Content warning: domestic violence and sexual assault
Last night I was up on Twitter reading through a hashtag called #WhyIStayed. In the wake of Ray Rice getting punted from the Ravens’ roster, there’s a lot of talk about Janay Rice and how she should just leave him. If you’re unfamiliar, here’s a brief rundown: he knocked her unconscious in an elevator. (Wait for it.) He eventually got let go from the Ravens only after the video surfaced and went public, because PR rather than the fact that he knocked his wife unconscious in an elevator. And because frankly, the NFL cares more about scoring points in a fucking game than players killing, raping, or abusing people.
Yeah, I’m in my feelings about it. Because it’s really fucked up.
Abuse is ubiquitous. If you paid attention to the #YesAllWomen conversation a few months back, you probably saw that side of it. Last night I saw another side, the #WhyIStayed side.
We all want to think we’d never end up in abusive relationships. We all want to think we’re too smart, too strong, too brave for it to happen to us. We’re given tales that liken abusive relationships to Beauty and the Beast, but that’s not the reality. No one falls for a beast first — they’re always disguised as princes. Not the other way around.
You see the prince. He’s charming. Friendly. Well-liked. Maybe successful. Probably kind to you. Funny, smart, insert-any-other-adjective-here.
It’s not for a while that you see the first glimpse of the beast. It’s probably something small at first. For me, looking back, it was telling me I shouldn’t want to hang out with certain friends, because these friends were gay and he wasn’t okay with that. I challenged him on that at the time because hello, I have two moms, and fuck that. But that was the first sign.
The others were more insidious and cloaked. He wanted to know every detail of my past sexual history. Not just number of partners but what I’d done with them, how long I’d been with them, etc. In retrospect, he was searching for ammunition.
He asked those things in a playful way and always made like he was openhearted and caring and openminded.
The second huge red flag was when he wanted to try a sexual act I hadn’t tried before. I said I’d try, but I got really uncomfortable when we got started and said no and that I wanted to stop. He kept trying. I said no again and had to skitter away from him to get him to stop. At the time, that did not have as big a honking siren on it as it would now.
There were many little things, but it’s important to note that between all these little things was the prince. Genteel. Well-liked. Gentlemanly in every stereotypical way.
I felt crazy. Like I was making a big deal out of nothing when those flashes of beast would show through. Sometimes he’d actively help that along, say he was “just joking” or that I was being overly sensitive or overreacting. There’s a term for that: gaslighting.
The first big blowout happened one day when he asked me about a past partner I hadn’t spilled every single detail on. I told him. He flipped his shit. I’ve never been on the receiving end of that kind of anger and to this day I am both thankful he was on the phone and also wish partly that he had been in person so I could have ended things right there. It was classic fucked-up-ery. He called me a whore and said he wondered how many others had had the pleasure of my services. This was for not telling him that someone I’d dated before I’d ever met him was in town. I told him that I’d run into him. At work. In an office with a bunch of other people in it. This is what “earned me” his wrath.
And the worst part is that he made me feel guilty. He made me feel like I didn’t deserve his love. He humiliated me and debased me, undermined my personhood and my integrity — and made me beg for his forgiveness. It was sick. Looking back, I can see how sick it was. At the time he confused me so much by telling me that I’d hurt him.
We didn’t officially end things that day. I wish we had. I felt like I owed him an in-person breakup — and let me say right now that you never owe someone that, especially if they make you feel unsafe. If you fear a partner will become violent or verbally abusive, you are under no requirement to look them in the eye when you tell them it’s over.
I wish I’d known that. It’s one of the reasons I spent years blaming myself.
I won’t rehash what happened when I went to break up with him in detail. He raped me. He blamed me for it immediately after.
It’s a fucking crock of shit, and even though I’d grown up with the litany of “it’s not your fault,” when it comes time to apply that to yourself, you still go through every tiny little thing you think you could have done differently when the real preventative measure is for everyone to learn this: DON’T RAPE PEOPLE.
What could have prevented it is this: I say no, he says, “Okay, I’m sorry.” And backs off.
