What It's Like to Feel Misunderstood As a Survivor of Assault, From Someone Who Experienced It

Being a survivor of assault can be incredibly lonely.
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Being a survivor of assault can be incredibly lonely.

It had seemed so idyllic: we met at school, had a striking amount of interests in common, a lot of mutual friends, and a support system. During the long courtship, I would have characterized us as a fun-loving, dynamic couple. One oddity was his occasional swing from aloofness to demanding clinginess, but that just seemed like normal growing pains. 

A year or so into dating, however, the aloofness was replaced with a consistently nasty tone during arguments; one or two intense bouts of jealousy that erupted from nowhere; the word "bitch" thrown at me like a stone; an almost imperceptible shove that was later denied. Fights usually ended with dramatic apologies with the faintest whiff of blame aimed back at me. No one is perfect, and I was always sure I bore some responsibility anyway. I was impatient and had a bad temper.

After the wedding, the fights were more frequent and the apologies more indifferent. The first time he physically assaulted me, I was slammed into a door so hard it broke off its hinges. It was at once shocking—I had never been physically attacked in my life—and also somewhat expected, a mere escalation from the subtle degradation of the previous months. 

After a couple years of coping, I decided on a plan. If my husband ever started picking a fight in that way that he did, I would leave for the night. The one night I followed through on that resolve, I was so proud of myself. My girlfriend was kind and welcoming and very sensitive to my vague explanation of a "bad fight." She offered love and support and prayers without probing too much for details. Her husband welcomed me into his home, too. Then he said one comment as he stepped away to let me and his wife talk: “This is a one-time thing, right? I mean, obviously you’re not going to leave him.”

How could he suggest such a thing? No! This isn't just a one-time thing! 

My friend’s husband had no idea what I was dealing with, and I’m sure he meant well. But his comment hurt, even as I recognized that I had been unwilling to share what was happening, which only fed his ignorance. He had no idea what I was dealing with in my own home. He had no idea I’d suffered memory loss from a concussion and that I was so used to feeling nauseous from stress and fear I had stopped noticing. 

In that moment there were so many things I wanted to say, so many things I wished I could have asked for from my friends, but I just couldn't. I struggled to deal with the fact that I longed for support yet wasn't willing or able to ask for it. In that moment and now, I wish my friends could have understood better what it was like to me.

01. You Feel Very Alone

Violence is isolating. It turns forthright people into secret-keepers, and it makes getting help through friends and family seem like an impossibility. It created a terrible chasm between me and my friends. I couldn’t form the words to tell them what happened, and they would never have been able to guess. If our situations were reversed I’m sure I would never have been able to intuit the truth.

My husband and I looked like a model couple. We laughed at each other’s jokes and playfully argued about common interests. My friends did what most people do: accepted the surface exterior for what it appears to be.

As I struggled to decide what to do about my marriage, I never could confide in friends or family. I did go to professionals in confidence to verify if certain behaviors were as far outside the norm as I feared. Based on their advice, I determined an ultimatum attached to a timeline, but I never told anyone else until my decision to leave was made. 

02. Domestic Violence Doesn't Discriminate 

Once I made the decision to end my marriage, I felt at peace. We got divorced a little over a year ago, and in the time since, I've been able to work steadily toward recovery with the help of my domestic violence support group. Recently though, a thread of comments on Facebook struck a chord in me. A comment in a private group about divorce support somehow spiraled into two people repeating dismissive and ignorant assumptions about domestic violence. As a recovering victim myself, the thought of a person living in an abusive situation reading those comments was extremely distressing.

The comments were everything that I remember fearing during my long period of silence about the assaults: If there was abuse, she’d have done something about it already. Someone would have helped if it was a real danger. Men get abused too (as though that is somehow a counter-argument to domestic violence).

People tend to believe that domestic violence doesn’t happen in certain communities or to certain people. Most domestic violence victims cite the reasons why they were utterly blindsided by their situations; just about any combination can make us feel like we should be too smart, too savvy, too strong to be victimized. We all seem to have a shield between us and the truth: “No! I’m NOT a victim. This is not happening.”

