve to be treated gently, maybe I didn’t have the right to make my own decisions or to question his authority.
This is what outsiders need to realize: we don’t stay because we want to, we stay because it is the only option we know. We are tired of fighting. We are tired of working so hard for something that seems impossible… you don’t understand how emotionally draining it is to be with someone that wrecks you emotionally. So we give up, and give in... at least I did. I would apologize, I would listen and obey, I accepted the commands and cues and did as I was told.
Our abusers get us to a point that we believe them when the make us feel insane, when they make us feel toxic; they make us feel unlovable. We stay and try to prove our worth to someone that doesn’t deserve our attention.
Luckily I had a few good friends that stood by me and made me realize how extreme the situation had become- and they didn't let me settle for a guy that took advantage of me emotionally. They told me that I was sane when thinking he was insane.
But it took more than their convincing for me to finally take the step to get out... it took time for me to break. I realized I couldn’t live this anymore. I couldn't continue living in fear of someone I should feel protected by. I couldn't continue to tip-toe around him because I didn't know when he'd explode. I couldn't continue to let him consume me. I couldn’t keep fighting for something that was unhealthy and hurting me.
I finally decided to end it, and I remember telling my best friend: "If I'm not back in an hour, call the cops." because I was terrified of what he may be capable of if he got angry enough. And... you shouldn't be with someone you are scared of.
They say "time heals everything" and even though it's been a year and a half since I got out of the relationship, I'm still in the healing process. And who knows how long that process lasts.
Now I think, thank God no one will ever love me like you did... because you were a monster.
To this day I still have panic attacks when I see someone that looks like him. I freeze when I see an unknown number pop up on my phone. I have severe anxiety when I drive onto his old campus.
Because even though there are no physical scars or marks, there are emotional scars that run deep.
But scars heal. And mine will- in time. Until then, I am trying to figure out what forgiveness looks like... because how do you forgive someone that took advantage of your empathy and innocence? How do you forgive someone that didn't even ask for forgiveness because they think they've done nothing wrong? How is someone supposed to be okay with once being manipulated and controlled?
I am also learning how to trust men (in my case) again.
If I thought that before I met my abuser I was guarded.... now I am guarded with walls that are higher and thicker. Once you've been with a person that breaks your trust, and continually hurts you while saying the words "I love you," you're not exactly sure what a healthy relationship is, you're not sure what real love is. You're not quite sure what respect looks like or what you're actually supposed to expect from a relationship.
Please note: if you get into a relationship with someone that has been in an emotionally abusive relationship in the past (coming in another odyssey article), it's not that we choose to be wary and guarded- but it is how we have been conditioned.
I've been conditioned to look (and look some more) for red flags- that might not even be there. I have been conditioned to go into flight or fight mode when an argument occurs; flight- to shut down, to exit as fast as possible, or fight- get defensive and not allow myself to be pushed around again. I have been conditioned to take the blame, to be fearful when we disagree because in the past it has proven to result in an explosion from my (ex) boyfriend. I have been conditioned to question every action and motive, because in the past there has been bad intentions behind it. I have been conditioned to believe I am unworthy of being treated with respect. I have been conditioned to expect something that is supposed to be healthy and beautiful, to crash, burn, and hurt me.
But I am also learning that not everyone will hurt me like he did. Because there are legitimately good guys (or girls) out there.
So to answer the question “why do we stay?” We stay because more often than not, we don’t actually realize what the relationship has become. And when we finally do, we feel the need to get it back to how it was. And when we get tired of trying, and then fight, the abusers manipulate and control once again, getting us to a place where we feel straightjacketed.
It is a cycle that takes a lot of strength and courage to break.