I barricaded the bedroom door with a chair and a rattan chest full of sweaters. He continued slamming and yelling in the kitchen. I hunched over hyperventilating, shaking and waiting for his next move. Maybe he would come in. Maybe making the door hard to open made me less safe, not more. Surviving abuse is not an art, it is dumb luck. You pursue one of the limited options you are given in a moment of crisis and hope to God it works.
In this case it did. He tried to open the door but when it didn’t work, he went away. He left the kitchen. I heard the T.V. turn on. I used the quiet of our bedroom with the shades drawn to catch my breath and look up therapists. I needed a fucking therapist.
I looked at listings. No one had “when he threatens to kill you” in their keyword list, but I found one who specialized in “relationships,” “marital and family therapy,” and “eating disorders.” I had spent boatloads of time in therapy for an eating disorder, so I figured this one would understand me. I left her a voicemail.
For over a year, I saw this therapist — first by myself. Naturally, he thought it was ridiculous. Eventually, after yet another blow up, maybe one where I packed a duffel bag and drove back and forth on the brittle, salt-stained pavement between Minneapolis and St. Paul on I-94 for a few hours because I had nowhere to go with eyes that puffy, I got him to agree. We began to see the therapist together.
He was hostile at the first appointment, but after some work the therapist got him to hear what he wouldn’t hear me say — if the anger wasn’t addressed, I was going to leave. We walked out onto Mears Park and he held me, told me he loved me, that he was going to change for me. I am sickened to admit it, but my heart leaps a little bit as I recall this. It meant a lot to me when someone who hurt me said he cared. I found it romantic.
It has been twelve years and I am often an open book, but this is one of just a few times I’ve written about my experiences in an abusive marriage. Two years ago, I wrote Why I Stayed in an Abusive Marriage for Two Years for Rewire after I got fed up with the coverage of Janay Rice, wife of football player Ray Rice, who posted defiantly on social media that people were ruining their lives and they would show the world what true love was. She made sense to me. As I wrote at the time, “I know [the] shame and sense of shared understanding only too well. It is why I stayed in an abusive marriage for two years, and why I am speaking up ten years later.”
I’m writing about my history with abuse now for a different reason. I’ve been thinking of this therapist very much recently. After I left the marriage (and while she never told me to, I know she wanted me to), I went back to her couch, this time sitting by myself once more. She told me first that she could not see him again. Now that we were separated, she would be my therapist, not our therapist. She was no longer trying to help me fix the relationship. She was trying to help me heal from the relationship.
At our last appointment, before I left, she asked me the shattering question: You’ve said you never could have guessed this would have happened, that you saw no signs before he became violent, but I’m not sure that’s true. I want you to think about that. I bet you actually knew before. I want you to think about what those warning signs were, and how you responded to them, so this doesn’t happen to you again.
I had no response then, but I’ve been thinking about it constantly since Donald Trump was elected. She was right. I did know. There were warning signs along the way — random cruelty to an unknown woman in a bar when we first met and I was trying to impress him, a freaky, drunken, physical fight with a broomstick and a relative at 4 a.m., a friend who said frankly that he could be pretty mean before I came around, these things I tuned out.
Moreover, I think her question was deeper than that: What is it that leads people to accept abusive behavior? What is it in me specifically? I have done this inner work, and while it’s not comfortable, I am much better for it. With experience and not just principles, I have concluded: We cannot accept abusive behavior, period.
As Donald Trump prepares to take the presidency, we’re being told over and over to respect the office and give him a chance. We’re being told that clear statements of violence and racism and sexism are just talk, when we know they are the thing itself. I have personally experienced how dangerous it is to blow off the warning signs. We should not. We know that something is deeply wrong, and we should trust that without apology.