Monday, October 17, 2005

Most of today was spent designing a book for my organization's newest domestic abuse program, which included a section of quotes from battered Jewish women. None of them were terribly dramatic; actually they were quite concise and matter-of-fact, which somehow made them even more powerful. I've met most of these women before - spoken to them at the domestic violence conferences we run every couple years - but to see their stories in stark black and white, sitting alone in my office with no distractions, that brought it home for me.

At first I was sad. And then angry. And then I started to shake a little because I remembered how easily it could have been me.

Our first inclination is to shake a finger at these women and ask, "How could you let it happen? Why didn't you just walk out the door?" We don't understand that it's impossible to see a situation as a "situation" when you're looking at it from the inside. Good God, I thought again and again today, it could have been me. I am so strong, so aware, my take-no-crap policy is so firm... and still it could have been me.

All the times my ex-boyfriend S snapped at me for singing in the car, when he squeezed my arm too tight and pulled me too hard while we were crossing the street, when he put me down with subtle comments only someone tuned into my deepest insecurities would know to use... His explosive, hair-trigger temper with strangers in shops, at the movies, on the street. The way he pushed and manipulated me the first time we had sex - I never said "no," but I didn't really have a chance to say "yes." Even when he would tickle me too hard and too long until I couldn't breathe, until I was begging him to stop. And of course there was the biting. Beneath all his affectionate gestures was an undercurrent of resentment and anger that came up slowly as our relationship wore on. From the outside it was a clear pattern of aggression -- made worse, I think, by the fact that he was nearly twice my size -- but at the time, in the thick of it, I couldn't see the forest through the trees. I wanted so much to make us work.

S works in law enforcement, and while we were dating he was involved in prosecuting a man who brutally murdered his girlfriend. I saw the photos; it was horrific. In the months he spent preparing the case S would wonder aloud, over and over, "I just can't understand how a man could do a thing like that." The more I got to know him the more I could hear what he really was saying: "I understand how a man could do a thing like that. I could do a thing like that, and I hope to God I never will." I think he finally broke up with me because he realized what he was capable of and it terrified him.

So why didn't I leave? Why did I try harder and harder to make it right when I should have just walked out the door? The same reasons all women stay: We had as many good times as bad and he could be so sweet, so charming. My family adored him. I adored his family. I felt responsible for him, almost maternally so, and I thought that with enough nurturing I could lead him to the inner peace he so desperately wanted to find.

And there was his dream of this "perfect life": With his connections (he had many) and my...whatever he thought I brought to the table, he envisioned us as a team that would send poor kids to college, end world hunger, and be the D.C. Power Couple everyone expected us to become. "You'll be the brains of the operation," he used to say, "and I'll be the face." (This is the danger in socializing children to desire a lifestyle, instead of a life of their own creation.) Most of what he promised didn't much appeal to me, but his ambition was infectious and I eventually warmed to the idea of a number of things, most of them material, that I've since cleared from my vision of the future.

S is not an evil man, he has a big heart and a serious behavioral problem, not unlike a hyperactive child. Last winter I agreed to meet him for a drink but he canceled at the last minute saying it was too painful for him to be in the same room with me knowing we couldn't be together. Last spring I again agreed to see him for a few hours and things quickly became uncomfortable. (I know, you're wondering what the hell is wrong with me, but understand that it's very easy to want to make peace with an ex when you're 100 percent confident that you will never, ever, ever want him back. Ever.)

I curled up in a chair at Starbucks. S sat next to me with his hand resting on my foot. He ran down a list of all his friends and what was new in their lives: Engaged. Married. New House. New Baby.

"I'm going to be 39 this year," he said, tracing my ankle bone with his finger. It turned my stomach. "I want to have a family. I think about you a lot and I know nobody will ever take care of me the way you could." I couldn't bring myself to say 'You must be fucking kidding me' -- he looked so vulnerable it kind of broke my heart -- so I let my silence speak for itself.

He kept smiling but I could tell he was hurt, and on the way out the door, when nobody was around, he started to tickle me. The mean way. He dug his fist into my armpit and didn't stop until my eyes stung with tears. A half hour later at home, I sat down on my bed and touched the tender spot he'd knuckled into my side, wondering why I hadn't thrown my elbow into his ribs, crushed his toe with my heel, something. The answer is the difference between S and me: I may have a wicked temper, I may think nasty thoughts from time to time, but when it comes down to it I just don't have it in me to willfully damage another person.

S called last week to wish me a happy new year and ask if I'd like to have lunch. "No agenda this time," he swore, "I just thought it'd be nice to see your face." I told him I was busy, but of course that wasn't true. It's simply time to stop playing this game. He's no longer my responsibility and no longer my problem. And let's not forget -- let's not ever forget -- it could have been me.


Kayla said...

Oh, what a post. I often (secretly) cry about the work we do (what we see, what we hear) - because I can often relate it to personal experiences. My parents had an incredibly strange marriage - my father was verbally abusive of both my mother and I. I know, for myself, that I used to wish he would just hit me - because the pain (I thought) would end that much quicker. He played upon weakenesses (self esteem, self worth) and broke you down until there was nowhere left to go. Much of it was due to his life experiences - he knew how to act no other way (his father, a raging alcoholic who abused his mother - he grew up incredibly poor and at 17 joined the Marine Corps).

