Why I Stayed in an Abusive Relationship

I can’t speak for Janay Rice, or any other victims of domestic violence who stay with their abusers, but until early 2014 I was in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship for two and a half years, and I can talk about why I stayed—and why I...

Sep 16 2014, 10:38am

Illustrations by James Burgess

Last week, surveillance footage was released that showed ex-NFL player Ray Rice knocking Janay, his then fiancée, unconscious. Unsurprisingly, Rice has been widely condemned for the incident, which took place last year, and indefinitely suspended from the NFL. However, many people have focused on the fact that Janay apologized for “[her] role” in the incident, went on to marry Ray, and has continued to defend his actions ever since.

To an outsider, Janay's behavior seems incomprehensible, which is probably why, over the past week, hordes of domestic-violence survivors have taken to Twitter using the #WhyIStayed hashtag to shed light on the emotional sinkhole that keeps victims in relationships with their abusers. Back in 2004, more than 50 percent of people who experienced domestic abuse said they'd be too embarrassed to tell their friends or family. Now, ten years later, hundreds of people are tweeting about it. 

Some have criticized the hashtag for putting emphasis on the victim instead of the abuser, but the fact that it forces us to pay attention to the victim’s experience is exactly what’s so revolutionary about the whole thing. Because when have we ever had the opportunity to hear so much about domestic abuse from the people who've experienced it? 

It’s by listening to the firsthand experiences of victims that we can begin to understand and stamp out abuse. I can’t speak for Janay Rice, or any other victims of domestic violence who stay with their abusers (who are many), but until early 2014 I was in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship for two and a half years, and I can talk about why I stayed—and why I left. 

To my mind, asking why I didn’t leave my ex-boyfriend after the first time he physically threatened me is like asking why Truman didn’t leave The Truman Show the first time a lighting fixture fell out of the sky. After it happens, Truman doesn’t immediately conclude that his entire life has been a TV show and make a bolt for the exit at the first hint of something strange. No, he accepts the explanation that’s given to him by sources he trusts. He adjusts his thinking about reality to account for weird objects falling out of the sky, and he carries on with his life.

To me, that first act of violence, just before our first anniversary, was equally as freakish. Abusive people usually don’t become abusive until they know that their partners are going to stick around—for over 50 percent of victims it happens more than a year into the relationship, and often it begins during a couple’s first pregnancy. For me, it was a few nights after we moved in together. When it all starts, the victim is already surrounded by a lifelike TV set of his or her partner’s making. He or she is living deep inside an entire reality constructed just for the two of them.

When Janay Rice wrote on Instagram, “THIS IS OUR LIFE! What don’t you all get,” I remembered exactly what it felt like to believe that the two of you had your own, unique dynamic going on that the rest of the world just didn’t understand. My ex-boyfriend was the first person I loved. I went to new cities with him. I took my first pill with him. We were one of those annoying couples who talk in such a web of in-jokes and memories that our world was totally impenetrable to anyone else. When he sobbed because he felt so disgusted and ashamed that he’d raised a fist to me, I believed I was the only person who understood him well enough that I could make this better.

I was living with a mental curtain drawn because there were certain things that, if I admitted them or examined them for a little too long, would destroy this amazing thing I had going on with someone I believed to be my soulmate. If I forced myself to reflect on whether it could actually have been an accident when my hand was slammed in a door, my belongings broken and my face spat in—or if I had forced myself to relive acts of violence over and over again—I would have had no choice but to accept the truth.

I managed to keep the secret from myself for around 18 months, but over that time it would occasionally bubble up in weird ways. One time I was watching The Wolf of Wall Street and I surprised myself by sobbing like a baby at the scene in which Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, punches his wife in the gut. I brushed it off as, like, probably PMS or something, even though I’m pretty sure no one cried during that movie other than me and maybe Belfort (if he has tear ducts). Another time, it cropped up as a smoker’s paranoia that made me suddenly, overwhelmingly not want to be alone with my boyfriend.

These kinds of incidents were the closest I ever came to admitting, while deep in the relationship, that something might be wrong. It took a threat on my life and the intervention of friends for all these unspoken things to come flooding outwards, and to force me to listen. Forcing myself to relive these moments was the part that really sucked. I went through bouts of PTSD, being kept awake in the middle of the night by surreal flashbacks to things I hadn’t allowed myself to think about since they’d happened.

"Admitting the truth to yourself opens up a long road of psychological fuckery, and it gets a lot harder before it gets better."

There are also practical fears involved in leaving someone who is violent and vindictive. For the majority, the most dangerous part of an abusive relationship is when the victim tries to leave—the fear of what that person might do to you if you try to get out is enough to make most people stay. There's also the fact that victims are often trapped in financial and social binds that mean their money and friends and pretty much everything they have is tied up with their partner.

These were all very real fears for me. My rent doubled when I kicked my partner out, and that was no insignificant part of the pile of shit I had to deal with when, like Truman, I took to my boat and sailed off set. It meant that despite all the debilitating feelings I was going through, I had to take on as much debt and work as hard as humanly possible so that I could still afford to pay my rent. I’m extremely lucky, though, that I wasn’t (or haven’t yet been) one of the 76 percent of women in the UK who experience abuse after leaving. Staying with friends for the initial weeks offered some safety, as did ending the relationship in a packed public place. Under most circumstances that would be a dick move, but in this case it was essential: I had to never be alone with him again. 

None of these steps have been easy, but with each passing day they’re adding up to a life that’s so much easier, and one that’s wholly mine. Somewhere in the midst of phone calls to helplines (some of which are listed, along with shelters, at the bottom of this page), doctor’s appointments for depression and anxiety, moving houses for peace of mind, non-stop work, and all the listening to Lauryn Hill and reading Andrea Dworkin and getting fucking angry, I realized that my decision gave me my life back. I no longer defer to someone else for every decision I make because I’m afraid of that person. And that in itself is the best decision I've ever made.

Illustrations by James Burgess

There’s a myth that domestic abuse is the private business of the two people it happens between—no one wants to intervene or witness. I’m calling bullshit on this now. Abuse thrives on the unsaid. A culture that looks the other way is a culture that teaches victims there is no help or respect for them, and that they deserve what they get. I was assaulted in the street by my ex in front of many people, on a few separate occasions, and no one ever said a word. Eyes were averted to the newspaper or the pavement. After incidents like these, a victim feels totally worthless and totally unseen.

So look hard. While Ray and Janay Rice believe that they are “[showing] the world what real love is!” the #WhyIStayed hashtag is there to show the world what real love is not. We need protest and we need intervention. The more victims who have the opportunity to make sense of what happened to them by talking about it, the better. The more onlookers who learn how to understand, recognize, and call out abuse, the better. But most importantly, if all this discussion means that just one person sees those tweets, or this article—or any of the articles written about the topic—and is moved to speak out about their own abuse, then we're a little bit closer to sorting out this epidemic; and that person will be a huge step closer to living the violence-free life he or she deserves.

Below is a list of recources that can provide help to anyone living in an abusive relationship: 

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 

Domestic Abuse Hotline for Men and Women: 1-888-743-5754

National Organization for Women 

National Organization for Women NYC Domestic Violence Helpline: 1-800-942-6906

For information on women's shelters in NYC, go to Safe Horizon.