This line from Julieanne Smolinski’s essay The Funny Thing About Abusive Relationships neatly summed up the dilemma I’ve struggled to address internally and externally since my first experience with an abusive relationship all the way through what was my very last. How does a strong woman end up in such a position of weakness?
Women in abusive relationships baffle their friends—“but you’re so smart/strong/desirable how could you stay with someone who treats you that way?” They are subject to the vitriol of strangers on the Internet—”if he was really that bad why is she with him? she’s obviously lying.” (Well, to be fair, we’re all subject to this because strangers on the Internet spew their vitriol everywhere). The men these women are with twist the tolerance of abuse into some sort of validation that what they’re doing isn’t wrong because if it were, why would she stay?
These women defy preconceptions. They’re brilliant, successful, brave, funny, beautiful, stubborn, determined, confident and a million other adjectives that simply can be reconciled with the fact that the man in their life treats them like complete shit. The reality is abusive men are the most insidious of breeds. They don’t leave their mark after the first date. It’s a slow boil and the most amazing of women can find themselves a frog in their pot.
It starts out with flattery and and intense devotion. You feel adored and desired. Over time the intensity that was once paired with devotion turns into something else. Often the first few cracks appear with the help of alcohol. A circumstance that provides a convenient excuse for bad behavior. He will apologize, likely through tears, likely in the midst of revealing how his childhood wasn’t all ponies and cupcakes.
This confession and mea culpa will turn what should have been a deal breaker into a profound moment that seems to form a bond between two broken people. Except that, in this case, she is not responsible for his fractures, but he sure as hell is responsible for hers.
She doesn’t tell her friends what happened because “he was drunk, he didn’t mean it, they wouldn’t understand.” And thus begins the isolation phase.
All of the judgements about how abused women must be weak, dumb and suffering from cripplingly low self esteem don’t compute with what she wants to believe about herself. And she certainly doesn’t want her friends to see her in that light, so she has to hide it.
This becomes increasingly more difficult as his outbursts go from drunken anomalies to weekly and then daily occurrences. She starts seeing her friends less and less. Weekly dinners turn into special occasion celebrations. And, after he calls her a c**t in front of everyone she loves on New Year’s Eve, even those aren’t an option.
By this time her friends are fully aware that this guy is a piece of shit and that she needs to get out, but they can’t understand how she got herself into this position. And neither can she. All she knows is she’s been chipped away bit by bit until she doesn’t recognize who she has become. And, now, this shell of a person can’t find the strength to leave because she’s poured everything she had into making it work with this monster. A monster who has likely spent years honing his ability to prey on intelligent, amazing women, turning them into victims of abuse through Machiavellian tactics no one could see coming.
And that’s how abusive relationships happen. And that’s why they are so hard to leave. Because the abuser relies on the embarrassment and stigma to isolate and take control over the strongest women you’ve ever met. So, the more we talk about it, and the more we expose the abuser as the weak, useless one, the easier it will be for these women to reclaim their strength.