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Why did I wind up in dating abuse?

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Sauce asks:

I am from a country where dating is taboo. I was not in a relationship till my early twenties. The following may be hard to understand but I need to talk about it and know why I let this happen to me. It was my first relationship and I had little idea what to expect. Things were fine till my bf learned another man was interested in me and I might be interested in him too. That was the first time he told me he loved me and wanted to marry me. A torrent of emotional abuse followed. He started to tell me things like I was fat (I was not...I was 5'3 and 113 pounds) and not as pretty as his exes. He tried to tell me what to do with my life and how I was not that intelligent. I tried to break up but he wouldn't let me.

Heather Corinna replies:

Sauce's question continued:

He would stop me by telling me how much he loved me and how I should give a chance. I met him at university and he led me to a dark place and forcibly kissed me.

I say forcibly because I was in shock, unresponsive and had backed up to the wall. It was my first kiss, a kiss I never participated in. I came home with my lips bruised and in shock, unable to understand why he could not stop when he saw no reaction. I fought with him and he said he never would again. He also said I was making a big deal out of it. He repeated it the next time we met and, having suffered days of lectures over how I was overreacting, I tried to participate. It did not feel right to me and I fought again. It happened a couple of times, each time I said no clearly and tried to walk away but was stopped, either physically or with emotional words when he touched and kissed me. At the end of it, I was always in a horrible state, I spent days crying at home. I could not stop panicking. I insisted he should not kiss me or touch me if I did not feel like it and clearly said no. I felt I could trust him when he said he would not. Then we met again and, this time, he held me in place so I could not even back away while he kissed and touched me. It was too much this time and I started cried there and then and broke up.

We kept in touch and one day he invited me to play video games at his house. I swear I only went to play video games. I was that naive. I was playing a game when he started sexually assaulting me again, this time even though we were not in a relationship, which was the scenario in which he had kept telling it was expected and that I did not know anything of how things worked. I had not noticed him lock the door. His family was right outside the window so he turned up the music, put me on the bed and took off his shirt. When I loudly protested, he shushed me. I could not talk because someone would hear me. Did I mention dating is taboo? To be found in that position with a man would have destroyed my life. I went into shock. Then I tried to walk away. I contemplated walking out of the room but I had no car so only he could drop me back. Finally when I kept protesting he did let me go. His excuse had always been that he loved me and it was not something he could control. We met once more after that but we both knew he did not love me by then so when he assaulted me again, I finally broke free.

I am a very different person usually. I am not weak. What I became in those two months is something I have trouble understanding. I don't understand why I kept trusting him each time. I hate the person I was and I look on that time with deep pain and regret. Can you explain what was wrong with me or why I enabled that kind of behavior when it obviously affected me so negatively? I have tried to make sense of it and all I can think of are domestic abuse victims who keep staying with their husbands despite all that they put them through because they love them. I am still not close to understanding why. I know I was not raped but I was definitely assaulted. It bothers me that he never saw it as that. It has been a year but every time I read something related to physical abuse, it comes back to me.

I'm so glad you came here and were so brave about sharing your story and your questions so that I can explain some of this to you. My hope is that I can get enough of a start with you that by the time you're done reading this, you already will feel a lot better than you did when you posted it.

Know how you say that all of this reminds you of domestic abuse victims who stay with their husbands despite abuse? That's because this is very similar. All ongoing abuse in relationships is similar.

By all means, the conditions aren't the same for everyone, because all of our lives are not the same. When it comes to staying in abuse or leaving it, a person's agency and ability has an influence. For someone who has somewhere else to live (or doesn't live with a partner at all), another way to feed themselves or their children, or who isn't legally bound to an abusive partner, for instance, it does tend to be easier to get free of an abusive relationship than it is for those in positions like that.

At the same time, some of the conditions or contexts that make it hard to leave abuse aren't just about being married, having kids, or being dependent on a partner for one's most essential needs. We know very well, for instance, that the less agency someone has in the world or their community, the more vulnerable they can be to abuse in the first place, and the harder it can be to get out of and away from it, and to stay out of abuse.

For instance, you say, about your own cultural background and context, that, "To be found in that position with a man would have destroyed my life." The position you would have been found in was the position where someone was assaulting you. But what you're probably voicing is that that's not how it would have been seen or treated: it would have been seen as you being sexual with a man, one you aren't married to, worse still, and that all would have been put on you, possibly even if it was known that you were being assaulted. In other words, you're voicing an approach others would have taken that is about enabling rape and the attitudes that make sure it continues, attitudes which also make people much more vulnerable to being assaulted in the first place and much less able to break free of abuse. Being a young person is another one of those influential factors: young people have less agency and fewer rights than older people.

But those kinds of things aren't the only reasons why people get stuck in abuse. Neither is being weak (and bear in mind that we all have weaknesses or vulnerabilities: that's not a bad thing or a sign we're crap, just a sign we're human). Neither is something being wrong with a person who is or has been abused: there's nothing about anyone that makes them deserving of abuse.

