On this final day of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I reach out with an open heart to all of the women and men in abusive relationships. Sometimes this conversation neglects to acknowledge the men who are also victims of narcissistic and abusive behaviors from their partners. I want you to know that I see you. I stand by you, also.
“Every love story is a tragedy if you wait long enough.”
(The Handmaid’s Tale series)
No relationship should begin as one.
First of all, let me start by saying that you don’t need to be in an abusive relationship to want to leave, or have “permission” to leave a relationship. I also believe that the end of a relationship, although it can be painful and difficult to one or more parties, is never a bad thing. Like sex, if just one person doesn’t want to be involved, ever or anymore, even if one party is happy and interested, it’s best for it to stop. If there is ANY reason to end a relationship, it’s usually a good reason.
For nine years I talked myself into staying in a relationship, which by all accounts, wasn’t healthy. I didn’t have a lot of confidence when I met him at 19 years old, which coincided with a college assignment where I delved into analyzing the language of users of new-then dating websites. I had to create an account to access other profiles, and Eharmony told me I was unmatchable. I ended up marrying the next boyfriend I had. Online dating still makes me cringe.
Despite all of the warning signs in that relationship (which started pretty early on) — the arguing, the manipulation, the insults and disrespect he dished out in the form of eye-rolls, I largely ignored how he made me feel. I ignored it just like I ignored the actions and words of my younger brother, who suffered from the same personality disorder as the man who is now my ex-husband.
The dishonesty with myself made me increasingly vulnerable to his continued attacks on my self-esteem. I literally used to tell myself that other things in my life were good enough, so what if he wasn’t that nice to me behind closed doors or didn’t like my family? Maybe true love wasn’t really in the cards for me. At least he could cook well and we wouldn’t be poor. I know, desperate and sad.
“You accept the love you think you deserve.”
Granted, every relationship (strong or struggling) looks different, and abuse takes many forms, so I won’t get too personal here by revealing every detail of my 9-year long relationship. I also want to acknowledge that I, my Self, played a big part in letting the abuse (verbal and sexual) continue for so long. By staying with him despite all of our problems, I mislead my partner into believing that I was ready for the big step into marriage, and I was too scared and too weak to end the relationship by the time we were planning the wedding.
I dreaded many aspects of our future together, worried about all the future arguments we’d have, worried about losing my friends and family, worried that I wouldn’t be able to be a mom because I didn’t see him fit to be a dad.
The constant internalized worrying made me ill. I couldn’t eat anything without getting sick, so I was weak and scrawny as I glided like a ghost in my white dress down the aisle.
I saw myself in the magazines that mentioned in colorful blurbs that 1 in 5 women knew before the wedding that the marriage was doomed, but something inside me said it would be OK, that it was the best I could do. That eventually I wouldn’t feel that way about him anymore.
But I believe there’s something I could have done differently during the engagement that might have helped me step away before I stepped down the aisle. I know for sure that divorcing him after four years of marriage was no less hurtful than if I would have called off the wedding, so I want to talk to you, anyone who might be in this stage of their life, about the word engagement.
After the proposal, before planning a wedding, we both should have engaged in months of thoughtful marriage planning.
Being engaged is a time to figure out if marriage is really the best thing for you and the other person. We need to stop the taboo of ending an engagement. It is the time you should be discussing everything about your relationship and futures, if you haven’t already.
Calling off a wedding can feel like an unconquerable mountain once you’ve accepted or presented a ring. But in planning any event, new discoveries sometimes prevent the event from taking place. For until an exchange of vows occurs, there is nothing holding you into that relationship. No matter how much time you’ve spent with (or working on them as we sometimes see it) that person, no matter what experiences you’ve been through together, you do not owe that person anything except a respectful, honest goodbye.
In our society, it seems that the weight of an engagement ring comes with the same degree of commitment as the actual marriage certificate. Despite all of the people I know who are divorced, I only know one person who ever called off an engagement, that I know of. I likewise know a large number of people who are unhappily married, the normalcy of which might be why I accepted years of verbal abuse and a dysfunctional sex life. I am NOT advocating for divorce; I am advocating for you to have a happy life by taking your engagement very seriously.
Unlike a recent advertisement I saw for Match.com, I do think a great person is worth the wait.
To be engaged should be viewed not as the ultimate commitment to the other person, but as a time to engage in a thoughtful process about if they are really the one with whom you want to make that commitment. Engage in serious and tough conversations with the person (even if you already had them when you were dating). When people use this time to plan their wedding but not their marriage, they are doing serious jeopardy to their relationship.
Engage in activities that help you identify exactly how that person confronts challenge, how they treat people in stressful situations, how they manage their money. Engage in a deep look into who the other person truly is. If warning signs (trust yourself) come up during the engagement, put off the wedding. Honestly, don’t even think about planning a wedding celebration until you’ve been engaged in meaningful work about planning a marriage.
