The first time he hit me, we were in the car. There was no warning before his hand flew out and smacked me in the face. We both sat there in shocked silence for a moment. I felt my lips to see if I was bleeding, and my fingers came away red. We both looked at them in horror.
“Shit!” His voice was higher than normal, panicked. “I was just joking around. I swear.” He laughed. “I never actually meant to hit you.”
My breath was caught in my throat.
“I swear to God. I was just messing with you,” he said. My hands shook, and my heart raced. “You know that, right?”
I nodded my head. I didn’t trust my voice.
He slipped back into the conversation we had been having. Occasionally, he looked over at me and apologized again. Each time he laughed, the effect was disarming. My heart began to go back to normal, and I rejoined the conversation. My lip stopped bleeding by the time we got where we were going. The moment in the car began to feel like exactly what he said it was: an accident, a mistake, a goof.
The next time, we were in my bedroom. One moment we were arguing, and the next I was looking up at him from the floor.
We’d been fighting a lot by then. The wrong answer to a question could set off a chain of events that would end with walls being punched, glasses being thrown and me cowering on the couch trying to make sense of it all.
In the months between the car and my bedroom, I had slowly withdrawn from most of my friends and family. I was scared of where my relationship was heading, confused by how quickly everything had changed, humiliated to be in this situation in the first place ― and I didn’t know how to say any of those things out loud.
I hear people say, “I could never allow myself to be treated that way.” Or “I’ll never understand how women end up in these relationships.” I struggle to explain what it was like. He wasn’t always like that. It wasn’t all bad. When we weren’t fighting, things were great. He was funny, sweet and attentive.
During those good times, I would question whether any of it had actually happened. In the days that followed a really bad fight, he was sweeter, funnier and more attentive than ever. He’d promise me the world during those days.
He wouldn’t let it happen again.
He didn’t mean it.
He wouldn’t hurt me anymore.
He just lost his temper.
For a while, things would be amazing. There’d be this silent understanding of just how bad he had messed up. He would be hyperaware of how bad things had gotten and how close we’d come to splitting up for good. The air buzzed with the knowledge that if it happened again, I’d leave. And so the cycle would continue. Things would be great until they weren’t, and we’d start it all over again.
In the end, it was a stupid fight over nothing that pushed everything to the breaking point. I decided that I would never be happy with someone who could erupt into violence over any little thing. Part of me thought that he’d agree, that he’d see it my way — who wanted to live like that?
I was wrong. When I told him that I wanted him to leave, it was as if something snapped inside him. He became angrier and more violent than he’d ever been before. At one point I thought he might kill me.
The next morning, I showed up on my parents’ doorstep, bruised and shaking. I had thought getting out the front door that day would be the hardest part of leaving, but it turned out the hardest part was explaining the past few months of my life. Each time I had to tell my story ― to my mother, to my sister, my aunt, my close friends ― was just as hard as the time before.
I saw myself reflected in their eyes. Not the person I’d always believed myself to be: the strong independent woman who bought her first house by herself at 23. No, the person I saw staring back at me looked weak and afraid. She looked like someone who had spent several months making a series of dangerous and stupid decisions, and I hated her.
I didn’t know then that 1 in 4 women are victims of intimate partner violence. I also didn’t know that, on average, a woman tries to leave her partner seven times before she succeeds.
There are so many reasons women return to their abusers — financial insecurity, a lack of emotional support from friends and family and even fear of what will happen next. Sadly, nearly half the women slain in the U.S. from 2003 to 2014 were killed by their partners, and 75 percent of those homicides took place after they left.
One week after the morning I showed up at my parents’ house, I found myself sitting across the table from my abuser at a restaurant. He had sent me dozens of emails and text messages over that week. Every day, a new bouquet of my favorite flowers showed up at my office. In every message, he begged for a chance to tell me how sorry he was, how he couldn’t live with the fact that he had hurt me so badly.
If we could just sit down and talk, he could explain himself. And explain he did: He told me how he had been afraid of losing me — that was all. Nothing like this would ever happen again. He finally understood that if things didn’t change, I would leave him for good.
“Just give me one more chance to prove it,” he begged. “Everything will be different from now on.”
Could I really walk away from everything we’d had if there was even a remote possibility that we could get it all back? Not just get it all back but get it back and better than ever, as he promised?
All I would have to do is give him one more chance. What’s one more chance when it comes to love?
It’s hard to understand abuse from the outside. It’s not black and white. It’s more than just a raised fist. Abuse happens on a spectrum, and it happens slowly. Much like a lobster in a pot, you don’t know you’re in danger until the water is already bubbling around you. You’ve already been cooking for a while the first time you get hit; you just didn’t know it.
So you convince yourself that was the first and only time, but then it happens again. By that time, you’re too scared and too embarrassed to ask for help because you’ve convinced yourself that you crawled into the pot and lit the stove all by yourself.
When you’re in it, it’s lonely and scary, and it feels as if you’ll never get out. It is possible, but sometimes it takes a few tries. Maybe you go back because the world seems so much colder on the outside. Maybe you go back because it feels safer to be where you can see the pot. I went back in because I believed him when he said, “Come on in. The water is fine.”
The water was not fine.
Things were great for a few weeks, and then they predictably went right back to how they were before.
The second time I had to say the words out loud was so much harder. Gone were the looks of sympathy. Now I was complicit. The police officer who shook his head when I told him why I’d called, my boss who couldn’t meet my eyes as I explained why I would be out of the office for a few days, the disappointment I saw in everyone’s eyes when I had to say, “I thought he’d change, but he didn’t, so here we are.”
Seven times is what it takes, on average. Fortunately, it took me only two. I was terrified and heartbroken, but with the support of my family and friends, I got out and stayed out.
When I look back on things, it’s easy to see the cycle of abuse, but when I was in it, it wasn’t quite as clear. It’s embarrassing to admit to that, to all of it, because really, what kind of a person does let someone treat her that way? What kind of person does end up in a relationship like that?
Apparently, a person like me.
And maybe even a person like you or like someone you know. It’s 1 in 4 of us, and that means it’s your friends, your sisters, your accountant, even the woman in the big house on the corner. It’s so frightfully common, yet we don’t talk about it, and we should. Shrouding abuse in shame and silence protects abusers, and it keeps people from asking for help. My story was embarrassing, and a lifetime later, it’s still embarrassing, but if it helps even one person get out, then I’ll happily scream it from the rooftops.
I was 1 in 4. I got out, went back and got out again. You can too.
Writer: Lauren Wellbank