The dynamics of abuse, all by itself, are a big reason why people who wind up in it and get stuck in it do. It's what someone abusive intends, it's one of the biggest aims of abuse: to control someone else as completely as possible, to make one will override another, to wear down or take away a person's ability to be in control at all, including in control of their own bodies and lives. And when that's happening or has happened, it's not sound to expect a person who has been abused to have the kind of control over their lives, self-determination or self-esteem someone who has not been has, because those things are what abuse robs people of.

You clearly experienced emotional abuse and controlling -- sometimes called "battering" -- and while you're a bit oblique in spots here, it sounds to me like you are also describing incidents of sexual abuse: times when this person forced or coerced you into sexual or intimate activities you did not consent to. And, as happens most commonly with abuse, the abuse started out only being emotional, then escalated to other abuses as well.

It is often very hard to see abuse from an intimate partner coming, especially if we have been raised without any education about what abuse really looks like -- and what healthy interactions and relationships do -- and all the more if we have grown up directly in or around abuse or with attitudes that enable or support abuse. If people could often see intimate partner or dating abuse coming, the rates of intimate or domestic partner abuse or violence would be so, SO much smaller than they are. Abuse and assault are, unfortunately, often things we only see once they're already happening, and sometimes only when we are already in the thick of them.

There are a lot of reasons why it can be so hard to see until we're deep in it, but one biggie is that so often, the things our world or culture presents as romantic are unhealthy or abusive. For instance, a lot of people think that a partner getting rabidly jealous is a sign of love, rather than what it usually is, a sign of insecurity or a sense of owning or wanting to own a partner. Your ex told you he loved you for the first time, and that he wanted to marry you when he felt threatened. It might be obvious to you now that wasn't about love at all, but expecting it to have been obvious at the time is asking a lot of yourself, especially when we learn those are words and gestures we should recognize as being signs of great love, affection or devotion.

Too, any time a relationship is kept secret or has to be, that's one more thing that can make it very easy for people to abuse and for people to be and keep being abused. Because, of course, if you're not talking with others who care about you honestly about your relationship, if others aren't seeing how this person behaves as a partner to you (even though sometimes, abusive people will present themselves very differently around others), if you're not able to ask for help and support, you're without some of the most important tools we have to get out of bad situations. It sounds, too, like you were probably in the spot where you felt like telling meant you'd just be abused or treated poorly in other ways: where telling about the abuse with this guy may have meant you just got a different abuse from someone else. That's a horrible position to be in, and it's no wonder that when you or others are in that kind of spot, you're going to feel trapped.

People who are being abused or have been aren't because they are weak, but what does often happen is that abuse, by design and intent, wears the people who are being abused down. Let's look at some of what happened to you.

This person got into your life, and in a way you had to keep secret, where they knew you would keep things secret, providing them protection and cover. He reeled you in with false gestures of love. Then he wore down your self-esteem by giving you strong messages that you were not attractive, that you were not smart, and that you didn't have the right to even decide for yourself if you were going to be in this relationship or not. He knew that you hadn't had any dating experience to compare this relationship with, and used that information to control and manipulate you, like by telling you what he was doing was how things go in relationships, and that you just didn't know better. He kept wearing down your own (healthy) sense of your physical, sexual and emotional boundaries. He refused to take responsibility for his choices and actions, putting them instead on you or on "love."

We can all be strong as anything, but when things like this start and keep going, they will have an impact and they will wear us down. Any of us.

I see you saying and feeling some things here that are very common, but which also aren't sound: in a word, I see a whole lot of self-blame here. Again, this has a lot to do with what abuse does to a person. When someone puts their responsibility on us again and again, and does so in a very emotional context, and we're open, so we've let in all the seemingly loving stuff AND all the mean stuff, we will start to believe them that it's our fault, not theirs. Self-blame or victim-blaming also comes from a culture -- one very few of us are NOT part of, as this is still pervasive in most, if not all, cultures -- which places more responsibility for abuse on people who are or have been abused than on people who are doing the abusing or have abused.

I think that even if you feel differently emotionally, you can probably know, in your head, how outrageous that is. After all, when someone gets drunk, gets in a car, and then causes an accident, we don't blame the person who got hit by them crossing the street. Alternately, if someone got the Nobel Peace Prize for decades of hard work they did to generously benefit someone else, we'd be giving that credit to that person who did the work. That prize wouldn't go instead to those who benefitted from that person's great efforts but didn't do any of the work themselves.

The main reason this abuse happened to you is because the person who abused you chose to abuse you and had the ability to abuse you. The person who abused you is the person responsible for their abuse, not you.

Sure, there are perhaps things you could have done, and things you may be able to do in the future to better protect yourself from abuse, and to help you get away sooner if and when it may happen or does happen again. But like I've already talked about -- and like you yourself experienced -- that's often a lot less simple than it sounds, and that still doesn't change who is responsible for abusing you.

