It’s hard to say when it started. I met him at church. He came to the Sunday school class I attended, and we were two of very few single young adults in the church—a church with a large and enthusiastic young adult population, most with young families.
I remember he said he wasn’t sure what he needed in a relationship. He had just had a horrible break-up with a live-in girlfriend. When he believed she was cheating, he had taken her cell phone and looked through her call log and text messages. Their arguing had escalated to the extent that police had been involved, I think. It sounded like she had been quite a doozy… And he was still mourning his mother’s death from cancer, a year or two before. It was a sad story. He had few friends; he was depressed (I do thank God he finally did get treatment for that...after our relationship was over). His job was not entirely fulfilling, and he wasn’t making the money he had always thought he would. Maybe I thought I could help him. He thought I would be a good influence on him, as I was going to be a pastor, and all. It took me just a little too long to realize the harmful nature of the pedestal I was so precariously placed on, in his mind.
So, it’s hard to say when it started. He was sad. I was lonely. He was 8 years older than me. Maybe that made it OK that he would move my glass away from me at dinner, just in case I might spill it (kind of like my parents would do when I was 5…). Maybe that made it true that I had no comprehension of how stressful money troubles could be (even though I had my own job and paid my own bills and worked diligently to live within my own means). Maybe that made it acceptable for him to question and dislike my friends, to say I should have tried harder to find a job that paid what a person with an M.A. in English “should” be paid (rather than the pay the inner city mission agency could afford), and to treat me like my lack of experience in romantic relationships meant I had to agree to do everything his way. Maybe he was right—maybe I did expect him to say “I love you” too often, so it was OK when he stopped saying it…
There were some good moments, of course. We got along well sometimes, and we had fun together. And when we did have an argument, after a day or two of the cold shoulder, he would be contrite. Things would be good again, for a while. It’s typical…the cycle of abuse.
For Christmas, he got a “promise ring" for me. It got him what he wanted. I got more broken. We set a wedding date for late July, shortly before I would need to move for seminary. By late February, when we met with the pastor for our first premarital counseling session, the date was already off the table, for a number of reasons. I first tried to break up with him in April, and in May I gave back the promise ring—it was never quite clear to me what the promise was supposed to be, anyway. Not long after that, I determined that my move to Durham in August would be my way out of the relationship. He didn’t like it when I told him that, but I didn’t know how else to exit the relationship and I did know that once I was out of his sight, I’d be out of his mind, for the most part. On the date we had initially set as a wedding date, I spent the day hanging out at the house of one of his friends, while he and his friend replaced my car’s shocks and struts. At least that redeemed that date, in one sense: free labor on a major car repair was a lot better deal than getting married to the wrong guy…but I’m still waiting for the year that date goes by unnoticed for me. The relationship ended, more or less officially, in October, after two months of very little contact following my move. (Two months of seminary classwork will bring clarity about a thing or two, too!) It was a year of my life I will never get back…and it took me 3 more years and 3 stints of counseling to realize fully how much damage had been done.
So, fast forward 3 years from the October that I got out of that mess. Holston Conference’s clergy day apart is all about domestic violence awareness, this particular year. Our bishop shares his story of domestic violence that killed his own mother. We receive a handout that describes the profile of an abuser. I realize, sitting in the balcony at Colonial Heights UMC in Kingsport, TN, that I have been abused. Whoa.
A few months later, with the help of a counselor and the grace of God, I came to terms with that fact. I learned to deal with the me that was vulnerable to such abuse. It wasn’t easy to admit. I mean, I’m too educated to have been a victim of emotional abuse. I’m too intelligent, have too much common sense, was raised to be an independent thinker and do what’s right. How could I have been a victim of abuse?
And it’s not that I didn’t have friends and family that cared for me. They tried. They were concerned. But I was stuck--in much deeper than I realized at the time.
So, what is there to say now about what happened then? Well, what I can say now is that the abuse was really quite subtle. I don’t think it was entirely intentional on his part. In fact, I remember quite clearly telling the first counselor I talked to that no, he was not abusive, just manipulative. Manipulative isn’t so bad, right? And what I can say now is that I have been taught all my life to take responsibility for my actions, sometimes to a fault, which makes it really easy not to admit that I’ve been a victim of someone else’s wrong actions. And what I can say now is that when there aren’t physical signs, it’s really easy to convince oneself that the abuse “wasn’t that bad.” And maybe it wasn’t. But it sure wasn’t “good,” or even "normal," either.
Why am I writing about this? Well, I guess it’s my blog and I can share my story if I want to, right? But I also need to say that this culture that says that women are to blame for their abuse, for not getting out of abusive relationships, for wearing the wrong thing or saying the wrong thing or just not saying “no” when someone else thinks they should have, needs to be called out. This idea that some men just can't help themselves is, well, to keep things G-rated here, nonsense. Yeah, I made some choices I’m not proud of, but I am not to blame for what someone else did to me. I did not ask to be put in the situation I ended up in. And yeah, I understand why it’s so hard to leave. We all want to be loved. Sometimes, it doesn’t work out the way we think it will. Then, we get good at blaming ourselves. Then, we make excellent excuses on our abuser's behalf. We don’t need the society around us blaming us and making excuses for our abusers, too. Thankfully, some of us are able to leave with less damage than others. Some are not able to leave, ever.
In this month marked for domestic violence awareness, don’t just feel sorry for the women, children, and men who find themselves adrift in the wreckage of relationships that have been abusive. Listen to someone else’s story. Sit with someone else, in her sorrow--or dance with her, in her joy for a new beginning! And for the love of God (and I really mean that), pray, and seek to treat all of your neighbors, including (especially?) those in your very own house and most intimate relationships, with the respect and love and grace that God has offered you. I promise it will help. But if that’s too big of a step, just work on telling people that you love them…and really mean it. I’ll be working on all of that, too.