I have never been in a physically abusive relationship. Some people would say that I’ve never been in any abusive relationship. Sometimes things are fuzzy and there isn’t a clear line between “emotional abuse” and “unhealthy relationship”. I don’t think I would qualify myself as an abuse survivor. But here’s what I do know about my worst relationship:
I have been in situations in which my partner threatened suicide or self harm if I didn’t stay with them or acquiesce to their desires.
I have been told what to wear by my partner (as well as what is inappropriate to wear).
I have been told what activities I should and shouldn’t do by my partner.
I have been told who I should spend time with by my partner.
I have had partners whine, cry, pout, and otherwise emotionally manipulate me when I choose to do things that don’t involve them.
I have had partners try to initiate sex while I was crying and then get angry because I wasn’t enjoying it.
I haven’t felt comfortable contributing to the #whyIstayed hashtag on Tumblr, as most of the people there suffered a great deal more than I did, but there is a spectrum of bad relationships and mine was on it.
So why did I remain in a relationship like this? Why didn’t I just leave? Well, eventually I did. But it took breaking out of the isolation that I was in because somehow these things all could seem perfectly logical and warranted when the only perspective you hear is that of the person demanding and manipulating. It took seeking more help for my mental health problems, because when you’re incredibly depressed it only seems appropriate that someone else’s desires take precedence over your own. It took realizing that I might have some worth as a human being and that I didn’t need another person to demand/force/coerce me into eating and taking care of myself.
It’s easy to ask why someone doesn’t get out of a bad relationship when you assume that they have options, a strong sense of self separate from their partner, and that they haven’t come to believe that they deserve whatever is happening to them. In this particular instance, it’s easy to forget that mental illness can (and quite often does) intersect with abuse. On some level, telling an individual who is experiencing the emotional fallout of an abusive relationship that they should just leave is parallel to telling someone who is depressed that they should just cheer up or someone with an eating disorder that they should just eat. Obviously that is the solution, but that doesn’t provide them with any avenues to do it.
Just as insidious is the fact that society trains women to ignore their own needs and wants (particularly in favor of their romantic partner), so when women actually internalize those messages and suppress their own feelings in order to try to keep their partner happy (which often leads to abusive situations and someone staying when they should leave) they are rewarded in many ways. “Compromise” we’re told, which most often means “do what he wants”. And if he is kind in any way, at any time, he has earned whatever else he does.
I stayed because he was vulnerable and I had to be there for him. I stayed because he cared about me and taught me things and reminded me that the world could be fun. I stayed because his needs were just as important as my right to say no, weren’t they? I stayed because I had been told that relationships are sacrifice and a man’s jealousy is as important as a woman’s freedom. I stayed because there were still times when I smiled.
I left because feminism taught me that I deserved more. Shaming never did anything.