Trigger warning: this article contains sensitive content involving physical and emotional abuse.
I couldn’t look her in the eyes when I told her about the worst night.
“And then he hit me on the face.” I said, staring at the blank wall in front of me, my pulse racing.
My friend was sitting silently next to me, but I could sense her weighing what I had just said and thinking how to respond. Is she shocked? Is she disappointed in me? Did I make her feel uncomfortable? I feel uncomfortable. I won’t admit to her that this was not the first time his open palm crossed my cheek. My friend responded with nothing but kindness and understanding, which is more than I have been able to show myself.
That night was seven months ago, and it was the first time I recounted what happened out loud. I kept this secret locked away as long as I could. I don’t believe you; You’re just being dramatic; How could you let this happen? This is what I feared others would say to me. This is what I told myself too.
How could I let this happen? I’m a feminist after all. But, similarly to how many women find themselves in these situations, I slipped in slowly over time. It started with drunk verbal assaults, followed by an apology and excuses the next day. After a year, it was sober verbal assaults, which were somehow followed by my own apologies to him, and excuses made to myself. They say a journey of a thousand miles, starts with a single step, and soon enough you find yourself a thousand miles away from what you thought you stood for, and what you are expected to stand for.
The reason I never disclosed the truth about what was going on in my relationship was because I was not only afraid of my friends’ judgements, but I was afraid of my own judgements. Focusing solely on the constructive parts of our relationship, like our shared ambitious nature, allowed me to believe I was part of a young power couple. The truth I hid from was he consistently exerted control over of my life, and reprimanded me when I stepped out of his lines. The young, smart women in my social circle, and I, swore to never near this sort of behavior, and could not understand the women who allowed themselves to submit to such control. I could not be one of these women. Not to my peers, and not to myself.
As the feminist movement catches fire across the millennial generation, we have cast the age-old bias of blaming the victim into the spotlight, especially in regards to sexual assault. While we still very much live in a culture where people call in to question a woman’s outfit or alcohol consumption, rather than the actions of the attacker, our generation is challenging this assumption.
Less often challenged is the line of questioning towards women who have sustained abusive relationships. Some may recall in 2014, NFL Player, Ray Rice, was caught on camera knocking his then fiancée (now wife), Janay Palmer, unconscious. The assault was all over every media outlet. One of the loudest questions to come out of the coverage was, Why didn’t she leave him? People wondered if she was weak, brainwashed, or if she thought this was acceptable behavior towards women. She, the victim of physical abuse at the hands of someone she trusted, was criticized, and blamed for getting herself into that situation. The abuser should have bared the sole blame for causing harm. This is not uncommon.
When my relationship turned sour, and dark clouds set in, I blamed myself for getting in too deep, beyond return, as I saw it. I believed it to be my own fault, my own flaw, my own inability to stick to the ideals of what it means to be a strong woman. I lost respect for myself. What I failed to take in to account at the time was that I was not the one asking to be treated in such a way. I knew right from wrong, and in no matter what ways he tried to change me, my core values couldn’t be changed.
Now removed from the situation, and having gained a perspective only given by time and distance, I can appreciate the ways in which I was strong, rather than what I perceived as my own weakness. I have tried to become more transparent about my experiences, and stop thinking that getting caught in a cycle of abuse means that I failed my own expectations, or feminist ideas. We tend to think that our experiences shape us and define us, or that our actions, or inaction, reflect who we are, but I do not believe this is always true. Humans make mistakes, and put their faith in the wrong person, whether it be on a personal, professional, or political level. We think we should be ashamed of misplaced trust, but what would be a bigger shame would be to abandon our core values. In the end, if we stand unchanged, we are untouchable.