It was a Friday evening with three girlfriends over takeout pizza, chips, and wine.
One topic of conversation?
Men. More specifically, how some men abuse women and how women “let” it happen.
It’s the story de jour this football season with the likes of Ray Price, Greg Hardy and Jonathan Dwyer, not to mention even a federal judge, Mark Fuller.
Two of my friends—though nearly thirty years apart in age—had very similar stories: Mensa smart, married to men, forced into situations that they’d never allow themselves to get into otherwise, great personal suffering because of it, and then finally, through luck or guts (or both), divorce and freedom.
Cassandra, the younger of the two, met Sam in college; they later married while in graduate school in Boston. Sam was introverted, a loner, while Cassandra was more outgoing. She went into the marriage believing their divergent personalities weren’t a problem.
In a slow, apparently deliberate process, Sam worked to isolate Cassandra from her friends and family. At first, it was excuses why he couldn’t join Cassandra when she gathered with others. Later, he threw guilt her way for leaving him alone. This progressed to anger outbursts and Sam dictating that if Cassandra did “something wrong,” her “punishment” would be forfeiting a monthly trip home to her family in northern New England.
Fully aware that all of this was wrong, Cassandra hoped that Sam would change, that he’d “come out” of the darkness that surrounded him. She couldn’t give up on Sam.
Sam decided they would move from Boston to San Francisco for his career. Although this wasn’t what Cassandra wanted at all, she didn’t resist so as to keep Sam happy. “Life was better if I played within the rules,” she said.
The pattern of control/submission continued in San Francisco until an anger outburst culminated with Sam slamming a kitchen chair into a wall. Shortly thereafter, the downstairs neighbor pounded on their apartment door. The neighbor, a well-built man whom I’ve dubbed “Rambo,” demanded that Sam take a walk; Sam grudgingly agreed.
Twenty minutes later, the two men returned to the apartment. While Rambo waited with Cassandra, Sam went into the bedroom and packed clothes. With suitcase in hand, Sam announced that he was leaving. He then did just that—he walked out the door.
For the first time in years, Cassandra had space to “think about my life and what I wanted without Sam’s pressure.” Slowly, she stopped hearing Sam’s “scolding voice” in her head. When Sam repeatedly asked for a second chance, Cassandra bravely answered, “No.” She divorced Sam and moved to Minneapolis, starting fresh as a free human.
Elaine began with Fredrick knowing that he had serious emotional problems, but she viewed him as a “great project,” that she could “fix.” It helped that he was brilliant, charming, handsome, and successful in business. He was her senior by fifteen years, which added to the allure. They married and had a daughter.
Fredrick soon demanded that Elaine stop teaching piano because it didn’t pay enough. As she put it, “He said I wasn’t carrying my weight financially.” She thus went from something she loved (piano and music) to a business career that she hated.
Soon there was a pattern of Fredrick constantly belittling and blaming Elaine for all of his problems. He too engaged in regular scolding. The tipping point came when Fredrick blew up at their daughter (then twelve) in front of her friends. “I knew I’d leave after that,” Elaine reported. It took Elaine and her daughter two years to break free.
I was awestruck by my friends’ stories. Both women are dynamic and engaging; one would never know that either could have ever “allowed” herself to be abused.
There’s not enough space here to get into how it is that a human may unwillingly submit to another human’s control. Suffice to say that threats, anger, and the myriad of other emotional and physical devices (including beatings) used to invoke fear and compliance all constitute abuse. (Yes, being beaten is abuse, but so is dictatorial emotional control.) Indeed, I’m no expert on domestic abuse or violence.
However, here’s my reference point: countless times I’ve said, “I’ll never do that,” and yet I end up doing the very thing I promised myself that I’d never do. That list of things is very, very long.
Thus, who am I to judge my friends? I absolutely won’t judge—either them or any other survivor.
Loving someone and being loved is a privilege. There are many who don’t ever get to enjoy that privilege, which makes abusing the privilege—and abusing the human doing the loving—far worse.
Some of you dear gentle readers may know a survivor of current or past abuse. Perhaps you’re a survivor yourself, looking for a way to escape.
It takes guts to reach out to others in need since there’s always the fear of “interfering.” Even more—raw courage—is needed to protect one’s self.
Still, guts and courage aren’t impossible.
Just ask Cassandra and Elaine.
Note: All names are pseudonyms. If you or a friend or loved one is an abuse survivor, call United Way 2-1-1 (dial “211”) to learn about resources that can help. Ellie Krug is the author of Getting to Ellen: A Memoir about Love, Honesty and Gender Change. She welcomes your comments at email@example.com.