Loving a verbally and emotionally abusive man was the most confusing and contorted place I have ever been. It feels very much like falling down Alice’s rabbit hole: words don’t mean what they are supposed to mean; what I tried to do ‘right’ or to make things better inevitably worked against me; I was told opposite things in one breath: you are beautiful, you are wonderful, I am so in love with you, I could never stand by and let someone hurt you was coupled to what’s wrong with you, you’re a waste of a good brain, you’ve never accomplished anything, you’d be nothing if not for me. Abuse is when the word ‘love’ is used for a thing that is torture. The analogy isn’t my own. I read somewhere that to use the things a woman has shared about her past, her most intimate and vulnerable secrets, against her, is “the worst form of psychological torture there is” and something inside me clicked, broke into instant tears of heavy recognition, and long time stuffed feelings of reality. No one has a right to cast aspersions on your past. I have had abortions, I’ve been sexually assaulted, I’ve had partners before this man. None of those things are wrong. Every one of them was repeatedly used against me.
Emotional abuse is a wasteland, and living there will kill you. If you know what I mean, I hope you also know what I’ve come to know: nothing you do will ever work. All the rules are broken. There is no sense, no forgiving, no love, no respect, and absolutely nothing you can do about it.
I tried. I tried to be nicer, kinder, more attentive. That resulted in hurt. I tried to stand up for myself, to be assertive, to logically state what the truth was. This resulted in even more hurt. I tried to fight back. I tried to ignore. I tried to please.
Fact is, there is nothing I could ever do to make it better. It’s the odd kind of game, where the only winning move is not to play. That seems obvious to people outside, like common sense. But when you live there, this realization is dark and low. It’s a place of complete grief, powerlessness, and despair. It’s a chilling experience. But it’s also here, at the outer reaches of our endurance and heart strength, that we find the strength to act. We have to save ourselves.
Emotional abuse of women by men is a terribly ‘ordinary’ phenomena. It is so ordinary that even those living with it can confuse it with and excuse it as normal behavior. If you don’t have the black eye, if he’s never raped you, do you have any right to complain? Any need to save your own life?
(This is how terribly ordinary it is: I know that most people reading the above will find it discomforting and a little odd. And I know that any woman who has lived with it has heard that argument five thousand times. No, you do not have any right, says he. What the *** is wrong with you?).
Yes. Yes you have a right to complain. That is the right of anyone, in any relationship. Unless you have the right to express grievance, you are not equal, and not safe. Yes. You have been hurt. And yes, you need to save yourself.
Denigration, belittlement, contempt, censorship and blaming are not valid expressions of love. Jealousy, accusations, and lack of trust are not expressions of concern.
Love should not hurt.
But this is where it gets even harder, even more confusing. As if having your experience and reality defined for you in the relationship weren’t enough, you’re also told what is and isn’t real by the world outside. If he hurts you, he doesn’t love you, they say.
There is a level on which this is true. Control, manipulation, harassment are not expressions of love, but of contempt and ultimately of hatred. The person who puts this on you DOES hate you in some ways.
But to say that’s the end of the story over simplifies a very complex situation. Chances are, he does love you, too. Not very well. He’s not very good at it, and certainly not fair. But the truth, the whole truth, is that there is real love, even in the rubble.
Even if he doesn’t love you, chances are you’re stuck there because you love him.
I will not be the one to disparage what you believe and feel by saying “that’s not love”. I will tell you there are better loves, bigger loves, loves of fairness and so much joy you’ll topple over laughing. That you deserve that kind.
That you will never get it, staying where you are.
Women – strong intelligent women, kind women, intuitive and competent women with strong self esteem and healthy boundaries – find themselves in abusive relationships. It doesn’t happen because you are weak, made a mistake, should have known better.
It happens because you happened to be there, and he happens to be abusive. You do not bring out the worst in him. You didn’t make him angry. You don’t drive him crazy.
There is nothing wrong with you.
Those very intelligent, very strong woman can hesitate for years before taking action to save themselves. It can be even harder to act when there are no obvious bruises, when the weapons are psychological, the wounds personal. Women often willingly focus on ‘being there’, ‘understanding’, and ‘helping’ their abusive partner rather than saving themselves.
Look: many men find it difficult – even impossible – to take any responsibility at all for the emotional pain and distress they cause. This is cultural, and certainly not news. That many women feel responsible for the emotional well-being of everyone around them is not news, either.
But those cultural expressions become toxic and lethal in the homes of abuse. They’re called ‘normal’. People rely on and expect us to behave according to ‘norms’. This is what makes abuse possible and so awfully familiar.
