Trigger Warning: This post includes descriptions of violence, which may be triggering or alarming. Please take care of yourself.
When my husband hurt me, it was like watching a stranger kill the man I loved in front of me and then try to kill me.
I was so scared and confused. I was shocked. I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t want to believe what was happening. I was so afraid.
Humans respond to danger or stress in one of three ways – fight, flight or freeze. I responded with flight. I was able to get away. I got my kids away. I wasn’t easy, and I was so lucky.
I think it’s important to remember that no one ever enters a relationship knowing or thinking that their partner will become abusive. And, the hope for change is strong. My experience can be summed up by the phrase – Cognitive Dissonance.
My strongly held core beliefs – that my husband was a good man. That he loved me. That things would get better. That he would and could change. Reinforced by the fact that things weren’t bad all of the time.
When faced with clear evidence to the contrary, I rationalized, I ignored, and I lied. To myself and to others. But mostly to myself. Every lie he told, every insult, every fight. I couldn’t reconcile my hatred and fear with my love and hope. How could I fear and hate someone I loved, married and had children with? How could I love someone who hurt me? No one would believe me anyway.
And the shame. I was a middle class professional with a graduate degree. I was a Feminist who didn’t take shit from anyone. My parents are great. There was no violence in my home growing up. How could this happen to me? What is wrong with me?
I know now that fear and hatred were appropriate, my love for him was undeserved, and hope, well, hope is one of the strongest emotions in the human experience. Hope can be a powerful source of good, but it can also lie to us. Tell us what we want to hear.
The shame? I blame our culture. We need to start holding abusers accountable.
If there was more shame in abusing your partner, than there is in admitting you have been abused by your partner, our world would be an infinitely better place.
If only I had a time machine and could go back and tell myself all of those things.
As I went through the process of leaving, reporting, participating in the prosecution, and filing for divorce, I grieved. For 12 years of my life. For myself. For the loss of him.
After I left, I felt such a mix of emotions. Anger, fear, grief, relief. I hated him. But it felt so abstract. Like I was hating a stranger. The perpetrator of this violent crime, not my partner for 12 years. For a long time, I would hear a news story on NPR on the drive home or read a funny joke on Facebook and go home to share it with him, to find him not there. I was alone. And while my husband is still living, I have been through the stages of grief:
- Denial, numbness, and shock;
- Bargaining – mostly going over the past 12 years in my life and trying to identify what I could have done to prevent this from happening;
- Depression – presenting as trouble sleeping, poor appetite, fatigue, lack of energy, and crying spells. I felt considerable self pity, loneliness, isolation, and anxiety;
- Anger – at him, at myself, at feeling helpless and powerless; and
- Acceptance – able to move forward, feeling okay and really hopeful about and ready for my future.
Today is my ten-year wedding anniversary. I still mourn the loss of my marriage and husband, but most days are good. My children help considerably. They are my raison d’être and my joy. I also now work with survivors of domestic and sexual violence to help them find strength, safety and autonomy. It is healing and empowering.
I keep reminding myself that I am now a better mom and a better person than I was when I was with him. I know that I am going to have a good life, and that I am a good person. And he can’t take that away anymore.
Need help? In an emergency, please call 911. If you need support, advocacy or to be linked with resources in your local community, in the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline. For secular financial assistance or counseling before, during or after leaving, check out Secular Avenue.
Featured image credit: European Parliament