Several years ago now, I was in an abusive relationship. I imagine all abusive relationships are different, but they are in many ways similar. The man who abused me was insecure, controlling, with unpredictable fits of rage. Like many people, I did what I was told relationships needed: compromise.

The relationship was verbally and emotionally abusive long before it became physically abusive. This man controlled me this way — slowly but surely increasing his grip over my life — he got angry if I spoke to male friends, was convinced I was flirting with anyone and everyone, believed I was cheating on him.

Like much emotional abuse, it was a subtle ploy. I didn’t realise the extent to which I was controlled by him, because I thought I knew better. I convinced myself it was natural to avoid drama and argument and his entitled hidden rage by just seeing my friends in secret. In retrospect, it’s the biggest red flag I could imagine. Seeing your friends in secret to avoid the ire of your boyfriend? Seems pretty obviously problematic now.

At the time I didn’t see it that way. At the time I thought I was taking the path of least resistance.

But of course, you cannot placate someone who is so insecure they believe you are cheating with no evidence whatsoever. You cannot reassure someone who is fundamentally insecure. You cannot convince someone you love them if they do not believe they are worthy of love. And you cannot persuade someone who does not trust you that you are worthy of their trust.

It frustrated me. No doubt part of me resented him for it. I am fairly strong-willed and independent. I can certainly see how my self-belief and (let’s face it) sometimes pigheadedness could be a problem for him, especially given his own insecurities. There were probably many aspects of my personality that pushed buttons for him.

Given all that, I will not excuse his behaviour.

The things that this man did are pretty by-the-book abusive behaviours, and as such, they were private, and unseen by the world. Had I ever seen a Mayo Clinic checklist for abusive behaviours, I would’ve known that he checked nearly every box. But the most salient point was this: “Blames you for his or her violent behavior or tells you that you deserve it”.

Eventually, his rage boiled over. He physically assaulted me while drunk, after bringing up his same tired argument that I flirted with other men. Reason and rationality were not, and had never been, present during these arguments. I had spent months telling him that I was not flirting, and that even if I had, this was neither intentional, nor did it prove an intention to cheat. I believed then, and still do today, that the problem was really his lack of ability to trust me, and our relationship. A hefty side-order of lack of empathy for my feelings rounded out the dish.

After his physical assault I left him immediately. I could not have gone back to the relationship even if I’d wanted to. I had seen a side of him I could not un-see. I had seen the terrifying anger and fear that lay behind his jokes and self-deprecating humour. At the time, I felt like I had seen the real him: that in those few moments, all the pretense was swept away, and behind it, I saw the truth. It was not pretty.

Unfortunately for me, others had not witnessed the same thing. Our mutual friends tried to stay out of it, walk a middle road where our relationship “just didn’t work”, and the responsibility for his assault lay on my shoulders as well as his. I was shocked to find I could not really talk about what had happened. People were turned off by the word “assault”. I had to find euphemisms, and quickly. Overall, it was really best just not to talk about it. It made people uncomfortable. Especially people who knew him, considered him a friend, and wanted to file away the assault somewhere nice and dusty and out of the way. People wanted to forget, even those who vaguely (or not so vaguely) understood he had a history of violent and extreme behaviours directed towards women he loved, or perhaps more accurately, was obsessed with.

Another thing surprised me: the response of people to me. Even those whose association with me clearly placed them on “my side” were made uncomfortable by my behavior after the assault. For example, I appeared to not be to bothered by what had happened. One person accused me of “being happy about the break up, and not upset at all”, something especially unforgiving for a woman, perhaps. And made much worse by the fact that he seemed absolutely distraught.

That part of sadness and brokenness that my now-ex performed was much closer to what people expected of me. He performed the victim with more efficiency and conviction than I ever could. And after all, he’d had so much practice throughout our relationship in blaming me for his violent behavior, so it was easy for him to extend that to telling others that I deserved it, in as oblique a manner as possible.

And it was difficult to explain to people that while yes, I was glad the relationship had ended (after all, it had clearly revealed itself to be an abusive one), of course I was hurt. Asides from minor physical injuries, the hurts were emotional: trust, betrayal, the unmasking of an enemy whom I had thought was a friend.

More than that, I felt a significant loss of trust in these people who questioned me, either overtly or subtly. It was not my job to perform my emotions in a socially sanctioned way to make others feel better about my break up and assault. My only job was to give myself time out, and to start appreciating the things in my life that were good. It was my time to turn inward, if and when I was ready, and only when I was ready. But if I wanted to focus on the positive, it seemed natural only to me.

This man stalked me on and off for a couple of years. He turned up uninvited in the middle of the night in places he knew me to be, and hung around in the dark, waiting for me. He had contact with some of my family members. When I left the country for Australia around 3 months or so after our break up, he jumped out at me at the airport at 5am, keen to have some kind of emotional farewell. It was bizarre and scary behaviour. He even made an abortive attempt to use our relationship in a (reportedly unfunny) stand-up show he was in.

People down-played it.

Was I not living in another city, I would have had real and significant fear about living my life.

This man and I still have many mutual friends. One of the worst things about this experience is witnessing other peoples’ need to bury it, to pretend it wasn’t that serious, or that it was a one-off event.

I do know that they did not see him as I did. And I can understand their willingness to forget about it; they believe that he is that slightly pathetic, jovial man he presents himself as in his many self-deprecating jokes. They think his self-loathing is an act. They do not realise he can turn it outward. They do not see what I do — that this harmless-seeming, affable man, that man is the act. I understand, and I do not blame them. After all, once I too felt the same way.

I still see him on occasion. I have to mentally prepare myself for encounters I know are coming (a mutual friend’s birthday, for example). But the ones I don’t know are coming? There is no preparedness for that.

I am no longer surprised when I hear about women who will not (or can not) leave their abusers. After all, the most dangerous time for an abused woman is right after leaving her abuser. Do we tell her we understand? No, we blame her for not leaving earlier.

And we shift blame from these men, telling them they are ill, or believing quietly that they were prompted to behave the way they did, that their victims somehow deserve what they get. Abusers are fueled by the eagerness of our society to look the other way. To ignore the misfortunes of others, to brush things under the rug, and keep walking on it, no matter how many times we might end up tripping over it.

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