The first bloody nose happened not long after we started dating. But he was sincerely sorry. So I stayed.
The yelling and the name-calling started not long after we became engaged. But he was, always, sincerely sorry. So I stayed.
The second bloody nose happened after we were happily married. But again, he was sincerely sorry. So I stayed.
The bruises, both physical and emotional, were sprinkled throughout the relationship. The fault was always mine. Or that’s how he made it seem. So I stayed.
Because how could anyone else ever put up with me? How could anyone else ever love me as much as he did? Tolerating my hysterical outbursts, my neediness, my emotional swings (hormones anyone?). Who else would stick around, if not him? So I stayed.
One time I fought back. My open hand connected with his face. He took to the bed, gave me the cold shoulder, wouldn’t respond to my pleading, my begging for forgiveness. Finally, after much groveling on my part, he said “how could you hit me? I can’t believe you hit me.” I had no words to say except “I’m so sorry.” Over and over and over. And I stayed.
I was ashamed. I was embarrassed. I was humiliated. Me, the smart one. Me, the feminist. Me, the one who seemed to have it all together. How could I possibly have let this happen to me? I began to internalize the emotional abuse, began to turn on myself, began to doubt myself. Maybe all the things he said to me, about me, were true. Maybe I was a lunatic, a crazy bitch, a nutcase. Maybe I did deserve to be pushed around, to be bullied by his size and his strength. Maybe I was worthless. So I stayed.
I never found the words that would have stood up for my battered self. I never found the courage to stand my ground, to say “NO MORE.” I never found the love for myself that would have enabled me to feel I was worth so much more than what I was getting.
In retrospect, the end of the marriage was a mutual parting of ways, after time spent apart, for reasons due to school, residencies, jobs. Once again, though, I was a coward. My best friend ever, my beloved Golden Retriever Calvin was diagnosed with lymphoma and died within weeks. I was devastated. Two weeks later, he called to say he was filing the divorce papers. Not “Happy Birthday. How are you? Do you miss Calvin?” Emotionally abusive, in his way, to the end. I never confronted him. I hid behind the age-worn excuse of “we both want different things out of life, so we should go our separate ways.” It seemed easier to not say anything. Just like it had been easier not to say anything during the ten years we were together.
I thought by signing the papers, by taking back my name, I would be shedding that part of me that had been abused. That by walking away, the scars would disappear and I could pretend as if none of it had happened.
Funny thing about scar tissue though…it doesn’t lay down in nice, neat, straight, parallel lines that fit perfectly into the lanes of life. Scar tissue forms in clumps that can knot up and disrupt the best laid plans. Scar tissue can form and lay low for a while, not causing any problems. Until one day, life tries to travel down that path and WHAMMO! BAM! Road block. Cause there’s no moving smoothly over ginormous balled-up adhesions. There are triggers, I will be honest. I have a personal space now that if I feel is being invaded, I will defend mightily. I can’t watch movies that have even the slightest hint of domestic physical abuse without my heart rate accelerating and my respirations increasing. I have been angry of late. At the bullies in our world…the men in positions of power, the stories that are coming out, the ones not told, the ones not believed.
The stigma of being “one who stayed” rears its head often in my life. The father of my daughter, my second husband, has said countless times over the years that he just cannot understand how a woman would go back for more abuse. We have this conversation a lot. I used to get pretty worked up when I was trying to explain it to him. I’m far enough away from it now that I have the ability to dial down the emotion so that I don’t explode out of my skin. He has a hard time reconciling the knowledge of me, his wife who is a passionate feminist, who has two professional medical degrees, who is a successful parent/homeschool teacher/employee outside the home, as ever being “one who stayed.” I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve tried to explain it. But to be honest, it’s as if I’m speaking ancient Greek and he’s speaking Cherokee (which is in his family tree, so I can say that without being disrespectful). To him, it is unfathomable that a woman would stay in a relationship with a man who is physically abusive. To him, that woman is simply stupid.
And therein lies the stigma. And the dichotomy. I stayed. I am not stupid. I am actually a pretty smart person. But. I. Stayed.
I anticipate running into another clump of scar tissue soon. Our daughter is 11 years old now. She is strong, in every sense of the word. She is physically strong, but she is also emotionally strong. Strong-willed and strongly opinionated. She is passionate and intelligent and has a fine sense of right and wrong. How do I tell her that her mother was “one who stayed?”
And dear Goddess of the Universe, how can I help her be one who won’t?