What I learned from being in an abusive relationship
Ten years ago I was caught in a physically abusive relationship, which makes me a survivor of intimate partner violence (IPV). Not exactly an exclusive club membership, given that statistics say at least one in four women and one in 10 men will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes….. whether or not they ever report it to authorities and get “justice,” as they like to call it. I personally am not sure whether the criminal justice system actually gets “justice” for a person whose life has been irreparably damaged and forever changed by an abusive partner; the jail sentences, if they happen at all, are usually ridiculously inadequate. Even so, at least there are happy endings to some domestic assault situations and the survivors can go on with their lives…and hopefully learn to care, with a smile on their faces and in their hearts.
Domestic abuse is similar to rape in that it is most likely under-reported. This is for a number of reasons, including fear of retaliation by the attacker, shame felt by the victim, not wanting to go through the traumatic process of reporting the crime (and yes, it does suck, but you gotta do what you gotta do), and fear that nothing will be done on the victim’s behalf, among other reasons. In both rape and IPV cases, we have all read/heard stories in which the perpetrator gets a sentence of maybe a year, while the survivor of the crime will probably suffer for the rest of his/her life in one form or another. All abuse (or other crime) survivors have their scars — usually not visible ones, but trust me, they are present — which often include a lack of ability to trust anyone, agoraphobia (fear of going out in public), post traumatic stress disorder, and others.
One sad thing among many about IPV is there are many people — most of them “older” — who don’t believe this is really a crime. They have stone-age mindsets that, for example, “it’s ok to knock the little woman around once in a while, keep her in line.” Scary. But true. In some cultures and religions around the world what we call physical abuse is seen as a “normal” part of marriage and therefore the victim keeps suffering while the authorities, and everyone else, just looks the other way. My heart is very sad for these people, partly because I live in the U.S. and here we can usually get help from a domestic violence situation, without cultural barriers to doing so.
“Word gets around in a small, small town. They said he was a dangerous man. But mama was proud, she stood her ground, she knew she was on the losing end. Some folks talked… but everybody looked the other way…” — Martina McBride, “Independence Day”
Different people deal with their scars and the aftermath of the crime(s) in different ways. Many people fall into addictive behaviors, at worst, and at least just become bitter, disillusioned, distrusting… and all of these reactions are totally understandable, given the severity of the crime and the depth of the scars it leaves on those touched (no pun intended, believe me) by IPV. This bitterness, sadly, could adversely affect all their future relationships, whether romantic or otherwise. The disillusionment tends to be worse in people who had a negative experience when reporting the abuse, not to mention those who (when they DO report the violence), don’t get the satisfaction of seeing the abuser locked away for a long enough time. From my perspective gained though my own experiences with domestic violence, I don’t believe there is ever a “long enough time” for the abusers to be incarcerated … but that’s my opinion.
I have heard of people who suffered with an abuser for many, many years, enduring a lot of shit and heartache and hurting. I wasn’t that unfortunate, luckily, as my experience was relatively of a shorter duration. No matter the length of time the abusive situation lasts, however, there are always going to be scars. Tender spots. Possibly PTSD. Years after the fact there will likely be “trigger points” which bring up anxiety-spiking flashbacks. Undoubtedly the aftereffects will linger long after the abusive situation has ended (like due to a prison sentence for the abuser, as in my case) and affect the person’s entire life and mindset as a result. This especially if the survivor does not have a support system of people who will be there for them. Support is vitally important and comes in the form of friends, professional help and, if you subscribe to a church, clergy members.
Although I was unfortunate to spend a portion of my life in a literal living Hell with a man who was on methamphetamine (which turned him into basically a monster), I was very lucky to have a few good allies, I reported the crime and got a small amount of satisfaction, and count myself as grateful to have survived and gone on with life. Yes, reporting the crime was awful, yet I knew it had to be done if I wanted to be out of the situation and because I knew I didn’t deserve that abuse. After the fact of it my biggest ally was — surprisingly, since I am not “religious” in the traditional sense — a pastor at the local church I attended from time to time. He gave me some very wise counsel and helped me to develop a more positive mindset toward both the abuser and those people in my life who I was angry at (for a while) because I felt alone and that “nobody was there for me.”
In hindsight I realize that you can’t “be there” for an abuse victim because oftentimes that person keep the abuse hidden (out of shame or fear) and never lets on to others. Which is what I did. Nowadays, most people who know me know my story and that I am able to listen to their abuse stories with an empathetic ear. Because unfortunately, I know too many people who have been abused, in one way or another; it’s just that common of an occurrence.
