It’s no secret that we, as a society, are colossally ill-equipped to have conversations about abuse. Even as movements like #MeToo have started to shine a light on the omnipresence of the problem, even as more and more statistics are released, and even as more and more victims have come forth and shared their stories, there are still a number of barriers in place that cripple our conversations from the outset.
There’s the wall of skepticism and willful ignorance that some will put up whenever they encounter an allegation against someone they’re fond of. Then there’s the inability of our mass media ecosystem to sustain complex, nuanced discussion. There’s also the fact that our society still has systems put in place that protect a number of perpetrators. And there’s the simple fact that the topic itself is one that’s insanely uncomfortable for most people. Finally, there’s the fact that all of those previous factors, and many more, trap so many victims in a vicious cycle of silence.
But on the scattered occasions when I do witness the topic being brought up, I see so many people fall prey to a fundamental misunderstanding of abuse that makes it absolutely impossible for them to grasp the true nature of the issue. Worse yet, it’s a misunderstanding that many victims also fall prey to, which can hinder a person’s ability to even know they’re being mistreated in the first place.
I am an abuse survivor; I’m sure you’ve gathered that much by now. I’ve had the misfortune of being brutalized by a romantic partner on multiple occasions.
I’ve suffered cracked ribs, black eyes, and multiple head injuries. I’ve been called “worthless”, “stupid”, “a burden”, “an empty shell”, “crazy”, “a piece of sh*t”, a “f*cking evil coward”, and all manner of names you’d never want to hear from a partner. I’ve been attacked, only to have the police turn around and arrest me as the suspected perpetrator. I’ve told my partner on multiple occasions that I didn’t feel safe in my own home, only to have my concerns ultimately dismissed every time.
I’ve been forced into financial dependency. I’ve been gaslit. I’ve been relentlessly criticized until I was reduced to tears time and time again. I’ve been mocked by my partner both publicly and privately. I’ve been isolated and alienated by them for doing something they didn’t like. I’ve had friendships sabotaged because they made my partner feel threatened. I’ve had substantial sums of money and personal property stolen from me and/or destroyed. And while certain abusive behaviors were more pervasive than others, it’s fairly obvious there was serious toxicity at play.
Of course, it’s much easier to notice a pattern when you list all of those behaviors back to back. But in reality, they escalate much more slowly over long stretches of time, which makes the pattern much more difficult to notice, especially when you’re with someone over the course of, say, eight or nine years.
And it can also be difficult to grasp just how much hindsight makes a difference if you’ve never experienced a similar situation, a fact that’s reiterated just about every time I try to share my experience with someone. Inevitably, two of the first questions I’m asked will be about 1) what behaviors I was subjected to and 2) how long I was with the partner in question.
When I answer, I’m always met with the same question: Why did you stay?
I’ve pondered this question over the course of many sleepless nights, and I’ve really only ever been able to give one answer: because we were in love.
This answer always elicits the same handful of reactions. A lot of people give a sympathetic “Awwww” and a look that says, “Of course you were, sweetie.” Others give me a skeptical or dismissive “Okay…” Some go so far as to try to correct me and say something like, “Pr at least you thought you were.” And then there are the ones who look at me like I belong in a padded cell.
At this point, I can’t say I blame any of them. If you take a look at so much of the dialogue surrounding the issue of abuse and intimate partner violence, the prevailing belief is that love and abuse are mutually exclusive. There’s a binary we’ve constructed where a relationship can either be loving or abusive. Generally, the minute one party crosses a certain line, that person is seen as being driven solely by a desire for power and control.
Their “victim” becomes either a helpless prisoner or a tragic fool caught in the grips of denial. That is until they become willing to uproot their lives and put themselves at risk by leaving. Unfortunately, it’s that oversimplification of the situation that can power a victim’s denial… if you want to even call it that.
There were plenty of moments from that previous list where I knew a line had been crossed. Even if you have trouble recognizing mental and emotional abuse, it’s pretty tough to argue with a black eye or a cracked rib. So why didn’t I leave after they hit me the first time? Or the second? Or the third? Or the fourth? Or the seventh? I’ve told you that already. And if we were to define love beyond the cards and chocolates and proposal flash mobs, what would it be? Sacrifice. Support. Selflessness.
To love someone is to want their well-being no matter the cost. For me, that cost involved enduring a few things that no one should. But in my mind, that was precisely why I was out there in the first place.
