If you would have told me that one day I would be in an abusive relationship—and that I would choose to stay in it for over two years—my feisty, smart, strong, opinionated, kick-boxing self would never have believed you. But I think it took me so long to get out because I didn’t feel like I fit a stereotypical “abused woman” image. Even though I was dragged, hit, choked, publicly humiliated, raped, and threatened with death multiple times, I didn’t see myself as abused; I didn’t think I could be abused.
My relationship with Collin (names have been changed) started when I was just 18. We met at college where I was going to school and I thought he was too. Our relationship didn’t start out violent. In fact, it was a fairytale—and would turn out to be just as fictitious. Collin was everything I’d ever wanted in a partner and since I didn’t have a lot of relationship or life experience at that point in my life it was easy for him to shape himself into my fantasy. He took me to fancy dinners and on long walks down the beach. We talked about everything until dawn. We spent every spare minute together. I was head over heels in love and after just a few months I’d even mentally decided he was the one I wanted to marry.
Friends and family seemed wary of him, particularly of our age difference, but I thought they were just jealous. I had found true love at 18. Some people were just lucky like that.
I should have listened.
Their concerns were well-founded. Unfortunately, it was all too easy to ignore them—something Collin encouraged by making it harder and harder to spend time with them. For instance, when I went home for Thanksgiving break he drove six hours to my parents’ home and insisted I leave right before dinner started. I went with him because he’d driven so far and said it was a crisis. When I discovered the “crisis” was just that he was bored and lonely and I insisted on going back, he took my car keys so I couldn’t leave. It was only then I noticed that he’d insisted on going to a spot in the mountains where there was no cell phone reception.
He didn’t allow me to go home until after midnight and my family was panicking since they hadn’t heard from me. I was embarrassed and upset but I didn’t want to look dumb so I told them his grandmother had died, an excuse that seemed appropriate at the time. Still, I thought it was kind of romantic that I was the only person in the world who truly understood him (as he had told me), so I brushed it off.
From there things escalated, but at an incremental pace. He was always pushing me just a little farther, emotionally and physically. It was so subtle at first that I hardly noticed how far past my original boundaries I’d gone. Yet I kept making excuses for him, rationalizing his behavior. Maybe I hadn’t been clear enough? Maybe he just needed more attention right now?
Then one night it got really physical. We’d had an argument earlier in the day and I’d felt a tenseness in the air even though he didn’t say anything about it. Once we were alone, he unleashed his anger on me, choking and then sexually assaulting me. I cried. Yet when he finished, his finger marks still red on my neck, he had a violent reaction—but in the opposite direction. He seemed even more upset than I was, crying and shaking until I found myself comforting him. He kept repeating, “Look what you made me do!” It was one of the strangest nights of my life and I felt like I couldn’t trust my own perceptions. So I believed his.
The abuse continued to get worse.
As the abuse escalated and I began to see patterns, I would put myself in them. He told me horrible things so many times that I started repeating them myself: I was the crazy one. I was the one with out-of-control emotions. I asked too much. I wasn’t pretty enough. It was all my fault. I deserved to be hurt and humiliated. If I could just be better this wouldn’t keep happening to me.
To an outsider, this must sound insane. And it is. I’d lost touch with my reality because he’d so completely supplanted mine with his twisted version.
After a couple of years of this treatment, it really did feel normal. My self-esteem was non-existent. He told me no one would ever love me besides him. And I believed it. Then he told me he would kill me. And I believed that too. I didn’t think there was any way out for me, I was in too deep and had made too many mistakes. I knew that I was going to die young and it would be at his hands. I was so sure of it, I even made a box with pictures, journals, and other evidence of what he’d done to me. I sealed it with a note to my family telling them good-bye and how sorry I was—not so they could catch him, just so they’d have some closure.
And that might have been how my story ended. Except then he proposed. As I stared at the ring on my finger, I remember thinking that this should be the happiest moment of my life but all I felt was numb. That weekend I drove home to show my mom. Her reaction floored me. She went ballistic, crying and telling me that she just couldn’t stand by and watch this happen anymore. She didn’t even know the half of it but she knew enough to know I was in danger. I remember her crying and telling me she would send me to another country, change my name, whatever it took to get me away from him, but I wouldn’t be going back to school and I certainly wouldn’t be going back to him. She took the ring and my phone and as I lay in my childhood bed, far away from his reach, things finally started to make sense and I realized my mom was right.
How I ended up leaving him is another story. It wasn’t easy but I did it and I now have a wonderful, happy life. Yet every time I hear people talk about women in domestic violence situations—in the news or rumors about real-life acquaintances—it takes me right back to that dark place. I always hear people ask “Why doesn’t she just leave?” That question, and the carefree way people ask it, always chills me.
I know why women don’t leave abusive situations.
First, because it’s not just that easy. Abusers make sure of that. There are many big reasons women don’t leave their abusers: Financial dependency, threats against children or other loved ones, nowhere else to go, and physical isolation. But there are so many smaller reasons too: The gradual shift from trusting their version of events more than your own, the social isolation from anyone who could provide a dose of reality, the constant belittling and undermining—and, yes, the lingering feelings of love.
After all, he was kind, funny, and charming more often than he was the monster who hurt me. Who was I to say I deserved more?
He had groomed me so well that the erosion of boundaries and my sense of self happened so subtly that I barely questioned it. For me, there was also a keen embarrassment of becoming a person I never thought I could be. I felt weak and dumb, ugly and scared, out of control of my life, and if I admitted the truth of my situation, then I was accepting that I really was those bad things.
And that’s what people who’ve never been in an abusive relationship can’t understand. You become a different person, one that’s more the abuser than yourself. That may be the cruelest thing my ex did to me, stripping me of my sense of self and everything precious to me until all that was left in my life was him and, therefore, without him I would have no life.
I’ve been through many years of therapy since leaving Collin. It took me at least a year to finally be able to untangle these thoughts and to see them for the lies and manipulations they were. I remember sitting in my therapist’s office one day, looking through the pictures from my farewell box, and seeing the deep bruises, bloodied clothes, and tear-stained pages. I studied them like I was reading a sad news story that happened to a stranger far away. She looked at them and cried. I watched her cry and for the first time, I began to feel sympathy for that poor, young, vulnerable girl who was so hurt. That girl who was me. I had shed many tears during and about that relationship but that afternoon was the first time I cried for me. That was the moment I finally truly left that relationship for good.
Leaving an abusive relationship takes time and effort. So instead of asking women “Why don’t you leave?” perhaps we should simply be asking, “How can I help you?” If you or someone you know is in a crisis situation, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233, which is open 24/7/365 and is completely free of charge. If you don’t feel comfortable with a phone call or don’t know who may be listening, they have online chat available, too.
Next, learn about the best thing you can do after a breakup.