Breaking the Cycle: What I learned from the first time I stayed
Oct 03, 2018
Last week a client asked me the question so many victims of domestic abuse want to know the answer to - “This has already happened to me once. How do I stop it from happening again?”
I remember wanting to know the answer to that myself, when I clawed my way back from the devastation of a psychologically, emotionally, sexually and financially abusive relationship. How could I spot a guy like that coming next time? How could I learn about the red flags of an abuser so I wouldn’t be blindsided again?
What do I need to know to keep myself safe?
This article is my answer to her.
This is the story of the first time I stayed, and how what I learned from that experience has taught me how to leave.
I learned something incredibly powerful about the patterns of relationships that become abusive, and it isn’t about the patterns of abusive men.
Time after time I meet women who stay with abusive partners, and together we confront the painful, almost accusatory question from outsiders in the aftermath – why didn’t they just leave? What is wrong with them?
There is an implicit and often explicit accusation from society, friends, even family when they learn that a partner is abusive.
Why didn’t you just leave him right away?
There is a lot of excellent literature out there to explain why women stay in relationships for years, even decades, when there is a lot at stake. This article is not about those reasons. This is about the reasons that preceded them. When I was still independent, still vivacious, enjoying my freedom and unharmed.
This is about the first time I stayed.
The first time I stayed I was 22 years old. I had been taken on a date to a restaurant in London, and I didn’t know my way home. My date took out his mobile phone and laid it on the table. Before we even ordered our food, he took a call. The next 20 minutes were humiliating and confusing as I listened to him argue with and put down the caller, his ex-partner, while I sat waiting for him to hang up the phone.
Looking back, over 14 years later, I realise that was the moment I should have left, could have left, and didn’t leave. Looking back, that was the first time I gave away my power, my dignity and my strength.
So why didn’t I go?
In brief, for me, it was because I was too polite.
I had been brought up to value good manners and the discomfort of walking out on my date and fear of making a scene (coupled with fear of being lost in a city I didn’t know) overruled my embarrassment and anger about his behaviour. I focused on my own need to be polite, instead of his rudeness, because I hadn’t learned yet how to challenge my own internal values when they are failing to keep me safe.
I have learned it’s ok to be rude.
It is ok to be loud, it’s ok to be angry, it’s ok to have boundaries. More than anything, I have learned that when you want to break a cycle of abusive relationships in your own life, you are allowed to be and have these things from the very first date, and every date thereafter.
Good manners led me into a relationship that spat me out the other side anorexic, isolated, emotionally whipped and broken. Today I am proud to have learned that a well timed ‘No’ is not ill-mannered, or outrageous, or rude.
If you are a woman (or man) who has lived with abuse and escaped, who wants to know how to spot an abuser coming and run fast in the opposite direction next time, I challenge you to answer this question:
When was the very first time you stayed?
What was it that compelled you to accept the first abuse of your trust?
Not the first attack – or the first assault.
The very, very first time that you stayed. The time that, in retrospect, you might recognise that others with more courage, less courtesy, or simply the capacity to give no fucks, would have left?
Your reason for staying may be something entirely different from mine.
But if it’s internal, unchecked, unrecognised, then it’s possible you will stay again, even though you don’t want to. Even though you are on high alert. Even when the guy comes wrapped in red flag bunting.
Figure out what is is that you have learned to prioritise over your own dignity, self-respect and intuition.
That is the answer to your question, and that is what will keep you safe. Because the trick isn’t spotting that abuser coming. The trick is spotting yourself staying.
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