“What would make you get involved with someone so horrible? How could you not see what they really were? Did it have to get so dangerous for you to see what kind of person they are? I don’t understand.”
Well, then, allow me to help you get the clarification you seek. Oblige me, and grant me ample time to speak, and I will use my life as an example to show how these things come to be. There is no mystery. There is no secret. There is no code to decipher. What is there, however, is a story of deception, trickery, and manipulation stemming from a pernicious heart.
Maybe you’re thinking, “I don’t know what that word means. Wasn’t there another word she could use so everyone would understand?”
Pernicious, however, is the perfect word to describe a person priming another to be abused, and I would never use something I am not willing to explain to someone who doesn’t know what it means. Merriam Webster’s online entry defines pernicious in the following way:
Causing great harm or damage (and here is the key to my choice…) often in a way that is not easily seen or noticed.
1. Highly injurious or destructive; deadly.
2. (Archaic but still applicable) Wicked.
Those of us who have endured abuse know the awful truth that there are signs but have to stomach the fact that hindsight is 20/20. I can promise, though, that none of us enter into a relationship expecting (and definitely not wanting) to be abused. Therefore, we aren’t looking for signs and we will make excuses to write off initial instances of verbal or emotional abuse as merely being a bad day. After all, they have never spoken to us like this before, right? How bad can it be? Don’t we all have bad days? Maybe it was preceded by job loss or something else that was causing them stress, in which case many of us would reason it away as being due to this stress; as such, we turn the other cheek.
In the early stages, Kevin had an advantage, because I had known him for quite a while before things ever moved from friendship to something more. He never displayed any signs of being prone to angry outbursts, incapable of being pleased, intolerant, cruel, or lacking compassion. For me, my trap was already laid well in advance, but he did so using the same tactics that abusers generally employ against their potential victim:
- He spoke to me kindly and complimented me.
- He listened when I wanted to talk about something and made it seem like nothing else was important in that moment except what I needed.
- He showed me off to his family and talked about me to his friends.
- He acted chivalrous by opening doors, carrying packages, buying small gifts, cooking, etc.
- When others did something that caused me hurt or distress, when someone may have said something against me, he was quick to come to my defense.
- When I was discouraged, he took the time and gave extra attention to build me back up.
- When I was at a loss as to how to handle something, when I was under pressure from a deadline, etc, he was good at troubleshooting and coming through at the last minute.
But what I didn’t know at the time he was acting like he cared about me, he was putting in place the finishing touches on his trap and getting ready to slowly turn the tide. When he was doing the preceding behaviors, I didn’t know that each at the time meant this for my future:
- He instilled false comfort in his opinions so when he began to insult and belittle me, I trusted what he said, because he always let me know things about me that were strengths, so why wouldn’t he try to reveal faults to help me grow? Even if he could have used better tone, kinder words. He was always a little abrupt, so I didn’t put much weight in it.
- He again built confidence in him by “proving” that he was attentive to my needs and cared for my well-being, but he wasn’t doing it out of genuine concern. He was getting me to drop my guard and reveal personal things to him about past hurts and mistakes that could give him inroads to implementing criticism and judgment under the guise of trying to be helpful. This was solely to gain ammunition to use against me when the verbal and emotional abuse started.
- He acted like he was excited about our relationship and led me to believe that he had intentions of a future by introducing me to his family and nurturing the beginnings of a close relationship with a few of his sisters. However, what he was doing was advertising me as his property, and as they already had volumes of prior knowledge about his abusive nature, he was also announcing me as his next victim. Boldly.
- His deceitful acts implying care and love were actually a way for him to build up a list of ways that I was selfish and did not reciprocate in giving back in return. This was ammunition for arguments which would later end up turning into brawls.
- What better way to build an arsenal of things to use against a victim than by stockpiling examples about how I’m wrong and misunderstanding his actions than a laundry list of all the good he has done and how protective he has been. Because why would anyone who so earnestly sought to come to your defense and back you up ever be the one to cause you harm? Right?
- Ah, insidiously building me up from hurt so later, after he had emptied me out, he could fill the void with fear, confusion, and compliance, because, after all, no one who had spent so much effort and time and patience encouraging you at various low points would ever turn on you and shatter you so they can turn you into what they need you to be. Right?
