He didn’t like the smell of mascara on my eyes. He was so upset that I wanted to keep wearing it. Nearly in tears, he seemed like he might fall apart.
“Sure,” I thought, “that’s not a big deal. He says he likes my natural beauty. That’s nice, right?” So I stopped wearing mascara.
When I hear of women who don’t leave a man immediately after he abuses her the first time — how could she stay with him after he hit her? — I can understand on an emotional level why they stay. My relationship decades ago wasn’t what I would consider to be abusive, necessarily. The control he held over me was insidious and not healthy, but it served some positive purposes for me. For example, I was an active alcoholic, and he didn’t like it when I drank. To make him happy, I mostly didn’t drink.
The control started with those small and seemingly harmless or even positive things, such as wanting me to not wear makeup or not drink alcohol. He liked it when I wore clothes that were baggy and wouldn’t necessarily be noticed by other people. He had reasons why he thought it best I not hang out with this friend or that — one drank a lot, the other smoked. His controlling demands, mostly put to me as tender pleadings and suggestions, felt like caring and safety; they felt like love. I didn’t recognize his behavior as abusive because it didn’t seem unkind, though I did feel as if I might lose him if I didn’t do as he asked.
Because I gave up my friends as he wanted me to, I didn’t talk to other people about the relationship. When I did talk to others, I kept it mostly to myself. I didn’t want to betray his trust. He valued our privacy. In hindsight, I know talking to other people about the relationship might have helped me see what was happening. Also, in hindsight, oh-so-20/20, I see I was ashamed that I had let myself get into this situation.
I thought to myself, “What kind of self-respecting woman lets a man decide what she wears, who she talks to and how she spends her time?” I was a feminist. I was independent and strong. I was also a woman who stayed in a relationship in which my boyfriend controlled almost every aspect of my life.
Despite its obvious flaws, I still look back on that relationship as one of affection, but it easily could have slid over into more damaging abuse. I was isolated. I had no social supports beyond the boyfriend. If he had turned to behaviors that were more overtly harmful, I can imagine feeling stuck. When I was in the relationship, I needed to believe it wasn’t as unhealthy as it was. When I faced the truth about it, I was paralyzed by shame.
There are many other reasons people don’t leave abusive relationships. Women might lose custody of their children. Friends and family might side with the perpetrator, and those relationships might be lost. Finances often play a role. If the choices are having no place to live and no way to pay bills or hoping he doesn’t do it again, surely most people can understand why the choice to leave isn’t a simple one.
As we’ve seen in the public response to Amber Heard’s statements about Johnny Depp’s violence, even physical evidence doesn’t mean the survivor will be believed. If a woman finds the courage and logistical resources to leave an abuser, she knows she can expect to face more pain from the world around her. We don’t have to be famous to feel the weight of other people’s doubts and suspicions; feelings of shame and self-doubt can be monumental. The personal consequences of coming out and saying, “This man whom you believed to be a good person is actually violent, controlling, cruel and dangerous,” are real.
If any woman tells me, “He abused me,” I believe her. I don’t doubt her for even one moment. I know the shame of being in a relationship where I “should have left him,” and I know how scary it is to finally tell the truth.
If she says it happens, I believe her. It’s the least I can do. If we all take this approach, we can create a culture in which telling the truth has fewer negative consequences. There are many other obstacles to leaving an abusive relationship, but if we all join in and #believewomen, we can help make it safer for some women to break free.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at email@example.com. Her columns appear monthly.