Saturday, January 17, 2015

It can happen to anyone

For the last several weeks, the topic of domestic abuse has been present around me.  Not to me, specifically, but in conversations with friends, and sadly, for the adult child of a dear friend, domestic abuse is a current concern.

Because of this repetition of discussion and awareness in my immediate sphere of influence, I have been engaging in online social media conversations about domestic abuse.  Statistics indicate that 1 in 4 women will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime. This experience is not gender-specific, by the way.  Statistics also indicate that men are victims of nearly three million physical assaults in the U.S. (

Domestic abuse crosses all socio-economic boundaries.  It does not discriminate amongst age, race, education, level of intelligence, financial background, the job sector, religion, region or country. 
I am one of those 1 in 4 women.
People who know me will and have expressed dismay to learn that I was involved in an abusive relationship.  "But you're such an intelligent person," they protest.  "How could you allow such a thing to happen?"

Other questions and well-meaning comments inevitably get voiced:

  • Why did you stay with him?
  • You left several times and returned to the relationship - why did you go back???
  • How could you let someone treat you that way?
  • Where is your self respect?
  • Anyone who allows someone to abuse them is a weak, ineffective individual.
  • Maybe you're imagining this - it can't really be that bad.
  • All relationships go through rough stretches; maybe you're just not trying hard enough.
  • Men need to feel strong and manly - what did you do to make him feel insulted/threatened/disrespected?
There are endless comments, observations and questions that run along the lines of the ones listed above.  All of them tend to have either a subtle or overt and aggressive tone of doubt, ridicule, scorn and judgment towards the person who is experiencing domestic abuse.

A friend shared the following article that describes a specific type of abuser - the narcissistic abuser.  Please take time to click through to this article and read the information.  The article breaks down the process of abuse, how it happens, the steps that occur and the degrading of the emotional health of the person being abused.

Now, I will share my story.  I am not going to mention very specific details, because this experience is in my past, and I do not want to stir things up again.  This experience happened approximately twelve years ago.  I was at a point in my life where I was searching for how to transition my professional life from retail management; I had been working for over five years on a gradually increasing level with technical writing projects and was in the process of transitioning that into a full-time career.  If you've transitioned from one career focus to a completely different niche market, then you're aware the process takes time and can be full of a lot of starts and stops as you shift the energies.  This process can also be fraught with a lot of emotional turmoil and doubts as to whether this big leap of faith is the right decision.  Looking back, I can see that I was ripe for an opportunistic personality to be attracted to me.

I met this person via a long-distance connection.  The relationship progressed quickly, with emotions and conversations burning hot and bright, and the giddy rush of what felt and looked like love swept in.  A work opportunity came into play that convinced me that the hands of Fate were at work, as that opportunity was in the same state where this person lived.  Eventually, I made the decision to take the job offer and moved out of state.  I had lived other places prior to this move, so it wasn't an unknown experience, but it was a much bigger move with a much bigger geographical distance away from my home state. I moved to a city where I knew no one but this other person.  I had family in that same state, but they were hours away from my location.

So, how did the abuse happen?  Insidiously.  Slowly, methodically, and craftily.  Perhaps addressing some of the comments and questions listed above might help to paint the picture of this relationship and the cycle of abuse.

  1. But you're such an intelligent person; how could you allow this to happen?
Yes, I am an intelligent person.  I am also quite intuitive.  When you are immersed in the chemical maelstrom of love, all of those key cognitive skills tend to become muffled.  You're existing in that euphoric flush of love where a bonding process is setting in. When you're in love, you make allowances for negative behaviors in the person you love.

In this case, in this relationship, my intelligence, my kindness, my compassion, and every good thing about who I am as a person was used against me.  Let me repeat that - my intelligence was used as a tool, a weapon, to slowly and surely whittle away at my sense of self.

Abusive people are masters of manipulation.  They are masters of adapting to various personalities and quickly learning what comments and remarks will best begin the process of eroding self-confidence in their victims. With me, the abuse was verbal and emotional - an endless mind game that played out.

