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What My Own Abusive Relationship Taught Me About My Mother’s

I know now what it’s like to stay with someone who takes and takes and takes.

Adapted from flickr/Alyssa L. Miller

By Monica Busch

M y mother will go to great lengths in order to avoid talking to most people. Given the choice to talk or do, she will almost always choose do. But while my mother favors action, she doesn’t always necessarily finish what she starts.

She once took a writing class, for example. I don’t know a lot of the details, but one afternoon when I was about 7 years old, I found her sitting on her bed with her nose in a binder, rifling through materials for what she told me was a fiction writing course. My mother didn’t go to college, but she was an avid reader, and I was excited for her. I asked her what she had to do.

“Mind your own business,” she said.

Taken aback and insulted, I sulked out of her room and never saw the coursework again. I know now that she must have quit the class, but she never spoke about it, her incompletion disguised as being too busy with work and motherhood — which she probably was.

My mom wasn’t a single parent, but she might as well have been; growing up, my dad was rarely around. He preferred partying to parenting.

Even when he was home, he didn’t do much, and since my mother worked long hours, I swiftly became the de facto second parent after my twin brothers were born. As a 6-year-old, I was already changing diapers and giving baths. My dad’s primary occupation, meanwhile, seemed to be fighting with my mom.

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Screaming, crashing, and curse words regularly thundered through our small apartment. The twins didn’t understand what my parents were yelling about, but I taught them that certain volumes meant we should take cover in our bedroom, which we shared when they were very small. They continued playing most of the time, while I sat rapt by the door.

Invariably, I rooted for my mother. She was the one who took care of me and remembered my birthday. My dad, on the other hand, didn’t know my doctor’s name and always screamed the loudest. As an 8-year-old, I saw my mother as good and right, and my father as bad and wrong.

This climaxed one day when my brothers and I were hiding out in our bedroom and something in my dad’s voice turned. I sensed danger. Barreling into the kitchen with the twins close behind, I found my dad pinning my mom against the wall by her jaw. He pinched her face so tightly that her cheeks puffed out around his fingers.

My dad didn’t know my doctor’s name and always screamed the loudest.

I like to think that I screamed at him to let her go, but the truth is that I don’t remember. I just know that the blood-curdling yell that came out of my mouth was enough to set off the twins, who also started wailing.

His hands still around her face, my dad turned to us, eyes wild, and told us to go back to our bedroom. I hesitated for a second before the three of us booked it down the hallway.

Sobbing in our bedroom, I was helpless and, worse, so was my mom. Awash in failure, I vowed to myself that if I ever saw him like that again, I wouldn’t run back to my room, but to theirs, where the house phone was. I would call 911 and the police would come and make him stop.

Not long after that day, during a trip to the library, my mom took out a pile of divorce-related books. I didn’t generally pay attention to my mother’s book selections, but I knew how to read well above my age level, and I knew what the D-word meant.

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When she parked the car in front of our apartment building, I inundated her with questions.

She was less than thrilled. Like the time I found her writing-class materials, she told me to mind my own business. And as had happened with the coursework, the divorce books were never to be spoken of again. After their due dates, they left the house, and so did my mother’s visible drive to leave my dad.

At that young age, I couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t just leave him. If I were her, I thought, I wouldn’t stick around. Sometimes, I wished they would fight in front of other people, like my grandparents or my aunts and uncles, because I thought that if they saw what was going on, they would talk sense into my mother. But my parents were on their best behavior when we were outside of the house, and if anyone ever noticed something was awry, no one ever said anything.

So, for almost another decade, I watched them fight the same way they always had. My dad would grow angry, seemingly out of nowhere, and berate my mother for everything and anything. He would tell her she was unattractive and stupid, and when that wasn’t enough, he would go after her family. During one afternoon weekend blowout, he told her that he could see why her father “drank himself to death,” simultaneously blaming my mother for his drinking, and my grandmother for her late husband’s. This accusation was particularly scathing because my grandfather died when my mother was 16, and it is well-known in the family that my mom nearly flunked out of high school afterward because of the grief.

But, despite my avowal to call the police if my dad ever put his hands on my mother again, I never saw him physically assault her after that day in the kitchen. Instead, she got pregnant and had my third brother.

My mother made another attempt to leave my dad during my sophomore year of high school. By this point, I was on my way out, my sights set on college. So when they told my brothers and I that they were planning to separate, I was relieved that I could leave for school without worrying about my family’s safety.

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My hope was not long lived. The proverbial wrench threw itself into the plan: My mom got pregnant, again. Complete with all the symbology of metaphorical and literal new life, and maybe partially due to them both being staunchly anti-abortion, my parents decided to give it another go. Needless to say, my sister was born and things did not improve. They still fought, my dad still neglected responsibility for his family of now five children, and my mom wore down before my eyes. The bags under her eyes became permanent installations, and the heart-to-heart chats I grew up with disappeared. She was going through all the motions of work and childrearing, but it was if her personality had disappeared. I couldn’t take it.

So, I checked out, snuck out, and moved out, determined to make a better life for myself.

I graduated high school and started college, becoming less and less involved in my family’s affairs. By all accounts, life was going pretty well save for the one thing that was affording me a lot of my independence — my boyfriend, whose family I’d moved in with not long after I turned 18.