Observe everything. About yourself, and about your partner. And about how they act around your family. And how they act around their family. And how you act when they do something that disappoints you.
If a person can refrain from changing or parenting his or her partner, they have a greater opportunity for putting themself in a position of respect. If one of you is always doing everything for your partner, you risk being walked over. And if one of you is above the other, that does not make for a stable foundation for a marriage.
Be very mindful about how you speak to each other. How you greet each other. How you feel when you’re apart, when you’re together, the moment right before you’re together, the moments after. Listen to your body.
Engage in conversations with the people who care most about you. Engage with your family and friends and ask them to be completely honest with you about how they see your relationship. You are the ultimate decision maker in your life, and if you have people you confide in for anything important in your life, you should most definitely talk to them about this.
If you find yourself avoiding those people or those conversations, I beg you to think about why you are doing that. If the people whom you most respect don’t see the good you see in your partner, if you find yourself making excuses for them, being embarrassed by them, avoiding your favorite people or activities when you are with them, there is probably a good reason for that. Definitely worth engaging in those feeling fully and contemplating the reason.
Speaking of reason, humans are capable of talking ourselves into anything. Our minds are extremely powerful; we can justify anything to ourselves if we think it’s what we want or deserve.
Don’t let marriage be something you have to talk your Self into.
Engage deeply with your fears and doubts. Take time alone to think (maybe write) about the life you want, your values, your dreams. Engage with your Self on a very deep level. Be completely honest with yourself. It’s OK if you discover along this journey that you don’t want to marry this person. And better yet if you discover through all of that work that you truly do. That you do truly respect and value their presence in your life. That you find they really do help you shine your inner light even more brightly than you do on your own. I’m just asking you not to take that for granted.
Divorce sucks. It’s hard and it’s expensive. Even if you’ve invested years with this person, have been through major life events with them, own pets with them, own property or a business with them, or if you’ve already put down deposits on a location and purchased your dress and sent out invitations….none of that matters more than your long term happiness. Ending the relationship before the wedding takes place is worth the saved pain.
Marriage is a union, and it’s perfectly ok to be selfish before you enter into that commitment.
And you don’t have to be a victim of domestic violence to justify ending a relationship either. A marriage, maybe, but a relationship–no matter how long you’ve been together,–can be left whenever a person, just one person in that relationship, no longer wants to be in it. No contract. No obligation.
If you are unhappy in your relationship, even if you are unable to put your finger on exactly what is wrong, you have a good reason to leave it. (Do you ever hear yourself saying, It’s not that bad, or At least she doesn’t…?) Give yourself permission to step out of that doubtful place and invest in your Self.
A dear friend lovingly told me once that if I felt any doubt about my fiancé, that I should reconsider marrying him. I talked myself into the challenge of staying instead of into the challenge of leaving. If you have doubt about the relationship you are in–maybe more than concern about your differences in taste of home decor or travel destinations–you will be doing yourself and your partner a favor to trust yourself and end the relationship. They deserve someone who has no doubt about them. And so do you.
If two people want to be together, no marriage is going to change that. If a person is pressuring you to get married, there’s a good chance they might be hiding something, and it will come out once they have “secured” you into a permanent arrangement. Or maybe they have some self-improvement to work on before they are ready for marriage. Or maybe they don’t respect you. If you are getting any pressure from your partner, take a good hard look at where it might be coming from.
A wedding is not a way to improve a relationship.
Strong, respectful relationships do not need weddings for them to last or for them to be strong or respectful. If you feel like your does, then maybe you shouldn’t get married right now. What would it look like if you just kept dating? What would it look like if you took a break? Marriage is not about being in shackles, for either party; it is about forming a partner-ship with someone whom you love, respect, and admire. That foundation does not come from spending the most crucial moments of your relationship together planning a (wedding) party, but can come from planning a life together.
Looking back, I know there were so many signs all along that I ignored. While his friends and family expressed gratitude and excitement to me about our relationship, told me I brought out the best in him, etc., the same feeling wasn’t coming from my friends and family. That should have been my first clue. Our loved ones really do want the best for us, some of us just aren’t that good at communicating it (or hearing it).
I have so much more to say about this (like 4 more pages…)but I’ve tried to put my most heartfelt and pertinent advice out there tonight, just in case anyone needs to hear it.
You deserve so much happiness. You are the only one who can make it happen. You are worth it.
If you think you are in an abusive relationship, or even just an unhappy one, reach out. If you aren’t ready to tell your family and friends yet, maybe you just start here: https://www.thehotline.org/ or read more about signs of abuse here: http://www.crossroadssafehouse.org/
P.S. If you want to know more about the “warning signs” from my relationship, don’t be shy. I am an open book. But I also know that no one wants to read a whole book about this, even though I’m pretty sure I have enough words on the topic to fill one!