I was 21 and had just graduated from college when I met my ex-husband. We met online, and I remember meeting him at his house, impressed that he had bought it himself when he was 19. He was about 5 years older than me, and I remember on our first date feeling like he was the first person to see “through” me, if that makes sense. In retrospect, on our first date I remember him asking me a lot of personal questions about things that were not perfect in my life, and making me feel like an extraordinary person who didn’t deserve this sort of imperfection, nor the people who caused it. Before I knew it, I was revealing my deepest insecurities about myself, my childhood, my current life (and at 21 just out of college, they were a plenty). These conversations, which felt deep and meaningful, quickly developed into more pointed questions about my sexual history, friends I currently had, and my past.
We used to joke that we were on a never-ending first date, because I ended up moving in with him that weekend. It seemed like a warm welcome, since I was currently living with roommates who were more interested in partying every weekend than abandoning college life for a professional one. I felt like I was with someone experienced who treated me like an adult, and gave me a sense of worth that I had not experienced before.
I remember calling individual members of my family, crying because I didn’t know what I was supposed to say – not really believing that it was necessary to cut everyone off, but trusting that a “clean slate” was what I needed.
Soon after our initial meeting and moving in, the insecurities and issues I had revealed became fuel for arguments and coercion. Feeling like he knew more than I did about life and even myself, within the first week or two I had abandoned my friends, and most of my family, who he had convinced me were detrimental to my becoming a better person. I remember calling individual members of my family, crying because I didn’t know what I was supposed to say – not really believing that it was necessary to cut everyone off, but trusting that a “clean slate” was what I needed. The vehicle I was driving at the time belonged to my Dad, and I remember dropping it off with my cell phone inside.
I was participating in my second year of the Miss Delaware pageant at the time, and was making well on my way to possibly making a top spot in the competition in just a few months. I had worked extremely hard that year developing my platform, working out, practicing my talent, and keeping my fingers crossed at the chance for a scholarship that would put a healthy dent in my student loans. I remember his rant about pageants being for whores, and I shouldn’t be comfortable being on stage in a swimsuit. Little did I know I wouldn’t wear a swimsuit without a dark T-Shirt overtop, let alone see a beach for the next 8 years. Needless to say, one of my calls was to my pageant coordinators to drop out a few months before the State competition.
After the ties were cut with my friends and family, our fighting started to increase. When I would get upset or contest something, he would blame it on my ignorance and the fact that I did not understand what was good for me. He would continue to use fuel from our deep conversations to highlight my “problems” and said if I wanted to be a better person I would listen to him.
About 4 weeks after we met, we were driving one day having another discussion about the path my life was now on, and how wonderful it was going to be together. As a final tie to cut, he convinced me to throw my keyring out the window, as I no longer needed keys to my dad’s house, or my old apartment. After I ditched the keys, I remember him giving me the same look of pride and satisfaction as he did with any of these tough ties I had to sever. It made me feel good, like I was finally doing something right. He asked me to look in the glove box for a CD, and when I opened it, there were 2 ring boxes from Zales sitting there. I remember my heart sinking, not understanding exactly what was going on. He told me that anyone could give me an engagement ring, but he wanted to show me how serious he was about being with me, by giving me these wedding bands. He had me put the ring on my finger, and ironically the only time I took it off was for our wedding day 4 years later. He had me call his mom, who I had never met, to tell her we were engaged. I remember feeling like I should be happy, and in a way I was, but something did not feel right. It wasn’t at all how I dreamt my proposal would be growing up, but then again, everything I had come to believe was somehow invalid.
In addition to the ring, within the first month or two, my boss at work started noticing changes in my behavior as well. I started my job at the bank in Philadelphia as their resident expert in Chinese culture and language, serving customers, and also working with the business banker visiting businesses in Chinatown (with my PNC Bank Chinese nametag, nonetheless). I enjoyed what I did, but after about a month or so, a fight started in the morning would prevent me from getting to work. I no longer had a vehicle, so I relied on him to dive me to the train station. When he picked up early on, he would make comments about how my body looked in my work clothes, and how I needed to dress more conservatively. To give you an idea, I shopped primarily at the Limited and Express back in those days, so my attire was typically pants or dress skirts and blouses. I have never been a big “cotton T-shirt” wearer, so at home my wardrobe was more along the lines of Ann Taylor Loft (and still is ;)). Before long, my clothes ended up in a bin in the basement, or thrown away, and he kindly bought me new clothes for work, which consisted on cotton T-Shrits from Aeropostale or Target, and loose fitting cargo pants. I also had to wear camisoles under my shirts. My bras had to be non-push up but padded enough to conceal myself, and he bought me new cotton brief underwear. Everything else I owned was thrown away. Work obviously started noticing these changes, as well as the fact that I was no longer wearing makeup. I remember my boss asking me about what was going on at home, after he would call my desk at work and start fights over the phone. He would demand I not hang up, or that I continue the fight, usually to the point where I would leave early. I ended up resigning from my job within 2 months, because the stress of getting to work and, staying at work was unbearable, and frankly I was embarrassed about my appearance.
