I’m going to begin this blog with a trigger warning for talk of domestic violence and abuse.
I was sitting at the lunch table at work today when discussion of current events came up, as it always does. This time, it was about Ray Rice and his wife, Janay Rice. Rice was just fired from the Baltimore Ravens for a video that depicted him beating his wife, Janay, senseless. And understandably, the shock and horror surrounding this event has had everyone buzzing, with stories of their own, or simply with questions.
One of the questions that came up at lunch today was “Why the hell would she stay with him, let alone marry him, if he would do such a thing to her?”
It’s a valid question – and one that you can’t answer unless you’ve been there.
Two years ago, I was in a relationship that involved abuse. The abuse was not all on one side, nor was it something that happened all the time. But from a relationship between two people trying to make it work, it became a living hell for both of us.
This is not the first time I have talked about this relationship. Out of respect and privacy for the other person involved, I will not be including any details about the abuse suffered by both of us. Suffice it to say, I know why people stay in an abusive relationship. I also know why it’s so incredibly hard to leave.
Over two, almost three years, what started out as love turned into obsession with each other, with pushing each other’s buttons, with throwing up defences and shields against each other’s verbal and sometimes physical abuse. There are so, many, many reasons why people stay in relationships like these. Many times, it’s because the good outweighs the bad for a long time – and that was true for me. And while a lot of the time it was like walking on eggshells, this is one of many reasons why people stay in relationships like this. It’s because they know what it’s like to love someone for everything they are – and even when that person is no longer recognizable, they cling to the hope that the person they fell in love with will somehow come back to them.
I can’t imagine what must have been going through Janay Rice’s head when the video of her beating came out for the world to see. When my friends and family pointed out to me that the spinning whirligig of a relationship I was desperately trying to hold together seemed to be abusive, I was gobsmacked. I was not one of those women. In fact, before I knew better, I swore I would walk away from anyone who treated me less than with utmost respect. I also swore I would never become a person who was abusive. And outside of all the emotion, all the pain, and all the extenuating circumstances, those things may remained true. As it was, you cannot know what it’s like until you are deep in the middle of it. And by that time, you are often so ingrained in trying to save what you think the relationship is, that you can’t understand that there’s nothing left to save.
It took me a long time to realize that the media depiction of abuse actually misses out on a lot of the nuance. Abuse is not only one-sided, one person beating another senselessly without provocation. That is one form of abuse. The form of abuse that my relationship fell into was a simple fight spiralling out of control, tempers flaring, and words being said that could never be taken back. That continued into acts of physical violence, which continued into manipulative mind games, a breakdown of self-esteem, and finally, utter and complete brokenness, at least on my side.
After I got out of the relationship, I was not myself for a very, very long time. I blamed myself for all of it. I was older. I should have been wiser. I should have controlled myself better, kept my mouth shut, kept my temper in check. While I rarely did initiate the verbal abuse that began a lot of the fights, I did contribute to it, and I felt – I feel – that I deserved what I got in return, no matter how bad it got. After all, words hurt. Words scar. And I’m sure that the other person in this relationship carries the scars of things I said, as I carry the scars of things that were said to me.
So, why did I stay? Simply, I was in love. Not a sweet love, or a healthy love. I was in a desperate love that consumed me entirely. I felt I would die if I couldn’t fix what was irreparably broken between us. I felt because I had been through so much of what was happening to us, that I could stop it from consuming us entirely. I couldn’t. I failed. And I still think of the day that we parted with a large amount of pain and regret. I probably always will – because if I can say nothing else, I tried, so very hard, to save us.
This is one reason why women stay. This, along with many other reasons, is why women marry their abusers, have children with their abusers, and even die under their abusers’ hands. Women are manipulated into abuse. Women are tied to their partners, by material reasons like money or shelter, or by the fact that the couple has children together. They may believe that the abuse is solely their fault, as I did. They may believe that they will be the ones to tear up their families by leaving. Or they may be terrified to leave – because their abuser swears that if they do, they will kill them with their bare hands.
There’s a hashtag right now called #WhyIStayed on Twitter. It’s now been trending for two days. In it, women and men are telling their stories – and for every reason why they should have left, there is a reason why they had to stay. For me? I believed that if only I could help my partner, I could make it better. I believed that it was due to my actions, my words, myself, that the abuse happened. I believed that I was the only abuser. I believed that it was my fault only.
#WhyIStayed because I believed it was my fault. And I still do.
— Elizabeth Hawksworth (@liz_hawksworth) September 8, 2014
Breaking out of the incredible hold that abuse has on your mind is a Herculean effort. It took me the better part of a year – a year of doubting, a year of anger, a year of blaming, a year of pain – to realize that I did not deserve the abuse I received, nor did my partner deserve the abuse that I gave in self-defence. Abuse eats away at you, eats away at your self-esteem, your talent, and who you are. And women in my life who have also experienced abuse say the same things – we know we didn’t deserve it, but there’s a part of us that believes that it was our fault. If only we’d been different. If only we’d been better. And my partner? They did not deserve to live in a relationship that was painful and unsafe. No one deserves that.
So the next time you ask yourself why someone would stay with an abusive partner, remember that no one goes into a relationship expecting that the person they love more than anything is going to turn around and hurt them. No one ever believes that it will happen to them, until they are staring at the person they love, their features twisted unrecognizably, and wondering if today will be the day that things will finally end for good.
If you are being abused, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 for advice and support. There is hope.