Before I started stating it on my Psychology Today profile or anywhere else, before I was a therapist or even a social worker, it would come out. People would start telling me stories about their lives and relationships, what brought them to therapy, what’s going on with them, what they feel about themselves, and somehow like a metal detector sweeping the beach I would come across the telltale signs. Men, women, older, younger, gay, straight, whoever, we’d come to a conversation where I could see the red flags I know so well from textbooks and real life. It feels like I’m finding a loose thread that somehow isn’t the same color as the rest of them and when we pull, pull there it is, a big knot like a cancer that I can identify as abusive relationships.
I used to think that there was something in my aura that let people know I was someone who knew, and it bothered me and I tried to hide it. Fortunately in therapy, you can use that aura to your benefit so now I feel like I’ve let it loose and it floats around the room like Peeves. Sometimes clients ask me what I would do in a certain situation or make some statement that I am a mentally healthy person with great relationships and I laugh. The very reason that I have such a finely tuned detector for the abuse in their lives is simply the act of me categorizing their experiences I’ve had and seen in my own. I remember making the excuses, lying to my friends, not responding to texts, avoiding the constant criticism and tirades about why I was back together with Him (one of several Hims) and in general feeling the roller coaster of being completely adored one moment and then convinced I was the most horrible person that ever existed the next.
I should make a point that though I use the word “Him” it can be anyone. Plenty of abuse occurs at the hands of women or gender non-binary people and it can be even more serious due to the fact that it’s seldom taken seriously. The experience of abuse is never lessened just because the person who is doing the abusing is a woman, gay, small, young, old, or any other attribute, race, or class. Likewise, the person experiencing abuse is no less affected by what is happening to them by their age, size, gender, wealth, status, race, or culture. Isolation and the belief that what is happening is not real or not serious make the abuse much worse, and we need to stop thinking of abuse as happening only to beautiful, frail, straight white women who cower in corners from their big, bad, muscular men.
We also need to remember that abuse doesn’t always look like bruises, in fact most of the time we won’t see any at all. Abuse looks like making excuses for the partner, it looks like ignoring text messages from friends, not going out anymore, skipping class and work, an ever-shrinking pool of people that get to be part of their life, running out of money or not being allowed to use it, and always having to check in before going anywhere or doing anything. It can be a slow shadow that’s barely perceptible at first and slowly engulfs everything. When you’re in it, it’s impossible to see the changes at first, but you wonder why you feel so crazy and your thoughts all seem wrong when you talk to them but when they’re gone you still feel like yourself. You wonder why you seem to not do anything right and what happened to you that you’re so awful and you never knew, and eventually you become convinced there’s something even more wrong with you because you keep staying.
There is no hierarchy of what kind of abuse is more or less important, we don’t need to engage in comparing scars to evaluate if what happened to someone is “really abuse” or not. That’s just a continuation of the gaslighting and denial of someone’s experience that they’ve already been having. Questions about someone “faking” abuse or “doing it for publicity” are disgusting and need to stop. This also isn’t the place for “not all men” types of statements – it’s not about all of them. It’s about the people (not just women!) who suffer and why would we cause them to continue suffering just because it’s uncomfortable for us to acknowledge it happens?
I remember a friend telling me about their relationship and immediately bursting into tears. Why didn’t you tell me before? I asked. They said they were convinced I’d judge them for it. All I’m judging, I said, was the fact that you were so scared to tell me and that seems wrong. What’s going on with you two? That was followed by more tears and eventually Him (belonging to the friend, this time) telling her not to call me anymore. All of this at the same time that I was every other weekend back together and breaking up with my own Him. If my friend would have let me in, we could have made a pact to leave our respective Hims and pursued something else in life together. As it turns out, she’s still with hers and I found several other versions of Him before I finally was able to be a person on my own and be with someone who gives me what I give them. I learned I can’t save people. To this day I don’t know if I could have done anything differently to make the outcome have changed. I count myself lucky that I always seemed to have an out – moving away, the school semester ending, good friends, a female police officer who I happened to be taking a class with. Those people and situations (and consistent birth control) kept me from some of the situations I hear about, where the walls close in slowly around you until there’s nothing left but the abuse and no apparent way out.
I think of abusive relationships as like a set of invisible ropes. When they start, you don’t even know they’re there at all. When I want to get my pet rabbits into their carrier to go to the vet, I’ll coax them in there with some treats. They get excited about the treats and walk in, and once I close the door they get mad and chew the bars. Imagine if there was no door even visible, and you just started walking forward into what looked like a nice park. The sun is shining and you feel great. The beginning of relationships are always like this, but they’re so much more intense with abusive ones. It’s like all the romantic Hollywood tropes at once, but they’re actually happening and you’re the luckiest person in the world. It feels like that Cream lyric, “in the sunshine of your love,” where the sun is shining just for you and you can’t even feel anything else, it’s so great. They’re probably charming (they’ve learned to be), say the right things, make huge declarations of love, and insist on buying you gifts, showing you off, and making grand gestures.
