He was a jerk. A selfish, controlling, rageful jerk. But he would never hit me — this I knew. Until he did. And in the millisecond that transpired between his hand slapping me across the cheek and me stumbling backward into the wall and sliding to the floor, I realized I wasn’t going to leave.
After years of intimidation and isolation, he had finally crossed that uncrossable line — and I wasn’t going to do a damned thing about it.
Fast-forward past eight years of hopelessness and an emotionally exhausting divorce when, in a quiet moment, I found myself desperate for answers. I needed to learn what made him tick. I felt compelled to understand my own role in our very dysfunctional dance. And most importantly, I had to come to terms with why I would ever allow my children and myself to be treated that way.
What I learned saddened me. My story was not an anomaly; I was not alone.
Escalating domestic abuse and my “line-moving” problem
Early in our relationship, had “Darkness” slapped me, it would have been over. Had he raged at me behind the wheel while he weaved recklessly in and out of traffic, I would never have climbed into his car again. Had he isolated me from the dear friends and family who had been such a tremendous support system my entire life, I would have walked away. Absolutely. Positively. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.
But that’s not the way domestic abuse works.
Domestic abuse escalates slowly over time; the abuser’s shiny public veneer begins to fade and control and cruelty take its place — often behind closed doors. Like so many, I questioned what had happened to “us,” and worked to reestablish a relationship with the man I had fallen in love with.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that that man was a lie. He never existed; he was an act.
Over the course of years, I ignored my nagging doubts and forgave his cutting remarks, chalking them up to “bad days.” Over time though, his bad days became more frequent and more extreme. His offhand insults became rages and I found myself stepping backward and redrawing my line in the sand. There were limits to what I would tolerate, after all. And besides, this wasn’t the behavior of a loving partner. But then he refused medical attention to his own family and I moved “the line” again. When he threw things around the house, terrorizing our children and myself — again, I moved the line a little bit farther still. And worse, I can look back now and see that I stopped questioning myself, and the limits of what I would and would not tolerate.
The answer lies in the mind of a boiled frog
When I stumbled into an online forum for domestic abuse victims and survivors, someone shared the parable of the boiled frog. It was said that if you dropped a frog into a pot of boiling water, it would immediately leap to safety. But if you placed that same frog in a pot of room temperature water and incrementally turned up the heat, the frog would remain in the pot — all the while not reacting to the fact that it was being slowly cooked alive.
It was an analogy that rang true for me, and for many other newcomers to the forum.
Behavior that would drive a partner away early in a relationship, could become something they’d be more likely to tolerate if the abuse was ratcheted up by degrees — allowing them time to acclimate to their new reality, to normalize to greater and greater acts of control, manipulation and violence.
It was the start of my domestic abuse education.
Sharing my story—from domestic abuse victim to survivor
Five years ago, I could never have dreamed of talking about my marriage. There were consequences for opening up and, besides, I was too ashamed by what I allowed to happen to my children and myself.
My eyes have been opened to the prevalence of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse. I can’t “unsee,” nor can I move forward, knowing so many are struggling in the darkness.
So, I will share my own journey here. While I may alter minor details to protect the innocent (and the guilty), my story is my own.
And I choose to honor that truth in the hope that others will realize that it’s not their fault, that it’s not too late to begin again, and that they’re not alone.