I wasn't physically abused, but I want to make it clear that you don't have to be physically attacked for a relationship to be an abusive one.  Verbal and emotional forms of abuse are equally toxic, destructive and damaging.
How did it start?  With very reasonable observations.  Helpful, well-meant comments from him, spoken softly and logically, appealing to my sense of logic.  Just a comment here, a comment there, but spoken with an underlying tone of judgment, and then the conversation would go on to other topics.  Hours later, the sting from the judgment would be there, so carefully crafted and worded that it worked on my sense of logic to the point that I would revisit it and start to question myself.  "That was a reasonable observation," I would reflect.  "Maybe he's right.  I don't have to talk about that specific topic around him, because it's just not something he's interested in.  I'll just not bring it up when I'm with him."


"He had a fair point, that maybe I am too concerned with doing things that specific way.  I just won't do that around him from this point forward.  It's a simple thing to just set aside when I'm with him."

And in this quiet, slow, steady fashion, he began to chip away at what makes me who I am as an individual.  I was already isolated, living hundreds of miles away from everything and everyone familiar.  Now the next step was to instill doubt in me about who I was.  Little things....seemingly insignificant details were commented upon in that soft-spoken, reasonable tone.

An example:  at the dinner table, where I had quickly placed two place settings, the comment was, "Wow, this looks like you used a ruler to measure the exact spacing between each plate, glass and silverware.  It's just the two of us, you know - you didn't have to go to that much fussy detail."  And in fact, I hadn't measured space, I hadn't been overly fussy with setting the table.  I had been in a hurry, had just set the table without thinking, and his comments had me second guessing my own actions.  Maybe he was right - maybe I really was too fussy, and too concerned about things that weren't all that important.  Maybe I should stop that behavior.  And so I did.  I began to pull back with giving creative voice to that specific action.  I didn't dress my dining room table with the decorative touches that pleased me.  Often, from that point forward, I wouldn't even have us sit at the table to eat.  We would eat in the living room, watching television and not interacting with one another during the meal, which is something I purely detest doing in my own home. I believe that meals are a time to reconnect and focus on one another.  Yet, I allowed him to convince me to let that habit go, to remove a part of my true nature from my daily existence. 

Key factor - in this manner, he was attacking something that was and is important to me.  Table manners, etiquette and setting a pretty table are things that matter to me and make me happy, because they are a part of who I am and how I was raised.  By making that seemingly random observation, he was chipping away at an integral part of who I am, instilling doubt and causing me to question myself in a negative fashion.

An example:  snuggling on the sofa, he made a leisurely scan of my face and said, "You pluck your eyebrows, don't you."  Not a question, a statement.  Yes, I pluck my eyebrows - most women do!  And I answered in that vein, that it was a common grooming habit.  He just nodded, and continued to stare at my eyebrows without comment for several long moments before changing the subject.  After he had gone home and I was in the bathroom removing my makeup, I stood there, studying my eyebrows.  Let me share with you that I have soft, fine hair, and my eyebrows are similarly fine and delicate.  I don't have that much eyebrow real estate to fiddle with to begin with; the plucking that I do is mainly those little straggling hairs that aren't close to the eyebrow hairline.  Yet, his quiet observation stuck with me, niggled away at me, and had me standing at the mirror, feeling self-doubt.

Key factor - he was insinuating that I was vain to an excessive degree, predicated on the simplest of grooming habits.  Unspoken, inferred judgment was his favorite tool to use, and it was very effective with me. I have always been a people pleasing type of person, wanting everyone to be happy, wanting everyone to feel comfortable.  This trait was taken, twisted and turned into the perfect weapon to progressively slice away more and more of who I was.

Both examples I have shared here sound so innocuous, don't they?  Maybe you're reading this and thinking, "That's not an abusive relationship.  She's exaggerating."  And if you are having those or similar thoughts, then perhaps you can now see just how easily the cycle of abuse can happen.  It starts off in such a simple, seemingly innocent manner.  Multiply these two examples I have offered by hundreds of such seemingly innocent comments in a single week, all delivered in such a reasonable, calm tone that anyone would feel silly to label them as acts of abuse.  And that is how it happensAbuse is wrapped up in fine feathered clothing, my friends, and at first looks quite innocent.  Those pretty feathers are tipped in slow-working poison, though, and they instill a creeping death inside the victim.
            2. This brings me to the next comment in the list above - "Why did you stay with him?"

Take time to imagine being in love with someone, far from home and your support system of family and friends.  Now add in all the stress and fear that such a life changing move causes.  Next, add to the mix that on some levels, there is a true connection with this person you love - he makes you laugh, he hits all those physical attraction points for you, he can be very loving and thoughtful and sweet at surface level.  And when all the reasonable observations he makes begin to erode your self-confidence, you feel he is the only safe port in the storm.

