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The difficulty with the term "abusive relationship" is that it means something different to everyone, depending on his or her own experiences, the stories of people close to them, and what they've seen in the media or on television. Their opinions may even differ on what constitutes "abuse." There is physical abuse. There is verbal and emotional abuse. Even then, each category has its own spectrum of severity. I'm not here to write a report on the definitions and different types of abuse.
I'm here to write about how hard the recovery process is after you've lived through it.
I didn't begin to notice signs of a lasting impact until I started dating again. It would then start slowly creeping back once a guy and I made it past the "dates in social settings" phase and were alone behind closed doors. The first thought that probably comes to most girls' minds in this scenario is "romantic." The first thought that comes to my mind is "no witnesses."
The new guy and I were in his kitchen, he on one side chopping vegetables, I on the other, using a cocktail shaker. I accidentally spilled on his countertop. Immediately, my body tensed, my heart beat a little faster, and I instinctively cleaned up the spill as fast as I possibly could -- as a reflex, hoping that I could absorb the puddle before he noticed.
All of that over a spill on a countertop. Weird reaction? Exaggerated response? Sure. Unless you were in a different kitchen, a few years earlier.
While making morning coffee, I spilled coffee grounds. Across the counter, inside the sink, on the kitchen floor. Soft coffee grounds in the palms of my hands that I couldn't clean up fast enough. Even writing this now, years later, I subconsciously lowered my head, recoiling from the yelling that I can still hear from inside that memory. At least after being screamed at about how "f*cking stupid" I was, I didn't need the coffee to wake up anyway.
A broken champagne flute. An overturned glass of water. The slightest instances of my lack of coordination could lead to a barrage of insults, yelling, or both. Often immediately followed by an apology, allowing us both to chalk it up to that pesky "short fuse" of his.
The hardest part about the abuse was identifying it. I don't mean that I wasn't aware that my boyfriend hitting me would logically fall under a "domestic violence" umbrella. My problem was always thinking that because the physical violence didn't happen every day, it wasn't abuse. One incidence every few months was just "a fight that got out of hand" or "I brought it on myself because I did x, y, z" or "we were just really drunk." As long as we were a "normal" couple on all of the other days, there was no reason for concern.
In my mind, I didn't deserve to use the title of being in an abusive relationship. That was reserved for the people who had to fear their significant other coming home every night, and either had nowhere else to go, or just didn't recognize how bad their situation was. I was thinking of it in terms of labels, but relationships don't fall into clear-cut categories. Human connections are so much more complicated than that.
Another obstacle I've encountered in the aftermath is battling internally with myself over why I stayed in the relationship for so long. My justification to myself in going back to him every time was that we were going to actively work on it. After any incidence where he had physically struck me, there were long stretches of time where (in my mind) we were "healing" or "remedying the situation." We were going to tackle our problems head on and become the best version of us yet.
However, while he predictably became the "perfect boyfriend" in the months immediately following any incident, we never made any progress. Counseling never worked out (they either wouldn't touch us after one consultation, or he had an outburst mid-session and we never returned). In the calm periods, I reassured myself (as he reassured me) that it was never going to happen again. And for a long time, it wouldn't. I wasn't calculating in the psychological abuse that was happening in the interim.
I'm fortunate that I can count the instances of physical abuse that really stand out in my mind on one hand. It was being the target of his subtle psychological warfare that has left the most significant scars.
Bruises fade with time. Venomous words can linger in the corners of your mind forever.
The truth about life after an abusive relationship is that it will never really be the same as it was before. However the hurt was inflicted, whether the damage was done with a fist or repetitive degradation and manipulation, you have to gradually claw your way back to a sense of normalcy.
I still have issues to wrestle with. When something triggers a memory, I still hear his voice in my head. Putting me down, calling me dumb, telling me that I'll end up alone. When I'm alone with a guy, I'm very aware of the fact that he could probably overpower me (self-defense classes and all). It isn't a constant fear of the opposite sex - it's just a subtle, subconscious recognition of the fact that I could be in danger.
Despite the lasting effects, I will not allow this experience to prevent me from moving forward. I will, however, allow it to serve as a reminder to never let myself get into another relationship where there is even a remote possibility of this happening again. I promised myself that I will never again have a phone knocked out of my hand by my boyfriend while I'm trying to dial 9-1-1. I promised myself that I will never again lie about where bruises came from. I promised myself that I will recognize verbal abuse if I ever experience it again. I promised myself so much better from now on.
I'm accepting that this is life after an abusive relationship. I have confronted the still frames of my past and acknowledged them for what they were. I have forgiven him. I have forgiven myself. Just today, I noticed that a scar from that era of my life is hardly noticeable now.
I'm confident that with enough time and healing, the echoes will fade too.