There’s an old joke that goes something like this:

–What do you tell a woman with two black eyes?

–Nothing. You’ve already told her twice.

When I was in my early twenties, I dated this guy who was an abuser. I didn’t know it at the time, of course. You really don’t know much of anything in your early twenties except how badly you want to discover the world around you. So you put up with more than if you’d been a little more experienced, a little more jaded. You deal with things differently than if life had punched you in the gut a few times to let you know it’s not the only thing out there with fists.

I’m being a little overdramatic. No one ever punched me, except my brother this one time we were kids. A good shot, right to the gut. I was ten.


There once was a drunk guy, a father of two, who I tried to keep from driving drunk. I was 19 and I’d been babysitting while the mothers were all away at a baby shower, and the fathers were all in the basement drinking beer and playing poker. When his wife called for him to come pick her up, I knew he was too drunk to drive. If you know anything as a teenager, it’s that drunk driving is stupid. That’s all they talk about in high school, right? Don’t drink and drive? Don’t let friends drive drunk? (That doesn’t mean kids listen. But they know it’s wrong.)

I followed the guy to the car, begging him not to drive. He couldn’t even get the frigging key in the door, so I grabbed them out of his hand. It was surprisingly easy.

Then he grabbed me and slammed me against the car.


Now, I knew this guy. I trusted him. I was babysitting his kids for god’s sake. But I will never forget the way he slammed me into his car. And I have no idea what might have happened if one of the other dads hadn’t grabbed him and wrestled him off me. I ran into the house and locked the door, then called the moms and told them they needed to get back to the house because the dads weren’t in any condition to drive.

I never babysat for him again. And, as with most life lessons learned the hard way, I never told my parents about it.

But enough about him. I wanted to talk about the abusive guy. Let’s call him Joe. Joe never punched me. I almost say that like it’s a point of pride. “Well, he never hauled off and smacked me, so maybe I was less of an idiot for staying with him as long as I did.”

I sent a friend of mine a copy of this book called Breathing Underwater, by Alex Flinn. (Exceptional book. Read it.) It’s written in first person, from the perspective of a sixteen year old boy who has beat up his girlfriend. My friend knew some of my history with Joe, and asked if it was hard for me to read.

It was hard for me to answer that question.

For the normal reasons, sure. It’s an emotional history, and one I’m not going to outline right here in public. But more than that: there’s something embarrassing about talking about dating an abusive partner. You ever notice how people tend to look down on battered wives? How people tend to blame them? You figure, hell, she’s staying with him, it must not be that bad.

It’s humiliating. It’s almost humiliating to post this much about it.

After I got rid of Joe, I saw a counselor for a while. He was hell-bent-for-fury determined to get me to say I’d been raped. I refused to say it. Refused. Saying I’d been raped was like admitting I was a victim, and hell if I’m going to do that. Worse: saying I’d been raped seems to cheapen the horror of women who were really raped. It’s like having a hangnail and complaining about it to someone who had their arm amputated. I won’t do that.

When I was writing the character Emily, I checked a book out of the library about domestic violence, and there was a part that really struck a chord with me. It said that abusive guys don’t come out of the gate abusing their partner. They’re usually very charming. Attentive. They just have a need to be in control that stems from being insecure. And when a guy you love hauls off and hits you, or holds you down and forces you to do things you don’t want to do, it’s not like if a stranger does it. I mean, if some guy in the grocery store backhanded you in the checkout line, you’d call the cops.

But when it’s your partner? You love that person. You think, “He’s just in a bad mood,” or, “Maybe I’m overreacting here. Maybe he didn’t realize that I wasn’t in the mood to do that.” It’s like this gradual chipping away of your self esteem. Seriously, if you’re involved with a guy, some guy you love, and he shoved you during an argument, you’d forgive him, right? Especially if he apologized profusely and promised to never do it again?

But then the next time, say he shoved you a little harder. Say he shoved you into the wall. If you complained, then maybe he’d apologize and say, “But honey, you know how I get so mad. You know I don’t mean to do it.” You accepted his apology once–it’s incredibly easy to accept it again.

Then it happens again. And suddenly YOU’RE the one who was wrong for getting him so mad. It’s like this bizarre subtle behavior shift, and before you know it you’re getting slugged or screamed at or forced. And you genuinely believe it was all your fault. He’s the real victim, not you.

That’s why women stay. It’s harder to leave.

(For more on this topic, the amazingly talented Bobbie Goettler has a fantastic post about teaching her daughter to respect herself and really learn what love is.)

2 thoughts on “Breaking

  1. You’re so SO right about the embarrassment that comes with admitting you’ve been in an abusive relationship. It took me years to admit it to myself let alone to other people. And I still feel self-conscious talking about it, knowing chances are I’m going to be judged more than “the guy.”

    I told my sister’s mother-in-law–in passing–about my college relationship and she said, “I would NEVER allow someone to treat me like that.” Like the fault was all mine. Sure, I take responsibility for not getting out sooner–maybe for ever getting in in the first place. But it sneaks up on you exactly as you described.

    Great post. Great reminders.

  2. My mom, who died in 2007, suffered from bipolar disorder. She wasn’t just abused, she actually ENJOYED being abused. She found abusive men sexually appealing. She admitted this to me when I was just a teen. Creepy, huh? This was a biproduct of her mental illness.

    My mother’s death was the catalist for my writing. In high school, I’d had a crush on a genuinely nice kid–a boy who went to church with me–and Mom had stepped in to put the kibosh on my prospects for a relationship with him. Sometimes I wonder if she couldn’t handle the fact that I wanted a NORMAL life, one without abuse and horror.

    How horrible are we talking? One of Mom’s old boyfriends beat his children’s bare butts with a paddle that was wrapped in barbed wire. He didn’t treat my mother any better. She stayed with that guy for years.

    She always had an abusive man, even when she was dying of cancer. God, that was awful to watch. Here she is, sick and swollen from chemo, and the guy was slapping her around. WTF?

    So imagine how difficult it was for me, growing up with that. When I started dating (around age 19), I went through a lot of confusion about what kind of man was worth my time.

    One week after Mom died, I wrote my first YA novel. It wasn’t a memoir; it was the tale of how my teenage years SHOULD HAVE GONE. Pure whimsy. I finished that first novel in two weeks. Okay, so it was only 30,000 words, and really just junk, but whew! I had a lot of crap built up that I needed to vent. It was my way of working through the forgiveness chapter of my life with Mom.

    I see what you’re saying about people judging you. I witnessed that first hand. I still see it, when people talk about my mom. But hey, you learned from your past. My mother never did.

    I’m not ashamed for Mom though. She was mentally ill. Just like a person with a physical ailment has no control of thier body’s disease, my mother had very little control of her mind and emotions.

    Lord, it feels good to talk about this. Thanks.

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