I had already endured plenty of those same injuries growing up as a competitive fighter. Meanwhile, they had grown up enduring plenty of horrific treatment as well. I won’t get into specifics, since that’s not really my story to tell. Suffice it to say, they had developed the kind of severe PTSD you often see in soldiers and mass shooting survivors. And much of the violence I endured was fueled by that same PTSD.
So yes, I was enduring treatment that no one should have to endure — but so had they. Worse yet, they had no choice but to endure most of that treatment for no other reason than someone’s cruelty. At least my endurance of this treatment was, in a way, a sign of devotion. Add to this the fact that leaving would almost certainly break Their heart and possibly their mind and spirit. I simply couldn’t do that to someone I love.
Of course, my mistreatment went beyond just physical. There were insults, mocking, criticism, gaslighting… I’ve already gone through the list. And as much as I would love to say that all of this behavior was calculated and purposeful, the reality is that it all likely stemmed simply from a need for control. That’s part of what PTSD does to your brain: There’s a portion of your mind that’s always evaluating and anticipating potential threats.
And what happens when you love someone? They become a source of happiness, but also someone you can potentially lose.
The greater the love, the greater the potential there is for pain when we lose that person. To some, the solution to that conundrum (or at least a way to minimize the threat as much as possible) is control. And that’s precisely how we define abuse: a means of gaining control over another person. But to say this abuse is separate from (or even the opposite of) love is simply false. It’s often driven by love.
Add to this the fact that we had plenty of happy times together. We didn’t just have countless incredible and unforgettable moments together but had a whole circle of friends and loved ones who came together around us. We shared so many of the same values and had complementary talents that allowed us to work incredibly well together in a whole host of situations.
And there were, of course, so many things about them that I enjoyed and admired. We checked just about every box that one might expect from a happy couple, at least on a surface level. There was just this one aspect of our relationship that was less than ideal. But all relationships have their own version of that, right? Ours was just a little more… intense.
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In other words, despite both of us being fully aware of at least some of the abusive behavior, we never really saw our relationship itself as being “abusive.”
We simply compartmentalized those aspects as being something separate from the rest of our loving, happy relationship. After all, we were subscribing to the same dichotomy as everyone else. Thus, since we were very much in love, there was simply no way that our relationship could be considered abusive. Our dysfunction was simply a temporary by-product of the baggage we had brought to the relationship.
As I processed every injury and every indignity, I would picture the day when love would eventually win out, and we could conquer the world together, with our demons successfully buried beneath our feet. Better yet, one day he would come to his senses. If he could just see what I went through to be with him, and see my continued devotion as the ultimate expression of my love, we’d be perfect.
That day, of course, never came.
Instead, my continued presence only enabled their worst tendencies, while my ever-growing resentment and lack of self-esteem started to bring out mine.
Rather than leave or truly assert myself, I started sneaking around behind Their back, seeking validation from other people. To me, it was a way to even the scales in the back of my mind and make those instances of mistreatment tolerable, not to mention a break from playing the role of dutiful partner. Instead, it simply fueled the toxicity that would lead to our demise.
Am I saying that every abusive relationship follows this same pattern? No. What I’m saying is that our current misunderstanding of abuse is standing in the way of our ability to truly address the problem. In reality, abusive behavior happens in pretty much every relationship. Any time you withhold affection, toss out a verbal barb, raise your voice, or do anything to gain control over your partner, by definition you’re being abusive. Does that mean you deserve the moniker of an abuser? Does this mean that you’re in an “abusive” relationship? Most likely not — although that revelation might give you pause the next time you want to give your partner the silent treatment.
But once again, that’s another example of love and abuse coexisting. And again, it’s likely that love is one of the things that helps fuel your desire for control. So then where do we draw the line? At what point does abusive behavior progress past the confines of what one might consider a healthy relationship?
That’s something we all have to answer both individually and collectively. And to do that, we have to be able to see the problem for what it is. As it stands, the only people I’ve met who understand the trickiness of the problem are victims and the professionals who are trying to help them. My hope is that, in sharing the insight I’ve gained from my own harrowing experience, I can help to change that. Hope is, after all, how you survive.
R.J. Aguiar is a writer, producer, performer, advocate, and personal trainer who’s been featured in outlets like Buzzfeed, Upworthy, and The Huffington Post. He’s received recognition from The Advocate’s “40 Under 40” list, YouTube’s “NextUp” program, and the Clio Awards; and spoken at venues like VidCon, San Diego Comic Con, and The White House.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.