Underlying a man’s lack of responsibility (for which I’ve never really heard a convincing excuse), is often sadism. Yes, he does hate you. He objectifies you, uses you, sexualizes you, and erases you as a human being. Many men positively relish the drama, the tension, the increase in adrenalin that abusing someone brings.
Once, my partner said he found it ‘romantic’. Inside of me, quiet, without answering, something in me curled up and died.
Perhaps he expresses regret afterwards, or says he he sorry. Sometimes, we can feel their regret, even if it isn’t stated. But unless they are ‘sorry’ enough to make substantive changes, this remorse is simply part of the cycle that marks any kind of addiction or dysfunction. This remorse is actually a part of the abuse.
I spent a very long time accepting his remorse. He didn’t say it very often. He didn’t take steps to change. But I could sense, in his words and his posture, that he felt regret. That seemed enough.
It was not enough. That he could not verbalize his responsibility, or make a commitment to change, is further abuse.
And here I was taking it as compassion, or deep feeling, or sadness.
Look what happened: I was hurt, verbally attacked, called insulting names and belittled as a woman, a partner, and a person who should have the right to act on her own; but suddenly, in that remorse or compassion or sadness, I was caring for him.
Two fold punch: I am hurt, and then I am denied my needs because he has some, apparently more important. This denies the severity of what he’s done. It denies my right to anger, or sympathy, or feelings at all.
Abusive men work to have all her attention, and to have his needs occupy the central place in the relationship. This isn’t usually spoken, it’s not a verbalized rule; it’s simply enforced, over and over again. It’s an exploitation of the ‘norms’. What her separate needs (or thoughts, or opinions) might be are not encouraged. If they appear, they are seen as attacks on him and his rights. If they appear, they are ridiculed, discredited, and disparaged.
Mature love knows what another is feeling and cares about that feeling, even when you do not share it. Mutuality in relationships is in regarding the other as autonomous and complete, with a right to and natural capacity for thoughts, feelings, likes and dislikes, that have nothing to do with you. Indeed, ‘real love’, a friend told me, ‘wants to know everything about you, not destroy what you already have’.
Allow me to be ruthlessly personal, and then to touch on the state of the world. I have to: this is my life, and it is your life, the real person reading this right now, and it has something to do with the world we live in. This is important. Your life has been compromised (if you are a mother, a father, an abusive man, or an abused woman), and the bigger picture has everything to do with it. Abuse feels private, personal, intimate, and terribly secret and soulful. It is an attack on your soul. But it is also common. It is part of our culture. It is normal. It is based in our ‘norms’.
Let me be personal: I left my abuser some time ago. Leaving was a long, very long process (even that was used against me: why do you keep coming back? It can’t be that bad. You must be lying.). And much hurt and anger have been surfacing in me after the fact, after I’ve left. This is uncomfortable, disturbing at times, exhausting. (What’s wrong with you? Can’t you just let go? Forgive, forget).
But it also makes sense, and is healthy. It makes sense because the atmosphere of abuse is one of denial and distortions and secrets. As it was happening, it was denied, minimized, or explained away. That caused me to disbelieve it. It is only with the gift of hindsight, with some safety to think what I think and feel what I feel, that the whole truth is visible.
In crisis situations, we can numb. I didn’t feel, because all of my emotional, psychic, and physical energy was concentrated on his needs and basic survival. After the fact, the numbing wears off and some of the real pain begins.
And in abusive situations, it is literally unsafe and unwise to speak up, to identify the feelings and the truth. Consciously and unconsciously, we are silenced. We don’t find our selves again until we are safe.
And it is healthy: the real cost of this relationship runs deep. Grief is a process. Healing is a process. It will take honest time for the pain to run it’s course.
I am not there, any longer. But recently, disturbing images and thoughts have come into my dreams and thoughts. In particular, two images. The first is pornographic, something I remember seeing years ago. A young girl sat naked on a couch, with her knees drawn up and her head tucked down. A man with his cock out of his jeans stood before her, rubbing his cock across her legs and her hair. Eventually, the girl ‘opened up’; she squealed with pleasure, salivated on his erect dick, mounted him again and again. She said yes, and baby, and please.
The second is a memory. This happened before, long before I’d even met my abusive partner. I was on a date. It wasn’t a first, and we’d already done lots of things together, and this night we’d already had dinner, seen a show, and were sitting in a bar with no real plans. He got a text from a friend, unaware that we were together. He was invited to a strip club. My date laughed, told me about it.
We ended up going to the club, together.
If I remember correctly, this was my idea.
I wanted to be independent, unaffected. I wanted to be a wise, worldly woman. I wanted to accept the fact that these men, who I knew, one of whom kissed me, took in girls as entertainment. I saw this as normal, a fact, just the way things are.
