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By Jennifer Williams-Fields
Stop. Just stop asking why a woman is so stupid and so weak when she stays in an abusive relationship. There’s no answer you can possibly understand.
Your judgment only further shames abused women. It shames women like me.
There was no punch on the very first date with my ex-husband. That’s not normally how abusive marriages start. In fact, my first date was probably pretty similar to yours: he was charming, he paid attention to me, and he flattered me.
Of course, the red flags were there in the beginning of my relationship. But I was young and naïve, probably much like you were in the beginning of your relationship.
Except my marriage took a different turn than yours.
An abusive marriage takes time to build. It’s slow and methodical and incessant, much like a dripping kitchen faucet.
It begins like a little drip you don’t even notice — an off-hand remark that is “just a joke.” I’m told I’m too sensitive and the remark was no big deal. It seems so small and insignificant at the time. I probably am a little too sensitive.
I occasionally notice the drip but it’s no big deal. A public joke made at my expense is just my partner being the usual life of the party. When he asks if I’m wearing this dress out or whom I’m going with, it only means he loves me and cares about me.
When he tells me he doesn’t like my new friend, I agree. Yes, I can see where she can be bossy. My husband is more important than a friend, so I pull away and don’t continue the friendship.
The drip is getting annoying, but you don’t sell your house over a leaky faucet.
When a playful push was a little more than playful, I tell myself he didn’t really mean it.
He forgets he’s stronger than me. When I confront him in yet another lie he’s told, he tells me I’m crazy for not believing him. Maybe I’m crazy … I’m beginning to feel a little crazy.
I begin to compensate for the drips in my marriage. I’ll be better. I’ll be a better wife. I’ll make sure the house is clean and dinner is always prepared. And when he doesn’t even come home for dinner, I’ll keep it wrapped and warmed in the oven for him.
On a night I’m feeling feisty, I feed his dinner to the dog before he comes home. I’m not feeling quite as smug well after midnight when he does show up. I quickly get out of bed and go to the kitchen as he yells at me to make him dinner.
Waking me from sleep becomes a regular occurrence. I no longer allow myself deep, restful sleep. I’m always listening and waiting.
In the morning, I’ll shush the kids to keep them quiet so they don’t wake up daddy. We all begin to walk on eggshells around him.
The drip is flowing pretty strong now. I’m afraid to put a bucket under it and see how much water I’m really losing. Denial is setting in.
If I hadn’t said what I did, he wouldn’t have gotten so mad. It’s my fault; I need to just keep quiet. I should know better than to confront him when he’s been drinking.
He’s right — I really am an ungrateful bitch. He goes to work every day so I can stay home with the kids. Of course he needs time to himself on the way home from work each day.
On the rare occasion I do meet with my friends, I rush to be home before him. I never ask him to babysit so I can do something in the evening. I mustn’t inconvenience him.
We attempt marriage counseling. Although neither of us is totally honest about why we are there, the counselors are open with us about their concerns.
We never spend more than one session with a counselor.
I’m working so hard to be the perfect wife and have the perfect family that I don’t take the time to notice there’s water spilling on to the floor.
I know what will make this better. I’ll get really active outside the home but of course, I’ll still take care of everything in the home and never burden him. And I’ll never dare ask for help.
I’m now the perfect fourth grade room mother. My church mentors tell me to read books and listen to lectures on praying for my husband and understanding his needs.
I work very hard to present the front of a perfectly happy family. My kids are involved in multiple activities that I, of course, solely organize and am responsible for.
I’ve begun to drop subtle hints to the other moms but when they confront me I adamantly deny it. No, everything is great, I insist. I point to all the happy family photos I post to Facebook as evidence.
I’m not sure which scares me more: the fear that others will find out my secret, or that my husband will find out I told the truth about our marriage. I realize I’m now afraid of him.
And then one day, I wake up and realize the house is flooding. My head bobs under the water. I’m scared.
I also see the fear in my children’s eyes. Oh dear God, what have I done? How did we get here? Who have I become?
The night he throws his cell phone at me and narrowly misses my head, I want to pack the kids in the car and leave. The evening at the dinner table when he stands up and throws a fork at me in front of the kids, I want to leave.
Where would I possibly go? And if I do go somewhere, what will I do? How will I afford living on my own?
He’s right — I have no skills to survive on my own. I need his money.
“What, you want to leave and go whore around?” he yells to me. “I always knew you were a slut.”
He’s a master at deflection. His actions are no longer the focus; I’m the one on trial now.
I’m no longer the woman I was on our first date. I’ve become timid and weak in front of him. I feel defeated. I chose this man and I gave birth to these children. It’s my fault.
With every breath I take, it’s my duty to keep these kids safe and keep my life together. It’s the only life I’ve known for twenty years. At this point, I don’t know how to do anything else.
The flood continues. My head bobs under a second time.
On a typical anger-filled evening, I say enough is enough and I decide to fight back. But even in his stumbling drunken stupor, he’s stronger than I am.
I see the look in his eye as he hovers over me. He has biologically been given the ability to kill. That look in his eye terrifies me.
“Go ahead and leave,” he sneers to me. “But the kids stay here.”
My retreat that night is all it takes to turn the faucet on all the way and force me to tread water, if not for my life, then at the very least for my sanity.
Despite my best attempts, my secret has been exposed. I can’t just up and leave like well-meaning friends tell me to. It’s not that easy.
I have no money. In fact, he found my secret stash I’d been working on for almost a year. I thought I was so careful that no bank records would come to the house. He must have broken in to my email.
I should’ve known better. He always kept close tabs on me. He hated when I accused him of spying on me, so I just let him snoop.
He made me feel so guilty and ashamed when I handed over my secret savings to him. I wonder what he did with the money? I know it didn’t get used for the kids needs. I assume he drank it or gambled it or used it to impress another woman.
I’m stuck. I stay.
Dear God, please don’t let me go under a third time. My family is beyond rescue, but please save me and save my kids.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m no longer in the marriage, yet my scars run deep.
Abuse doesn’t always manifest as a black eye or a bloody wound. The effects of psychological abuse are just as damaging.
I entered counseling and was diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and PTSD. The psychological abuse kept me fearful, the depression and anxiety left me incapable of taking the steps necessary to get out.
Although I initially thought PTSD was a bit extreme, it’s been almost three years and certain noises or situations still trigger difficult memories for me.
When my male boss was angry and yelling at the staff one day, I became physically sick. I felt like I was right back where I was years ago, sitting and cowering on the garage floor, trying to placate the anger of a man towering over me.
I worry that not only have my daughters witnessed a man mistreat a woman, but that my sons have had a poor example to follow of what it means to be a real man.
I stayed for the sake of my children. Now, I blame myself for the effects staying may possibly have on them.
Why did I stay? I stayed because I was isolated; I was financially dependent on him; I was sleep deprived; I was told and I believed I was worthless; I was worn down from constantly being on guard for the next attack.
I stayed because I was more afraid to leave.
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