We were celebrating my return to work, my boss and I. She took me out to eat after my first night back from a month-long leave during which I was hiding myself and my children from my abusive soon-to-be-ex husband. The CPS report had come back and it was decided that my soon-to-be-ex was not a danger to my children, in spite of the fact that our flight had been predicated by him biting my then 6-year old son’s ear so hard it left marks that I could see for hours after he was returned to me. Mortified that my child had borne the first physical manifestation of emotional abuse that had gone on since shortly after he was born, regretting that I had made the decision to involve myself with such a person, and thankful that I had someone in my life who was able to provide us with safe shelter, we hid until the state told us it was safe to do otherwise. Needless to say I didn’t consider any of us safe, but at least I felt there was now a witness. There was now evidence. There was now a paper trail. 

So, my boss took me out to dinner, and I was thankful. My boss was a cheeful, chatty person. She was good-hearted but somewhat self-involved…meaning if you called her on her self-involvement, she was appropriately conciliatory. And I was thankful to have the opportunity to hear someone talk about something other than me and my “situation.”

Unfortunately, self-involved people are self-involved. I don’t think she even realizes to this day when she lost me as a friend completely, but this was the moment. Here, in the restaurant, as we celebrated my sort-of ability to be kind of not as hyper-vigilant, my boss was prattling on about her sister. Her sister who was over 20 and had never been kissed. Her sister, as my boss told me, who would NEVER get involved in an abusive relationship, because she was just too smart for that.

I stopped eating. I couldn’t even look at her. I definitely couldn’t say anything. She just kept talking. Not noticing. I endured until it was time to say goodbye. She paid the check, of course. How could someone as stupid as me be expected to pick up the tab?

It’s as simple as that, the invalidating. People wonder why abused women don’t leave their spouses, and I can think of at least 5 reasons off the top of my head, but one of them is because we are frequently made to feel like it is our fault we are in this situation in the first place, and when there are children involved, we feel obligated to make sure they don’t have to face the consequences of our own “stupidity.”

There are other reasons. There definitely were in my case. For one thing, I was not legally able to kick my husband out of my house, so for the first 3 years after he “left” me – which was about 6 years after the abuse started – while he was unemployed, I was faced with the decision of whether I should just bear the burden of him living in my home and crawling out of his room at random intervals to sneer at me, or face the possibility of losing my home and going bankrupt in the process if I moved out. Countless phone calls to lawyers that began with “We need a $1500 retainer up front” and ended with me hanging up the phone in tears, feeling completely hopeless. There was the trip to Legal Aid – for which I made too much money to qualify for assistance and too little money to pay a reduced-fee lawyer to take my case. There was the attempt at mediation that got my hopes up, because soon-to-be-ex acted as polite and accommodating as I’d ever seen him be during the proceedings, and immediately after, tore the agreement up in my face telling me it didn’t mean shit because it wasn’t a legal document.

But that mediation did one thing. It got him to move out. And him moving out was both the beginning of my new life and the beginning of a whole new set of fears and regrets that I’m sure many women who are getting out of abusive relationships are familiar with. Fears like “Now that I don’t know where he is all of the time…where the fuck is he?” (It turned out he was breaking into my house and rifling through my personal journals and paperwork. Caught in the act one day by a friend who came over to babysit the children.) And “Who will take care of the children while I’m at work now that he’s not around all of the time?” (It turned out I had an amazing group of mama friends who were more than willing to take that on for me, and for whom I will forever be grateful. Whose actions and deeds were silently and freely the kindest things I have ever experienced, and they guide me in any decision I make today when someone I love is in so much need they can’t even begin to ask for help…and whose kindness was roundly resented and threatening to my then soon-to-be-ex, and responded to with accusations and attempted retribution.) And, finally, but not insignificantly “How can I protect my children from him?” (Which I continue to worry about to this day after years and years of witnessing his manipulative behavior manifesting in his relationship with his children…behavior I can do nothing about because even when one of the children made a stand and refused to see him anymore without any prompting or encouragement from me, we were all punished with a need for expensive lawyers to extract us from the legal clusterfuck he brought down upon us.)

But it was never a straight line to these things. There were times that we got along splendidly. For a little while, we even moved back in together. I loaned him money to start a business. Hell, we had another child after he and I had been engaged in an unhealthy and abusive relationship for years. So even those logistical things above weren’t the only reasons I stayed. They were just some of them. Some of the reasons, too, were not so well justified. I felt sorry for him. I felt like he had been abandoned by his family. I felt like I couldn’t do it on my own, and that any kind of support was better than nothing. I felt like a burden to the rest of my community who had already done so much to help me. I felt like a failure, and I wanted to be able to at least pretend to have a normal family. I wanted my children to have two parents.

So I zigged before I zagged. And then finally we were done. Only we are never done. Because when you are done with someone you are still forced by law and by love to parent with, no matter how unreasonable they are…you are never done.

At least I’m smart enough to know that. And, you know what, It took a fuck of a lot of brains and grit and fortitude to make it through the rest of it. So fuck ANYONE who tells a woman who is in an abusive relationship she just isn’t smart enough. You have no fucking clue.

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