Fear is a major factor in why women stay with abusive partners — but love can be far stronger.
Content warning: descriptions of physical abuse and sexual assault
The memory that haunts me most is not being strangled until my body gave way to seizure. Nor is it the three days I spent being beaten in a motel by my lover. It’s not the day he raped me on the bed next to our three-month-old son, or the time he punched my head again and again into the cement floor of a garage until I had to prop myself against him, his arms wrapped around my waist, just to get home. These memories hold their share of terror, but the one that haunts me most begins with a bicycle.
It was evening, and already dark. A breeze traced the shiver of fall across my bare arms. We were riding BMX bikes up a long hill. I remember the endlessness of it, how my lungs felt like they would shatter along the way. He’d been my boyfriend four months already, though we became friends when I was 14 and he was 21. It was two years since we met, and I thought I knew him well.
He had more practice riding bikes. I watched, flush and panting, as he cruised ahead, lifting his lithe body over the seat and pumping the pedals with his long, strong legs. When he summited the crest of the hill, he disappeared from sight.
I was afraid there, alone in the darkness, but I was also determined. I’d catch him. He wouldn’t run off and leave me to spend the evening with some other girl, not tonight. I ignored the burning in my chest and forced myself the rest of the way up that hill.
When I reached the top, I found him waiting for me, smiling. He was sprawled across a couch someone had left on the side of the road, his bike toppled at his feet. I tossed my bike next to his and crashed onto him. We kissed deeply, before I lay my head on his chest. He wrapped his arms around my skinny frame. While the sweat cooled on my skin, and my heart settled into its resting pace, I was overcome by joy.
Anything is worth this moment, I thought, anything that happens is worth what I’m feeling right now.
That is the memory that haunts me most.
Ten years after the end of that relationship, I have told many stories. I have revealed that when I came home with a black eye, it wasn’t the result of a car crash like I had initially claimed, but because my boyfriend kidnapped me and beat me for three days. I’ve talked about the numerous rapes. I have disclosed the many times he strangled me to the brink of death. When people hear my stories of abuse, sexual assault, and coercion, they tell me I am brave. Strong. They thank me for speaking out. But the story that requires true bravery is the one I haven’t told yet: the love story.
I remember lying on the floor of an abandoned house with my boyfriend — my abuser — so close to one another our lips touched when we talked. I remember filling notebooks with love poetry, and devoting entire writing workshops solely to him. I remember meeting at my apartment and embracing midway on the stairs, unable to wait for the top. I remember kissing for hours at the park, ignoring onlookers who shouted at us to “get a room.” I remember making plans for our future together. I remember sitting on the hospital bed, holding our new son in our four collective hands. I remember kisses and kisses and kisses.
I loved the man who kidnapped me, and raped me, and nearly killed me more than once. It wasn’t Stockholm Syndrome — an affinity with the assailant that long-term abuse victims develop as a psychological defense. Because I didn’t start loving him after the fact. I fell in love with him with the pure intensity of someone who doesn’t know any better, the way that’s really only possible in youth. It felt like a fairy-tale, not a trick. Maybe I was manipulated into the feeling, but to me it was real. I loved him before any of the abuse happened, and I loved him for years after it began. It’s not so easy to let go of a love like that, even when it becomes obvious there will never be a “happily ever after.”
It is fair that I’ve blamed myself for the thought I had one night long ago when I went on a bike ride? Should I feel responsible for the four years of abuse I endured because in one moment of teenage joy I made a contract, the terms of which I could not possibly have fathomed? I had inklings of his real nature. There were signs — there are always signs — but “love is blind” is not a cliche for no reason. In that moment, when I lay catching my breath in the embrace of a man I knew was already cheating on me, all I wanted was for my love to be returned. I had no idea the price I would come to pay.
I fell in love with him with the pure intensity of someone who doesn’t know any better. Click To Tweet
If you google “why people stay in abusive relationships,” hundreds of results pop up, in everything from Psychology Today and Ms. Magazine to small personal blogs. Our culture is obsessed with the question: Why do people stay with lovers who harm them? Though the language varies between publications, the answers generally revolve around the same themes. Control. Emotional and sometimes financial dependence. Fear. Very few articles contain a section on love.
Rena P. Elkins, a licensed clinical social worker affiliated with the University of Washington Medicine, who has worked with trauma patients for over 10 years, acknowledges that fear is a major factor in why women stay with abusive partners, but finds that love can be far stronger. “He says he’s sorry, he promised to change, he’ll never do it again, I hear that all the time,” Elkins reports, “and [abuse victims] believe it, because they want to. Love is a strong motivator.”
Control, dependence, and fear were all factors in my abusive relationship, but love was the quiet, persistent undercurrent. Like Elkins, I suspect the same is true for many abuse survivors. It is a hard truth to voice, not only because it hurts to admit, but because it’s the truth of a “bad victim.” It puts you in the same category as those girls and women who wear short skirts, drink booze, flirt at parties, stay out too late, take rides from strangers; loving your abuser makes you the kind of person who people think invited whatever bad thing happened. It makes people stop listening. It makes your hurt matter less.
Even still, it’s a harder secret to carry. And I hope that by sharing this, I help other survivors realize they are not alone. That their feelings are not wrong. Loving someone doesn’t bind you to them — you can still walk away.
On an afternoon in midsummer, when our son was a few months old, I called the police and turned in my abusive boyfriend. Two days earlier, he had strangled me while I was holding our baby. I lost control of my limbs and dropped my son. He was okay, but just barely. The day I called the police, I sat on the steps of the cathedral down the street from my mother’s apartment, holding my cell phone in trembling hands. I considered not calling. I considered going home with my boyfriend, who had recently proposed. I imagined what it would be like for my son and I to continue our lives with him.
Either way I looked at it, there was suffering. I could turn him in, and be alone at age 20 with a child I’d been forced to conceive, struggling to finish college, alone with my harrowing memories. Or I could go home with him, and feel happy in the glow of reconciliation for a few days…until I told the wrong joke, or got a call from the wrong friend, or didn’t come to bed when he asked, or looked too long at the guy scanning my groceries, or whatever. And then the beatings would start all over again. This time, maybe I wouldn’t survive. Or maybe I would, but my son wouldn’t. So I dialed 911, and helped arrest the man I loved.
Yes, even while I gave his name and description to the police, I loved him.
Eventually, after his arrest, I would gain the distance I needed to outgrow my feelings for him. I would come to understand that he never cared about me, and that the man I loved did not truly exist. But when those sirens wailed past me on that midsummer’s day, while blue and red flashed across my face and toward where my boyfriend thought we were meeting, my heart broke. I had to break my own heart to break free.