Apparently, I often make light of people in abusive relationships and how difficult it is to leave these situations. At least that’s what one friend recently suggested. Perhaps the following story might change her mind…
“If she was so crazy, why did you stay with her so long?” Whenever the subject of my ex comes up, someone always asks this question. Some people can’t believe that a woman is capable of the unfathomable acts of evil that I charge “Peaches,” my ex, of committing. “Come on!” they say. “If she was so bad, you had to have seen some signs of it early on.” Of course she did, but I willfully chose to ignore such things as:
Strange men and women showing up at her house looking for her, all the while giving me dirty glances.
Saying I was both “the love of her life” and the man who “ruined her life,” usually in the same discussion.
Locking herself in the bathroom and gulping down pills when I got my college acceptance letter.
Her ex-boyfriend always obtaining our phone number no matter how many times we moved.
Long, drawn-out re-evaluations of our relationship, usually at 3:30 a.m. before the day of a mid-term or final exam.
Her disappearing for days at a time, leaving our daughter and I at home without money or a vehicle.
The verbal, emotional, and physical (yes, physical) abuse on a monthly basis.
Using lies and manipulations to turn my friends and family against me.
It wasn’t always this way, though. In the beginning, she gave me the love and acceptance that I felt eluded me my entire life. As a result, I jumped head-first into a relationship with her, making her my everything. And because I finally found what I believed to be a permanent source of the love/attention/validation drug that I’d become so addicted to at that time; thus, so I didn’t dare question the many strange occurrences mentioned above.
As our relationship wore on, I continued to remain helpless as her bizarre and abusive behavior escalated into all-out war. I wasn’t about to risk losing my “one and only” source of love, acceptance, and emotional/physical comfort… not after going without for so long. What if I couldn’t find someone else?
Above all, I stayed with Peaches because her dysfunction felt… normal.
I call my childhood home “Trauma Central” for a reason. The environment was rife with destructive narcissistic patterns, as my parents’ constant need for attention and validation thrust me in the role of both providing that for them and being seen only as an extension of them.
When life threw them a curveball, it was me who bore the brunt of their frustrations. I was constantly told that I was “bad,” “stupid,” and “useless,” and I entered adulthood wearing this identity about me like cloak. At 43, I’m still paying the taxes on this “inheritance.” In short, growing up this way made me easy pickings for Peaches.
There have been many studies about why people stay in abusive relationships. Some psychologists say our want for the familiar causes us to recreate patterns we know are bad for us. Neuroscientists talk about brain chemistry and how we can become addicted to the chemical reactions produced by negative experiences, especially if that’s all we know.
Personally, I think they’re both right. Peaches’s dysfunction was definitely familiar, and I can’t deny a certain addictive quality to the relationship, despite its toxicity.
Trauma Central played a more direct role in my staying as long as I did. One family member was delighted that my daughter was the first and only grandchild in the family, and this person lavished my child with time, money, and attention. This family member had a vested interest in Peaches and I staying together, so much so that it became easy for this person to believe Peaches’s constant litany of abuse at my hands, my alleged alcoholism, and other loutish and chauvinistic behavior she suffered ever so valiantly.
Eventually, I got off this crazy rollercoaster. After all the arguments, assaults, lies, bankruptcy, and threats, I caught Peaches in flagrante delicto with someone I thought was my friend. At great financial and emotional cost to myself, I left and filed for divorce. By believing I deserved far better than what she was capable of giving, I was at least able to defy both Peaches and that part of Trauma Central that would do anything to keep me shackled to this abusive woman.
My parting with Peaches was far from perfect. Like all abusive people, she didn’t appreciate being abandoned and she used the one and only thing she could to get her revenge: our child. Roughtly 13 years after we split up, I was forced to allow her new husband — the ex-boyfriend mentioned above — to adopt my child. It was the last mechanism of control Peaches had over me and she shamelessly used it to hurt me in the worst way possible. The brutal realities of that decision still haunt me to this day.
So, that’s my story. And after reading it all, I wonder how many people will trust in its validity. More to the point, I wonder if my friend still believes that I don’t understand abusive relationships… and how hard it can be for some people to leave them?
J.P. Ribner is the author of Legacy of the Bear, Prophecy of the Bear, and World So Dark.