After I left my job, our relationship seemed to improve. Compared to the few months of hell, I welcomed the new turn we were taking. Over the next 8 years, the emotional rollercoaster waxed and waned, but always hinging on my inferiority and my quest to become the person he knew I could be.
I certainly felt like something was amiss right away, but he convinced me that I had no idea how relationships were supposed to work (a theme that perseverated abuse for years). The major theme of our relationship was me trying to be the best girlfriend/fiancée/wife I could be, with the understanding that I had no real examples of this role in my life. I think it is important to mention that over the course of our 8 year relationship, we had good times together, and memorable moments that kept me hopeful one day the abusive behavior would stop.
There were things in the beginning that in retrospect were red flags. I remember a fight ensuing after work one day because he had gone through my “things” from my old apartment and found a hard drive with pictures on it from previous serious relationships, some very private in nature. He had taken it upon himself to go through my things, find the hard drive, view everything on it, and berate me about its contents. I never did live that down. Another day while I was at work I noticed that my Gmail account was completely cleared out. Pictures that I had from my study in China, and other pictures with friends and family were completely gone. I asked him about it and he made up a story about accidently deleting everything when he went into my account to check on something. I’m still not sure how he got into my account or what he claimed to be looking for, but getting upset would only prove that I cared about my past, and I was already tired of fighting.
There were considerable red flags throughout our relationship, but after the first 6 months to a year, much of it was so normalized I ended up ignoring it. Anything I saw as a red flag was justified by me not understanding how relationships worked. After all, his parents were still together. Constant reminders that “[he] used to be a lot worse” and threats that that person “could come back at any time” made me feel like he was being better to me than he had been in the past, and if I just kept doing the right thing, maybe it would be amazing one day.
As I mentioned, we had good months and bad months, good years sometimes and bad ones, but because I had absolutely nothing else against which to compare my experience, the rules of our relationship became normal. In the year or two before my leaving, I actually gave entire presentations to the international community on the campus where I worked about relationships safety and expectations in the US. My personal experience did not even phase me. I remember watching certain TV couples, wishing our relationship could be like theirs, but always blaming myself for being an inferior wife, or determining that this was just for TV. Fights were normal, walking on eggshells was typical, and I just tried to follow the rules to the best of my ability.
I never talked to anyone about my home life, as it was no one’s business, he would say. I reconnected with my family around the time of our wedding, but I still wasn’t allowed to go out without explicit permission, and would get grief for talking to anyone on my side on the phone. I remember my question every day when I got home was “who did you talk to today?”. I would have to recount everyone I had interaction with, getting grief and usually fighting if I saw a co-worker for lunch, talked to my mom, or another family member. Because I was so private about everything, there was not an opportunity for anyone to interject. I do not think anyone even really knew what was going on. On the outside, it probably seemed like I was disinterested in seeing family, or scared of flying, since I seldom travelled for work when given the opportunity. These were my decisions, because I chose to be passive and avoid confrontation. I had enough confrontation when I did things right, I certainly did not want to do anything to ask for it.
I landed what I consider my dream job about 6 months before I left, and I was required to be gone for 8 weeks for intense training and to get to know my co-workers, who would be working across the US in the same capacity. Even though I came home every weekend to be with him, I am sure that my being gone must have sent his blood boiling. The abuse cycles escalated during that period, and we had one fight that resulted in my finally realizing that my relationship was without a doubt abusive.
I was out taking photos of the DC monuments at night during the week, and while out, started receiving texts from him demanding to know who certain phone numbers belonged to. As I tried to identify the numbers (lugging thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment around the cold city at night, mind you) my responses were not fast enough, and the fight via text escalated. He was going through the phone bill quizzing me on numbers I had recently communicated with. My phone ended up dying, and I completed my photo project, upset and cold, went back to my room and went to bed. When I woke up the next morning, we fought until I had to go to work, and then again when I got back to my room. I had called him out on the ridiculousness of what he had done, and how it made me feel. As the fight continued, he started crying, which completely took me out of my logical headspace. He said that our dog was sick and he didn’t want to go home because he couldn’t deal with it if she is dead when he gets there. He said I was the one he relied on to take care of those things, and that’s why he was so upset the night prior. I wasn’t there to take care of her and he didn’t know what to do. The guilt overcame me and fear, frankly. He said he couldn’t possibly go home until he felt like the fight was resolved and he could emotionally handle what he was walking into at home. I felt like the dog’s life was in my hands, and was both upset and frustrated that I was hours away with no sensible way to take care of this. I was a bit frustrated finding out he had not contacted a vet, so I called our neighbor who was a vet tech to make sure our pup was ok. He called me immediately after she called over to him, and he was outraged that I had brought someone else into our personal business. At this point, the fight continued, (me still not knowing whether the dog was ok). I started writing down some of the things he said during our fight so I could look at them later with a clear mind
“You need to be a fucking asshole and you feel the need to have all these piece of shit people in your fucking life.”
“I’ve put 8 years of my life into you to make you into this great fucking person.”
“What have you done for me? We can’t even have a fucking kid.”
