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Abuse By Any Other Name

March 4, 2010

Confession: in general, I am uncomfortable with confessions.  I’m an academic, and I like to be able to pretend that the work I do is objective—and while I recognize that my personal is always involved somewhere, I like to hide that behind my incisive analysis and acerbic wit.

But between QueenGeorge’s last post and the events of the last couple of days in my life, I think a bit of sharing is in order.   Today I began training to volunteer at a women’s crisis center, an organization that provides support to women who have been victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.  The training is rightly intense, working carefully to ensure that people like me answering phones and trying to help women in moments of extreme vulnerability learn how best to respond to such women—to provide them the assistance they need, and importantly, how to avoid treating them in ways that dismiss, disempower or unintentionally make them more uncomfortable than they are already.  This was all rather ironically-timed for me, as today was also the day that I finally decided to tell anyone beyond my partner and close friends about my own experience with emotional abuse at the hands of an ex.

I won’t share the circumstances that led me to believe that this was necessary information to share today.  For the moment, it must suffice to say that I have grown concerned for the safety and well-being of others.

But because what I experienced did not involve physical violence, I have been hesitant in the past to refer to it as abuse.  I have told myself that I was too sensitive, that I was self-pitying, that classifying my experience in this way trivializes the experiences of other women who are beaten by their partners every day.  And while it is true that my experience was in many ways far more fortunate than theirs, it was still damaging—and this makes me wonder about how we might begin to have a significant feminist conversation about abuse beyond the image of spousal battery.  While abuse is about violence, it is also about control and manipulation—two things that don’t always require a fist.

So, I want to tell you a bit about how it happened in my experience.  And maybe, hopefully, we can think a bit together about what it might mean to resist this kind of emotional abuse, and how we might best support people we know who are victimized by it.

In retrospect, I of course have the sense that I should have seen the warning signs.  But I was 18, inexperienced and immersed in an evangelical culture that traded in guilt and self-doubt.  From the earliest days of our relationship, The Jerk (hereafter “TJ”) criticized everything I did.  I put up with it in the beginning because I liked him and because I had such a low opinion of myself that I thought he was right.  Over the course of our relationship, he made me believe that he was the only good thing in my life, and that I would be a worse person if it weren’t for him.  Every time I spoke up about something he said or did to me, he made me feel that I was being totally unreasonable and selfish, and usually suggested that my failure to please him had something to do with the poor status of my relationship with God.  Just a few of the things he said and did to me:

  • He threatened to break up with me for being in an acting-class skit in which my character said “damn.”
  • When I gained 5 pounds, he told me that I was getting fat, and made me go to the gym with him.  When I could not keep up with his running speed, he yelled at me.
  • He made me stop eating ice cream on a regular basis.
  • He complained that when I cooked, I did not cook enough vegetables.
  • He demanded that I hold hands with him in class, even when I said I felt this was inappropriate and made me uncomfortable.  He stopped speaking to me for a day when I refused.
  • He told me that if I ever broke up with him, he would stalk me.
  • He did not ‘let’ me buy my own copies of books for classes we had together, since he said that because we were going to get married eventually, this was a waste of money.  He then got angry with me if I wrote too much in his books when I used them.
  • He told me that my desire to study philosophy was selfish and useless.
  • He was obsessed with saving money, and scolded me for spending my money on frivolous things, which included anything he didn’t like.
  • He threatened to break up with me if I applied for an Honors study-abroad program.  This is how I ended up spending a semester in London —I wanted to go to the Honors program, but he wouldn’t ‘let’ me, since he wouldn’t be able to go and keep tabs on me.  London, in contrast was open to anyone from our school.
  • He threatened to break up with me for believing in evolution, even a Theistic version.
  • He wouldn’t let me cut my hair, and got angry if I cut even a couple of inches off of it without asking/telling him.
  • He did not like any of my friends, and frequently told me that I shouldn’t spend so much time with them.
  • He repeatedly showed up in my classes to make elaborate public displays of affection, despite my repeated insistence that this was embarrassing to me and needed to stop.
  • He once changed the “find and replace” settings on my word processor so that every time I typed my name on a paper, it was changed to “I love TJ.”
  • He once left for a weekend without telling me that he was going anywhere, and deliberately left his car parked outside my dorm so that I would wonder where he was.
  • He guilt-tripped me about his own masturbation, and said that it was my fault for not “holding him accountable.”
  • He demanded that my clothes have high necklines, and even forbade me from wearing some high-necked shirts in which “shapes” were visible.
  • Despite this, he pressured me to make out constantly, even when I did not want to.
  • He complained that I did not make enough “noise” while making out.
  • He got angry that I did not want to “schedule” make-out sessions.
  • Once when we were on a trip in abroad with a bunch of people from the London semester, he said something rude to me at a pub.  When I replied that he had had too much beer to drink, and should stop, he said in front of everyone that he could say whatever he wanted to me because he had paid for my trip.
  • When I started to realize how bad things were, and told him that most guys would think I was a pretty good catch, he told me that most guys had pretty low standards.
  • After I was hit by a car and hospitalized, he did not stay with me.  Other people stayed in the hospital overnight.
  • The summer after my accident and surgeries, he constantly complained that I wasn’t putting enough effort into our relationship.
  • He suggested that I was unhappy not because of the PTSD and his lack of support, but because I didn’t understand what love was, or how to love him properly.
  • He discouraged me for taking medication for diagnosed PTSD, because he was afraid it would change me.
  • When I went to visit him for the 4th of July—on crutches, 4 months after the accident in which I was hit by a car while walking across a street—he yelled at me for 1) not walking fast enough and 2) breaking down crying at the edge of a busy street, and refusing to cross.
  • On several occasions, he tried to make me believe that my parents were “against us” because they expressed reservations about him/our relationship.
  • When I tried to end the relationship, he suggested that I wasn’t thinking clearly because I was on medication.
  • When he came to get his engagement ring back from me, he somehow manipulated me into going on a date with him, during which he repeatedly touched my legs and tried to force me to make out with him, despite my entreaties for him to stop.  He stopped only when one of my roommates walked in.
  • He called me regularly for at least a month after I broke up with him, to see if I was dating anyone else and to warn me that, soon, he wasn’t going to want to take me back.
  • He did not tell his family that I had broken off the engagement for at least 2 months, and claimed that it was my responsibility to tell them.
  • He only stopped calling me after (with the support and encouragement of friends) I demanded that he cease contacting me.
  • He tried to contact me for years after this, though I blocked 2 of his email addresses.
  • As recently as last year, he tried to “friend” me on facebook.