The cycle of abuse is a cycle of conditioning.  The abuser slowly and consistently introduces his victim to negative, undermining comments and behaviors.  The victim is inexorably conditioned to believe that they truly are all those negatives:  stupid, helpless, ineffective, scatterbrained, dumb, ugly, fat, a failure, worthless. 

Once you begin to absorb all those negatives about yourself to be new truths, you believe that no one else in the world will want you.  So you stay with the abuser.  There is nothing emotionally healthy about this process.  It is the process of a twisted form of logic that is crafted to trigger your biggest fears, biggest weaknesses and vulnerabilities.  You are preyed upon by a predator.

      3.  You left several times and returned to the relationship - why did you go back??

The answer to this question is multi-faceted, and it will change with each victim of abuse, but the main reason is that conditioning process.  At some point in the building up of all those reasonable, soft-spoken observations, I began to believe the inferred judgment.  I began to internalize all the unspoken criticisms, and I systematically sheared off those behaviors, preferences, traits, loves, all to cater to what I believed was a relationship worth working for.   This person became a sort of touchstone for good vs. bad, right vs. wrong actions.  I looked to him as a weather vane and responded by subjugating everything beautiful, vital and vibrant about myself in order to keep the peace between us.  And when I would leave, he would wait for several weeks to allow me to start to feel comfortable, to begin taking back those beautiful parts of myself, and then he would come back into the picture.  He would portray all the traits and behaviors that hooked me in the first place, and a mini-honeymoon phase would be enacted.  I would want to believe that this time, I could love enough to make everything okay.

I never believed - still do not believe - that I can change another person.  I know that that is one trait that abusers pounce on, but it's not something I ever embraced.  Instead, I always believe(d) that if there was/is enough love present, any obstacle or disagreement or point of friction could/can be overcome.  This is actually true, but only if BOTH people are present and willing to put that love and effort into the relationship.  So, my loving nature was another tool in his arsenal to use against me.

      4.  How could you let someone treat you that way?  Where is your self-respect??

I repeat that this conditioning process doesn't happen overnight.  In my case, it took place over the course of a three year stretch of time.  I left the relationship more than once, then allowed myself to get sucked back in.  Why?  Because I had lost sight of who I was, and allowed this person to paint a warped reality for me where I was lacking in every single way imaginable.  I became a faint, almost transparent ghost of myself.  I was withdrawn, quiet, and had abandoned hobbies and pursuits that had made me happy, and I began to believe this warped version of reality that no one else would want me, find me attractive, or consider me worth putting genuine effort into.

      5.  Anyone who allows another person to abuse them is a weak, ineffective individual.

This is absolutely not true.  Anyone who survives an abusive relationship is the last thing from weak!  Yes, the cycle of abuse erodes self-confidence and our natural autonomous actions to the point that we become ineffective, but surviving the terrain of an abusive relationship requires a level of strength and fortitude that most people cannot fathom.  Unless you have walked this reality, you simply cannot imagine the strength it requires to get through each moment of each day whilst you're being systematically attacked, belittled and broken down.

      6.  Maybe you're imagining this - it can't really be that bad.

This is one of the abuser's best weapons - doubt.  Without fail, every single person I've spoken to who has survived and escaped an abusive relationship has been deemed "crazy" by their abuser.
  • You're crazy.  
  • You're imagining things.  
  • You have no sense of humor - lighten up, I was just joking!
  • You're too touchy, too sensitive, too stupid...
  • Don't take things I say so personally - it was just a harmless observation!  
Well-meaning friends and family members tend to grasp at any available straw of response when they're confronted with the potential that a loved one is in an abusive relationship.  They want to find a reasonable answer, a logical reason that you are telling them this negativity is happening (if you're brave enough to even address what is happening).  So, they doubt you and they reinforce the abuser's claims that you're crazy.  You're imagining things.

And because other people around you express such doubts, echoing what your abuser is saying to you daily, you begin to believe that no one will believe you if you tell them what is happening to you.  You begin to accept that no one will believe you're living in an abusive atmosphere and relationship.  And you feel helpless as a result.  Helpless to escape, helpless to get anyone to believe you, helpless deep down inside about all of it.  That part of the cycle is more scary and isolating than I can communicate to you, and it gives the abuser that much more power in the mix.