I had mine: I am from a stable, suburban, middle-class family, my father is a perfect gentleman and deeply in love with my mother, I am college-educated, strong-willed, and religious. I thought I was a shoo-in for a happy marriage.

But, sadly, there is no magic combination that prevents abuse.

03. It's Really Embarrassing 

A friend recently asked me about my reluctance to share; because how on earth could anyone blame the victim? It does seem ridiculous in retrospect, particularly because I was fortunate to receive a tremendous amount of love and support when I did finally reach out for help. Why the hell didn’t I just relate the facts sooner, as horrifying as they were? 

Don’t ever fool yourself into thinking that it’s simple for someone to extricate themselves from an abusive situation. It’s embarrassing and degrading to accept how completely helpless you are. I never cease to be shocked that I was violently assaulted by my husband. When I do remember the vivid details—like being thrown around the room and slammed into furniture while hearing the hem of my dress ripping—I still can hardly believe that that happened to me. I can hardly reconcile that my ex’s jovial, baby-faced, care-free exterior concealed the unwavering coldness I saw in his eyes as he strangled me. So for years, my doubt was: if I can hardly believe it and it happened to me, how could our family and friends believe it?

04. It's Hard To Let Go Of Your Relationship

When it comes to relating your situation to others, things can be quite hard. You try to drop hints without being entirely forward. You want support but you can't bring yourself to ask for it. I remember wishing someone would guess while I desperately concealed all the clues—even outright lying to cover for my husband. I had backed myself into a corner, and those few times I did reach out reluctantly for help I was a raw nerve of conflicting emotions and guilt-ridden pain. I would merely ask for my friends' advice about “tough times” and ongoing struggles, only giving smatterings of vague hints. My reluctance to be blunt created a terrible dynamic.

I desperately wanted the relationship to work, so I decided to protect his reputation. There were a couple “bad episodes,” but I didn’t want anyone to think poorly of him. As illogical as that sounds now, it sure seemed like the right thing to do at the time. This belief was so deeply ingrained in my psyche that when I regained consciousness after an assault knocked me out cold, the very first thought in my mind was: “If anyone finds out, he’ll get in trouble and lose his job.” I don’t remember considering myself once until I was in front of the mirror looking at the red-black bruises that were blooming across a staggeringly large portion of my body the next day. And even then, I was replaying every second leading up to the assault so I could understand what I had done to set him off.

05. I Needed Real Empathy

It is human nature to do what my friend did: awkwardly struggle to make an uncomfortable situations seem more natural. People minimize without realizing because they are desperate to reduce the tension. People don’t want to pry. We're all guilty of avoiding hard situations, ignoring certain conversations. But it can be crushing, silencing, or misleading to the person in pain, and you would never know.

The nature of an abused person is often to withhold the worst details, while the nature of even well-meaning friends is often to hear what they want to hear. To be negativity-averse. Somehow if we don’t hear it, it isn’t real. Somehow if we keep it on a relatable level we’re comfortable with, to a level where we can give advice to try to solve it, we can stomach it. But if we care about really helping our friends in abusive situations, whether they’ve encountered sexual assault on a one-time basis or are living with someone who’s abusing them on the regular, the best thing we can do is to stop avoiding and end the cycle.

What I’ve learned is, the best course of action is to avoid floundering for advice when someone is in pain. Allow the other person to tell you the facts. Refrain from giving specific advice or hasty judgments if a friend is in trouble. Your limited understanding means that your attempts at advice will be limited and very probably somewhat misguided. Instead realize that the best thing you can offer them is compassionate listening. Share their burden with them, and let them feel they can tell you whatever they feel comfortable with telling.

In other words, do what it takes to overcome whatever fears you have of facing difficult facts; be a friend to someone who needs it. And for me when I was abused? I was able to get out when I finally was a friend to myself.

Photo Credit: The Kitcheners