- His troubleshooting ability. I have to admit, he is intelligent, and he is good at solving things in a pinch when all seems lost, but what I didn’t know at the time was that this ability was honed over years of his criminal behavior. He was fine letting me develop a false trust in his decision-making ability so later, when he wanted to get me to believe the “I wouldn’t have to do this if you would just listen / weren’t so stupid / would pay attention!” statements, he was in a prime position.
People who ask: “How could you not see?” questions are forgetting one important thing. Abusers are pernicious. They are insidious geniuses at this horrible thing they choose to do, meaning everything, each little piece, every word, every act, is all part of a plan. Abuse is not accidental. It is not something that happens because they were stressed, because they were drinking, because you pushed them until they snapped. It is a deliberate, calculated act of deception, betrayal, and brutality with the final intention of rendering the victim powerless and resigned to living a life of misery. Entrapment, so they can knowingly manipulate, lie to, cheat on, verbally assault, physically attack, sexually abuse, and gain control over the victim’s every move. Power and control, the holy grail of abusive personalities. Forced subjection.
Why are they so good at what they do? Abusers have several motivations. While there are claims that those who lived in abusive homes growing up become abusers in their adult lives, this is not always the case. Because it is a choice. While their direct motivation may be to gain power and control, their skill and brutality, at least in my case, comes about by a troubling mix of refusal to relinquish power, driving desire to avoid consequences for their behavior, and trial and error.
What consequences do they want to avoid?
- Risking the victim leaving.
- The victim telling someone they are being abused.
- Legal consequences for their actions.
- Risking damage to their reputation.
- Losing control.
What methods do they employ solely for self-preservation?
- They destroy the victim’s self-esteem, confidence, and sense of self-worth.
- They manipulate events and twist them around until they convince the victim it is his / her fault.
- They use fear and intimidation.
- They make threats and follow through on enough of them that the victim complies.
- They isolate the victim from anyone who could be seen as a threat to the dynamics they are setting in motion.
- They monitor phone, text, email, and mail communication, sometimes using GPS to track their victim.
- They have others watch the victim and have them report back to the abuser.
- They physically hold them against their will by locking them in a room or disallowing them to leave the home for extended periods of time.
- They use sexual coercion as a weapon.
- They make the victim think they are going crazy (gas lighting).
- They speak poorly about the victim to others and damage their reputation so they won’t believe the victim.
- They reinforce absolute compliance through physical punishment.
- They cut the victim off from having any access to or control over finances.
- They refuse medical treatment for serious injuries when they caused them or also in cases where the did not cause the immediate injury but the victim is still recovering from a pervious attack.
- They do not allow the victim to go to the doctor’s alone.
- They call and report their victim for domestic violence.
- They can make friends with the right people (ie, police, lawyers, judges, etc) and call in favors as necessary.
- They lie, embellish, and manipulate the facts to make it seem like a misunderstanding.
- They do not allow the victim to make any decisions.
- They could eventually be willing to commit homicide to protect their secret.
While you cannot notice the abusive behaviors immediately, there are warning signs connected to their personalities that are common to many abusers.
This is what I learned about Kevin:
- He never gives in and admits he is wrong about anything, unless it makes him look good. He is unfailingly right about everything at all times, and if he is wrong, you must have misunderstood.
- He feels no guilt over things he has done to others in the past.
- He tells stories about things he has done to others… things that are violent in nature, and he appears to be amused by his stories, even if only momentarily.
- He has no sense of loyalty and will betray anyone if he can benefit from it, even in the smallest way.
- He talks about not only your family like they are the enemy but his own family as well.
- If someone wrongs him, he will not rest until he has gotten revenge.
- He is extremely jealous.
- He does not fulfill his responsibilities and always expects others to clean up for him.
- He mistreated his pets as a child.
- He spoke disrespectfully of his parents, but his mother was his focus.
- He is arrogant and feels his behavior is justified. He boasts about things he has done to others.
- He is greedy.
- He looks down at everyone else and treats them like he is the end-all-be-all.
- He is a skilled manipulator.
- He exacts compliance by any means necessary.
- He wants to move faster than he should and pushes you, tries to convince you, that you should, too.
