I wanted to give my thoughts on a subject that’s close to my heart: how people in our society view, and write about, domestic violence and other types of abuse.
I’ve participated in a lot of discussions, both online and in the real world, about what makes people stay in abusive relationships. The answers people often give are along the lines of, “They’re insecure.” Or, “They just don’t know anything different.” And, “They don’t see any way out.”
I have been in abusive relationships, and I’ll tell you what I hear when people give the answers above: “It’s your fault. You stayed with your abusers because you’re defective: weak, ignorant, and stupid.”
I’m not saying there isn’t a grain of truth in the fact that people living in abuse are insecure, sometimes lacking in objectivity with regard to their situation, and that they might have a hard time taking whatever steps they need to in order to leave their home and family. Do you know who else fits that description? Pretty much everyone else on the fucking planet.
Unfortunately, more than a few fiction authors portray abused women (the abused character is usually a woman, though that isn’t always the case in real life) as creatures we should both pity and cheer on as they inevitably overcome all their difficulties and reinvent themselves as strong, confident individuals.
Conversely, some readers of my novel The Hustle have expressed frustration with the main character, Liria, who goes through a string of ill-advised and abusive relationships throughout the course of the story (will she do better in The Other Place? I’m not telling 🙂 ). “I just don’t understand why Liria keeps getting involved with people who treat her so badly,” some people say. “It’s like she doesn’t want a better life.”
That’s another way of saying it’s the abused person’s fault for being abused. And yes, I know it is upon each and every one of us to take control of our lives and try to be the best we can be. However, suffering people’s ignorant judgment doesn’t help us to feel empowered. Nor does pity, because pity doesn’t really equal understanding…though it’s definitely better than sneering judgment.
When I was a teenager, I was in a relationship that was physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive. After that, I was in a couple relationships that maybe weren’t exactly healthy, but were marred to a greater extent by addiction than abuse. Then, I met my current (ish) husband.
My husband is a Ph.D. professor of biophysics; a hard-working, incredibly intelligent guy who comes off in company as perhaps a little odd, but sweet and quiet and nerdy. I, on the other hand, have only an undergraduate degree and a history of incarceration and heroin addiction (that stuff is far in the past, but still). I felt sort of like I’d hit the jackpot when I landed my husband; not just because of his education and the fact he didn’t do needle drugs, but because he was unfailingly kind to me, never so much as looked at another woman, and was always reliable and safe. He had his frustrating weirdnesses, sure, but doesn’t everyone?
About three years ago we moved to California for his job. The dynamic of our relationship shifted, and his frustrating weirdnesses turned against me. I’d quit my job and started (compulsively) writing when we moved—we didn’t need a second income, and we’d discussed my being a stay-at-home mom when he got a tenure track job. But, for reasons I won’t go into again here, my husband ended up not liking this situation. He accused me of lying around all day and writing silly stories. He called me selfish, lazy, and immature. He said I was using him for money, and didn’t have the guts to leave him only because I didn’t want to get a job to support myself and my kid. Pretty mean stuff, right? But think about it: if you were lucky enough to get to stay home and write all day (and, you know, clean the house and cook and garden and all that), you might feel a little guilty about it, right? That’s pretty normal among others I’ve spoken to who are stay-at-home. So, when my husband said that stuff, I didn’t really think it was abuse: I thought he had a point, because he’d hit the bull’s-eye of my guilt.I mean, his words pissed me off and hurt me, sure, but this was a man I loved and had been married to awhile. I respected his feelings and opinions. Plus, he had never been so critical of me before, so I thought he’d get over it. I even tried to get a job to make him happy, because sometimes doing stuff to make your spouse happy is part of marriage. But we’d moved to the worst economy in the known universe so I didn’t get a single call back.
Some friends I cried to about this stuff told me he was being abusive. But I’d suffered real abuse, I thought, and it hadn’t really been the same. Other people thought I was overreacting. After all, my husband was the big fancy doctor with a sweet nature, and I was just some weird, emotional chick with a sordid past who thought she was a writer. This argument hit home with me, as well. All you writers out there probably know what it’s like to feel like a fraud and like you suck, especially when those rejections are rolling in.
Anyway, my husband moved on to saying he had lost all respect for me and was done with me. He told me he wasn’t interested in having sex with me ever again, and told me to get the fuck out of the house on various occasions.
Now, you think, any self-respecting woman would have packed up and got the fuck out of the house for sure at that point. And I actually did, many times. But I would always come back. I loved him, and I was worried about him. His behavior seemed erratic, and I was concerned for his mental health. I told him to go to a psychiatrist, which he did. We also went to marriage counseling. I still had hopes things would get better. And besides, I was a little selfish and immature: I just wanted to stay home and write, and I wouldn’t get to do much of that if I left to be a single mom. Plus, destroying a household and uprooting your kid never seems fun, under any circumstances.
My husband didn’t get better, though. He got worse, and I “dealt” with it by getting smashed-ass drunk several times a week and hanging out with another man. I can forgive myself for this a little bit now, because I was truly miserable and going off the deep end, but at the time I felt horrendously guilty and weak for not being able to change my behavior. I knew I had some mental health issues of my own, as well, and that I wasn’t really taking care of myself, which exacerbated all these problems. So when my husband yelled at me and berated me for all of this stuff too, it again didn’t feel like abuse: it hit home. I felt like it was mostly my fault our relationship had gotten so bad, and that I could fix things by being a better person.
It was true I needed to change in some ways, and I did, eventually: I cut down on drinking, etc. And, eventually, I took my kid and left. I went home to my parents’, where I renovated and built onto a cabin on their property. Now I lie around here all day writing, editing, gardening, playing with my kid, building cabinets and making homemade wine. I don’t know how long this situation will last, but I wanted to still live my life on my own terms for as long as I could. I didn’t want my husband to win, and force me into a miserable life that I don’t want.
Now, a lot of you who are still reading this (if anyone) might say that I stayed in my abusive relationships because I was insecure, because I didn’t know any better (having been in abusive relationships before), and that I didn’t see a way out (at least that allowed me to live the way I want). You’d be right, in a way. But what you might be wrong about is the fact that you would never act that way in my situation. Whenever I hear someone say they’ll never be with anyone who doesn’t treat them like a princess/prince, I usually roll my eyes inwardly. Because there’s nothing wrong with me. I’m just a human being who has made decisions that made sense at the time. I’ve done the best I can do with what I’m given. I don’t always do the right thing, but if you think you always do the right thing there might be something wrong with you.
Anyone who has been lucky enough not to experience abuse is just that: lucky. They weren’t subjected to it at a young and impressionable age, and they didn’t get sucked into it slowly and insidiously like I did later, or any of the other things that can lead people into abusive relationships. Because I didn’t stay with my husband because I’m weak or dumb or ignorant: I stayed with him because I loved him, and I didn’t want to give up our life together: the same reasons people stay in healthier relationships.
What we need to do, both in life and in fiction, is see abused people as human beings—intelligent human beings with rich inner lives, just like anyone else—not as objects of pity and contempt.
Find The Hustle, my book that deals with abuse, here.