Once upon a time, 50 pounds ago, I was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 22 year old woman. I had just graduated from college and I was in an abusive relationship. My boyfriend was a law-school student and an alcoholic. He was really possessive and really really unstable. He never actually put his hands on me, but I still consider this relationship to be abusive and here’s why: I was constantly in a state of fear. I never wanted to upset him, to anger him, to make him unravel. I never wanted to make him feel like he needed to lash out so I walked on eggshells to keep him calm. When I was unsuccessful in my efforts, he would lash out. He would call me incessantly (this was before texting was a big thing – yes, I’m dating myself here) if I went anywhere without him. He would profess his love for me if I objected to the way he treated me in any way. It wasn’t just a profession of love, it would be overboard. I’m talking tears, begging, cooking for me, trying to talk to me non-stop without a break, not letting me ask for space and repeatedly asking me if I still loved him. This would go on for days and days. And then something would snap him back into an ornery state and he would distance himself through excessive drinking, irritability and silent treatments. If I tried to give him some space and do my own thing, he would explode. If I tried to engage with him or cheer him up, he would explode. I could not figure out how to handle those tough moments.
This went on for about two years. I had met his family and he had met mine. There was some talk of a future together but I had a really difficult time actually picturing it. I kept encouraging him to just finish school and not worry about anything else. This proved to be a challenge for him since he was struggling to pass his classes. He spent hours on end researching conspiracy theories, WWII, American History, bird watching and just about any other topic which did not interest me. I never understood how someone could be so diligent in their random research but couldn’t do his homework or study for exams. This research would stretch late into the night, sometimes into the next morning. It involved a lot of Mountain Dew and cigarettes. It was almost frantic. And then it would suddenly drop off for weeks on end. I learned not to question it and just listen to his rants about the things he was reading on these random topics.
On the occasions when he would explode, his behaviors included screaming at the top of his lungs, throwing things in my direction but never actually hitting me with them, breaking things and spewing insults. One time, he grabbed every single dish we had out of the cupboard and smashed them on the ground and the walls. Another time, he locked himself in the bathroom, pulled the shower curtain rod out of the wall and proceeded to smash the tiles with it. While this was happening, I would be huddled in a corner of our apartment, clinging to our trembling dogs. He would eventually tire himself out and then come groveling to me with profuse apologies. I continued trying to keep him calm and not upsetting him, but no matter what I did or didn’t do, it never prevented an outburst.
Finally, one day, something dawned on me. It seems very obvious in hindsight, but when I was in the middle of this, I couldn’t see it. I was taking responsibility for his behavior! I was doing everything I could to keep him calm and happy. As if I could actually control him. As if it was my responsibility to control him. I wasn’t holding him responsible for his behavior. I had grown to believe that it was me who was causing his outbursts. That I was to blame for his anger and that I actually did something wrong to deserve his violent behavior. I always excused it because I had no bruises, no scratches, no broken bones. He’s not abusive, I told myself, he’s just very sensitive. But he loves me so much. I know he loves me because of how he holds me after one of his fits, and because of how good the good times are.
But when I had my realization, I also realized that as good as the good times are, they didn’t make up for the bad times being really bad. And I also began wondering when the inevitable would occur – when will his rage be directed at me instead of all around me? I still hadn’t realized that it was already directed at me because, again, no bruises or visible injuries. I also realized that I was not obligated to stay with him. That this was a boyfriend – not a child or a relative or a spouse, just a boyfriend. One of dozens I’d had in my life up to that point. And even if he were related to me, I STILL wasn’t obligated to stay and tolerate it. This thought was pivotal for me.
I waited until he was calm, sat him down for a serious talk and shared this with him. I told him I could not believe nor accept any more apologies because he kept repeating his bad behavior. I also told him that I had the right to break up with him at any time and leave him, and that I was at the point where I was ready to do so because I could not tolerate any more of his tantrums. I reminded him that I was not obligated to tolerate his behavior and that he could not hold me captive with his manipulation. He cried and agreed with everything I said. He promised me that the chaos was over because he didn’t want to lose me. I was so relieved.
Two days later, early in the morning, he exploded again. I reminded him of our talk and told him I was done. Upon hearing this, he barricaded himself in the bathroom and threatened to take every single pill we had if I left. I promised to stay just so he wouldn’t attempt to commit suicide. He calmed down, got dressed and we left for work together. As soon as I got to my office, I told my boss what was going on and that I had to quit my job immediately. I sped back to our apartment, packed as much as I could fit in my car and took the dogs with me. I knew I had to leave before he realized anything and returned home. I called his mother and told his mother that he was suicidal and that I could not stay any longer. She thanked me and told me she was hopping in her car to come to the apartment so she could be there when he got home. This was my chance to escape. I left before he returned and drove to my parent’s house, 4 hours away.
He called and called, and begged and pleaded. He offered to come drop off the rest of my things. I actually considered going back. But instead, I had a friend of mine go get my things for me. I didn’t want to see him again. Eventually, his calls turned into harassment. He left me messages calling me names and then crying and apologizing. Then he would scream every hateful thing he could think of in the messages and so on. After a few days of this, I blocked him. Years later, I found out that his mother hospitalized him and placed him on an involuntary psychiatric hold because he was actively suicidal and homicidal. He was planning on killing me and then himself. He also ended up spending some time in rehab and had to take a medical leave from school.
He is now married for the second time, expecting his first child and practicing as an attorney. I went through a period of shock after leaving him. The whole thing felt surreal and nightmarish. I now know that leaving the way I did was the right thing to do. I beat myself up for a long time over that relationship. I thought I was “smarter” than the girls who got involved in abusive relationships and that I would never let something like that happen to me. I was too “tough” for that. But somehow, I got outsmarted. I blamed myself for a very long time and I felt like I was damaged because I was the weak and abused person in an abusive relationship. But I kept coming back to the realization I had before I left him. His behavior is his responsibility, not mine. I had every right to set boundaries and to have non-negotiables. It was not my job to keep him calm, that was his job. I did not, in any way shape or form, deserve the treatment I got from him. Staying in a relationship to prevent someone from committing suicide is not a good reason to stay, and threatening to commit suicide to get someone to stay is psychologically abusive. And most importantly, just because I had no scars or bruises to show, that did not mean that I was not abused.
Many of my clients are in abusive relationships. My experience has taught me not to judge them or to think of them as weak or stupid. They are quite the opposite. The weak ones are the abusers. They are the ones who have so little to offer that they have to use threat and force to keep someone in their lives. For many people who are in an abusive relationship, having the realization I had may not be enough to get them to leave or to make it safe for them to leave. I truly feel for them and their situations, many of which are much worse than mine was. I have the utmost empathy for that impossible internal battle between love and self-preservation, self and selflessness, commitment and autonomy, hope and fear.
For those of you who are in an abusive relationship, know this: As scary as it may seem, you can leave and you can protect yourself. You do not deserve to be mistreated physically, emotionally, psychologically, sexually or otherwise. You are never responsible for another person’s behavior. You do not have to be physically injured to be abused. Your life is and will always be worth more than someone’s need to control you. If someone hurts you, they do not love you. And, finally, you are not alone. There is help and a community of people ready to support you so you can leave safely.
Domestic Violence Hotline: (800) 799-7233
If you cannot speak safely on the phone, go to thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to (866) 331-9474.