I promised myself I would never end up in a relationship like that... So much for that promise - two out of the three significant relationships I have been in have been verbally abusive - one of which was physically and verbally abusive. In both relationships I was made to feel as though I could do no better... made to feel that way for so long that I convinced myself - better stick with this chump then to move on... cause I don't want to end up alone...

Much of my strength has come from (sadly) what we are exposed to here. I see how bad it can be - and realize there is still time (there is always time) to leave a bad relationship. Strength to recognize there is better out there... and until then, comfort in my strength to chose to be alone.

AJ Gentile said...

Of course it could have been you.

It's a sad truth that women are attracted to dominating, powerful men. (That's not a misogynistic sleight toward women, but rather a comment about genetics and evolution).

Powerful and dominating men are also often predisposed toward violent and aggressive behavior. (Again, genetics and evolution)

I think women stay in these "situations" because of fear. Fear of physical or psychological reprisal. Fear of being alone. Fear that maybe THEY drove their partner to such behavior. ("He used to be so sweet. I'm the one causing him to act this way.")

These women need to break their pattern of ending up with men like this. Instead, they need to seek out men who have strength and ambition, but also sensitivity, self-objectivity and responsibility of their own actions. Unfortunately, there are only a few of us. ;-)

Lior said...

I never understood why women end up with the assholes. AJ Gentile is right, they are the ones with the domineering personalities. And yes, the assholes tended to be the ones who were abusive. Really no big surprises there. Hell, I could have seen it coming miles away.

And so goes the adage, good guys finish last. But I'd much rather sleep well at night than ever be one of those assholes.

Vixen said...

Wow. I'm electing this for blog post of the week on I'll let you know if it won:)

Happy and Jaded said...

What a great and powerful post. I went through a similar relationship and can relate. My ex was very emotionally abusive -- always with the sly cutting comments. He got physical with me once and it was a wake up call for me to leave. I vowed to not be in a relationship after that until I fixed the emotional issues that I had . I can happily say that, four and a half years later I am in a happy and healthy relationship.

AJ, as for reasons why women stay in these relationships, I think that fear can be a part of it, but I think it is more complex than that. In my case, I was raped my freshman year of college. It was after that where my self esteem plummeted. Basically, I felt as though I didn't deserve better than to be with the verbally abuse man that I was with. So, fear is a part of it, but I also think that self-esteem can play a huge role.

Thank you for this post! I think that we need to have more open dialogue about this subject.

Heather B. said...

I'm quite the same in that I'm always saying I would never let anyone do that to me and I swear if anyone did, I would drop kick their ass. Thankfully I've never been remotely close to that situation, but in reality I don't know what I would do if it were me. Is it really that easy to just leave? I doubt it.
As others have said, this was a very thought provoking and honest post. (well written too)

suze said...

wow. an amazing and wonderful post.

always write said...

Thank you all for keeping this discussion going; Your comments are illuminating.

A friend of mine wisely observed the other day that girls are taught from day one how to be pretty and demure, but not necessarily how to be assertive and smart. I hope this dialogue will inspire those who read it to think about both the overt and the subtle messages they send to their daughters (and sons), and to teach them to value their strengths and abilities above all else.

Dilly Dilly said...

I was taught to be strong, to realize I can never expect a partner to make me feel whole. I was raised by loving parents who respected one another.

I still entered a relationship that was abusive in it's ways. It ended before it got really bad.

My friend recently left a verbally abusive relationship. Those on the outside, we wondered why she stayed for so long. But then I remember my experience and read posts like this and understand. I will forward this to her.

Carol said...

Anyone who says that it couldn't happen to them is fooling themselves. There's a reason why abusive people are call manipulative.

Claire said...

I think it's easier to recognize how wrong someone may be/have been for you the more distance you have from the situation. I was just going through old letters from an ex the other day, and it was so clear to me we weren't right for each other as I read them, and it wasn't even an abusive relationship. Time made it clear.

In more difficult circumstances, I'm not sure how I'd react.

great post.

Chairborne Stranger said...

I agree with Kayla. Oh, what a post. Very moving.

Vixen said...

Wow, my editor loved it. You officially won the Blog Post of the Week. CONGRATULATIONS!

Check it out at

jeanne said...

omg, i could have written fact, i wonder if S is really his first initial bcs he sounds sooo familiar! A very powerful, moving, real post.

I finally left after THREE LONG years of emotional abuse (and the tickling? that's physical abuse, for certain...)

Now i've been celibate for five years. Maybe that's extreme, but I realized I needed time out for me. I'm almost ready, but not quite. Women need to be so strong.

Anonymous said...

I am in an emotional abusive relationship right now. No day is great - when we aren't fighting (because I point out his abuse) he spends a lot of time criticizing almost everything I do. In his mind he's right and that's that. Today, he told me "love and obey"....I never even agreed to that when we got married, it was "love and cherish". I know it will end soon, we are at our financial end (he spent us deep into debt). I'll be starting all over again from behind the starting line soon.