Knowing these things about him would have been extremely beneficial in extricating me before things got to the point of no return. It is easy for those who have not been abused to question things that happened, because through me telling you my story you have gained the ever important benefit of hindsight. Therefore, it would almost make sense for some to question why I stayed with someone so obviously monstrous. They have the whole story in their hands… the whole progression of events from start to finish. I leave them with no cliffhangers. Of course to them it is now obvious that he is an abuser, after all, I just told you he is.
The trouble with the way abusive relationships progress is that you don’t have all the pertinent facts in the beginning when time is precious. When they could have alerted you. When they could have saved you. It only becomes overtly obvious when it is too late. By the time you are aware that you are being mistreated and abused, they have already worn you to a point that has left you prime for them to further perpetuate these crimes against you. It is at this point you find out how dangerous they really are.
Once Kevin had emotionally handicapped me to his liking, he began a regular pattern of physical violence, often brutal. Generally, the abuser will explode in an act of rage and then follow it by a period of intense, urgent apology, marked by false acts of romance and calmness. Done to test the victim to see how they would respond to this, eventually they explode in a fit of rage again, and this cycle continues with shorter periods of calm in between explosions. I say generally, because this is not what I experienced. From the first act of physical violence, it became a relentless, incessant, desperate free-fall into worsening episodes of violence. I had no respite. During a period of over four years, I was tortured and brutalized. Some heard the beatings. Some saw him abusing me in public. The only time anyone ever called the police was in the middle of the night immediately preceding the morning I fled my residence to escape him. Their visit only momentarily stopped him, and almost immediately after they left, he began again. For ten hours, I endured torturous acts of violence at the hands of the man who once proclaimed he loved me.
Today, over a year and a half later, I still suffer side effects from the years of abuse I endured. I am caught in an abysmal financial state from the financial abuse I endured. I have recurring and unending physical symptoms from injuries I sustained as a direct result of his physical assaults on me. Worst of all, however, is the PTSD and lingering effects of the verbal and emotional abuse I suffered. I struggle with self-confidence, have to push myself to trust others, have regular (although diminishing) panic attacks when I have to do things that previously resulted in horrific punishments, and then there are the nightmares and flashbacks that come against my will. I have a constant fear of reprisal kicking around in my head.
Yet, I actively speak out about the abuse I endured and openly share not only the horrors forced upon me, but my progress and achievements no matter how small and insignificant they may seem. Speaking out (advocacy) has become an important part of my life. For me the importance is not so much what I reveal about the things I endured but the fact that I did endure and have been able to work at rebuilding my life one day at a time.
Advocacy relating to domestic abuse does so much for so many. For those who do not have experience dealing with or suffering through abuse, it raises the issue and opens dialogue about a crime that silently destroys (and often claims) too many lives. It puts a face to the phrase “intimate partner violence” by personalizing the issue and not allowing others who have not endured it to continue to deceive themselves into thinking it couldn’t happen to them. It provides those who have been abused with a circle of support and affirmations that they are not alone, that they are not at fault, and that the shame and stigma society can heap upon them does not belong to them. For victims of abuse, it provides resources and helps build courage to leave. For both victims and survivors, it gives precious hope that life will get better, that through time the pain will ease, that they will not be judged, that they will be believed, and that one day their lives will again be filled with happiness, peace, laughter, and love.
As I close this post, I want to leave you with a list of things that I think everyone should know about abuse:
- We do not enter into a relationship with the expectation of being abused. From early childhood, little girls especially are bombarded from all angles, whether it be stories, movies, advertising, with the message that once we find our “prince charming,” life will be wonderful. This message emotionally handicaps us in many ways, because even as we learn through growing into adulthood that relationships take work and are not always easy, we still are stuck with that image in our mind that he has to be there somewhere. We are taught that we need a man in our lives to be whole, happy, and of value, and this is just not the truth. We are not taught the truth that we desperately need to know: there are men and women in this world who are cruel, manipulative, and brutally violent both emotionally and physically. That there are those lying in wait who actually have the potential to cause serious injury and death. The only way this is going to begin to change is by implementing healthy relationship classes beginning in the last few years of elementary school, before children begin dating. They must be shown what healthy and unhealthy relationships are. In a rush to teach them how to cook and sew in Home-Ec? Great skills, but they also need to know the signs of abuse. Sewing a handmade ladybug cannot save their lives, but being able to recognize signs of abuse early on can… if not them, one of their friends.