“What’s in it for me? Other than losing hair and high blood pressure, and a heart attack probably, and grey hair”
“I’m super passionate because I care”
“I could easily treat you like every other dirtbag in my entire life.”
“You think you’ve got me by the balls”
“You do things like a single person would”
We fought that weekend, and the violence started to escalate as well. The difference with these fights is that I did start realizing that the behavior was abusive and dangerous. I had contacted a few of my contacts from the University who specialize in domestic violence (who I had ironically worked with on several presentations before) and relayed my story. I started reading blogs and articles from The Hotline, as well as reading abuse charts like the ones I have posted on this website. I was astounded that I was finding myself checking every box. My situation was not as unique as I thought it was, and I immediately felt deceived, guilty for the decisions I had made, guilty for the way I felt, and scared.
My situation was not as unique as I thought it was, and I immediately felt deceived, guilty for the decisions I had made, guilty for the way I felt, and scared.
Coming out of the fog
Once I realized the situation was abusive, I felt a bit empowered, but started planning a safe escape plan, should I need to use it. I was still caught up with the fact that this was likely not a relationship I could fix on my own, and did try to breech the topic with him on several occasions. I began telling him I was unhappy, that the behavior wasn’t right, and started trying to use more assertive statements to declare my boundaries. I remember getting into a fight because I took a shower on my own one day (we showered together every day for 8 years, diverging only when he decided to wash up on his own.) The fight was centered around the fact that I must be cheating and needed to wash the [sex] off my body. When I told him that is abusive, he claimed I didn’t want to be close to him and this was an intimate part of our day. Another fight I would have normally ignored involved the panties I was wearing, which were more lacy than usual. I told him I have a right to wear what I want, and the fight resulted in him screaming in my face so I couldn’t go to sleep, and eventually me conceding, giving him what he wanted, just so I could go to sleep. When I asked if we could go to counseling, he claimed he didn’t need it, and that I wasn’t going to go anywhere were I could “talk shit about [him]”. When the violence continued to escalate (keeping me from leaving rooms, threatening violence, and eventually body slamming me onto the bed in a neck lock, I decided it was time to leave.
I can definitely attest to the fact that violence and abuse escalates as you plan to leave, not because the abuser knows you are leaving, but because your behavior will (and should) change. When you start asserting yourself, it throws off the status quo. For many of us, we need to try and make it work by being the empowered person we want to be, but unfortunately the higher you try to rise, the more violent the suppression becomes.
Words of Wisdom
- Your worth does not come from friends, a partner, or even family. It comes from you and the power to be the best YOU is only limited by the inability to assert your own boundaries for what you will and will not tolerate. There is some sacrifice in a relationship, but the sacrifice should be things like what to have for dinner or what movie to see together. Perhaps even what to do with the backyard, or where to live. Sacrifice should never include sacrificing your own boundaries or beliefs, or your own dreams and goals.
- Check your relationship regularly. Mine started out abusive, and was conveniently justified, and I fell for it. Knowing the red flags ahead of time, knowing your boundaries, and honoring them is the key to testing the status of your relationship. We get checkups and dental exams, why don’t we check up on our relationships? Having healthy conversations about boundaries are important, and if you can’t have those discussions, get out.
- Don’t seek out love, seek to love yourself. Make sure you know and love yourself as your are before you pursue a serious relationship. Knowing your boundaries and feeling comfortable alone will allow you to set boundaries that keep your valueable, beautiful self safe. My current partner is my best friend, and he knows my past, my boundaries, and treats me as an equal. We didn’t find each other on an online quest for love, or because either of us needed someone, but rather because we enjoy doing things together, have similar values, and have a similar taste for goal setting and attainment. I feel relaxed when we are together, and never feel scared to say something “wrong”. We are also both capable of being happy independently of each other, which is not to say we wouldn’t rather be doing things together, but we can also be happy seeing family independently, or going out with friends on occasion without jealousy, lack of trust, or constant need to “check-in”. If I’m busy, he takes take of dinner and dishes, and he is always up for anything I want to do. Basically, it is nice being able to check every box on this “healthy” continuum, rather than the abusive or unhealthy ones. The difference is night and day: http://www.thehotline.org/healthy-relationships/relationship-spectrum
My life today
My life is all over this blog! While I’m still carefully re-learning what a healthy relationship looks like, I am dedicated to making sure the things I do bring me joy, and helping others understanding how boundaries work, and empowering others to be as happy as I am now. I love my job, I feel like I can do what I want when I want, and I am now excited as I used to be to travel and meet new people. I feel amazing being able to decide for myself the people and activities that are helpful or harmful in my life, and not being stuck to a defined role in my relationship. I know it doesn’t sound super romantic, but I am happy with the life I lead independent of my partner. It is not what you want to think about, but if we were to decide one day that the relationship was no longer satisfying, I feel comfortable that I would still have my life and my stability to continue onward. This was not the case in my previous relationship, especially not early on. Without him, I had no one, and I was not happy with who I was. I felt like less of a person in that relationship, and ironically I am, now, all the wonderful things he told me I could never or should never strive to become. What I love about my life now is that I laugh every day.
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