My whole life I’ve looked at battered women with sadness and pity, but I have to admit that I always viewed them with a certain level of disdain. I’d never let that happen to me. Never. How do you get in that position? How do you let someone disrespect you like that, harm you like that, and yet not walk away? I could never put up with that from anyone.
But I learned a very hard lesson recently, one that makes me look at battered women in a whole new light. What I’ve never realized is that it’s a quiet, creeping progression. It’s not like a woman gets beaten on the first date and decides that she’s going to live with that person happily ever after. No. You start off as one person, and somehow, slowly over time, you change. Then one day you look up and you say to yourself, “How did I get here?”
You see, it starts off so well at first. You are swept off your feet. You are charmed. You think you’ve found “the one”. You feel loved and protected and cherished and more attractive than you’ve ever felt in your whole life. Your heart is overflowing with happiness, and you dare to dream that you may actually have a bright future to look forward to after all. It’s like winning the lottery when you’ve never even had the confidence to buy a ticket.
That honeymoon stage can go on for a long time. Long enough to really get you hooked. And then one day he breaks through the first boundary. He loses his temper. But not like a typical couple’s quarrel. It’s epic. And all the more so because you never expected that he was capable of such behavior. What happened to the guy you fell in love with? You are kind of in shock. You don’t really know what to think. And the next day he acts as if nothing has happened.
You almost wonder if you imagined it. You make excuses. He was tired. You really were wrong. Everyone has a bad day now and then. Maybe you’re making too much of it. But there have been warning signs. He has spoken of other friends or relatives with anger, and he seems to hold on to that anger without ever moving on. But up until now, it was never directed at you.
Things settle down for a few days, maybe a week, and you really start to think it was just an anomaly. Then it happens again. Only this time, he says something that really, really hurts you. He picks something you’re vulnerable about and he sticks an emotional fork into it and twists. Boundary number two.
This time you’re pretty sure that you did nothing to deserve this. You didn’t realize he felt this way about you. You start to wonder about him, and how he can be so cruel. He saw you cry. He knows he hurt you. You wait for an apology, but it never comes.
The next few days he’s really, really nice to you. He gives you compliments. He makes you feel like you are the most wonderful person in the world. In the back of your mind you try to reconcile this with the cruel things he said earlier, but you can’t.
You tell yourself that he’s being really, really nice because he feels horrible about his behavior, and this is his way of apologizing. Not everyone is good at coming right out and saying things. Men, particularly, are not known for communicating feelings. So maybe this is how he does it. And as he showers you with compliments, you think this is good enough.
But over time, he shows his temper more quickly and more often. You find yourself thinking ahead so that you can avoid things that are likely to set him off. He hates the way you drive, so you let him drive. He wants the towels folded a certain way in the linen closet, and really, is that such a big deal? So you fold them his way.
As you start to accumulate more rules, your ability to function effectively becomes more and more compromised. For instance, he hates to be reminded of things as he’s heading out the door, so even though you know he’s going to forget something, you are hesitant to remind him. But then, he also hates forgetting things, so you are damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Another item on your decision tree is, “Has he started drinking yet?” If yes, abort inquiry.
Don’t misunderstand. You are no shrinking violet. You are not passive during his rages. When he shouts, you learn to shout back. Maybe you even kick him out of the house. But eventually you take him back, because the good times are so good. And he misses you. And maybe you feel sorry for him. You definitely feel sorry for yourself.
It doesn’t help that he can paint such pretty pictures of what your life will be like together. If this one hurdle can be jumped over, everything is going to be so great. The implication being that now he’s under a lot of pressure, but once things get better, he will get better too.
But his behavior is changing. He’s starting to learn from you. He begins to know what things really cause you pain. Do you hate to be considered stupid? Then brace yourself, because he will certainly make you feel stupid when he’s angry. Do you love your dogs more than life itself? Then he will hate your dogs and everything about your dogs and he will imply that you’re stupid for even having dogs.
Then one day he rages about your housekeeping skills, and your first thought is, “Great, now here’s a whole new set of rules, and I’m never going to be able to keep track of them all.” You look forward to a lifetime of desperately trying to keep everything neat as a pin to avoid conflict, and the concept exhausts you.
And the worst part is you watch him behave decently to total strangers, so you know he’s capable of decency. He just chooses to not behave that way with you. Why? What did you do to deserve this? He’ll be happy to tell you. This is all your fault. Nothing you do is right. You aren’t trying hard enough. You are hypersensitive. You’re crazy. You’re the one. And you start to wonder if that may be true.
Unfortunately, by now you can’t talk to anyone about it. You’re too embarrassed and ashamed. You don’t want to scare off your friends, and your family won’t understand why you don’t simply walk away. So you’re completely and utterly alone without any positive validation.
Then one day, finally, he loses it in front of a witness. Boundary number three. Maybe he shouts at you in the driveway in front of the neighbor. And you see the look of shock in that neighbor’s eyes. You remember that look. You used to get that look at first. And suddenly you realize that you are no longer shocked. You’re used to it. You have come to expect it. It has become the norm. When did that happen?
In between all the bad times, though, there are still very good times. And those become all the more precious and poignant because you don’t know when the next bad time will come along. You cling to those good times. You never want to let them go.
Therein lies the problem. In order to hold on to those good times, you have to hold onto the man, and unfortunately the bad times are also part of the man. You feel a thick blanket of depression descend upon you, because you begin to twist yourself into knots trying to figure out a way to accentuate the positive and avoid the negative. You convince yourself that if you can only come up with the right combination of…whatever it is, maybe you’ll get to keep the good guy and the bad guy will go away. But you can’t find that combination, and you therefore feel yourself sinking down into a depressing status quo.
And then one day he crosses boundary number four. A chair gets thrown. Oh, not at you. You’re probably not even in the room. And thank God your dogs aren’t there, either. But you hear the crash, you feel the fury, and you are terrified. Terrified in your own home. Because what happens when he crosses boundary number five?
It is easy to imagine what boundary number five would be like. I will never know if that boundary would have been crossed, because I chose to end things. I’d like to think that it wouldn’t have been crossed because he had no history of ever doing so, but the fact that I couldn’t be sure is what gave me the strength to walk away.
And even though intellectually I know I did the right thing, the insane thing is that I still feel as if I’m going off heroin cold turkey. I miss the good stuff. It was better than anything I’ve ever experienced in my life. I’m in mourning for those pretty pictures of a future that I’ll never have, I’m terrified about how I’ll make it on my own, I practically have a panic attack when thinking of facing the holidays all alone, and I’m lonely to the point of physical pain. I feel lacerated, and I wonder if I’ll ever heal.
I have been to the rim of the abyss and I’ve looked down into it. I didn’t like what I saw. Because of that, I will never ever look at a battered woman with disdain again. Even though I’ve never been beaten myself (thank God), now I understand. I get it.
[Image credit: narcissisticabuse.com]