A number of years ago I was in an abusive relationship with a man who was verbally abusive often, physically threatening sometimes, and physically attacked me once.
I have never written about this, because he’s moved on in life, seems happy, and frankly I don’t want to remind him of me. But I felt like I couldn’t retweet the #YesAllWomen hashtag without acknowledging my own experience. So I tweeted, “#YesAllWomen applies to this woman, remembering my ex with raised fist telling me how much I deserved to get punched in the face.”
(The actual quote was, “You deserve to be punched in the face like no one has ever deserved to be punched in the face.”)
I struggled to find the appropriate response on the #YesAllWomen hashtag because it’s hard to put something out there that you have not previously been public about. But when I did, a woman thanked me for speaking out, and asked me to write about it. So here I am. Reading the hashtag, I realized that I was lucky. I was not hurt, I was able to extricate myself fully, I moved on with my life. I don’t see him, and we don’t have much social overlap so I have few reminders, though I can turn my head as I type this and see the dent in my wall where he punched it.
Here is the thing I now know about abusive relationships: They don’t start that way. Obviously, I can hear you thinking, but nothing is obvious when you’re in it, especially early on. For me, the relationship started the way most of my relationships start — attraction, connection, romance, affection. I’d met him at a party, and he was that arrogant kind of smart that I can’t help but like, and brings out my competitive side. We clicked. It was on.
About three weeks in he blew up at me at a bar and stormed out. I didn’t know what I had done. I chased him out, he yelled at me on the street, I still didn’t know what I had done. I assumed that I must have done something.
His temper began to show itself. Fights were picked. Anger would come out of nowhere. Restaurants were never good enough, and neither was I. There was a lot of storming off, and me chasing behind, saying wait wait, can we talk about this. I took him to a friend’s wedding and he was sullen and resentful. There was a lot of me apologizing for him to my friends, or explaining something away.
His blow-ups weren’t rational, but he said they were my fault. I didn’t think I had done anything wrong but that didn’t mean he didn’t think so, so I accepted that I must have done something, because in that way, there was a logical cause-and-effect explanation for his actions.
And, crucially, it’s not just anger. It’s anger wrapped in fear, guilt, self-doubt, helplessness, sadness —so you shift from defensive mode into comfort mode, where you are the person who is calm and caring and reassuring. You’re the one who has it together. He’s the one who needs help, and you’re the one who’s helping. You learn to work around his triggers and do the things to soothe him and to leave parties quickly and to pick your battles.
(I know what you are thinking right now, because I am too — my God, what a drain, how could any thinking woman put up with this? Understand that before it starts being a regular thing it’s just a thing, one that’s only happened here and there, and in between there’s been the fun stuff, the in-jokes, the watching TV in bed, the epic Gchats, the planning ahead. Because when he’s good, he’s great, and when he’s not, he is not only sorry but filled with so much self-loathing all you can do is say, don’t worry, it’s fine, you’re fine, we’re fine. And mostly, you are, until the next time a grilled cheese sandwich comes improperly prepared. Then, watch out.)
I didn’t realize he had a drinking problem until about two months in. I’m not much of a drinker myself, so the habits of drinkers have never been my forte. So when he’d come over and have a bottle of Jameson’s in his bag, I didn’t think much of it. (My friend later told me that was a red flag.) It finally clicked in at a formal event, at the after-party, when he got wasted and fell down. I bundled him into a cab and somehow got him home and up the three flights of stairs to my apartment, where he toppled straight onto my bed, out cold.
That started to happen more regularly, too.
More drinking meant more yelling. Here are some things that were yelled at me:
- I was frequently called some variation on “cunt,” usually an “ugly” one
- I was old and ugly and no one would ever love me
- I was worthless, self-absorbed, an inconsiderate, dumb bitch
- A personal family tragedy was my fault
- I didn’t understand him, didn’t give him enough attention, was holding him back
- I didn’t care about him, had never proved I cared about him.
