(As a coach and therapist I find it important to take one's experience and reflect on it in order to grow into a new healthier version of one's self. My acting teacher once told me " "You are only as sick as your secrets" It is in that spirit I have decided to share a painful part of my past to help others as well as myself.)
An abusive man does not just meet you and say “Hi I am Joe and I will be unbelievably nice to you in the beginning of our dating relationship. I will treat you like a Princess, hanging on your every word, and complimenting your physical appearance and intelligence. Then eventually (it will be after weeks months or years) you will do something that doesn’t please me, and I will start calling you stupid, or lazy, or fat. I will begin to attack your self -esteem because the worse your self-esteem, the less likely you are to leave me. Deep down I don’t believe I am lovable, so I need to keep you under control. Besides I watched my parents and that is how my father treated my mother and they have been together for 25 years so that is all I know about love”.
When he insults you, you will be confused thinking that “he must be right because we did get a long very good in the beginning. He always says he is sorry after an episode and most of the time he treats me like when we first met. Now it seems like he has two personalities. How can he be so nice one minute and so mean the next?”
I lived with a man in New York for nine years who eventually started to physically abuse me. I was one of the lucky ones, (if you can believe that). My boyfriend only hit me a total of 3 times spaced out over several years. Maybe he realized he had to take it slow with me before he got into the heavy physical abuse. I was very independent in New York, so it wasn’t that easy to wear me down. I shudder to think how things would have gone, if I was living in a rural area with few neighbors, not that neighbors are that helpful in a situation like that.
While I was a Social Worker at a Mental Health Hospital, I had a client who was very depressed. She lived in a rural area and would go to the emergency room of the hospital saying she wanted to kill herself just so she could be checked into the hospital to get away from her husband. She told me how he would take his shotgun, and tell her to run, and he would shoot around her as she ran out on their field. You don’t usually hear of abuse like that, but I assure you that it is going on all over the United States where women are so ashamed and so beaten down emotionally by their husbands or boyfriends they can’t tell anyone, for fear it might get back to him, and the abuse would escalate. She only felt safe to tell a mental health worker who would offer to get her housing in one of the women’s shelters. But she wouldn’t take the housing because she was financially dependent on him. She was afraid of what he would do if she left him. However, most women in that situation are too afraid to go out in the world and work. It would take intensive help from a therapist, a safe place to live, and most of these women do not have the finances or freedom to risk doing that.
The man I lived with in New York was from Czechoslovakia. His father, mother and brother were vacationing on the Turkish Coast when the Prague Spring forced him to make a decision: to go back to Czechoslovakia and be forced to be a member of the communist party, or just keep going west and not look back. So, he took his wife, and two boys (who knew no English), away from the support of her mother, and father and made his way to the United States. He had made some overtures to people he knew in the US before this before the occupation and was able to secure employment as an engineer. His wife didn’t have the skills she needed to gain employment, and she became totally dependent on him. That is when it started for her. As in most abusive relationships, it started out with verbal abuse, attacking her confidence in being able to take care of her two boys or herself. I was witness to that. What I wasn’t witness to, but she told me later, is that he had hit her numerous times through the years and pushed her down the steps. After being in the States several years she was finally able to secure a position as a bank teller. On more than one occasion, she had to wear sunglasses to work. Yet, she felt helpless to leave the relationship, having no family here and now three boys to raise.
Looking back on the first time I met my boyfriend’s father, I reached out to shake his hand and was shocked when he squeezed my hand so hard, I thought he was going to break it. My boyfriend didn’t have the control over me that his father had over his mother. I had a good job and my family was financially and emotionally supportive, but my self-esteem had taken a beating throughout my childhood and later during my college years.
The first time my Czech boyfriend physically abused me was when I was staying at my parents and we were in the guest bedroom with twin beds. My boyfriend without any provocation, decided to come from over his side of the bed to slap me hard in the face. I was totally shocked and all I could think of was “did my sister (who was in the next room) hear the slap?” I was afraid to ask him why he slapped me for fear that he would do it again. When I went into the bathroom, my sister came out and asked me, “Did he hit you?” That was the first time I felt the shame that comes with being abused. The shame is feeling it must have been my fault and how could I allow him to do this and get away with it?
The first time you are abused should be the last time.
In the next several years I spent a lot of time wondering how this normally nice and loving man could have such a split personality. Since I wasn’t brought up in a home where my father physically abused my mother, I couldn’t understand this type of behavior. One of the things I learned was that there is a custom on Easter Sunday in parts of Poland and Czechoslovakia where young boys had permission to douse young girls with water and hit them with switches around their lower leg and the young girls would give them candy in return. How’s that for training young boys to abuse their girlfriends and wives later in life! Don’t take it for granted that your significant other has the same morals and customs that you ascribe to. Learn all you can before you enter into a relationship especially if that person is from a country other than your own.
There is a passage in the Bible (2 Corinthians 6:14) that says: Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?” In Paul’s day the oxen had to be of the same height and the yoke would be custom carved to make sure that the oxen would not pull against each other. Of course, we are not animals and there have been very many successful and loving marriages with people of different races, countries and backgrounds. I am just saying that make sure you and your mate start on the same page when it comes to how you both believe people, and women in particular should be treated.
So are here are my 5 things to look for if you don’t want to become another abused woman or man.
1. How did his/her parents treat each other even if you have to talk to other relatives find this out!
2. Has he ever called you a name, told you that you were stupid, fat, that people don’t like you, or any other denigrating comment. Even if he says he is sorry, that shouldn’t matter, the red flag is down. If you keep playing the game and you start justifying his words, then the beginning of his onslaught on your self- esteem will have begun. LEAVE NOW! The sooner you get out of the relationship the safer you are. Do not justify his behavior or listen to his weak apologies. You can listen to them from a distance when you have the support of someone who knows the cycle and can keep you from falling into the trap.
3. If, after the first insult you still answer his calls, then it is time to take a hard look at yourself in relation to him. Do you think he is prettier than you or smarter than you? Why don’t you believe that you are worth the kind of partner that appreciates you, compliments you, and treats you with respect? Did it come from your childhood? What male role model did you have? Was your father abusive to your mother? To you? If you don’t sort that out before you start dating you are bound to keep repeating the same wrong choices.
4. If you live with him because he was so nice in the beginning, try to find supportive friends, a therapist, social worker or anyone to help you leave the situation. I was too weak to leave on my own. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to support myself in NY. So, I took the cowards way out. I met another guy who was a cut above my boyfriend and cheated on my boyfriend. The new man told me how beautiful I was, how good I was, and made me see that I shouldn’t be in the relationship I was in. I don’t recommend this way of leaving, but when someone offers you a lifeline — do whatever you can to leave the situation. One caveat to this is once you get out of the situation, do not form a strong relationship with the man or woman who helped you get out. You are not ready for that yet. See number 3.
5. Therapy, Therapy, Therapy. You will need the support of a non-judgmental person to help undo the damage that your abuser inflicted on you. Don’t try to do this alone, or you stand the chance of getting in the same type of relationship again. When you say you don’t trust your choices in men, you are on your way to recovery and the possibility of a real loving relationship.
Deb has worked in mental health as a social worker helping her clients transform their lives.
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