And I wish that was the end of it. Abuse is INSIDIOUS. It gets inside your head and scrambles everything you know to be good and pure and true. It masquerades in front of you and tells you lies. It tells you that you don’t deserve better, that this is all you’re worth, that it was your fault, that you should just get over it, that you’re weak, that you’re stupid, that you’re crazy-crazy-crazy-crazy.
Even once you get out of an abusive situation, it can be hard to move on. A world that felt safe prior to the abuse may feel scarier. Things might trigger feelings of panic and anxiety. Unexpected things sometimes.
This hashtag on Twitter led to some interesting discussions, one being about the nature of forgiveness. And that’s what I want to close with, because my experience with talk of forgiveness regarding abuse has been less than positive. And maybe, just maybe, someone else feels like I did. Having spent several years in an evangelical sphere (one might call it a bubble), I remember a lot of rhetoric about forgiving those who had wronged you. It wasn’t really until tonight that I sat down and thought about how that can affect a victim of abuse in a negative way — and how my NOT forgiving my abuser and instead cutting him out and moving forward helped me put blame where it belonged.
So often victims struggle with that issue of blame. We can watch Good Will Hunting all we want and hear Shaun tell Will that it’s not his fault. I know that I knew on an intellectual level that it wasn’t my fault, but that didn’t stop me from blaming myself. When that was compounded with being told I had to forgive my abuser, it was like I had to absolve him of blame. When I blamed myself, that simply did not seem fair. At the time, it only created cognitive dissonance and I didn’t tease out how I felt about it because all the emotions of the abuse I’d experienced were too close to the surface.
So here’s a small dissection of my issue with the expectation that we need to forgive our abusers in order to heal:
On a surface level, if an abuser is asking for forgiveness and the victim is told they must grant it to be able to heal, this places more weight on the abuser’s feelings than the victim’s. If someone does you wrong, you’re not required to make them feel better about it unless you want to. You are allowed to walk away. Your responsibility is to yourself, to your own mental and emotional well-being, and you are not required to live through the mindfuck of having to absolve your abuser of blame. It’s theirs. They made the mistakes. They will have to live with that, just as you will have to live with what they did to you.
In cases where the abuser is removed from the situation, telling the victim they must forgive their abuser in absentia perpetuates that cycle of mental domination. Survivors should never be made to feel like they have to absolve their abuser of blame at the expense of their own mental health. There is no roadmap to healing, and forgiving an abuser is not a prerequisite of moving on with your life. You are allowed to feel anger at them. Rage, even. You’re allowed to feel bitter and to mourn what was taken from you, be it your dignity, your health, your well-being, or any number of other things. You are allowed to feel what you feel.
All these things came to mind because I have never forgiven my abuser, and he doesn’t deserve it. Forgiveness isn’t granted because people deserve it, but because they need it (according to Giles, I believe), but even so, it’s not my responsibility to make my abuser feel better about abusing me. It’s no one’s responsibility to make the person who did them wrong feel better for committing an act of harm against someone. That’s not a requirement for healing, and as my friend Adam Jury said, it’s not something you tick off on a list of things on the path to healing. It’s not something you must engage in.
If you are a survivor of abuse, your priority is you. Healing you. Being you. Sometimes relearning you. It’s breaking chains one by one, and if people are telling you that you have to forgive your abuser, well…sometimes that’s adding chains when you really are working as fast as you can with a set of bolt cutters. If you, in all your infinite you-ness, feel like you want or need to forgive your abuser, that’s something you have to decide yourself, in your own time. Your prerogative. No one else’s.
Abuse is a cycle when it’s happening, and even once it’s over, it can still feel like a carousel. You might exchange the incident — remorse — repentance — honeymoon — incident cycle for self blame — epiphany — improvement — trigger — self blame, but it can feel like you’re going round and round with ups and downs and there’s nothing you can do about it.
I wish there was an answer. I wish there was a stop, drop, and roll for surviving abuse. Something suitably pithy and effective.
But there’s not. There’s only you, and you’re stronger than you think you are.
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