Somewhere in there was the raised fist/punch in the face moment. It was the first time that physical violence had been threatened, though by now the cycle of drama had been well-established. I should say that I was not a passive, serene recipient —I sent my own angry emails, usually bitter catalogs of his behavior and why I’d had enough. Those exchanges would devolve into recriminations, apologies, declarations of love and promises to do better.
But the distance from affection to anger was short. When alcohol was in the mix, shorter.
The day he attacked me he woke up still drunk. I can’t remember exactly what triggered it but we were fighting. Suddenly he lunged at me and drove me backward across my apartment up against a wall. Then he pulled my hair and forced me down to the floor. Then he slammed my head down a few times. I fought back, we parted, got up, faced each other warily. Then he tried to hug me, and when I refused, he threw me to the bed and pinned me by my arms and, briefly, my neck, leaving marks in both places. Then he knocked over my coatrack and started banging it into the floor in anger, at which point I fled into the bathroom with my phone to call my parents.
(Why did I call my parents and not the police? I was scared, but I didn’t really feel like I was in danger. I wanted a line to the outside world, and I wanted to cross the point of no return where I couldn’t pretend it didn’t happen. I also just wanted my parents. They were steadying and careful and great.)
I heard the door open and close. I came out and he was gone. Then there was a knock. It was the police, a male and female officer. I opened the door to an apartment that, while never neat on its own, clearly looked like a struggle had taken place. I said we had had a verbal dispute; they looked at my apartment and clearly did not believe me. He was sitting on the steps on the landing, head in his hands. I was in a tshirt and shorts, marks still on my neck, which the officer pointed out. They asked me to fill out a victim form. I said sure, but really, it was a verbal dispute.
And that is all I wrote on the victim form. I didn’t want to be responsible for ruining his life. But after they left, I filled out the form with what really happened, so there was a record of it, even unofficially. That is the form in the photo above.
I wish I could say it ended there and that I never saw him again. But that’s not how it works. The formal relationship was over, mostly, but in a weird way that event felt like it had bonded us closer, because now we had this secret, damning for both of us, that neither of us would want anyone to know. (That, of course, led to further dysfunction.) But it was the beginning of the end, at least.
I could write more about that dysfunction, and my own part in it. I’ve gone back through the emails, and cringe at my own part in escalating the exchanges, just as I cringe at how I’d come back around (and, even worse, give him money). But whatever my role was in a dysfunctional, unhealthy relationship, I was not the one who was abusive. I was not the one who used threats and I was not the one who used force.
It was not my fault — and it’s not the fault of any other woman who is the victim of domestic violence. No matter what she puts up with or how long she waits.
As I said before, I was lucky. I got out quickly. I wasn’t hurt. I moved on. There are plenty of other women who have suffered much worse.
But that’s exactly what #YesAllWomen is about. Not having to fear for our safety should not be considered “luck.”
And yet, it’s clear from the tweets on the #YesAllWomen hashtag that it’s just not that simple:
#YesAllWomen because women are told its your fault you didn’t file a police report and leave your abuser
#YesAllWomen because some women are too afraid to leave the abusing men they love because of lack of support
#YesAllWomen have to try to learn to tell the difference between a “normal” misogynist/MRA/PUA & one who is about to become violent.
Because I only realized how awful/unacceptable some incidents were *years* after experiencing them because it’s so normalized #YesAllWomen
I speak out about surviving domestic violence because of all the stigma and misconceptions. #YesAllWomen
#YesAllWomen because I even had to think about about whether I had anything to lose/would attract criticism if I contributed to the hashtag
Me, too. This is the first time I’ve shared this publicly, and it makes me nervous. But the hashtag is called #YesAllWomen for a reason. This happened to me like it happens to many women. I’m not alone, and I don’t want anyone else to feel like they are. So here I am.
#YesAllWomen. Yes, also me.
Rachel Sklar is the co-founder of Change The Ratio and TheLi.st.