Domestic violence comes in many forms. It doesn’t always look like a movie starring Julia Roberts or Jennifer Lopez.
When I left my ex-husband at age 27, the first question people asked was “What happened?” Next came even less helpful comments and questions, such as “But you seemed so happy,” and “Did you try counseling?”
I didn’t know how to respond. It wasn’t easy to tell them that the life I had hoped and planned for was falling apart in front of me. I was going against many of the values I was raised on growing up in Texas: I was walking away from a vow I had made, one that was expected to last until death do us part. The problem was we had already parted. Years of abuse had driven us further and further away from each other, until the marriage was irreparable.
For six years, I had been abused without being able to admit to it. I never had a black eye or a busted lip or an emergency room visit. I made excuses for him: I guess I pushed his buttons or He wouldn’t be like this if I were a better wife.
What I did experience was criticism veiled in playfulness. He’d make comments like “When are you going back to the gym?” and “Remember what you looked like on our honeymoon?” He could go into a rage over a sarcastic comment muttered under my breath and would scream in my ears until spit was landing on my skin, only to say later that he would black out during those times and had no recollection of his actions.
One night, I dared to disagree with him over a political issue, and he kept me up until 3 a.m. until he was convinced he had shown me the error of my ways. I begged him to let me go to sleep, but he kept the light on and would not stop arguing with me about how wrong I was. Control also masquerades as religious conservatism.
I had been a virgin when I met him, but he occasionally flew into jealous rages if I was too friendly with someone he considered attractive. He pressured me for sex and commented on my lack of sex drive on more than one occasion. It was worse when alcohol was involved.
Double standards are another form of control. He despised Sex and the City because of the “language,” so I wasn’t allowed to watch it; he watched whatever TV shows and movies he wanted. The same went for music. One day I borrowed his iPod and listened to one of his workout playlists, my jaw dropping when I heard the expletives in the songs. When I confronted him about it, he told me he “didn’t hear the words, just the beat.” When we were first married, I got in trouble for telling him to shut up. Several years later, he was hurling insults like “go to hell” or “go f*ck yourself.”
When I told someone he had been physically abusive, she responded, “But he didn’t, like, beat you, did he?”
Eventually, things became physical, and he pushed me into the dining room wall until the chair rail slammed into my spine and my back hurt for two days. He grabbed my arm and left bruises, noticed only by my most observant friends. Still, when I told someone he had been physically abusive, she responded, “But he didn’t, like, beat you, did he?”
Reaching My Breaking Point
Part of my grad program in mental health counseling was to practice clinical skills on fellow students. My friend needed some hours of practice, so I agreed to play the role of a client for her. She told me to make up a scenario, so I did—about a woman who was deeply unhappy in a controlling marriage.
At one point, she stopped and was no longer the counselor. She was my friend, and she was concerned. She put her hand on my arm, looked me in the eyes and said, “You’re a little too good at acting this out. Are you OK?” Several hours and many tears later, I knew what I had to do.
Because I was so mentally damaged, I left quietly, telling few people and leaving out many of the details. I felt horribly ashamed and somehow responsible for my failed marriage. I protected him while he dragged my name through the mud. He stalked me, showing up at my new apartment, my work, and the bar where I was hanging out with friends. Sometimes he would hurl insults at me; sometimes he would beg me to come back.
More Than the Numbers
Many of the statistics online only take into account severe physical abuse or violence, while abuse that is considered less severe (like my own) goes unreported or unmeasured. I have written on this subject before, only to have a reader leave a comment that I hadn’t experienced domestic violence, only domestic abuse.
All types of domestic abuse count—the wounds you can see and the wounds you can’t—and we have to validate and assist victims.
The reason I’m writing this is to raise awareness that all types of domestic abuse count—the wounds you can see and the wounds you can’t—and we have to validate and assist victims, not get caught up in verbiage.
As a mental health counselor, I work daily with victims of abuse and assault who have not ever reported the crimes committed against them. Stats reveal nearly half of all women and men in the U.S. have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Every nine seconds a woman is assaulted or beaten. And reports show domestic victimization is correlated with a higher rate of depression and suicidal behavior.
If you’re in an abusive situation or relationship, please seek help. If the people in your life do not believe you or are minimizing your abuse, know that this does not mean your report is invalid. Get to a safe place and visit The National Domestic Violence Hotline’s website or call an advocate at 1−800−799−7233. Talk to a trusted friend, family member, or mental health provider.
No matter what you feel you have done, no one deserves to be abused in any way. Do not let your abuser silence your story.