Stock photos in tones of black and blue, of women shielding their face, of fists and black eyes. A stair lined with knives, tweeted by the police. They are so effective, those images, so evocative. So simple. Is that really what domestic abuse looks like? I can’t tell you. I don’t think it looks like anything in particular.
[Content Notice: This article discusses non-physical domestic abuse.]
This article was shared by someone in my facebook feed, weeks ago, and it stuck with me. Something in it made me feel uneasy, beyond the obvious horror of a stair lined with knives.
Eventually I found the answer in the quote at the end:
This picture is a snapshot of the horrific reality of domestic abuse. We hope it raises awareness of the barriers facing survivors who want to flee. If people ask ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’ – show them this picture.
–Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid
While I absolutely do not deny that many women stay in abusive relationships because they fear for their lives, I know for a fact that there are many other reasons why people don’t leave their abusers.
Sometimes, people don’t leave their abusive partner because they’re financially dependent on them. Because they’re disabled, because they have kids, or because that was just always the plan: Their partner would take care of them, so they didn’t need to work.
Sometimes, people don’t leave their abusive partner because they’ve been convinced that they are completely hopeless and unloveable, and that this relationship is the only one they will ever have. That they’re lucky to have anyone at all.
Sometimes, people don’t leave their abusive partner because they’re codependent; because the immense gratification they get when they feel able to aid their loved one overrides all other concerns.
In my case, well, I didn’t leave my abusive partner for two very simple reasons:
The first was that I was in love.
But more importantly, I didn’t understand that I was being abused.
In fact, I didn’t realise what had happened until several years had passed. Sure, there were the immediate scars of a bad relationship, of lies and broken trust. But there were other, deeper things. Subtle conditioning of emotional responses that took years to suss out.
It’s been so long, and I still remember that person’s moodswings. How they would get violent towards inanimate objects, breaking stuff on a couple of occasions, because of inconsequential things making them lose their shit. But it was never about me, so I didn’t think of it as abuse. I simply lived in fear of those sudden outbursts and their interminable aftermath. Their black mood would fill the room like a poisonous cloud, and they wouldn’t lift a finger to disperse it. It was up to me to try to make them happy again, or at least not annoy them further.
And oh yes, that was another thing: They told me I was the most annoying person on earth. Of course, I was also the most amazing person on earth, sometimes. During one particularly difficult conversation towards the end, they called me a robot for being so calm and reasonable in dealing with my emotions, and later declared me overly sensitive when something they said upset me so much I had to go to the bathroom because I thought I was going to throw up. As I recall (though this may have been from a different conversation altogether), they had compared me unfavourably to the lover they had slept with behind my back for months but then claimed to have stopped seeing.
I didn’t understand that when they refused to answer a perfectly reasonable question about how they had spent some time with that supposed ex lover, saying they didn’t want to “feed my paranoia”, that was a classic example of gaslighting.
I didn’t understand that the way they hardly ever gave me compliments or showed any particular affection towards me when we were around people we knew, preferring instead to mock me on those occasions, was abusive. That it slowly ground me into a pulp, left me desperate and emotionally destitute.
And of course, there was the jealousy. They were jealous of me, of everything I did that didn’t have to do with them. I quickly learned to avoid mentioning social engagements with others. I cut short my foray into dressing more femininely and “showing off my goods” in public, because they wanted my body all to themselves. I never knew if showing myself to be skilled at something would draw some mild praise, or simply send them into a huff because it was a skill they lacked.
I was walking on eggshells for the entire duration of our relationship. And even today, years later, I notice the same worries and thought patterns in myself, being applied to people who never did anything to earn that sort of fearful response from me. When a later partner got out of bed to fetch something and ended up stubbing their toe in the dark, and my whole body tensed up with anxious fear … I think that was the final piece of the puzzle.
I didn’t understand that I was being abused, because to me all those things were just personality quirks. My partner was a difficult person, I knew that when we got together. They had cultivated a self-image of the tortured genius, one which I happily encouraged, as it attracted me and spoke to the codependent tendencies I do have.
Sure, they treated me like a dishrag, using me to wipe up their filth and then wringing me dry — but that’s not abusive, that’s just being a terrible partner. Is what I thought.
And I loved them. I was so deeply committed to them, I simply couldn’t let go. It wasn’t possible.
They dumped me, eventually, for that lover I mentioned (whom they probably never stopped seeing). We tried to remain friends. When I landed a rebound a while later, they got upset. Called me — I think I can count on my fingers the number of times they spontaneously called me during our relationship. But now they needed me to talk to them, pick them up again, just like I had when I had been theirs alone.
And when they started feeling better, they saw fit to inform me how much all their friends had hated me, back when we were together.
That’s when I left. When they had already left me, and I was no longer rewarded with some token of affection for the immense emotional labour they required of me. That’s when I could finally let go.
My point is, domestic abuse isn’t always so obvious and clear-cut as knives stuck into the steps of a stair. Sometimes it’s gaslighting until you start questioning every thought and desire you have. Sometimes it’s years of tiny barbs that slowly wear you down. Sometimes it’s having to carry the entire weight of your partner’s emotional burdens, because they have no idea how to do it themselves.
I’d wager a lot of people, like myself, never understand that they’re being abused until afterwards, and perhaps not even then.((Especially if they are male, and the abusive partner is female. Because men can’t be abused by women. It simply doesn’t happen. Even if you do realise you’re being abused, what can you do about it? Who would believe you? You’re a man, after all.))
And, conversely, I suspect many abusers have absolutely no idea what they are doing. They aren’t hitting their partner, after all, or threatening them in any way. How could they possibly be abusing them?
So when we see photos of knives in stairs, accompanied by quotes from knowledgeable people saying that this, this is the horrifying reality of domestic abuse … how are we to connect that to the reality we live in, where the knives aren’t always made of steel?
You don’t talk about abuse openly, for many reasons, not least of which is your abuser still being alive. Mine may very well come across this blog post some day.((If you are reading this, I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive yourself for what you did to me. I probably never will.)) Every person who decides to talk openly about what happened to them have to face the fact that there may be repercussions. I’ve made a risk calculation and decided that it’s worth it, that I can write about this.
I wish I couldn’t — I wish I had never experienced it. That relationship sucked life out of me, and most certainly made my anxiety worse than it already was. And I guess the only thing I can do with the memory is talk about it, in the hopes that maybe it will help someone. That maybe, someone reading this might take a closer look at their own relationship(s) and understand that they need to leave. Or that they need to stop abusing their partner. Or that they need to talk to that friend of theirs whose partner always seems so rude to them. You get my drift.
I hope to raise awareness, just a little bit higher than the image of a stair full of knives might.