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They say that if you put a frog in water, and slowly heat it up until it's boiling, the frog will not realize it is being boiled alive until it is too late. The same thing happened to me over a 4-year romantic relationship. The emotional and psychological abuse slowly escalated until it took control of my life and started to turn into physical intimidation and abuse. I never thought I could be a victim of domestic violence until I had already been one for years. I thought I was too smart, too successful, too privileged, etc. It was something that happened to other women, not people "like me."
A few summers ago, my ex-partner told me that if I wanted to fix our relationship, I should see a therapist because I was a "bipolar psychopath." I agreed, and genuinely thought I could be a psychopath who needed serious help. It only took a few sessions for my new counselor to pull out the Power & Control Wheel. She told me in no uncertain terms that I was being abused. Looking at the Wheel was like a blindfold was taken off. My former boyfriend was exhibiting almost every single abusive behavior. He had even physically assaulted me twice by grabbing me and holding me still, but he excused it as "just trying to make me listen to him."
The two incidents of obvious physical violence scared me, but I still didn't think it was bad enough to leave. I thought it was my fault for pissing him off and I was lucky compared to other women who get hit. However, according to Lundy Bancroft, a leading expert on abusive men, the following behaviors (I experienced all of them) are physical violence:
· Blocking your way so you cannot leave the room or car
· Physically restraining you so you cannot get away from him
· Driving recklessly to scare you, especially after drinking
· Mocking your fear when he exhibits these behaviors
· Any unwanted physical touch, including poking or pinching
I also didn't realize that emotional abuse still "counted" as real abuse. I wasn't allowed to have male friends. Every time I hung out with female friends he assumed I was lying and actually cheating on him. Everything I wore was "too sexy." I couldn’t even make eye contact with men without upsetting my ex. He'd poke my slightly chubby stomach and tell me I looked pregnant. He thought it was funny to "accidentally" pull my hair and hear me yelp in pain. He'd convince me to spend exorbitant amounts of money on him just because he bought me dinner a few times, so I "owed" him. He'd use my money to buy a ton of food, eat nothing, and make me throw it all away. He refused to go to my best friend's wedding because my old high school boyfriend would be there, and when I finally convinced him to go, he brought a knife "just in case." He told me several times that I made him want to kill himself. He'd call me on the phone and berate me for hours while I sat outside my dorm in the rain. When I asked if I could go to bed, he'd yell even more and if I hung up he'd call me over and over. He trashed my apartment and told me it was my responsibility to clean it up and threw fits if I didn't cook dinner for him every night. These are just a few examples of the torment I endured for 4 years. I honestly thought it was what I deserved for being a bad girlfriend.
If it weren't for my therapist, friends, and family, I never would have gotten the courage to leave. Right after my therapist gave me a stack of paperwork and resources on domestic violence, I called my parents and asked for help because I was so afraid of him. I changed my locks, blocked him on everything, and have not had any communication since. Over a year later, I still hear his voice in my head every day and frequently break down in tears mourning who I could have been if I had never met him. I am in a loving and healthy new relationship with a wonderful man, but I still notice myself asking permission to do things without him or fearing an angry outburst around every corner.
Lastly, women who stay in abusive relationships are not stupid nor are they asking for it. I hear "why did you stay?" directed towards me and domestic violence victims in general. I've even heard "if you chose to stay, you deserve what you got." No one would stay in a relationship that is 100% awful. I stayed because I thought the rare high points were worth the suffering. I thought it was all my fault and if I could just try harder it would all get better. The level of brainwashing, emotional manipulation, and gaslighting was like being in a cult.
I never thought something like this could happen to me until it had already happened. The sad truth is that 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence, and it is most common between women 18-24 years of age. Statistically, you know several women who have been through this or worse. It is scary to talk about for many reasons — I don't want to be told it was my fault, called an attention-seeker, asked why I didn't leave sooner, or the worst: hearing "but he seemed so nice!" It took me over a year to speak out but I want to share my experience in case someone notices a red flag in their own relationship, or one of their friends'. I wonder if I had read something like this, would I have left sooner?
"I know everything worked out the way it's meant to be, but honestly, if I had the chance, I would take it back, jumping off your sinking ship instead of going down with it. One day I'll be good, right now I'm just mad." - Save Myself, by Ashe
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