Very early on, I noticed the red flags: He was controlling, jealous, and had an unpredictable temper with a capacity to snap. I wasn’t unaware of the irony; between the moodiness and the selfishness, I was dating someone who, in so many ways, was a younger version of my dad.

Yet despite this realization — and despite how bad he made me feel — our cycle of misery became comfortable in its familiarity. I was unhappy, he was unhappy, but neither of us wanted to be lonely.

I was dating someone who, in so many ways, was a younger version of my dad.

Our relationship became a roller coaster of incremental highs and crashing lows; one minute we were planning our lives together, and the next we were screaming ourselves hoarse in his car. As our relationship progressed, I lost most of my friends. I resented him for pigeonholing me, and he resented me for wanting a life outside of the two of us.

Years removed, I can now call it what it was: abusive. He was codependent, violent, and hellbent on being the center of my life.

For the first two years of college, I commuted an hour each way because I couldn’t afford the cost of dorms. But when I got a better job, I decided I wanted to move closer and live in my own space. I told my boyfriend he had to get his life together or let me go. Reluctantly, he started saving money and joined me on the apartment hunt.

Eventually, we found a place. There were fruit trees outside, the apartment was quaint, and all for an unspeakably low price. We moved in at the start of my junior year. Almost immediately, the bubble popped.

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He became suspicious of all my college friends — people I spent more time with now that we lived closer to them. He also became increasingly needy and lazy. We were splitting rent but I was food shopping, cooking, doing our laundry, and cleaning up after both of us.

Three and a half years into our relationship, our discord peaked when I bought plane tickets to go see my grandparents for Christmas. He wasn’t sure he wanted to go when I was making the decision, and I had to buy tickets before prices skyrocketed.

“You abandoned me for Christmas. You left me alone on Christmas,” he said over and over again, before and after the holiday. Never mind that he could have just gone with me, or that it was reasonable for a 21-year-old to choose her family over her boyfriend. He did everything he could to make me to feel bad about it, using this offence as a secret weapon during every disagreement we had moving forward. He would bring it up if I made plans with friends that didn’t include him, if I complained that he wasn’t helping out enough around the apartment, and even if I didn’t feel like being intimate on a given night. In turn, I tried to compensate for his hurt feelings by being extra affectionate. I left notes around the apartment and threw him a surprise birthday party. But he was fixated and nothing worked. Eventually, it became one big fight that never ended.

Unable to take it, I kicked him out. I told him I didn’t love him anymore, that both of us were unhappy, that I didn’t want to be stuck for the rest of my life. He didn’t go without a fight, of course. When his begging didn’t work, he threatened to hurt my friends. And when that still didn’t work, he would call me, tell me he knew where I was, and threaten to kill me. As this was happening, I thought of my mom. At that age, she was raising me — a 2-year-old — alone. I imagined what her life would have been like if she had separated herself from her lazy and unstable partner. The idea of ending up like her made me feel physically ill. Reflecting on her life lit a fire under me to stick with the split, even though it was scary and despite all logic, I sometimes found myself missing him.

The idea of ending up like my mom made me feel physically ill.

Throughout the nightmarish breakup that ensued, I recounted all the times I nearly left. The first time was six months in, when things just felt “off.” But then, overcome with the luster of a high school romance, I stayed. Later, as a sophomore in college, I was again so seriously considering leaving that I tried to calculate a way to afford the dorms. But then I became so distracted with my school clubs, so inundated with work, so distracted by the holidays, that leaving felt impossible. So again, I stayed. The third most obvious manifestation of my near departure was when I made the decision to get an apartment. But then I left the door open just enough that he came with me. We moved, but I stayed.

It wasn’t until I faced the fact that I was turning into my mother that I had the strength to endure the storm of ending my toxic relationship. I am now more proud of myself for taking that leap than almost anything else I’ve done in life. Against the odds, I broke the cycle.

My mother, though? She’s still with my dad, and she doesn’t really speak to anyone outside her household, except for people at work. I can’t shake the suspicion that our lack of communication is at least partially due to my dad’s control over her. During my own abusive relationship, I learned that something controlling men work to eradicate from their partner’s lives is other women who are independent. My ex hated anyone in my life who broke up with their boyfriend, cheated on their husband, or otherwise learned to survive the emotional landscape of heteronormative relationships — the landscape in which men by and large prioritize their emotional well-being over anyone else’s.

Against the odds, I broke the cycle.

When I was younger, I spent a lot of time being resentful toward my mom for staying with my dad, for letting him make her so unhappy, for letting herself be so reliant on him despite her being the main breadwinner. When I was older, I shifted to being angry at her for choosing him over me. Couldn’t she see the mistake she was making?

But when I’m being fair, I remember that I know what it’s like to stay with someone who takes and takes and takes. I know what it’s like to grow comfortable in a cycle of fighting and mothering the person you’re in a relationship with. And even though everyone else can see it, and even though you can see it, you still find yourself going back, seeing the person you fell in love with behind the frenzied eyes and lack of concern for your emotional health. It’s the path of least resistance, and I know it because I followed it for a few very regrettable years. My familiarity with this course takes my pride down a notch. And while I hate feeling helpless now as much as I did as a child hiding in my bedroom, I know first-hand that telling her over and over again what she already knows isn’t going to do much. Eventually she’ll get where she’s going, I think, because she’s a woman of action, even if that means a lot of false starts.

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