I Can Tell You What's Going On In There

A recent This American Life broadcast detailed a high-school-aged girl’s attempts to wrest herself from an abusive boyfriend.

Of the more disturbing aspects of the relationship—besides the obvious predatorial behavior of the twenty-something male who habitually seeks out under-aged, high-school girls and then systematically disconnects these girls from their friends, their families, and their educational lives—was the cycle of the abuse.

That’s a phrase we’re used to hearing and reading—cycle of abuse—but until you live through an abusive relationship, the phrase is fairly impotent, maybe even nonsensical. To be fair, a persistent cycle of abuse is a somewhat generalized idea. Are we talking about how abused children are more likely to become adults who then abuse their own children? Are we talking about men and women who bring a history of abuse into their coupling and create a hostile environment?

Really it’s cycles within cycles – where cause and effect are blurred. But the important concept is the repetition, the ingrained and habitual behavior. The fact that the cycle is often more powerful than the will of the two people involved.  

Within a couple where verbal, emotional and physical abuse is present, the cycle depends on two people participating. This is a component of couple-based abusive relationships we are uncomfortable discussing – that the abused is somehow complicit in how s/he is being treated. That there are roles each person plays.

The TAL story captures this dynamic effectively. Yes, the guy in the relationship was clearly an abuser, but the girl did not leave when she could have. And the reason she didn’t: Her belief that by staying she could somehow change the boyfriend and salvage their relationship.

To my mind, this is the key—the hook—that keeps the cycle of an abusive relationship spinning. Belief. Delusion. An unwillingness to accept what is for what could be (and will never be).

My own abusive relationship with a girlfriend ended close to fifteen years ago. Even after these many years, I can rarely acknowledge that not only was I in an abusive relationship, but that I both abused, and was abused by, the woman I was with. Our situation was different than the TAL story, because the cycle of abuse saw me and my former girlfriend shifting roles. One of us would be the aggressor, one of us the victim. But the cycle was there, and it continued solely because we refused to acknowledge our reality.

We had met at the University where I worked. Our emotional intimacy had grown over the course of a year or more: I had been in an unfulfilling marriage that was sputtering out into divorce, and she had been in a long-term relationship that she was no longer committed to. In the months before we became involved and moved together to a new city, she was the closest friend I had in the University town during a lonesome and difficult time. When we became physically intimate, it had seemed like a natural extension of what had been developing between us for several months.

The controlling behavior and emotional manipulation began soon after we moved into our very small apartment. Whenever I wanted to leave for reasons other than work—say to exercise or to meet friends—my ex would go silent. Eventually, after a day or two of (literally) not speaking to me, she would then go into attack mode and parse anything I had said during those days of silence; she would find a phrase that encapsulated a betrayal, and go over it again and again:

‘But you said X,” she would say. “You said X.’

The verbal fights following her silences were brutal, hours-long, devastating. My ex-girlfriend was and is an extremely intelligent woman, and she had much more capacity to argue than I did. I couldn’t escape—leaving the apartment would compound and prolong the argument, and then there was my ex’s proclivity for putting herself in random, sexually-charged situations with other men—and she would use the anxiety generated by her own disappearances as an implicit threat.

So we stayed locked together in our cage.

I was unprepared for these episodes, these devastating arguments where we just tore at each other. They began as occasional and then increased in frequency so that within a mere couple months of moving in together, we would be coming out of one of these cycles at the same time we were beginning another one. These many years later, I can’t recall not fighting, not arguing, not hurting each other. In fact, what’s more difficult is remembering the friendship that had initially brought us together. There had been love there once.

So my conduct—my sole option—during any sort of ‘thing’ was to sit in the apartment and let her shut me out until she’d finally fight with me. I went from someone who enjoyed alone time and meeting friends to someone who feared doing anything to break out of the ‘totatlity’ (her term) of our coupling. When she would try to leave the apartment or meet friends or work late, I used the only power I had and quickly turned the tables and seized the opportunity to be as controlling as she was with me.

The physical abuse started the night of my 30th birthday when I had made a comment or a joke or something and inadvertently kick-started another shutting-out-silence episode. I was so over it, so done with having to wait two days to fight and find out what I had done. I wanted to get this latest conflict over with—now—and I grabbed her by the shoulders, shook her and demanded that she stop it.

The physical manifestation of our percolating emotional and verbal abuse was an immediate forfeit. It didn’t happen every fight, but the violence occurred frequently enough that I didn’t feel I had control. A two-day silence would erupt into an all-day and all-night fight which would end when I grabbed her by the shoulders. Then she would leave the apartment, go who knows where, and come back hours later. Silent again.

I felt terrible. Any attempt to address our abusive ways in those few breaks between conflicts resulted in her blaming me. I don’t doubt that she believed this then or that she believes this now. This is conditioning from our shared liberal University education. The man is always to blame when abuse becomes physical. And while I of course agree that a man shouldn’t physically intimidate, grab or strike a woman, there has to be some acknowledgment that men can sometimes feel emotionally-pushed to force an ending to a conflict.

I read books on my own (had to hide them from her), and I saw a counselor who demanded that I immediately leave her and the situation. But I didn’t. I didn’t leave because although I recognized that I was in a dangerous environment that showed no signs of improving, I told myself that I could somehow make the situation better. That I could fix the damned problem and get her to understand that we didn’t need to behave this way.

It didn’t work. The cycle was too powerful, too seductive. We couldn’t stop it on our own.

In my case, an external force finally halted the cycle’s perpetuation. My ex’s sister and the sister’s boyfriend moved to the same city and this prompted my ex to want to move out and live with them. We somehow collaborated decently enough during a very awkward month to get everyone moved, and then suddenly, I was in my own apartment and out of that cycle.

Alone. Relieved. So relieved.

We tried to remain friends, my ex and I, but before we had split up, she had already started a relationship with a man in the law firm where she was working, and when she got her sister hired in a position at the same law firm where I was also interested in applying, it was all too much. A perpetuation of more and more drama, and without being any longer financially interdependent or trapped together in the same apartment, I realized I didn’t need to participate.

I could just stop.

So I cut the ex out of my life. I was fortunate to have the option to do this; many people—many women—in abusive relationships don’t. I got lucky. I know this. And I am grateful.

Although I wish her well, and I have no doubt that she is successful in her career, I will never speak or interact with my ex-girlfriend again. Part of this is because of an overriding sadness about the loss of the friend who vanished, but most of it is because of fear: Would the cycle still be there? Would I behave the same?

I like to think I wouldn't. I have to believe I wouldn't. But I don't want to find out. Ever.