Trigger warning: Domestic violence
“Why did you stay so long?”
This is the number one question I am asked when I tell people about my last relationship. When they hear about the screaming, the punching, the liquor-filled nights. When they hear about the broken windows, door frames ripped off the walls, and screen doors punched in. When they hear about the endless accusations, the infidelity, and the complete lack of trust. When people hear about the fear of saying the wrong thing, sleeping in the bathroom because I couldn’t get away, and the times I had to be violent (even when I didn’t want to be) because there was no other option. I always forget how serious it all actually is, and I talk about it with a nervous smile, as if everyone had experienced such things and this was just my turn to go through them. But the reality always slaps me in the face when I finish my story, and the first words out of everyone’s mouth is, “Hallye, why did you stay so long? Why didn’t you get out of there?”
I wish I had a good answer. I wish I could say, “Well, he loved me” or “I stayed for the kids.” I wish I could say that it wasn’t all bad, or that I left right when things changed, or that I left after it got too violent. But none of these things are true. We didn’t have kids to think about, he never loved me, and it went on for almost the entirety of our two-year relationship before I found the courage to leave. It wasn’t after the first time he hurt me or I hurt him. It wasn’t after the first time he got caught in a lie or I found the messages in his phone. I never even confronted him about the messages. I just accepted them as part of the way things were. I didn’t leave after the first broken door, or the second, or the third. I didn’t leave after the first bloody nose or fence kicked down. No, when people ask me, “Why did you stay so long?” My answer is slightly more complicated. It was my normal.
There was never one defining moment when my ex went too far. There was never a “one night, it got bad.” Our transition from the perfect couple to the perfect storm happened gradually over time. At first, we were the perfect couple. Everyone wanted to be us, and everyone wanted to be around us. We were the life of the party, and we were totally in love.
I honestly don’t even remember the turning point. It was more like I woke up one day and I no longer recognized the man sleeping next to me. All of a sudden, I realized that this person I had fallen so madly in love with had become a monster. I don’t even remember the first fight. I don’t remember the very first broken window or the very first night spent crying myself to sleep because he had spent hours and hours screaming at me about how my love was not real. I don’t remember the very first time our friends sat awkwardly watching him slip into a drunken anger that turned into accusations and tears. I just remember that at a certain point, I expected it.
I found myself constantly worrying about the next public outing, the next beer, the next fight. I found myself in a routine. On weekdays, he would come home late from work and be either high or drunk. We would go home, I would cook dinner, he would drink some more. We would watch TV and go to bed, and he would get angry somewhere in between. He would wake up angry and we would repeat the process. On Friday and Saturday nights, we would find some excuse to go out. I would monitor his drinks, but it wouldn’t matter. I could see his mood shifting.
As soon as we got home, it would explode out of him like an atom bomb. All the emotions he felt throughout the night and all of the made up stories he would convince himself of would come pouring out. We would spend the next 6-8 hours in our usual positions. Me, crying in a ball on the bed, begging him to go to sleep and attempting to reassure him that I DID love him and I would NEVER cheat on him. Him, standing over me, occasionally grabbing me to pull me closer, not knowing his own strength, and shouting at the top of his lungs, “I KNOW YOU NEVER LOVED ME. I KNOW OUR RELATIONSHIP ISN’T EVEN REAL TO YOU. WHY DON’T YOU JUST GO BE WITH HIM?” I would plead with him. “You know that I love you. There is no one else, I promise. I don’t understand.” He would finally fall asleep around 8 a.m. each time.
Sunday morning was our redemption. We would wake up, and act as if we were perfect. We would go to church, play the part, and even have a great discussion about the sermon on the way home. We would spend the whole day together, laughing and bonding. It made me feel as though maybe, possibly, this new week would be different. It never was. But it was my life. It was my routine. I was used to it. I don’t remember signing up for it or agreeing to it. But I woke up one day and I was in it. I accepted that. I think I could have even stayed in it forever. I was prepared to. I had our whole lives planned with this routine. I was content that this was how my life was meant to go.
I lived this life for nearly two years. It didn’t happen overnight. It happened slowly, and gradually, before I could even recognize it. I stayed because it felt normal. I stayed because I had convinced myself that my life was supposed to be that way, that this is what real love looked like. I stayed because I was foolish and weak. I stayed for all of the wrong reasons. I wish people wouldn’t ask me that question. I know that it was wrong to stay for so long, and I know that it doesn’t make sense. I know that people won’t understand it.
I wish, instead, that people would ask me, “How did you find the courage to leave?” Because that answer is much more simple. I remember the exact moment I decided to leave. I remember the air around me, I remember the smell of the alcohol on him. I remember the sinking feeling, and I remember the words that were exchanged. I left when he told me that there was nothing to love about me. I left when he claimed to love me but couldn’t give me any reasons. I left when he told me that he shouldn’t have to tell me why he loved me, and then when he admitted that there was nothing to love.
I left because those words pierced my heart harder than any pain I had ever felt. I had spent two years with this person, putting up with all of the bullshit because I was convinced that it was love. I was convinced that he wouldn’t do all of the things that he did unless he loved me. I left because those words were like a train hitting my soul and awakening it. I left because he told me that there was no reason to love me.
I left because I knew he was wrong.