I Was in an Abusive Relationship and Didn’t Even Know It
It's easy to tell yourself everything's fine, even if the bruises say otherwise
By Viola Beck (Purpleclover)
I'm a college-educated professional with relatively high self-esteem (some might say too high) and a history of a long, calm relationship with my ex-husband. Even when we broke up, the whole thing was pretty low-key.
It's a shame I have to offer these disclaimers, but I feel like in a situation like this, I'll be judged. I was in an abusive relationship and didn't even know it. I know that sounds ridiculous, like that reality show where women don't realize they're pregnant until a baby pops out. You can't help but think, Come on. How could you not know? Turns out denial is more powerful than I thought. Turns out love is more powerful than I thought.
I was hooked immediately. He was funny, well-read (a professor once said he read the kinds of books writers read) and self-deprecating. He had a great job and was the kind of guy who, when he had downtime on business trips, went to museums.
In other words, he was my ideal guy. And he'd never been married even though he was in his mid-40s, which was also my ideal. No exes to contend with! No kids! Oh happy day.
During the getting-to-know-you stuff, we talked about how we had bad tempers.
"Oh, yours is bad, too? That's good. Maybe we'll understand each other," he said. He was so sweet and gentlemanly. I figured he was like me, where if my password won't work on a website, I throw a hairbrush across the room.
I remember the first time he lost it, about a year in. We were having a discussion about sex. As in, I wanted it right then and he didn't. This was something of a recurring theme with us in the beginning, and it bothered me. I felt rejected. When I told him so, he threw the covers back, leaned inches from my face and screamed at me.
He screamed into my face. No one had ever done that to me. It hurt my ears. He'd even spit on me a little. He jumped off the bed and stalked out, punching the door for punctuation. The doorknob dented the wall.
I wish now that I'd gotten up, put on my clothes and left his apartment, never looking back. Who treats me that way? No one! But God, I loved him, and I'd never seen anything remotely like that behavior. This was the guy who, when I sighed in the night, woke up to ask me what was wrong. I decided he must feel really embarrassed about the sex thing, so I went to the living room to try and calm him down.
I can't remember the next fight, and that's the thing. The frequency was so sporadic that I now liken it to a frog in a pot of water who doesn't notice it getting hotter until it kills him. There'd be a blowup, he'd say sorry right after, followed by 60 absolutely perfect dates.
Then I'd say something that made him feel like he was being attacked, and he'd scream at me, his eyes wide, his face red. It was so different from his regular behavior that in my head, I called this raging guy Sasha Fierce. You know how Beyoncé says her stage persona is so different from the real her that she calls that stage person Sasha Fierce? That's how it was. This wasn't the guy who loves his cat and gives money to the homeless. This was a whole different person.
I knew his father had a history of these kinds of explosions, and that this was learned behavior. I knew it could be unlearned, and since he was in therapy, I figured it'd get better.
Instead, it escalated. Sasha Fierce emerged every few months, and then even more frequently. He started calling me things like a "stupid bitch" or a "fucking moron," even though it was my intelligence he always brought up when he was listing why he loved me, during the good times.
"I've never met anyone I've clicked with like this, intellectually," he'd tell me. But during fights I was an idiot. Or "crazy." A few times I was "smothering" or "not sexy."
At this point, I knew this was not just a man who had a "bad temper." I knew no one should be talking to me like this. I wondered if this counted as abuse, but when I Googled "abusive relationships," I always read about the controlling man, the man who hits you. He wasn't remotely controlling, and he'd never laid a hand on me. There was also no honeymoon period where he was contrite after. He'd say he was sorry he blew up, then it was always, very subtly, my fault.
"I'm so sorry I threw the remote and screamed," he'd say, "but you always …" Or, "but if you'd just ..."
It was me. If I'd just change, I wouldn't get screamed at. None of his other girlfriends drove him to this behavior, he'd point out. Not once did he ever act this way with anyone else.
The fights worsened by year three. He'd block my way so I couldn't leave the room. Eventually, he started pushing me and shoved me hard into a wall after charging across the room. The next day I realized I had bruises on my arm. "Are those … those can't be from Sasha Fierce," I told myself. "He didn't shove me that hard."
The final straw was when we were in the car, and he told me he'd seen an old girlfriend on a business trip. We'd been on the outs for awhile, so I asked him, "Did you sleep with her?" He got so angry that he began driving very fast on a residential street.
"Please stop," I said, horrified. He drove even faster, the car fishtailing, until we got to his house. We were approaching the fence at the end of his driveway, and I didn't think he was going to stop. He stopped. And so did I. He texted an apology, followed by, "If you just trusted me, and didn't act so crazy …"
You don't have to be hit to be abused. Your abuser doesn't have to be possessive, or some kind of drunk psychopath. He can be smart and funny and kind, most of the time. But if he calls you a stupid bitch, even once, when he's angry? That's abusive. If the fights are six months apart and he's wonderful in the meantime? You're still with an abuser. Blaming you for his behavior, even if he does it subtly? Classic abusive behavior. So is the escalation of the violence.
I wish this would come up on Google as often as the "If he checks your email and cuts you off from friends" stuff does. Because it's easy to tell yourself everything's fine if you can't find your exact situation. It's easy to say you're different.
The longer I've been gone, the more stunned I am that I didn't see how bad it was. I was gone two weeks before I said out loud to myself, "I was in an abusive relationship."
It angers me that I miss him. I miss the non-Sasha-Fierce side of him, the guy who asked how my day was, and who really listened to my answer. The guy who held my hand at the movies and cried during "Love, Actually." But I can't have that guy without the darker, more troubled one. I can't have "You're the smartest person I know" without the "You're a stupid bitch." So I choose neither.
I loved him, but I love me more.