October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and I wanted to take a moment to share some information with all of you lovely yous. More than 1 in 3 women (35.6%) and more than 1 in 4 men (28.5%) in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. That’s a pretty scary statistic. Add in verbal abuse and I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t experienced it in some form.
My own experience with domestic violence is interesting. I think back to my first relationship and I read the definitions for emotional abuse ticking them off on my fingers. Name-calling. Acting jealous and possessive over everything. Isolation from friends and family. Humiliation. Telling them that they’ll never find anyone better. Belittling. Constantly threatening to break things off to get their way. Punishment by withholding affection. Violent acts like breaking things and punching walls.
All of those things are very familiar, not because they were done to me, but because they were done by me.
I’m not proud of that. 13 years ago that was my relationship. It was toxic, unhealthy, and dysfunctional. The relationship ended and you know what I realized? I was toxic, unhealthy, and dysfunctional.
The relationship, crappy as it was, didn’t make me that way. It wasn’t his fault that I acted out the way I did. It was mine.
I think that, even in this time of social awareness, it’s hard to see women as abusers.
It’s okay that we’re jealous because it’s just insecurity. It is okay that we’re explosive because we’re emotional. It’s okay that we become physically aggressive because we are weaker. It is okay that we have complete meltdowns because we are dramatic. Yet when we see those acts in regard to men it’s jealous = possessive, explosive = rage, dramatic = terrifying.
There came a time when I had to look at my behavior and ask myself if I was a man, would my behavior be okay? And it wasn’t.
And that was a really hard truth to face, let me tell you. It’s easy to blame it on the other person. They cheat, so it’s okay that you punch walls, become verbally abusive, and then stay with them. Every argument escalates to screaming, name-calling, belittling, apologies, promises to change. They don’t really love you. If they treated you better then you wouldn’t act this way. All the bullshit excuses you tell yourself to make it justified.
Healthy people don’t tear people down and punch things.
It became this terrible cycle that ate up years of my life.
When that relationship ended, I realized that my behavior didn’t. My next relationship wasn’t ‘as bad’ but I still said terrible things unprovoked because I couldn’t control my temper. I was still extremely jealous and possessive. There was arguing all of the time. I’ve never gotten physical with anyone but the words I’ve said to people, the weaknesses I’ve exploited – it was bad.
My next relationship was the worst because it was with someone that wasn’t combative. I said terrible things and not a bad thing was said back to me, it didn’t stop me. I got extremely jealous over little things and instead of a fight, I got an apology. Nothing was ever good enough for me. I was constantly handled like this grenade that was about to go off and that’s when I really got it.
Someone was afraid of me.
They treated me like they were afraid of me. And when I realized that, it broke my heart. I realized that I had a problem. That the way I tried to protect myself from getting emotionally hurt was abusive. The way I communicated was abusive. The way I reacted to the tiniest issue was abusive. I was abusive.
It’s easy to write it off when you’re in relationships with people who fight back, who argue back. When you’re in this constant cycle of toxic behavior. Who’s really instigating it? Who’s really the abusive person? Surely it’s not you. Of course, it’s not BOTH of you. Someone has to be to blame and that person just can’t be you. It took being in that situation to make me see that it was 100% about my own behavior.
I was angry and depressed and I never learned how to communicate those feelings or how to deal with those feelings. Every problem in the relationship felt like the end of the world and triggered a complete meltdown. I was so afraid of being abandoned that I used manipulation and control to make myself feel safe when in reality I was destroying everything. And that relationship who was with a lovely, kind, respectful guy? I treated him like he was the crappiest person on the planet. Was he allowed to have friends? Nope. Who was that girl texting him? Let me scream at him and tell him how much of a failure he was.
The minute I felt I wasn’t being loved enough? Fifteen insulting, hateful, text messages.
I look back at those times and I am mortified and sick to my stomach. It makes me so uncomfortable to share this out in the open like this. But I am. Do you know how many times I was called “dramatic” instead of an abusive? If I had been a man I can only imagine how appalled people would be at my actions. How terrifying the yelling would seem, but because I am a woman I was just dramatic and jealous. Abuse is abuse, regardless of who is doing it.
And it’s important that I say that and that I own that.
You do not have to put up with abuse, ever.
And if you’re on the opposite end of the spectrum, you don’t have to keep perpetuating abuse. I don’t believe all abusers are inherently bad people. Mental illness, substance abuse, poor coping skills, childhood trauma or abuse – usually play a role. You may even go from someone who was abused to someone who abuses others in a relationship because you are so used to that situation.
Should you hang around until the abuser “changes”? No.
As someone who’s done the change, don’t stay. With a sincere commitment, it takes years to get out of that behavior. It’s hard for people to get serious about changing. The damage that could be done in those years isn’t worth it. It’s so easy to say that you want to change without taking the steps to do it (I did that multiple times). It’s so easy to fall into complacency and not do the work. If someone really wants to change they need to do it on their own. Re-wiring your brain to not immediately go to that default abusive action is hard. It’s like teaching yourself how to write perfectly with your other hand. For a very long time, there’s always that default impulse and you have to constantly re-direct it. DBT was extremely helpful to me in doing that.
Domestic violence doesn’t have to be physical.
Just because you aren’t being hit or hitting someone, doesn’t mean that you aren’t in an abusive situation. Sometimes it’s hard to see. It’s controlling behavior. Constant belittling or minimizing your feelings. Being made to feel like you’re crazy. Twisting and turning situations so everything is your fault. Tearing you down so that you feel like no one else will want you and the situation you’re in is your only option. Check out the signs. If you are afraid for yourself, or you feel controlled or manipulated – seek help, talk to someone, ask for advice. Domestic violence is so dangerous because people are afraid to talk about it because abusers shame, humiliate, and isolate their victims.
Break the silence. If someone you know is in an abusive relationship, here’s how you can help.