These are actually the start of the ropes building around you. You don’t know that those kind words will be turned against you later, that all the things they bought will be broken or threatened to be, or the promises for the future will be taken back because “you don’t deserve it.” You will start to wonder what you did that was so wrong, fight about it and try to fix it, and then make an internal list of rules that you need to always, always follow to make sure that you keep them happy. When people start to question why you’re so preoccupied with making them happy and say things like, “Who cares if they don’t like it! Do what you want!” you either decide to say nothing or tell them, “It’s just not worth the drama to have to fight about it.” The list gets longer and longer and the ropes are building.
Slowly you may realize that they have found their way into parts of your life that other people typically don’t. Maybe they insisted on meeting your family right away and are close with all of them, to the point where when you have problems no one believes you. Or they may remove you from your family, first by insisting that those people don’t care about you, that they don’t like them, or you call them or see them too much and you should stop. “If you care about me, you’ll spend more time with me,” they may say. Or, “our relationship should be your number-one priority.” They call or text you every couple of hours, at first asking how it’s going and when you’ll meet up later, and then the “I love you”s turn into “Where are you”s and if you don’t answer back right away there’s a fight. There’s a hundred thousand ways they start to be involved in your life and the places where they can’t be – work, school, friends, family, hobbies – start to dwindle away as they pick fights with you about how much time you spend doing those things. Your friends get mad at you because they don’t want to hear about it anymore, and you start to distance yourself. You may even stop going to the doctor or gym because they insist you’re cheating on them or lying about where you’re going.
Maybe they slap you or leave you somewhere with no way to get home or break something you own when you have a fight or when you’re both drinking. Maybe they force you to have sex when you don’t want to. They tell you it’ll never happen again, that it was the alcohol or the fight or their medication or someone is on their period or it’s your fault anyway. Maybe you leave and they’re so nice and so sorry for so long that you decide to give it another chance. This starts to go on and on and on and you realize you’re in a situation you need to leave but there are so many ropes around you, both in your mind and around your body, that you can’t figure out how.
What I want to tell you, if this sounds like you or someone you know, is that you can get out. Even though you may feel completely crazy and feel like they exist in every corner of your life and even in your mind, they don’t. They are a human being who has to eat and sleep and go to the bathroom or leave the house sometimes and there will be a time when you are alone and can start to plan your escape. Find the times when you can be alone and think of ideas or call someone you know can help you. Use those times when they aren’t there to reassure yourself that you will get out, it is possible, and you can. Maybe you have kids or a house or you can’t drive or they’re important in the community and know everyone and it seems impossible to separate. People have been in situations just as bad as yours or worse and they have done it, you can too. You may have tried to leave before and it got worse, so you’re afraid you’ll never leave. I am telling you right now that there will be a time when you leave for the last time. There will be a time when you do what they tell you for the last time. You may not know it’s the last time when it happens, but it will be. Every time you leave, it could be that time.
If you read this and you think, yes maybe it’s bad but it’ll get better and I just need to keep trying, I need you to know that the thoughts in your head are real and you are a sane and reasonable person, even if other people think you aren’t. You have your own value and you deserve to be free and happy and do the things you like to do rather than be a prisoner of someone else’s needs and disapproval. The space inside your head does not belong to them and they can never control it fully. You can create yourself a space in there, where you can tell them they’re wrong and you don’t believe them, even if you never say it out loud. No one owns your mind.
If you have a friend or family member, or anyone in your life that you think may be experiencing abuse, find a way to talk to them. Understand that they may be afraid to talk to you about it or may make excuses for their abuser because that’s how they’ve been conditioned by the abuser to respond. They may believe that it’s all their fault and if only they just do x, y, z, then it’ll stop. They probably won’t come up to you and say they’re ready to leave, and if they do, they may do it many, many times. It’s normal to get frustrated with this, and you need to have your own limits with what you’re able to do for them, but recognize that it may feel impossible for them to leave. Leave them your phone number somewhere safe and let them know if they need to talk they can talk to you, or give them one of the numbers below so they can get help. Call the abuse what it is and refuse to minimize their feelings or their experience. Remind them that they’re good and capable and deserving of happiness. They may not appear to be listening or registering what you say but they at least will hear you, and your words could be the lifeline that starts building a raft away for them.
The National Domestic Violence hotline is 1−800−799−7233. You can also call Day One (in Minnesota) to get help with temporary shelter when leaving an abusive situation at 1-866-223-1111 or text at 612-399-9995.