It was an uneventful night. We had a few drinks. We left. I sat and talked with one of the girls while her co-worker lapdanced one of the guys. I saw tits, and spangled underware, and a sticky bathroom floor. At one point, more guys joined us. One of them was aloof to me and didn’t, when introduced, shake my hand. My date whispered: I guess he thinks you work here. Later, getting a beer from the bar, I had a stranger grab my ass. It didn’t really bother me. I’d had strangers grab my ass in other places, non strip clubs, before. It’s all terribly normal.
These two images or memories have returned, in gritty detail, in sound, in smell. Now, they make me swoon and feel very, very vulnerable.
We have been taught that women are vindictive, men are more sexual than women, that sex and aggression are instincts, and that there’s nothing wrong with a little porn. arguments about this range from nature to nurture, science and history. I am not going to take up the arguments, now. I do not know, and can’t know, what is ‘natural’ to a human mind and behavior and what has been taught. I do know, however, that we have had these ‘normal’ things taught, and taught, and taught to us. Even if there is some truth in every stereotype, even if we are sexual and aggressive beasts in the wild, it remains more true that these are things we teach little boys and girls. These are things that are enforced – subtly or blatantly – in our most intimate relationships. So that what happens is not ‘pornography’, not some girl named Dallas slithering on a pole, but a thing that happens when someone’s mouth comes close to my clit. A mark that has been made on my own ass. A thing I have in common with every woman I pass on the street.
To call a woman vindictive is to negate her right to an opinion, and to obfuscate the fact that as a woman, she is physically vulnerable, financially handicapped, and in all sorts of socially real ways not given the tools of assertiveness and self determination that men are. Emotions and words are what are left to her. The use of them does not vindication make.
We may be, on the level of our homo sapiens, cave men selves, sexually aggressive. But we do not live as cave men. We do not live as cave men in any aspect of our lives: not at work, not in politics, not in art, nor food, nor technology, spirituality, or physical fitness. The only part of our lives this is considered ‘normal’ is in inter sexual relationships. It is not a ‘truth’, but an excuse.
When I think now about sexualization, and its extreme in prostitution and pornography, I am torn. I would like to believe in free speech. I would like to believe that people are free, in the privacy of their sex lives, to do what they want to do.
I do believe those things. And I can get a sexual thrill at the idea of a man’s strength.
But to use those arguments as excuses for pornography, to say dancers ‘choose’ to dance, or that porn stars ‘like it’, is along the lines of the arguments made in verbal abuse. I have learned truth. In those movies, on those websites, there are thousands of pictures of women’s bodies. The women are given names. Close ups pan into their faces. The men, on the other hand, don’t get names. We rarely see their faces. There are thousands of girls, catalogued. The number of men ought to tell us what is happening. When I went to the strip club (and I’ve been in many. I’ve had girlfriends who danced, I have danced on bars for tips, I explored them for a while with a kind of anthropological wonder), I was struck by the physical truths of the place. Men sat in the dark, anonymous. They are fully clothed, use money, consume drinks and food. They recline. They are entertained. They are consumers. The women are not clothed. They are put on stages. Even when they make the rounds of the room, they walk alone, naked, circling the groups of men. They take money. The bathrooms in these places are telling: the men’s room is prominent, clean, classy or overtly descriptive. It’s inviting, accommodating, swank or at least convenient. To get to the girls room in these places, you often have to snake around through the back of the building, around utility closets, up and down stairs.
There are arguments about the stereotypes. arguments that say men are abused too. And what about gay porn? These are not truths, but slant.
Men are abused too, usually by male partners. It is an extension of the sexualized norms, not an aberration of it. It is another arm of power, control, victimization. When men are abused by a woman (the numbers are infitismal in comparison, but people use them as if to say see, it’s not just poor girls, it’s not a man woman thing, it’s just sick people), it is also an extension of the power, control, and victimization roles.
These are the myths and realities of being a woman and a man. We call it normal. It produces a culture of 27 million people enslaved (more than the entire trans-Atlantic African trade). It produces hundreds of thousands of american children working in porn and prostitution. It creates a world in which one in three U.S. born girls are sexually assaulted (abused, once or a dozen times over) before she is 18 years old.
And this is what made it possible for me to be curled up on the floor, gasping for breath, afraid to speak, listening to a man tell me I had no reason to cry.
I believe in erotica. I believe in the sensual. I am excited by sensual words, pictures, images, sounds. I believe sex is beautiful.
But I no longer think prostitution, pornography, or calling your girl a dirty whore are ‘sexy’.