Yesterday I came across a situation that both broke my heart and made things raw all over again.
I have found myself in the company of women, who like me, have escaped abusive relationships far more frequently than those who are still in the midst of them.
The statement above is misleading and I want to make a very important point here.
First, read that sentence over again: I have found myself in the company of women, who like me, have escaped abusive relationships far more frequently than those who are still in the midst of them.
What is wrong with it?
Allow me to rephrase that sentence.
I have found myself in the company of women, who like me, admit to escaping abusive relationships far more than I meet women who admit that they are still in them.
A subtle difference, but profound.
How many times do I meet a woman with a smile on her face and the answer “fine” to the question “how are you?” meanwhile she is screaming on the inside. No one, not even the people closest to me suspected that things were as bad as they were. I played a good game. Covering up, pretending, hiding, I did everything I could to keep it under wraps. This is a common practice of women in this situation. (See The Tip of the Iceberg for more information on this).
Many women who have escaped feel more confident about their safety, so they feel freer to talk about it. Those who are still in an abusive situation, however, do not have that freedom. In fact, they feel quite unsafe talking about it because it threatens the “safe” world they think they have created for themselves and their children. They have walk on eggshells and use other coping mechanisms to mitigate the effects of cruelty and abuse. They feel like they are managing.
When a woman comes to the realization however that this is an illusion, she would decide that it is time to leave, but she does not. Instead, she cries her eyes out and doubles her efforts to make her own world feel safe. If she has children, she tries to make things work for the sake of the kids and tries to make her marriage/relationship as livable as possible.
Such was the case yesterday. She was exhausted. Fifteen plus years she had been living this way. She described him as cruel, yet he never laid a hand on her. Even though there was nothing law enforcement could do anything about, she was abused regardless. We used ice on her red puffy eyes to try to minimize the appearance of her emotional distress. We tried to play it cool so as not to raise his suspicion.
I want to make an important point about this as well. If you are trying to help a woman in this sort of situation, please, for her sake, be discreet. Most of the time the woman is not willing or able to just pick up and leave and have a buffer between herself and him. I was much more fortunate than many women in this way. I have family 900 miles away, well out of his reach, and I had the law and a very small crew of friends that created a bubble of protection for me when I returned. This woman and many others like her do not have this. So while you are helping her and she is still within his grasp, do not arouse his suspicion. She will pay for it later.
It is very tempting to want to go to him and read him the riot act. There were several people that felt this way yesterday, but having been in those shoes myself I know the importance of discretion. Until she is ready to leave, her safety must take precedence over justice. This can mean both physical safety and emotional and mental safety. Rousing his suspicions can make him, in turn, double his efforts causing her to feel defeated and just give up. This is a paradox but it exists. His worsening behavior does not always result in a greater resolve to be free, but sometimes can demoralize her so much that she loses her will to fight. That spark still exists somewhere inside her though. Do not give up on her.
Back to my original point; the difference between the two statements. She had tried to get help. She went to friends and they betrayed her trust. They told her to try harder. They told her how some of his behavior could be her fault. Because of this, she was less likely to reach out. I told her for every 10 people she would tell, she would be likely to find only 1 that believed her. I told her not to give up. Honestly, I think this is grossly exaggerated. I don’t think the odds are as favorable as this.
When I went for help, I told very few people whom I thought would try to help. People who were in a position to help. I know the fatalism that sets in when you finally find to courage to go for help only to find yourself still standing alone with no one there beside you. It hurts. Deeply.
I would like to make a statement about my family as an aside. I have a family which I am very close to but living so far away made it easier to hide things. I did not go to them because I always thought of them as my last resort. I knew that if things ever got bad enough I would be able to go to them. Part of the problem is my distorted view of what “bad” was. I should have gone to them much sooner, years sooner, and if not for the insistence of my friends, probably would still not have done it. I thought that there was no way I could salvage my family’s relationship with my husband if they knew what my life was really like. I was still in protection mode.
She was alone, had a child, no income, and no means to support herself. She had the gameplan that I, eventually, and many other women develop. If I can just get the kids through high school, then I can do something. In the meantime, she would endure whatever she had to for her child’s sake.
I am astounded at how many women I meet who have escaped abusive relationships, but how many more women, coworkers, patients, women I attend church with and rub shoulders with in the general public are still in them?
She broke down yesterday. The walls came down out of sheer exhaustion, but she fixed her face, strengthened her resolve and went back. I gave her as much information about resources available to her as I could, encouraged her, and gave her advice. Will she take it? I don’t know. If she is like me, it will take her a while to act. In the meantime, she will keep her chin up and muddle through the best she can.
Please be on the lookout for these women. They need your help. If you are helping one. Be patient. Don’t give up. She needs you. You might just save a life.