- Abusers allow you to see only what they want you to know until they know they have you trapped. This is your answer as to how we got caught up with someone so horrible. They quite simply lie about who they are, because they know that we would not stay if they were so bold to punch us in the face on the first date. So instead they seduce their unwitting victim by getting them trapped in a tightly woven web of lies, deceit, and half truth. This does not mean we were obliviously walking about in the world wearing rose-coloured glasses. We were deceived deliberately with the intent to cause harm by someone with a pernicious heart. When they lie about who they are to ensnare us in their trap, they are undeserving of the love we genuinely develop toward them. Instead of this affection being earned, it becomes stolen away in the darkness. It is a theft of one of the greatest gifts we could ever offer up to another person, and it is demonstration and proof only that the abuser is broken, NOT US.
- We neither caused nor allowed what happened to us. The responsibility for the abuse rests fully on the shoulders of those who force this harm on others. There is nothing we could have said or did that would ever justify being abused. Ever. When you are speaking to a victim or survivor, be sure to watch your language and resist the urge to ask questions or make comments that point the finger at them. We are not to blame. Start heaping the shame and stigma where it belongs: on the abusers’ shoulders.
- Abuse can happen to anyone. None of us is immune to this, and perpetuating the stereotype that it only happens to the poor or uneducated only puts others in danger. It does not discriminate. You can abused regardless of your race, gender, social class, level of education, religion, orientation, or age.
- The most dangerous time for us is when we leave. This is but one portion of the answer to your question about why we stay. Because we know what you do not. Abusers are unpredictable in their anger, and when we act in protection of ourselves and rip away their control, there are very real dangers to us and our family or friends. About 70% of domestic violence fatalities occur when or not long after the victim scrapes up enough courage to leave. We have to remain vigilant even after we have made a break, because the window of immediate risk extends for a period of about two years after exiting the abusive relationship.
- We are not generic file folders. We are not numbers. We are human beings, and we have names. We are someone’s daughter or son. We are someone’s mother or father, sister or brother, aunt or uncle, cousin, or friend. Before getting trapped in an abusive relationship, we were whole people. Our one “transgression” is that we loved someone who turned out to be the wrong one to love. Do not speak of us as nameless, faceless beings. We deserve compassion.
- Abuse is everyone’s business, and it is a crime. Acting like it didn’t happen only further perpetuates it to continue. When you see something happening, think about how you would feel if someone witnessed that happening to your mother or sister or brother and they turned away like they didn’t see it, and act. This can be an act as big as intervening or calling the police…. to something small but significant like asking the victim if they are okay (and if you have the opportunity) if they need your help. They may not take you up on the offer, but it will help give them confidence that when they are ready to leave someone will be there to help them.
- Men can be abused as well as women, and it doesn’t make them any less of man. How could someone physically stronger be abused by a woman? They are subjected to verbal and emotional abuse like I was. They can be physically abused by being repeatedly shoved and slapped, yes, but also by having boiling water or hot oil dumped or thrown on them, being burned with an iron, hit over the head with heavy objects. Many of the men abused will endure this for years and never come forward. Those who do can face ridicule and have difficulty finding services to get the help they deserve.
- Abuse occurs in same-sex relationships. Victims in these relationships must ensure similar types of abuse and challenges, but like male victims of abuse, they, too, face challenges specific to their situation, including lack of services that are available and willing to provide assistance.
- Sharing our stories is not whining, complaining, or seeking attention. It takes courage to openly share our experiences with others, especially in the months following our escape, and we do so for many reasons that change over the course of time. When we first begin to reveal what we endured, we are taking back our voice and starting our long path of healing and recovery. We must purge and reconcile to reclaim ourselves, comes to terms with the trauma, and rebuild our lives. Slowly over time, we begin to speak to others who are still enduring abuse or who have just left themselves. We do this because building a strong, closely knit support group is imperative to our healing. Many of us go on and become advocates for others, but this does not mean that our own experiences are forgotten. We will continue to talk about what we endured, and our reasons are as varied as our personalities and backgrounds. My biggest motivator is gratitude… gratitude and appreciation and love for being alive. Because once upon a time, it was almost ripped away from me. Because I got out, and I want everyone to have that opportunity. Because I want others to be able to find themselves after abuse, to be able to get the support they need, and rebuild their lives.