      7.  All relationships go through rough stretches - maybe you're just not trying hard enough.

This one is a continuation of #6.  It must be YOU.  It can't be him - he's a hard worker, he's so good to you, he's so charming, he's so funny, he's so attractive!  Abusers don't look, speak, and act like he does.  YOU are the problem.  You're just not trying hard enough.  And BOOM, society has reinforced the sick hold that the abuser has on their victim.  They have blamed the victim for being abused.

      8. Men need to feel strong and manly - what did you do to make him feel insulted/threatened/disrespected?

Yes, this kind of accusation happens fairly often.  It sounds absurd to ask such questions of someone who is in an abusive relationship, but I heard this type of question more than once in my own situation.  Once again, it reinforced all the negativity the abuser was instilling in our relationship.  It was all my fault.  I was clumsy.  I was wrong on every single level. 

Let me be clear about this next point: 

I could have turned myself inside out, stood on my head, and worked miracles if it had been in my power, and he would still have found something to criticize

Here are a few more examples:

  • In his eyes, I was overweight, so I lost weight.  And let me stress that at the time I was absolutely NOT overweight - I was a beautiful, physically healthy person prior to meeting him.  
  • Due to his criticisms on my physical appearance, when I lost weight, I was accused of starving myself out of vanity.  
  • Then I was told I looked unhealthy and had an unhealthy fixation on weight issues, and he was concerned about my mental stability.
  • Perhaps I would benefit from psychiatric counseling, as he felt that a mere psychologist might not be equipped to address what looked to be quite severe mental issues for me.
  • He threw this comment out one evening: "You know, I have to wonder how long it will take for you to look like I need you to - is it going to be years? Because I don't think I want to put that much time into waiting on you to fix all these problems of yours."  
  • I was told I was too verbal with how intelligent I was, and he found that boring and pushy.  
  • I was told I was too confident as a female, and that made me aggressive and unattractive and distasteful not just to him, but to all men, he would comment to me.  "No man is going to be attracted to a pushy female like you; you're lucky that I overlook these bad habits of yours."

The litany of points could go on and on here, but I'll stop with the list.  What I am attempting to communicate to those of you who haven't ever experienced an abusive relationship is that it can happen to anyone.  Being a strong, attractive, charismatic, intelligent, successful person doesn't protect you; it didn't protect me.  I was all of those things, and I fell victim to a polished, practiced abusive personality who saw me as a new challenge to destroy.  Abusive personalities are rooted in fear and they have a need to destroy others who embody the traits they desire - strength, vitality, kindness, compassion, intelligence, competence, success. 

This is a small window into a time in my life that was horrible, unpleasant, and temporarily damaging on an emotional and mental level.  But, I survived.  I gathered strength and resolve and extracted myself from this person and this cycle of abuse.  Are there scars remaining from this experience?  Yes.  I still have moments where a random comment from someone will make me freeze, will chill me to my core, and hit me with a dizzying, nauseated flush of panic.  I have coping skills to get through those moments, and I am deeply conscious of being mindful when they happen.  I am no longer the vulnerable person that I was when this abusive relationship occurred, and I think that I never will be that vulnerable again.  I think that I can now recognize the warning flags of that type of destructive personality, and I can shut those forays of contact and engagement down with swiftness and razor sharp effectiveness.

As many of us who have recently shared our experiences in social media have agreed, if sharing my personal story can help one person out there who is in an abusive relationship to feel empowered, it is worth revisiting and publishing here.

If you are in an abusive relationship, you CAN get out of it. 

You CAN escape.  You CAN heal.  You CAN move forward to become a whole, healthy, happy person. 

You CAN love again, and find love in a healthy relationship. 

You already ARE a survivor, and you can take steps to leave and not only survive, but thrive and be happy. 

Below are some resources for counseling, legal advice and support groups.  Reach out and ask for help, and know that you are not alone.

  • Safe Horizon counseling & support group link:
  • Safe Horizon support phone number:  1-347-328-8110
  • Domestic Violence Hotline phone number:  1-800-621-HOPE(4673)
  • Crime Victims Hotline phone number:  1-866-689-HELP(4357)
  • Rape and Sexual Assault Hotline phone number:  1-212-227-3000
  • TDD phone number for all hotlines:  1-866-604-5350