Sanctuary for the Abused

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Marriage of Pain

The Tragedy of Spousal Abuse

By M.K.

The night that should have ended my marriage, but didn’t, was a mid-winter night about six months after my wedding, during my senior year in college. I don't remember why my husband and I started arguing, or when the fight escalated. I do remember getting thrown against the wall repeatedly, punched in the arms and torso, then slapped to the floor, my glasses shattering. This continued for a while until my husband went to bed.

I didn't know how to respond to getting beaten up by my husband for the first time. I put on my coat and boots and trudged out into the snowstorm. I made my way to a phone booth and dialed information. When I asked for the number to a women's hotline, the operator asked if I had been raped. Lacking the vocabulary to even describe what had happened, I said “no.” The operator responded that the only number he had was a rape hotline and he hung up. I went home and crawled into bed.

I was shocked to realize that my husband's anger towards me knew no bounds.

The night that did end my marriage wasn't particularly violent by comparison. After more than two years of being beaten up semi-regularly, of covering bruises, lying to my co-workers, and being distanced from my family and friends, I came to my senses through three simple realizations in one night. First, I found myself lying to my husband to placate him, telling him that I was on the phone with his mother rather than my grandfather. How wrong, I realized, to have to lie about a simple phone call to my grandfather.

Later that evening, my husband slammed on the car brakes seconds before crashing through the garage door. Our infant daughter, strapped tightly into her car seat, was jolted and began crying. I was shocked to realize that my husband's anger towards me knew no bounds and that he might harm this innocent little baby he claimed to cherish. Lastly, as our heated argument continued up the stairs and down the hall of my parents' house, my mother asked us to lower our voices. I watched in horror as my husband tried to push my mother aside. For the first time, I turned on him. “How dare you,” I said, “slam a door on my mother in her own home?” Late that night I stared at him sleeping peacefully despite all that had happened and knew that I had to leave him.

I am often asked why I stayed in an abusive relationship for so long. The sad part is that statistically speaking, I left several years earlier and with fewer children than most Jewish women in the same situation. The misconception is that educated, intelligent women would never stay in such a relationship. But the truth is different. I am college educated, I come from a loving family, and I have and had a strong network of friends.

My husband and I were high school sweethearts, dating for five years before we married. Our friends, centered in our Jewish youth group, recognized us as a unit. It was hard to walk away from that, even though we should have separated after high school. In hindsight, there were signs of his violent behavior even then, but he always had a convincing excuse for losing his temper, and I idealistically believed his promises that he would change. I was also reluctant to let go of someone who claimed to love me.

I idealistically believed his promises that he would change.

The diary I kept back then reveals my attempts to rationalize his behavior. In many ways, it was easier to have an excuse to be in the relationship than to admit that I was being abused by my own husband. Typical entries include statements like these: "He may not be perfect, but who says anyone more perfect is out there?" "Isn't the point of marriage to bring two very different viewpoints together?" I also believed what he had told me over many years: that my parents were "messed up" and didn't know what I needed in life, and that he just needed an equal chance to succeed in life.

There was also tremendous pressure to make a marriage work. In my community, shalom bayit: making peace in the home, was of utmost importance. I can't imagine that anyone would have suggested that I remain in an abusive relationship, but, young and naïve as I was, I kept telling myself that if I were just more patient, more loving, more this or more that, then we could have the shalom bayit I so desperately wanted. As I lit candles every Friday night I would pray that I would be worthy of having a “faithful Jewish home.” Divorce seemed unthinkable, a rejection of the family values I lived by, as well as an admission of failure.

Fortunately I had friends who noticed, who pulled me aside and said, “I don't like the way he talks to you.” Colleagues who saw the bruises and didn't buy my excuses. I also had the good fortune to befriend someone who is a social worker. At the time she was working with victims of domestic violence. One night when our husbands were out, she slipped me the business card of a colleague. I denied needing it, but tucked the card away where my husband wouldn't find it. Six months later I called the number on the card.

My parents supported me, emotionally and financially, as I finally broke away from my “high school sweetheart” and came into my own as a single mother, working and going to school. Countless friends babysat, listened to my tears, and stood by me in every way.

Unfortunately, others believed my husband’s tales and shunned me as a crazy woman who broke up a happy home. Too many didn't want to believe it, insisting that “it must be a misunderstanding” or “he’s not that kind of guy” or even “he just needs more exercise to release his energy and frustrations.” For too long I had listened to those unhelpful remarks, but once I had faced the truth, I couldn't go back to that kind of wishful thinking. My husband was abusive, and there was nothing I did to cause it and nothing I could have done to prevent it. For my sake, for my daughter’s sake, I just needed to leave.

Today my daughter and I live in a different state from my ex-husband, happily settled into our life with my second husband and three more children. Thankfully, my daughter has no recollection of the horrors that her father committed, and is surrounded daily by healthy, loving, supportive For my sake, for my daughter’s sake, I just needed to leave relationships. However, she is gradually sensing her father’s uncontrollable rage and she too is learning to appease him or pay a price.

When I divorced more than ten years ago, the state where we lived would only take away a man's right to be with his child unsupervised if there was concrete evidence that he had abused the child as well as the mother. Since I had no formal evidence that he was a threat to her -- no medical records, no 911 calls, no photographs, no proof that he had ever abused her – I had no legal option but to let her spend long, unsupervised visits with her father.

My daughter asks difficult questions about why we divorced and if I hate her father. For now I lie, but it is only a matter of time until she learns the truth about our marriage. I only hope that through education and awareness activities, girls of her generation will know how to recognize the warning signs and behavior patterns involved, and be able to avoid the trap of abusive relationships that are so common today.

I pray my daughters will find men who respect them and their individual identities. Men who will live by the words they recite under the chupah, the marriage canopy, Harei at mekudeshet li, “Behold you are holy to me.” For that is what marriage is supposed to be about.

And that is what every woman deserves.


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