We’ve all likely been passersby to those street altercations that have left us shaking our heads as we walk by, sometimes protectively looking back hoping it doesn’t escalate, or cringing at the thought of how much worse it’ll probably get later on behind closed doors. At one point in time, I would see those interactions and wonder how someone could put up with a relationship so obviously painful and unhealthy. Unfortunately, there came a point in my life where I wasn’t wondering anymore.
The first time I experienced violence at the hands of a romantic partner, I thought it was the lowest point of my life. I remember thinking, “How did I get here? Me, a college-educated woman with a non-profit job working with youth talking about empowerment, and I just got hit? It doesn’t add up. It was just a mistake. One heated argument gone wrong. I wasn’t battered or anything. Besides, I got up in his face, so he felt threatened by my strength, that’s all. And I can leave if I really need to.”
As misguided and delusional as all that may sound, that’s what I told myself to justify staying in the relationship. Plus, he swore he’d never do it again. At the core, though, we were both lost and miserable, and misery loves company, so the arguments continued. And I got hit, a second and third time.
I got out by accident. The third time it happened, I knew I had to do something. I called 9-1-1, but when it started ringing on the other end, I got scared and hung up. I didn’t want to take it there. Like not making the call would make the situation less real. Little did I know that when you make the call and hang up, the police come anyway. Next thing I knew an officer was at the door looking at my tear-ridden face with a mark on my temple.
He spent the night in jail and that was the beginning of the end. I called a friend who lived in the building. I felt so embarrassed and ashamed that I was in this situation, but my friend never judged me. She didn’t interrogate me or make me feel bad for being in that kind of situation. She listened and helped me figure out what I needed to do to make it through the night, and then through the day, one step at a time.
I look back and realize how important that unconditional support was. Reflecting on any mistake I’ve made, or bad relationship I endured, I recognize that I grew the most from those experiences when I was able to tell somebody my story and they didn’t judge me. They didn’t run away or look at me all crazy. They accepted me. And that acceptance helped me to accept myself. All of myself.
I moved out, I felt thankful to be free of that situation, but over the next two years, I’d realize how difficult it was to move on. To properly heal and forgive.
I partially blamed myself for a while, or justified his actions because he was so hurt from his past and witnessed abuse in his household growing up. I psycho-analyzed the thing to death, and made excuses for him and for myself instead of healing my pain. Deep down, I felt like I deserved that pain. I grew up with such low self-esteem, it was normal to feel down, hurt, depressed. Anything positive was a bonus. After experiencing another unhealthy dating situation (not abusive, but deceitful), I finally woke up and decided that I really wanted to finally answer the question I’d been asking myself since the first incident: How did I get here?
To answer that question I had to take a step back and go inward. The interesting thing about self-esteem and identity is that it’s easier to lose ourselves in others than to find ourselves by looking at our own truth. Confronting our issues takes intention and a commitment to loving ourselves no matter what. Without a foundation of self-love, looking inward and seeing myself for who I was, for better and for worse, felt like the scariest thing I could do.
When I took time to reflect and go inward, I was able to uncover layers of hurt that I’d been avoiding since childhood. The little girl in me that was always teased and never felt accepted or worthy who wanted to be loved and needed, no matter the cost. Finding that knowledge of self was a turning point in finding out what it truly meant to love myself, and thus begin exploring what it would look like for someone else to truly love me.
If you or someone you love is in a domestic violence situation, use these tips to get out (or offer them support):
- Accept Yourself: Whatever route you ultimately decide to take in leaving the situation, know that before anything, it is about accepting yourself for who you are and where you are in the present moment. No shaming. No judgment.
- Seek Support: Tell somebody about your situation. A trusted friend, family member, an anonymous support group/counselor or hotline operator. You don’t need to have a plan yet, just the willingness to get help.
- Know where to find help: Contacting a place like the National Domestic Violence Hotline (www.hotline.org and 1-800-799-SAFE) can be a helpful first step in getting a sounding board to think through your options—be it finding a shelter, engaging the authorities, getting legal support or seeking counseling.
- Heal from your past: Once you’re out of the situation, avoid healing yourself with a next relationship and take time to deepen your knowledge of self so you can figure out what it looks and feels like to love yourself.
Have you ever been in an abusive relationship? How did you get out?