A man opens up about the benefits he received from his relationship with an abusive woman.
Yes, you read that right. Chose. This is not about why I stayed or what stopped me from leaving. It’s not about my ignorance or unwillingness to call it abuse. It’s not about my being powerless before her charms. It’s about conscious choices I made that served my self-interest, but not my best interests, to remain in a marriage that was hurtful both to me and my ex-wife. A dysfunctional marriage. A marriage in which I sabotaged my own happiness and engaged in my own destructive and self-destructive behaviors. I knew from the beginning the relationship wasn’t right. I saw the red flags. They were big and bold and obvious. And I chose to ignore them. I chose to minimize their potential impact. And I chose to persevere despite them. That is something I need to keep reminding myself: I chose. I chose. I chose.
What would you have done if your fiancée threw a full length mirror down a flight of stairs at you? Or whacked your car with a tennis racket? What would you have done if she reamed you out after your second sexual encounter for the sin of coming first, or demanded an engagement ring costing three times what you could afford? And what would you have done if she refused sex on your wedding night, not because you’d hit her, demeaned her, or acted like a jerk, but because during your toast you’d done what any groom would and thanked your mother (with whom your fiancée was in a fight) for a lifetime of love and support? And if before all these things happened, this woman had told you she was crazy, called herself “damaged goods,” said you didn’t know what you were getting into? What would you have done with that? Most of you would have run. Fast. Far. And without looking back. But I didn’t run. I stayed put. I dug in. I put my other foot in the fire and allowed myself to be engulfed by the flames.
There are many more than five reasons, and ones I still have not fully admitted. But these are the five I’m consciously—and painfully—aware of. I share them not to explain myself, because why, really, would you care about that? About my particular life. I share them to inform readers, and particularly men, of what I see as some of the primary reasons we choose abusive partners. And to acknowledge that we are choosing, not simply falling or being seduced or trapped or duped into something but choosing a specific set of benefits that flow from being abused and justifying our choice with rational thinking. Harsh, yes, but true. If this article resonates with even one person and helps that person make a different, healthier choice, I will have done my job, and my suffering will have a greater meaning than what I learned on my own journey.
1. I got to be the hurt one. Don’t misunderstand. I didn’t want—have never wanted—to be a victim. But my ex-wife’s outrageous anger, often over small things, and her demeaning way of communicating her displeasure to me, allowed every conflict to be about her hurtful behavior instead of whatever the actual issue was. Sometimes, she was completely off base—hypersensitive, paranoid, misguided. But often there was a grain of truth, even several grains, in her position, truth I could conveniently ignore because she delivered it with such dismissiveness and contempt. I could deflect her real grievances in the relationship by calling out her real anger management problem, giving me a free pass on important conflicts that truly mattered. It was not in my self-interest to teach her a calmer method of conflict resolution, because that would have forced me to face the points she was raising and engage with her on my own shit.
2. I got to be the sane one. Because my ex was labeled as irrational and crazy, I didn’t have to examine my own behavior. Viewed in contrast to her, I was perfectly normal and psychologically healthy. This enabled me to sweep my own psychological issues under the rug and gave me a huge power advantage in the relationship. Her mental illness, which I encouraged her to treat at first but eventually gave up on as she aggressively maintained I was the sick one, became a weapon I could use against her to justify my own hurtful actions and reactions. I convinced myself I knew better than she did, that I had her best interests in mind, and that I could discount her concerns by framing them as evidence of her condition. In some cases, I was right. But I also used her illness to validate my own wellness, even as I grew sicker and sicker from our toxic interactions as the relationship progressed.
3. I thought I could fix her and the relationship. Many doctors have God complexes, and while I’m not a physician, my ego fell in love with the idea that I could heal a sick woman through a combination of forgiving love and rational discourse and restore the health of our dysfunctional relationship. She encouraged me, of course, by telling me everything would be good and the abuse would stop if I only tried harder. I bought into her lie, not because I was stupid or undiscerning, but because it felt good—the idea that with some extra effort and application of my superior intelligence and relationship skills I could save us from misery and make us happy. It’s true that men love to fix things, and when a woman tells a man it’s all up to him, the man is wired to rise to the challenge.
4. I thought she and the relationship would fix me. I actually believed I needed the intense emotional pain I was experiencing to become a better person. That there were hard things I needed to learn that only this woman, this tough taskmaster could teach me. Perhaps because I was the youngest sibling, I had never felt truly grown up, and I felt that maturity was finally being forced on me. The words “be a man,” which I heard countless times, were stinging, but I treated the sting with the soothing notion that she was making me into a better man and a more compassionate and supportive partner. In addition, I had chosen her, with foreknowledge of her penchant for cruelty and her hair-trigger temper. And since I had always had confidence in myself, I figured I had chosen her because I needed what she was giving. When my therapist finally asked me, “Do you consider yourself a masochist,” the answer was yes.
5. It allowed me to avoid accountability for uncomfortable choices. Getting married forces a degree of separation and healthy distance from one’s nuclear family—something I had immense difficulty achieving while single. My ex-wife’s need to alienate me from my family (who recognized her illness and cringed as she hurt me) enabled me to blame the difficult break on her. I could say or even imply by my tone of voice that I wasn’t coming to whatever event it was because she wasn’t allowing me to come, and after a while, I didn’t have to say anything. It was simply assumed. The truth was somewhere in between, and she often did force me to bow out, but I lacked the courage to tell either my family or my ex, “This is what I want. This is what I’m going to do.” Being with an abusive partner permits you to indulge in a kind of moral cowardice, as your inability to make your partner accountable for the hurt they’re causing you bleeds into your blaming them for the potentially hurtful decisions you prefer not to be responsible for yourself.
These confessions are not easy. And they do not detract from the fact that I did my best, given the emotional tools I had, to make my partner happy and to try to create a healthy, loving relationship. What they are is instructive, both in stripping away assumptions to reveal the complex dynamic in abusive relationships and the payoff for the abused partner, and in helping people understand why anyone would remain in a relationship that is the cause of severe emotional pain.