I could go on, but I think that’s enough.

It is hard to explain why I stayed with him as long as I did; I hope it goes without saying that I wish I had been able to end it earlier.  Through a lot of therapy, I realized that TJis a classic abusive partner: he is controlling and manipulative, he isolates the women he is with from their friends and family, he constantly tears them down and makes them believe that the abuse is their fault.  He is unable to acknowledge that what he does is in any way wrong, because he believes that his constant criticism is a way of showing love.  My behavior during our relationship was classic abuse-victim behavior: I told no one about any of it and went to great lengths to conceal the things he said and did to me from my friends and family; I believed that everything was my fault; I thought that I had no choice but to be with him; I began, towards the end, to wish for my own death.  To this day, I have nightmares that I am still with him, unable to escape.

For many years, I was so embarrassed and ashamed by what I “allowed” him to do to me that I refused to talk about it to anyone.  It is still difficult to admit.

I have wanted, for a long time, to tell him off, to make him understand what he did, how much he hurt me, and how much I justifiably and urgently desire his lifelong misery.  I have not done this, for a couple of reasons.  First, because part of me still fears that he will show up on my doorstep one day, I have spent quite a bit of effort in concealing my whereabouts from him.  Second, because I believe it would be fruitless:  TJ has an uncanny ability to read everything as self-vindicating, and I’m sure that the news that I am still angry (or worse, no longer a Christian) would be enough to convince him that I really am every bit as bad as he said I was, and in need of his prayer and God’s/his correction.

A few years ago, when that pastor’s wife in Tennessee killed her husband, I told my partner that I had often feared that I would end up like her. The truth is that I have no idea if I ever would have made it that far, and it seems more likely, in retrospect, that I would have harmed myself instead.

Fortunately, with the help of a strong support system, I got out.  But I wonder about how many other women do not–how many others, in fact, are unable to understand what they experience as abuse, or even as wrong.  I wonder how we might be able to educate women and girls to know how they deserve to be treated–and, importantly, how to educate their friends and relatives to respond when they believe or know that abuse is taking place.  This is especially important in our culture of victim-blaming, in which “confrontations” between friends and victims often takes the form of an interrogation (Why don’t you leave him?  Why do you let him treat you like that?)–which, all too frequently, lead victims to deepen their concealment of the abuse and protection of the abuser.  These are questions without easy answers.  But they are worth asking, especially when the stakes are so high.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. marybullstonecraft permalink*
    March 8, 2010 7:41 pm

    Additionally, I should have added, “How can we educate young men not to be manipulators and abusers?” This, I think, is an incredibly pressing question: the onus should not be simply on women to leave abusers (and, we know statistically that “leaving” on its own is far from certain to end the abuse); it should certainly and primarily be on men NOT TO ABUSE.

  2. June 25, 2010 8:31 pm


    I’m over here from my blog. This is very brave. Thank you for sharing it.

    I was lucky that when the abuse started to get bad, I was already in therapy. I was in therapy for being raped, actually, and person started abusing me because he resented my rape, resented that it made me too distant, not always accessible, not able to be as emotionally supportive as he wanted me to be. Which: was clearly abuse. And insane. It was crazy behavior, but it was easy to see, because I was in such an already compromised place. There just wasn’t any room for me to take on any of his insanity. It helped me get out early.

    I am sorry you dealt with this for so long. While abusers are the enemy, we are our own worst enemy second, because we doubt ourselves, and keep quiet. It is so hard to speak out and fight back – it is some insidious shit abusers manage to pull, man. That post I wrote today nearly made me have a full-blown panic attack. So I can understand.

    Also, I don’t think writing anonymously is a concession. Protecting yourself and feeling safe and recovering always comes first.

    Thank you for sharing. Thank you for commenting. It all helps.

    • marybullstonecraft permalink*
      June 28, 2010 1:57 pm

      Thanks, Gayle. It really is so hard, while it’s going on, to recognize the bizarre behavior of an abuser as bizarre–because I think part of the abuse consists in making you doubt your ability to recognize and call out its bizarre-ness. It is definitely fortunate that you had a therapist to talk to when this was all going on–I wish that I’d had someone to help me through it at the time…though this is, of course, much easier to say in retrospect! At the time, it was all about covering up, because I was so incredibly embarrassed.

      And I do agree with you about the anonymizing. Part of me feels–perhaps when I am getting a bit self-blaming–that I have some duty to *out* him as a terrible person, especially because his job puts him in a position of authority, often of vulnerable people. But I also know that such endeavors are rarely, if ever, successful in their aims–and also that he’s already gotten enough of my energy, enough of my life, and that I am not responsible for his choice to hurt other people. So remembering that helps me here, as do conversations with people like you. So thanks.

      • June 29, 2010 10:36 pm

        That reminder that “I am NOT responsible for his choice to hurt other people” is a good point, succinctly worded. I’d do well to remember that one too, sometimes.


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