I have a small degree of sympathy for people who judge women in abusive relationships. That’s because I used to be one.
I recall a Dear Abby column I read over my morning cereal about ten years ago, which I later vented to my mother about. A woman wrote to Abby for advice about her husband: a man who hit her, demeaned her, and used their savings to buy drugs. But she loved him; she wanted advice on how to still make their relationship work. Abby’s advice, I thought, was way too soft. She encouraged the woman to reach out to someone, to call a domestic violence hotline, and formulate a plan to leave this man who clearly did not have her best interests at heart.
Honestly, if I were Abby, I’d have responded with something like, “Lady, wake the fuck up. How dumb are you to still love this man? Just leave already! There’s plenty of men out there who will treat you far better!”
Now, of course, I realize it’s not that simple. Actually, it’s anything but simple.
I may not know what it’s like to be financially dependent on an abuser, or blackmailed and threatened with further violence if I contemplated leaving. My abusive relationship was nothing like that. But I do understand the emotional dependency and the deep residing belief that you are not worthy of anything better.
My abusive relationship was a constant power struggle in which my boyfriend always had the upper hand. I could never call him; only he could initiate the contact. I learned this when I called him just to talk, and he was annoyed to be pulled away from his friends. We couldn’t go out in public together because he didn’t want people to know about me (which I suspect was because he was a respected leader in his Catholic church, and I was Jewish). The few times we did venture out of either of our homes, he insisted I walk several steps behind him; he’d get angry if I asked him to slow down. When I ran into him downtown and tried to introduce him to a friend of mine, he spit out his gum, handed it to me, and said “Could you throw this away for me?” before walking away. When I called him later that night to reprimand him for being an asshole, he played the “I’m sorry I’ll never be good enough for you” card, and it was me who ended up apologizing profusely.
I honestly think that was worse than the sexual abuse, which happened later. I had no idea that acquiescing to repeated demands of “Come on, you owe me after I bought you dinner”; “You’ll change your mind when you see how good it feels”; “You’re just so hot, I can’t help but get carried away around you” and more was not enthusiastic consent, and therefore, rape. The thing was, he rarely pinned me down and physically forced me to do anything; that only happened twice over a span of five years. His ways were more emotionally manipulative, particularly his sneering reminder that no one would ever love me like he did.
It sounds ludicrous now, but he was my first love, my first serious relationship: I was eighteen years old and already wondering if something was wrong with me because I’d never dated before. Finally, I believed that our physical involvement outside of marriage meant that I was tainted, and ruined for any good man. I felt I had an obligation to stay and make it work. I thought marrying him one day would be the only way to rectify our sin, which I felt culpable for since I did lead him on with my tight jeans, after all.
When writing about a topic that many people misunderstand, there’s always something that gets left out, because I can’t anticipate every ignorant reaction from trolls who want to prove I’m just being vindictive. When it comes to rape and abuse stories, there’s just no satisfying everyone. Even if I were attacked at random in a park, someone will want to know the hour in which I was jogging (is it early morning or late evening that is considered The Raping Hour?) and whether I was wearing spandex. If my ex were an acquaintance at a party, people would want to know how much I flirted and how much I drank. Just when you think you’ve come up with a scenario in which abuse is indisputably the assailant’s fault, someone who wasn’t there and doesn’t know you will fight you on it.
“Innocent until proven guilty” applies to the accuser as well as the accused, yet domestic abuse is the only crime in which the victim is asked to prove she or he is actually a victim before the situation is taken seriously. Unfortunately, I had to experience it for myself to learn how wrong I was about abused women. For many people, that is the only way to be set straight, and that absolutely needs to change. No one deserves to live in such a way that undermines his or her basic human dignity.
If I ever met the woman who wrote the Dear Abby letter (and I’ve probably bumped into women in her situation more times than I want to consider), I’d tell her she is worthy of respect. I’d ask if there’s anything I could do to help her. And then I’d respect whatever amount of agency she has by allowing her to make her own decision about what’s best for her life.