Earlier this year I wrote a post answering the terrible question that everybody asks, or wants to ask, survivors of long-term domestic violence: why did you stay?
My hope for that post was that it would provide enough information, which was personal to me but could be extrapolated to other abuse dynamics, to deter people from further asking DV survivors that judgmental and offensive question.
Seriously. No matter how well-intentioned you may be, “why did you stay” sounds to a domestic abuse survivor like “it’s your fault.” Not good.
I am writing this post, on the other hand, to encourage you, dear readers, to ask this question more often: “Why did you leave?”
People rarely ask DV survivors why they left. To many, the answer seems obvious. Of course she left; she was being abused. But if the answer to “why did you stay” is as complex as I proved it to be, then the answer to “why did you leave” is not so straightforward either.
“Why did you leave” is a good question to ask, because it encourages DV survivors to vocalize and thus acknowledge their strengths, and it reveals what it is they most care about. If we can, as a society, better understand what matters most to people in abusive partnerships, and what drives them to leave, then we will be better equipped to help more victims leave sooner, and stay away.
So here it is. The story of why, after four years of unimaginable abuse, I finally decided to leave.
Why Did You Leave?
For those who are new here, I was in an abusive relationship for four years. Between the ages of 16 and 20 I was romantically involved with an older man who would tear apart every last shred of self esteem or sense of self I was only beginning to own at that young age. Technically, we actually began to engage sexually when I was fifteen, which is highly illegal everywhere, but we were “going steady” when I was sixteen. I add that because we are currently involved in a custody battle during which he has been incredibly shady and manipulative, and I don’t want him to grab a quote from here and say that I have been “lying” about the statutory rape that he committed when I was fifteen. That did happen. But the relationship began in earnest when I was sixteen.
At least, I thought we were in a committed relationship. On my end, we were. The Ex, as I refer to him on this blog, was not quite in the same headspace. Throughout our time together I would find evidence that he cheated on me. When were first dating, it was with a thirteen year old girl. Later on, with a homeless woman who several people considered his girlfriend so maybe at that time I was actually the side-piece. When I moved to Boston for a year to attend college. When I came back for Winter break. When I got pregnant with his child. On my first Mother’s Day after our son was born. I bring up the various infidelities because while he was sleeping with whomever would have him, I was loyal to a fault. The only other person I slept with during that four year time span was a nice Russian college student I dated briefly while on a break with The Ex. But The Ex didn’t believe me. He would constantly accuse me of cheating, and then beat me for it. Sometimes after beating me he would rape me or force me to perform oral sex on him with the threat of more violence if I didn’t. On one of those occasions, when he accused me of cheating, beat me for it, and then raped me, he was wearing another woman’s underwear.
He was the very definition of a hypocrite, and cruel beyond belief. His abuse was not only physical. He would emotionally abuse me by threatening to kill my parents, burn down my mother’s house, stomp out my ferret, and even beat up my friends if I didn’t do what he said. Often, “what he said” meant never seeing any of my friends because if I did, he’d insist I was cheating. I would go for weeks being beaten and not seeing a friendly face because I was too afraid I’d be beaten for it. And then I’d be beaten anyway.
You can imagine the act of leaving was often on my mind. If you haven’t read the post “Why Did You Stay,” I suggest you do it now, before the question grows in your mind.
I finally left him on a day in late Summer 2008. The short answer to the question “why did you leave,” is: My son.
There’s a longer answer too.
My son was born on December 27th, 2007-almost three weeks preterm. The Ex was present for the birth, but couldn’t sign any papers naming himself the father because there was a court assigned domestic violence no-contact order between us, which had been placed after The Ex was charged with biting and kicking me while I was pregnant. Our son was born preterm with a hole in his heart, but overall it was a speedy, uncomplicated delivery and the doctors sent us home after an extra day with few concerns.
I was unexpectedly, immensely in love. Love caught me by surprise. I had not wanted the baby. I was nineteen, in college, with dreams of fame and fortune as a writer. Motherhood was not even on my to-do list ever, much less so young. The fact of my pregnancy had felt like a nightmare. I’d done my best to keep the baby healthy, but every time I saw my bloated belly, I would dissociate. That couldn’t be me. Not me. Not intelligent, promising me; pregnant and approaching teenage motherhood. I’d wanted an abortion, had even booked one, but The Ex had stopped that dead in its tracks by strangling me and telling me he would kill me if I killed his baby.
Now I was stuck a mother, but I was also in love. My first night out of the hospital, I brought this tiny creature home to my mom’s house, where The Ex was not allowed. The bassinet waited for us, next to my childhood bed, a flimsy looking contraption made mostly of cloth and netting. And there was Robin, my boy, snuggled into my gold paisley print sling, with his tinny cry like a cat’s mew.
Eventually, The Ex and I would move in together, and there were a few months of relative peace. I ignored the abusive language, the emotional manipulation, the laziness and unwillingness to help except outdoors where people could compliment him and take pictures. I ignored these things because he wasn’t using meth, for once, and he hadn’t beat me since he’d been released from jail. Six months without an assault. It was a relationship record.