Anyway, between the pastor’s kind, supportive words, plus an advocate from the local domestic assault agency and a wonderful therapist who has helped me learn a LOT about myself, I am living pretty much contentedly with a mostly positive outlook on life. I resemble that meme on social media that says something like “You never know the scars some people may have” because they don’t show them. Some people expect abuse survivors to all be grumpy and walking around with a dark cloud hanging over their heads.While this reaction to trauma is perfectly natural and understandable, you do not have to live that way. You can choose to see the bright side (and hopefully you have one). Being crabby is not in my nature, so I made a conscious decision to live on the sunny side of the street. It’s much nicer there. I didn’t get there overnight, for sure, but I got there.
During the years since the abuse, I’ve learned many things — general life lessons as well as statistics and such about abuse and abusers — some of which I want to share with others. Hopefully these lessons might change people’s mindsets about living life in general — whether or not you have suffered any form of abuse in your lives (count yourself as incredibly lucky), you can apply these thoughts to your own lives, practices for kinder and gentler living. I believe they are universal.
1. Compassionate curiosity. This is when, instead of condemning people we meet who seem disagreeable or unlikeable, we instead ask mental questions (or maybe actually ask the person) why he/she is that way. Given my background I see things through a certain lens, wherein I sometimes presume that people who are bitter (bitches or assholes, if you will) just may have some type of abuse in their background. It is often true that those who abuse others often were abused themselves. It can tend to be a vicious cycle. Also, there is an old saying that “sometimes those who seem the least lovable are most in need of love (or attention)” and I believe this is very true. Some people have a history of abuse, and if they don’t they may have a history of insufficient attachment relationships with others (as in, not being satisfactorily “bonded” to one’s parents). This can cause people to appear “needy”, “desperate”, or “attention seekers” which tends to put other people off. Compassionate curiosity leads us to question why people are the way they are and to then have some compassion for them and treat them accordingly, rather than giving negative labeling and/or ignoring them.
2. To be care-ful. I mean this one in two different senses. One, men I’ve met over the past 10 years go through my mental vetting process to see whether they have any signs of being abusive. My curiosity naturally spurred me on to learn more about domestic abuse and the signs of a potential abuser. Since I’m pretty intuitive I can generally tell is someone might be rigid, controlling, has an anger problem, and so on … signs you need to carefully watch out for in a potential partner. Learn to trust your gut. If something just doesn’t seem “right” about another person, it might be a good idea to walk away … even if you are highly attracted to that person (it may be the “danger” in them you are attracted to). In the second sense of care-ful, I mean that even when I meet people I don’t exactly see eye to eye with, I still will be caring when the situation calls for it. In the sense of those close to me, I am care-ful with them all, giving all my love and care as much as I can.
3. Be Kind. To Everyone. Although I’ve generally been a pretty decent and generally nice person most of my life, I had to throw this in just to make to repeat it. As one reads often on social media, “It cost $0 to be kind to others” which is a fact. Unfortunately there are people who are very stingy with their kindness and decency that you would think it “cost” them to behave nicely. Kindness is very, very important all the time, though most especially in these days of pandemic, racially-motivated unrest and the general divisive state of the U.S. (and, for all I know, the world). We could all, abuse survivors or not, use more kindness, respect, niceness, compassion, caring and decency — so practice these things towards EVERYBODY, I’d like to stress, not just your own race/gender/religious affiliation, etc. People are all human beings under the skin and there is no need for hatin’ on anyone. Period.
The New York Times reported in April that domestic violence has escalated in the world since the covid-19 public health crisis came along — with its lockdowns, quarantines, and “shelter-in-place” orders. This because people are spending a lot of time at home with their families, and no doubt nerves are being frayed due to all the togetherness. Also, reportedly off-sale liquor sales are booming, so alcohol consumption is very likely a factor in many of these abuse cases, as it often is. So that domestic violence has increased is not at all a surprising side effect of the pandemic. Unfortunate and sad, yes, though not surprising.
Those who believe they may be in an abusive relationship, I urge you to please get help. There are scores of online resources, and many areas have local domestic abuse shelters and victim’s advocacy agencies. Some web sites include www.LiveYourDream.org, www.ncadv.org, www.domesticshelters.org, to name a few. Or you may call the Domestic Violence hotline at 1–800–799–7233. Get help and hopefully you too will find the kindness, compassion, and allies that we all need and deserve in our lives. Then maybe you too can live on the sunny side of the street.