Crisis Connection has some good things to say about this, too:

Victims of abuse are often full of intense and often conflicting emotions. People that have not been in an abusive relationship cannot understand how you can still love or care about someone that abuses you: she did not become involved with a monster and even now he isn’t always cruel, he is still extremely kind between his ugliness and attacks. Emotions cannot be turned on or off like a light. You can feel quite torn between loving the person and being afraid of them. You may experience all feelings listed or just a few. Sometimes feelings may flow from one to another and back again. Holding on to (and not be allowed to escape) negative emotions slowly kills the spirit.

A couple paragraphs from our primary article about abuse may also help you out here:

For abused people who do not have a low self-image, who firmly believe that abuse is not okay and know full well what it is, it may be incredibly difficult to accept that they’re being abused, that they have “allowed” themselves to be abused, and the shame of being abused or staying with an abuser runs very deep. It’s sometimes hard to really see the whole of abuse coming, so it’s not uncommon to truly just wake up one day and realize you are in the thick of an abusive relationship without really knowing how you wound up there.

One of the biggest blind spots a lot of people have when it comes to assault and abuse is understanding that no one is automatically immune or protected. With most kinds of abuse, there are not groups or kinds of people where abuse isn't possible or somehow just can't happen. So, if you hear yourself or others referring to abuse victims as "those people," like it's about someone you or they couldn't possibly ever be, check in and reconsider.

In other words, you say, you are not weak. You are not the things he said you were. You are not the person you were when you were involved with this person. Usually, all the same is true of other people who are in abuse or who have been. We're all "those people," or at least we all potentially can be. But that doesn't mean something is terribly wrong with us: mostly it means something is terribly wrong with any person doing the abusing, and we've had the profound misfortune of being a person who, for whatever reasons, that person got the opportunity to abuse; a person who, like most people, especially if we have less power and agency in the world or our world than the person who abused us, was vulnerable to abuse and the effects of abuse.

I'd like to talk about some things you've mentioned though which are your responsibility and your doing; things that ARE about what you did and who you are.

Like getting yourself free of this. And trying more than once to do that, and continuing to try, despite trying without success, until you could get yourself out and away for good. That's something you did, something you're responsible for, something very much about the person you are, which is often very hard to do, and is really major. YOU did that. And you did that despite this person and their abuse actively, intentionally, making doing that very difficult and very challenging. That was all you.

What else did you do? Well, throughout, you also took what actions you could to try and stand up for yourself. You kept trying to assert and hold healthy lines and boundaries, even while someone was working so hard to step all over them and to take them away from you. Not everyone does or can -- and as you yourself experienced, sometimes you just can't, or know there's another price to pay if you do -- so that doesn't mean people who didn't do that aren't as awesome as you, but I also think that when you do, it's something to give yourself a lot of credit for. It can be really scary and very hard to keep doing that in the fact of abuse, control and violence. But you did. You did that.

Setting self-blame aside, you're trying to think reflectively about all of this and sort it all out for yourself so that you can heal and move forward positively. You're asking yourself some hard questions, questions that can help you heal, but maybe can also identify, for you, ways you are vulnerable and some things you can do so you're much more likely to have a life free of abuse, a life where you get the respect and care you are absolutely entitled to.

And here you are now, asking for help and support you need, telling a very hard story to tell so that you can get it. You did that, too.

All of those things are things that you -- and from the sounds of it, you alone, without even having any help -- are responsible for. Those are all things that are caring, not harmful; healthy, not unhealthy; things which take considerable strength, courage, self-care and love for yourself. They're also things I'm willing to bet that guy hasn't even tried to do for himself, and which he most certainly did not do for you. The stuff he's responsible for? It sucks and it's awful. The stuff you're responsible for? It's fantastic and wonderful. I can't encourage you enough to keep reminding yourself of that as much as possible, even if it means leaving yourself little sticky notes everyplace you can with reminders on them so that you won't forget.

You're right: undoubtedly, you probably felt like a very different person while in abuse than the person you are outside of it. Most people do, because, as I've explained, abuse pushes or tricks us into behaving like different people than we are; it aims to make us become what someone else wants for themselves and to make us be less of ourselves than we truly are.

I think it's pretty clear who you really are: someone I certainly admire, and someone I think you should admire, too.

Below are some links I think will give you some more information and support. You also are absolutely welcome to come over to our message boards and talk more with me, our volunteers or our larger community of supportive peers any time. Figure you have a cheering section and a support circle there now and moving forward, any time you want. I'd also be happy to help you locate a counselor or support group you can start talking with in person, which I think would really benefit you.

I also want to make sure you know that no matter where you're from in the world, there are a LOT of amazing grassroots projects or organizations now around DV, IPV, sexual violence and abuse and sexism specifically from and for people from all kinds of cultures. Getting information and support that's sound about abuse, and supportive of survivors, but also specifically addresses cultural issues that have been at play from a first-person perspective can be so valuable and such a source of strength. So, whether you come to the boards or not, if you want to drop me a line via email and let me know where you're from, I'd be happy to see if we can't find you some more support that is most culturally relevant to you.

written 29 Mar 2012 . updated 20 Jan 2014

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