by Kim Johnson
I’m not sure now what I said. I don’t remember what I did. Yet, I do remember the fear that instinctively drove me to the other side of the table. He was furious and the table was my only line of defense as he stood between me and the door. We’d been married only two months and it was a shock to realize he might actually want to hurt me. My heart was in my throat as my mind raced. What was I going to do?
Even though this signaled a beginning, the physical abuse didn’t start until the next time he got angry. What I didn’t realize in that moment, the stage had already been set. Control and manipulation had been camouflaged with charm and words of love. I was naïve and didn’t understand the red flags enveloping me. So, I became a victim before the first punch was thrown.
Abuse by the Numbers
According to national statistics, abuse (whether physical, emotional, verbal, mental or sexual) happens to at least 20 people in America every minute. It’s an astounding number with domestic violence hotlines receiving 25,000 calls a day. That adds up to more than 10 million people in a year. The pandemic only made the numbers worse. If you’ve never been in an abusive situation, these numbers are hard to fathom.
Early signs pointing to an abuser are easy to miss. This is especially true for those who didn’t experience any abuse in their family of origin. For the most part, new relationships are typically non threatening. No one has ever had a date say to them, “I’ll take you to dinner and hit you in the face.” Instead, the abuser is on their best behavior. There’s an initial intense attraction followed by long talks and fun dates. Falling in love happens so innocently. Potential abusive behaviors are completely hidden behind flattery and fascination. Only later do they explode from their hiding place to become cruel and dangerous.
This was my experience. When we met, I was immediately drawn to the confident, take-charge personality of my abuser. It was exciting to believe he only wanted to be with me. I confused control with love and was drawn to his wit and intelligence. When his anger would suddenly rage, the quick apologizes kept me from recognizing it was a problem. I didn’t even realize when things became all my fault and never his. It happened so subtly. Suddenly, I became the chief of his rescue squad as he played the victim. Making him happy became paramount and my own welfare took a distant second. In fact, it was never even in the race. The dark, down-hill slide toward physical violence got steeper, yet I never saw it coming.
Early Signs of Abuse are Hidden
And that is the problem. The person who is experiencing the abuse is drawn in so quickly, they don’t know or don’t see when the relationship became so unhealthy. If bruises and physical attacks happened at the start, women would not stick around. Unfortunately, the cycle is never obvious. A whirlwind romance holds reality in check until the woman is already heavily invested in a marriage or shared life. That’s when the perfect dream becomes a nightmare.
Being physically assaulted by the one who claimed to love me was profoundly confusing. On one hand, the situation didn’t seem to justify the response. On the other, the anger made me believe there had to be something so wrong with what I did. Otherwise, why would he be treating me so terribly? And God forbid I said anything in my own defense. This was another mine field that only made things worse. I learned very quickly to just keep my mouth shut and shed no tears. The fire of his fury burned hot but flamed out fast when I just let him rage.
There is no rhyme or reason with men who are batterers. They can come from all walks of life and economic status. Having a successful career, being involved in church, staying busy in their community, or even being a good provider, has no bearing on their behavior where abuse is concerned. In fact, all of these externals make the disguise easier to maintain. This is also another reason why friends and even family find it difficult to believe this great guy can be an abuser. All anyone sees is the life of the party, the hardworking volunteer or the beautiful house. Secretly, they may even believe the victim is bringing it on herself.
There are some common characteristics that lurk beneath the façade of even the cleverest batterer. Jealousy, possessiveness, control and rage are the weapons of choice. These abusers minimize their actions. Typically, they blame others for their own mistakes and choices and are never willing to take responsibility for their actions. Too often, the abused woman falls down this rabbit hole by accepting it’s her fault, not his. For many, there is an unrealistic hope they can stop the dangerous dance if they could only figure out how to move differently. Others may be so ashamed and humiliated, they keep quiet. Still others may put all their efforts into making sure no one suspects their perfect, little family really isn’t perfect after all.
That was me. Because of my husband’s vocation, I felt I could not jeopardize his position by telling anyone what was happening. I read any book I found on being the perfect wife and I played the part the best way I could. Eventually, the physical abuse diminished to a shove or a pinch. But the verbal and emotional assaults, the manipulation and control, never stopped. Nothing I did, right or wrong, changed the situation. Periods of peace were laced with apprehension for the next eruption. It never occurred to me indirect wounds were being inflicted on my children as well.
The Cycle of Abuse is Common
The common cycle of violence is nearly universal. External stressors (family issues, trouble at work, financial problems) build tension; the pressure finally explodes onto others (you and/or your children); the release creates a period of calm (usually accompanied by apologies, regret, charm and even gifts). But the victim doesn’t relax and concentrates on doing whatever is necessary to keep the peace. Yet, nothing stops the progression of the cycle. Eventually it happens again and often increases in regularity and ruthlessness.
No matter how minor you believe the incidents to be, abuse is never okay. There is never an excuse for any abuse. The bruise, the shove into the wall, the pinch that drew blood is significant. The criticizing, embarrassing, shaming, blaming or bullying that goes along with the physical acts aren’t trivial either. They are hurtful and humiliating. These words and actions are slowly but surely chipping away at your self-esteem, undermining your mental health and causing deep emotional wounds. The injuries may appear invisible on the outside but the damage to your heart is huge.
The First Step Toward Healing
Realizing you are in an unhealthy relationship is one thing. Knowing what to do is entirely another. The struggle is real. Feeling trapped and demeaned is paralyzing. One step you can take toward freedom is to read, research and become informed. The Mayo Clinic has published information that is extremely informative and helpful. You can find it here. This is just one of many websites offering information.
Try to be honest with yourself about what’s really happening in your situation. Don’t minimize the episodes. There is a reason it hurts and there is a reason you feel horrible about it. And, don’t blame yourself. No matter how often you are told it’s all your fault, it really isn’t. This is a key strategy for an abuser. To remain in control, he will never take responsibility for his actions and will always blame you.
The journey for those in an abusive relationship is challenging. From recognizing the patterns of domestic violence, deciding to do something about it, to healing and moving on is not easy. Making a plan can help. At www.helpguide.org, there is excellent information to give you some direction to take toward freedom. The key is to take one step at a time. Don’t pressure yourself to do it all at once. Make sure you have a clear understanding of what you’re up against. Move forward safely.
If you decide to get out, keep in mind that divorce does not end the trauma. The wounds from domestic violence, whether physical, emotional or verbal run deep and so do the scars. You may struggle with scary and painful memories, fluctuating emotions, or a sense that you are still in danger. Your ability to trust may also be profoundly impacted. The effects aren’t always tangible, but they are very real. However, your life does not have to always be defined by them.
Decide to Try
The best gift you can give yourself is the permission to try. Move slowly and carefully, thinking through and choosing solutions that are safe and doable for your situation. There are many wonderful organizations that have trained professionals who are ready to help. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is a good place to start. Don’t allow fear to keep you from reaching out. No matter what you feel, you are not alone.