I saw my abusive ex on the street on my way to the office this morning.
To be honest, I shouldn’t have been surprised. We still live in the same city and due to social circles and job responsibilities, it’s a bit unreasonable to assume that we won’t bump into each other every now and then. But my stomach had been churning since I woke up, like it knew what was coming.
The ex and I have been apart for two years. This was the point at which, after yet another sudden breakup, I decided to walk away from someone who had been subjecting me to countless months of verbal, emotional, and psychological abuse in the apartment that we shared. At the time, I had not told my family, friends, or coworkers about the abuse. I didn’t think they would believe me. The few times I managed to swallow hard and tell the truth were met with ridicule, disbelief, or an assertion that I must be exaggerating things, so over time I came to the conclusion that disclosure wasn’t worth it.
I’m a straight male, and my ex is a straight female. None of this makes a difference to my stomach, which tries to escape-chute out my ass and run halfway down the block every time I see her.
For reasons I still don’t (and never will) understand, she systematically cut me off from my best friends and family. She threw me out of the apartment we lived in six times, a couple while I was unemployed and struggling. The infractions ranged from a completely imaginary dalliance with a (happily domestically coupled) female friend to “disrespecting” her in public. When she got upset with me, she would ignore me for periods of several days, the longest being a week. Sex (or any intimacy) was, quite obviously, off the table. At least until I’d “learned my lesson.”
One of her favorite activities was to reminisce about the people in her life that she’d “exed out,” or to recount one of her many tales of revenge against the countless people who had slighted her. For some reason I never thought anything of the joyful gleam in her eyes while she was speaking, not even when the story would end with a warning for me to keep in line.
Once, when particularly angry with me, she threatened to go to the police with a false domestic abuse report. Seeing that I was panicked and upset at having no recourse in such an obviously false scenario, she held it over my head for four days until I groveled enough to make her relent.
She hacked into my email several times, and after I left for the final time stalked me by Internet, phone, and text. She faked family emergencies to get me to call her back. She sent anonymous packages to my office.
I thought all of these things were normal. And I thought that she did them because she loved me. That’s what she told me, and I believed her. Why would someone who loved you lie to you?
It wasn’t until later that I realized that she had lied to everybody. She was always polite and charming with my friends and family, many of whom told me that they were happy that I had found someone to share my life and future with. They wouldn’t have said that if they’d heard her address me behind closed doors.
“I didn’t want to have to react that way, but your actions left me no choice.”
“A real man wouldn’t need to talk to his family about everything.”
“You know, you aren’t the only man out there. I could upgrade.”
“You’re late. You were fucking _____ again, weren’t you? Give me your phone.”
I used to joke with my fellow Goodfellas-loving male friends that I thought one day I would awaken to a “Wake up, Henry” moment. We would all laugh uproariously, but I wasn’t kidding.
When my parents came to visit, especially in the last few years, she would accuse me of insulting her with words I had never spoken and use that as a pretext to skip dinner with them. I lied to cover for her.
When my friends had parties and there was one person there she didn’t care for, she would make me choose between our relationship or my attendance. I lied to my friends about why I couldn’t make it.
When my grandmother died, she nearly disrupted the funeral arrangements with her demands to have her travel to my family’s hometown accommodated. I seethed, and then I swallowed it down.
I reacted this way because I loved her. I told my friends that she was “difficult sometimes.” I told my family that she was “emotional.” These would be greeted with the same knowing nod. Women, right?
I know now that there is no excuse for any person in a domestic situation to abuse anyone else. I know now that controlling, manipulative behavior is not a sign of love, but of deep personal malfunction. I know now that emotional, verbal, and psychological abuse will eventually become physical if not dealt with. I know now that even though I may have rationalized or even enabled my own abuse, at no point did I deserve it.
Most importantly, I know that domestic abuse is not always perpetrated by a straight man against a straight woman.
All of this knowledge isn’t enough to make the pit in my stomach go away every time I see my ex in public. And it isn’t enough to erase the shame and powerlessness I felt over my situation, and the pain and anxiety caused by the belief that I had no one to turn to and no one who would believe me.
I was fortunate to find a great shrink and to have some fantastic friends and family who believed and helped me once I was able to be truthful, and that alone makes me a lucky minority in these situations. Some people didn’t react well when I explained what happened. Those people are no longer in my life, and though it’s painful to lose them, I know it’s for the best.
It’s two years later, and I’m in a much better place now: I have a new apartment in a wonderful neighborhood, and a full, active life. But despite all these things, I’m still troubled by the gnawing suspicion that I’ll never be normal, never able to have a functional adult relationship with a caring person.
We know what to say to a woman who has been abused by her male partner. We know how to condemn it, how to demand that it ends. But when I’ve told longtime friends of mine the truth, I see in their eyes that they don’t know what to say.
I don’t know what to say either.