My experience with domestic violence

Since October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I wanted to write about my own experience with DV.  There is a lot of overlap in different people’s stories of abuse, because even unrelated abusers often have strikingly similar MO’s.  This should make my telling my story unnecessary.   But there are many in our society who deny the seriousness of domestic violence and the fact that it’s an unfortunately common experience.  In the  interest of countering those voices, here is my own story.

I was a college student, and like a lot of other young women, I felt like I needed to always be in a relationship to prove my worth or something like that.  I’d made a decision to attend a college with a student body that was overwhelmingly young and female (and fabulous).  I had a hard time finding a suitable partner.  Which is to say, I did not find one.  Anyway, I met John over the internet, back before that was so common, and met him in real life shortly thereafter.  We all had stereotypes about what kind of partner one could find on the internet, but this guy was handsome.  I was flattered by his interest in me.  We had almost nothing in common.  I don’t even think our infatuation was all that strong.  But still, he called me every day for a week until we found some common ground to talk about.  I saw him about every weekend after that for two and a half years, even when I didn’t want to.

But I didn’t open this up so I could rhapsodize about being young and dating and having fun.  It actually mostly wasn’t fun.  My partner and I were ill-matched to say the least. We didn’t go through an initial honeymoon period as described by most literature on domestic violence.  We got right down to brass tacks.  It began with little insensitivities, like him telling me I wasn’t really pretty.  Only he’d mention the specific things about my appearance that I was already insecure about.  He moved way faster than I’d wanted to in terms of sex, and it only got worse from there.  There was an undercurrent of physical violence in our interactions that is hard to write about so many years later because I thought it trivial at the time and so remember little of what happened.  He always wanted sex, which I thought was flattering.  In time he made less and less pretense of obtaining my consent.  Sometimes I would have the sense of his having gone too far, and I would talk to him about it afterwards.  He had two methods of dealing with this pushback from me.  Most of the time, he would rationalize his behavior and explain to me exactly why it was that he didn’t understand that I really had wanted him to stop when I’d told him to stop, and if I’d just done something more, like, oh I don’t know, cried about it, he would have definitely stopped.  Other times, he would just tell me to try not to think about it.  I imagine those were the times when he’d violated his own rules, such as they were.

I wish I could say that was as bad as it got, but it really wasn’t.  He did this in public as well, in front of other people, that is.  We would be watching movies with his family and he’d start kissing me and pretty soon, he’d be doing things to me that folks usually reserve for doing in private, all over my vehement objections.  I’d say “stop it, your parents are right there!”  and as though this were not yet obvious, “They’ll see us!”  And he’d say (in a stage whisper) “Shush, you want them to hear you?”  Time and again this happened.  I don’t remember talking to him about it, I think it was just to painful to even consider talking about.  Anyway, relationship violence escalates over time.  More lines were crossed, and more consistently.  We were horrible to be around, we fought all the time, loudly and nastily.  John was about twice my size, so there was a real inequality in the physical violence that was an increasing part of our lives.  No, he never beat me up, never gave me a black eye, broke anything, put me in the hospital.  That was why I told myself I was not in an abusive relationship.  I might have called My Sister’s House to get some clarification on this point, but I did not believe I was one of those unfortunates who needed their help.  We made it to the acute phase in the DV cycle.  One day, when we were at my apartment, I hauled off and hit him in the face because he was upsetting me.  And I realized in one horrifying instant that he was going to clobber me.  I was terrified.  It was obvious.  I told him I didn’t mean to hit him.  An obvious lie.  He just sat there, stunned, taking it all in.  He didn’t clobber me.  We realized we had a problem.  Not that we had any terrific insights into what our problem was or anything, but that event ushered in a period of relative peace in our relationship.

It didn’t last, and it probably wasn’t all that peaceful either if we looked at it objectively.  But summer came and I stayed in Charleston while he went to where his family lives and we hardly saw one another all summer.  You see, I did eventually learn my lesson about spending time with him at his parents’ house.  When we returned to our senior year, everything was much worse.  I could see subtle changes in the way we related to one another.  We weren’t trying as hard to hide our real feelings and motivations.  Accordingly the violence escalated.  It is worth pointing out that I realized what was going on was violence, though I did not think it was domestic violence.  I wondered why things had changed.  We seemed both to have turned into different people.  Much worse people.  And the question of why weighed heavy on my mind.  But I didn’t grow up with the belief that violence was always wrong.  So I thought of the fact that we were violent as merely an unfortunate circumstance and not as a sin or even a major character flaw.

My World Religions professor assigned the class to read a treatise on why Buddhists see all violence as wrong.  This tract was not addressed to domestic violence, it was about violence in general.  But it talked about the effect that violence has on the perpetrator, on the victim, on their relationship and on society.  This monk who lived half a world away from me was describing exactly the problems John and I were having all the while telling me exactly what had caused those problems.  It was the violence, stupid!  So begins a tangent in which I convert to Buddhism and reject all violence forever.  But you know what?  I should have picked up the phone and called My Sister’s House.  My reading didn’t deal with DV.  It wasn’t addressed to a person in my situation.  My partner knew what he was doing.  There was a method to it all and a goal in mind, things that weren’t apparent to me.  My partner wanted to control me.  My partner was terrified that I would be unfaithful.  My partner felt it was his right to correct my behavior. I believed that he was as ignorant as I had been about the evils of violence.  I felt equally responsible for the violence of our relationship because sometimes I hit him first.  Whenever we talked about it, he would tell me how it was all really my fault.  He sounded so convincing.  I had a guilty conscience in general, so it probably wasn’t too hard for him to convince me of this.  I believed if I stopped fighting him the violence would end.  I was wrong.

My ex is anti-religious, so I never told him about Buddhism, the sin that is violence or any of that.  He clearly had no idea what had changed.  We had terrible fights, where he’d upset me and challenge me and I would step away instead of entering the fight.  He’d follow me and continue to challenge me.  I’d invite him to leave, eventually suggesting it loudly and pointedly.  My apartment was small.  What could I do when he wouldn’t leave?  He’d eventually corner me and we’d have a good yell at each other face to face.  I accused him of doing what he was doing.  He had nothing to say to that.  We would have sex.  Of course that wasn’t what I wanted, but I’d already lost the fight.  I grew to actively hate him.  I lost all respect for him when I saw that the violence was what he wanted.

I broke up with him three or four times over the years.  It never took long before we were right back where we’d started from.  So I didn’t break with him this time.  Summer was coming and I knew this would all be over.  I just waited.  One day, for the first time ever, he tried to hurt my feelings by suggesting I might not be marriageable.  I asked him what it was to him, since the two of us weren’t going to get married anyway.  He was as stunned by this response as I was by his.  He called me on the phone later that week to talk about “our future.”  I told him we didn’t have one.  It was the end of our relationship.  It was a long time in coming.

I am so grateful to Dr. McDaniels for helping me understand the evil that is violence, even though she did so unknowingly.  I wish I could reproduce for you the tract she had us read, but I’ve lost it over the years and through the moves.  I’ve considered calling her up and asking about it, but since I don’t remember either the title or the author, I felt that such a request would come across as kooky at the very least.  I am also grateful to My Sister’s House.  Years later, I began volunteering for them and learned all that I am sharing with you.  And thank you very much for reading listening.

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