After leaving a violent relationship, I wanted to put it all behind me and move out into the world as if the abuse never happened. That’s a luxury victims of domestic violence aren’t allowed. We are left with too many scars and bruises that must heal before we can move on to a healthy relationship with ourself or others.
Determined to avoid another violent relationship, I sought answers to the nagging questions that colored my thinking. What was so awful about me that he couldn’t love me? How did I get sucked into this relationship? Was this really abuse? Why do I feel I have to return to him? Will anyone ever love me? What does healthy thinking sound like?
This entry is the first of a series addressing those questions.
Was It Really Abuse?
Until I went into therapy, I thought that hitting, punching, kicking, beating, and rape were the signs of abuse. I learned that abuse is more than physical attacks. It also includes verbal assaults, constant criticism, humiliation, mind games, control of finances, attacks on one’s faith, and more.
My partner started hitting me shortly after we were married. When he broke my eardrum with a blow to my head, I told him that if he continued to hit me, I would leave. He accused me of not loving him. I felt terrible, but something inside me kept me from retracting my ultimatum.
After that incident, the verbal abuse quickly escalated. His angry tirades scared me into compliance. He stopped hitting me but I was terrified that he would. When I’d hear about a women being battered by her partner, I’d think, “What I live with isn’t so bad. At least he stopped hitting me.”
Through treatment I learned that what my partner did, was just as damaging as physical abuse.
To gain control, an abuser creates chaos to keep his victim’s attention on making him happy to assure peace in the home. He uses specific tools. Like making trivial demands. Strict rules regarding everything from how to fold his clothing, stack canned goods in the cabinet, to insisting she wash the dishes only by hand, causing more work, less free time. She feels pressure to keep everything “perfect,” as defined by him. He makes rules that change at his whim. He expects the victim to know the rules have changed without being told. A controlling partner often limits the victim’s access to finances and provides less money to run the household then is needed, giving the abuser more excuses to berate the victim, claiming she is inept at handling money.
An abuser often makes it clear who is in control by refusing to help his victim. Teaching her that she cannot depend on him to watch her back. Even in an emergency, she cannot trust that he will be there for her. He may choose to let her struggle and suffer.
An abuser plays mind games -- hiding his victim’s personal items. He tells her she did or said something she hadn’t, to make her think she’s going crazy. When she calls him on it, he twists her words and takes the discussion into a different direction, putting her on the defensive. He sets her up to fail. He teaches her that she cannot trust herself.
He creates a world to ensure that he holds the power in the relationship and she feels helpless. Understanding this, I realized that my partner actions were not about who he claimed I was -- an inept, stupid, worthless woman -- but about who he was, an insecure man trying to feel important at my expense. Knowing this set me free from the labels he forced on me.