After three years of emotional outbursts, verbal abuse, anti-depressants, and unfounded amounts of hostility, my relationship ended. It was rapid: here one moment, and gone the next. I spent more time trying to process its angry nuances, as opposed to grieving its conclusion. And yet – even as an image of confident self-governance – I was asked a handful of times why I didn’t leave him prior. The irony seeps out of the question itself, considering my aloneness; considering his absence.
“I did,” I’d respond.
Whilst domestic violence assumes a variety of different shapes, dynamics and outfits; I am referring to that between a romantic coupling – one where the abuse consists of ongoing, coercive behaviours whereby one person will eventually possess power and authority over the other. What often begins as somewhat dramatic and negative responses to minute personality ‘flaws’ ends with frightening conclusions about a person’s worth (or lack of).
The assumption that women play an active role in their victimisation is represented somewhat even in the terms: ‘domestic violence’, ‘interpersonal violence’, ‘abusive relationship’, and ‘intimate partner violence’. The violence is deemed something that lives, flourishes and evolves in the context of a relationship – as opposed to independently within the perpetrator. The victim is seen to satisfy an operative part; a protagonist, arguably, in their victimisation.
June Sheehan Berlinger, director of The Women’s Pavilion at the Tallahassee Memorial Regional Medical Centre – and survivor of fifteen-years of psychological and physical abuse at the hands of her husband – describes three phases to attempt to pathologise why abusive relationships last.
The tension-building phase is how it begins: one riddled with frustration, disappointment and annoyance. Little things: the length of my hair, my particular style of clothing, and whether or not he liked my work, made him particularly irritated. This, I believed, I could circumvent. I’d appease him in my appearance, and take his criticism on board. Then – the explosion – a traumatic episode which, like somewhat of a wound, is likely to leave a lasting impression. This: a violent outburst, throwing around terms like “dumb cunt” and “weird bitch”, and proclaiming he’d rather kill himself than be with me a moment longer. In a state of shock – then comes the calm: the phase which keeps the victim at bay. Apologies stream in, their family members make amends, and one starts looking to excuse their behaviour in the knowing that perhaps, quite simply, you are difficult to be around.
However, pathology aside – when reflecting on the sort of role women play in their social landscape, we are often being ‘pulled into line’. Disciplined. We are expected to understand the magnetism of our femininity and how it will inevitably lure threats, hurt and punishment. It seems an ostentatious act to leave a man who insists I lose weight and grow my hair long before demanding his attention, when a disconcerting handful of magazine covers at the news-agency deliver the same message. When hurt becomes permissible, it isn’t deemed hurt at all. And yet, we are required to be able to decipher between what’s toxic, and what’s ordinary.
Even when members of the public are forced to process a noteworthy example of domestic assault – such as the attack of recording artist Rihanna in 2009 by Chris Brown – they still consider “both sides of the story”; a factor not often deliberated in other instances of abuse. In car accidents, random muggings, and most physical crimes where a woman’s gender or sexuality is not deemed relevant – the victim’s actions are not ruminated over, or open for ‘interpretation’. And yet, the actions, and even personalities, of female victims of domestic assault are considered extensively. Rihanna was beaten in an undisputedly violent and distressing manner. She was punched repetitively. Her head was thrusted against the glass window of Brown’s car. Her life was threatened numerous times, and he even proceeded to bite her. And yet, according to the Boston Public Health Commission (2009), 46% of 200 Boston students believed she was to blame for the violence inflicted upon her.
Her accountability can be contextualised through a critical media lens. Rihanna is a globally renowned symbol of fame, desirability and success. Whilst Brown stood on a similar pedestal – his stardom deemed as newsworthy as his violent propensity – masculinity, and the public declaration of such, is considered untameable in ways Rihanna’s femininity is deemed in need of taming. At the end of the day, Brown himself is regarded as the victim: a man challenged in a professional context, and riddled with hormonal jealousy.
The emotional abuse I was met with felt like a disciplinary act: a rather sordid extension of how society attempts to regiment womanly behaviour. In reflection, I can easily sew together disturbing links between what I was taught at the hands of my partner, and what I have come to internalise. And yet – we are deemed responsible for overcoming our conditioning and, in turn, differentiating between love, instruction, and abuse. We are expected to acknowledge how inherently provocative we are, as women. Violence and abuse – regardless of the shape, nature or motivations of the perpetrator – toward women is normative. It is justified, in particular contexts: be it the public sphere (“if she didn’t want to be catcalled, she wouldn’t have flaunted her body in that way”), or – in this particular case – the private sphere (“if it was really that bad, she would’ve just left already”).
I was one of the lucky ones. My relationship did not eventuate to physical violence. It was plainly saturated with verbal abuse, emotional manipulation, and guilt. My perpetrator was not possessive in ways that made the end laborious. Once it was done, it was done – which is so often a rarity in the context of intimate partner violence. Thus, when met with questions such as – ‘but why didn’t you leave’ – I couldn’t necessarily respond; knowing I wasn’t part of the statistic pool which factually proves that women are 75% more likely to be murdered once they actively leave the relationship. That economic dependency and children play integral roles in her decision; both of which I hadn’t shared with my perpetrator. That it can take, on average, close to seven times to finally escape: the abuse exacerbating between each attempt.
To this day, I am unaware as to why I stayed for as long as I did. An element of nourishment was certainly employed: I understood my abuser in ways others didn’t; he needed someone, and he chose me. The flattery helped me string together a title I was proud of: his saviour. A man who had lost his ability to speak and reason after abusing psychedelic drugs, he inscribed in me a unique sense of responsibility. Nobody understood him the way I did. Soon enough, language assumes new meaning. Gestures. What ‘compassion’ is changes; and abuse exists as some kind of ‘inside joke’ amongst lovers. Everybody must be like this behind closed doors, I remember entertaining. The more others advertised their relationship and seemed indisputably happy; the more I pitied them for their apparent lack of sincerity.
But, however long it takes to leave, it’s never quick enough: be it a day, a week, a year, or ten. Women are expected to ‘sense’ abuse and the shape it assumes long before it starts to effect us. We are ought to pack our bags, and leave it amongst the dust tracks of our speeding wheels. The presumption – that she should have just left – assumes that abuse is tangible. That, in order to be ‘safe’, women must acknowledge its presence and skirt around it – like the weather. If one doesn’t like the cold, don’t go to Europe in November. It’s almost that simple.
In some senses, making the conscious decision to leave involves venturing back into a country of which you cannot remember the language. You are fluent in something else now; something dangerous, and yet beautifully exclusive. The parameters of abuse exceeds that of a relationship. Exiting an abusive relationship feels a little like unwrapping yourself up in warm, familiar clothing that occasionally rubs and grates at your skin. We can justify wearing it; as it’s arguably better than being naked. But the weather does change, and we come to understand that not all fabric will irritate us the way it once did.
I wish to salute all of the women who managed to leave: be it after five minutes, or fifteen years. I also, however, wish to salute all of the women who haven’t yet left. And when they do, we must not erase the time, effort and sheer determination it took to do so – but be waiting with open arms, an eager ear, and a pat on their disrobed backs.