Then one day he disappeared. After begging for days on social media to know where he was, and demanding when he would see his son, he revealed to me that he had flown to Japan to visit his ex-girlfriend, and their six year old daughter, for the very first time.
That was the beginning of the end for me. I was devastated. Heartbroken. He had abandoned our son, and me; a girl of barely twenty who had never wanted to be a mother, to cheat on me with a woman he hadn’t seen in six years, and visit with a daughter who hadn’t even known he’d existed.
Did I mention that he was on probation?
The realization came upon me that it really didn’t matter if he was out of control on meth or not. He would always be abusive, even if just verbally and emotionally. He would always be a terrible partner, an unreliable father, and a poor role model for my child. He would always be a cheater. He would never love me, and he would never love our son. A loving father doesn’t just abandon his child like that, without a word to anyone, without even a goodbye. He had been telling Akie that he loved her, only her, while he and I were making plans to move in together and eventually get married. It was then I truly understood that he would never love me. That he never had.
Then he returned. And relapsed, though I didn’t realize it at first. After learning he was in Japan, I had gone to visit my father in Las Vegas. When I got back, The Ex met me at the airport and clutched me tight to him. He made a show of saying hi to Robin, smiling at him, acting goofy and caring. I’m sure the passing travelers smiled and thought it was all so sweet.
On the bus ride back I told him that I no longer wanted to be with him. I was going to leave the relationship. But he could still be a father to our son if he wanted. Just not as my boyfriend.
I’ll never forget what he said in return.
“No, I’m not doing that.” Glazed blue eyes trained on the view out the window. “If you won’t be with me, I’ll move to another state and start a family with someone else.”
I don’t think a half hour passed in our apartment before he was beating me again, then raping me. Our son asleep on the bed, just inches from The Ex’s fists, just inches from his mother’s rape. What does that do to a child? In infancy, when he was still so connected to me; when he still begged to return to his mother’s body; when my hormonal flux mixed with his milk; what did it do to witness his own dear mother’s assault? To feel the vibrations of her rape in his dreams?
From there, the old familiar pattern began all over again. The Ex coming in and out of the home as he pleased. Not working, not contributing. Beating me whenever he felt angry over anything. Demanding or forcing sex whenever he wanted it. Paying no attention to where the baby was during all of this.
I began to fantasize about killing him. A plan began to form in my mind, darkly at first, about how to do it without getting caught. Make it look like an accident, or a suicide. It began to take shape, grow claws, until it lived with me, pawing silently next to me wherever I moved; the beast of my own murderous intent.
The next time he does it, I told myself, the next time.
And then the next time happened.
My son woke from sleeping in the early night. Something like 10 or 11. I went to him, cradled him, breastfed him back to sleep. Then I decided to stay up and watch TV. I kept it quiet so it wouldn’t wake the baby or bother The Ex, who was sleeping in the bedroom. But my autonomy bothered The Ex. The simple act of choosing something for myself bothered The Ex; even something as simple as watching a show on television. So he got up, and he came to me, and he strangled me until I lost hold of our baby, and he fell to the floor. In his rage, The Ex almost stomped our son out of existence.
That was when I knew I had a choice to make. I could no longer cling to hope, that mean, feathered thing which never stopped at all, no matter how many bruises I collected against it.
I could follow the path of love; my love for my son, and my love for myself, however malnourished that was. I could leave. Or I could follow The Ex’s path. I could kill him, and in so doing slide into his skin and adopt his darkness as my own. I could let his evil consume me.
The next day, I left. I went to my mom’s house, and a few days later assisted the police in arresting him for violation of the no-contact order. He tried to cajole and manipulate and threaten me into forgiving him, taking him back; he wanted me to recant. I considered it. I talked to him in jail, exchanged a few letters. In the end, he called and sent way more correspondence than I did, and was ultimately charged with witness tampering alongside with the no-contact order violations.
His lawyer tried to blame me for his violations. He tried to say that by responding at all (less than 100 times out of the more than 600 calls, and countless letters), I was encouraging the relationship. In response, the Judge delivered the maximum sentence.
When given the opportunity to speak on his behalf one last time, The Ex chose this space to ask the Judge, “Did you give me this sentence because you believe her and not me?”
The Judge said yes.
Why did I leave? Because it was, ultimately, the only expression of safety and truth I could choose without losing myself in the process.
I am now involved in court proceedings with this man again. He is trying to remove my son, who is a non-verbal autistic, from the only home he knows, so that he can use my boy as a pawn to once again control me.
I have no idea if this Judge will be as perceptive as the one who sentenced The Ex all those years ago. I have no idea if she will see his bumbling family man veneer, or the conning criminal behind it. I do know that The Ex will take whatever mistakes I have made, whatever poor coping mechanisms I used before finding better ones to keep myself alive after his abuse, and twist them against me. He will try, somehow to paint a story that I am a bad mother, worse than he was a father. But whatever he does, whatever he says, whatever pyre I am thrown upon to burn in shame, I will have my choice. I will have my goodness.
And he will not.
Are you an abuse survivor? Why did YOU leave? Acknowledge your strength and tell us in the comments.
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‘Til next time.