He Doesn’t Hit You But…

*tw: emotional abuse*

EDIT: The image for this post features a man of color and a white woman.  This image in no way indicates a correlation between abuse and race.  The featured image was chosen for other reasons by the author and should not be taken to imply that men of color are more likely to abuse their partners.

Several years ago, a popular hashtag cropped up that provided a space for people who had endured abusive relationships to share about their experiences.  Survivors of emotional and verbal abuse, primarily women, took to Twitter to increase visibility for the types of abuse they had endured.  “#HeDoesntHitYouBut his words create bruises just as punches would.”  “#HeDoesntHitYouBut treats you like property.”  “#HeDoesntHitYouBut he uses breaking up with you as a constant threat.”

At the time, I didn’t say much about it, but I sat back and watched friends and strangers validate my own experiences.  It was through this hashtag that I realized the truth of things I had experienced.

In the beginning, he was charming.  I was young and still figuring out who I was.  I was blown away by the fact that a boy I had just met was interested in me.  I was pretty dorky in high school and was still growing accustomed to the fact that men might pay attention to me.  I was naive and had unrealistic expectations of what romance should look like.  We fell in love over a summer, and it wasn’t until we entered our first few months of long distance that things started to shift.

I would call him and he wouldn’t answer.  While I knew I couldn’t expect him to be available every time I called, I would sometimes go three or four days without a call or text from him.  I would start to get worried and would contact one of his friends or roommates in a desperate attempt to make sure he was okay.  They were never very helpful, and eventually he would reach back out to me.  He would give some sort of flimsy excuse about why he had been off the grid, and I would blindly accept his explanation.  I wanted him to think I was “chill” and not clingy, and grilling him on where he had been seemed like a definitive way to drive him away.  He would disappear like this intermittently during our first year of long distance.  Eventually, it stopped.  Even after years of being with him, though, I never got a clear answer on his disappearances.

His flightiness was only the beginning.  Eventually, he tried to control what I wore and who I spent time with.  I wasn’t allowed to wear leggings or yoga pants outside my house because other men might look at me.  If he saw a picture of me in work out pants on Facebook, he would call me and question me about whether I had worn them outside the house and why.  I wasn’t allowed to wear too much make up.  Sometimes, I wasn’t allowed to wear any make up.  I initially thought this was romantic.  I thought it was evidence that he thought I was naturally beautiful, and maybe that was true, but controlling what I put on my body was not the proper way to show me.

Arguing with him was impossible.  Sometimes I would bring up things that were bothering me about him or about our relationship.  He would always claim I was making it up or exaggerating.  He would say I was attacking him and turn my concern back onto me, claiming I was the one who was flawed.  We would never resolve the initial things I brought up and I would leave the conversation feeling like a terrible girlfriend.  There were times when these arguments would get heated.  I’m not an aggressive or angry person.  I very rarely yell or snap at people, but with him, I did.  Often over the phone, we would yell and I would hang up with him and throw my phone across the room in exasperation.

Things continued to worsen when I moved to a different city.  I made new friends that he had never met and that concerned him.  Any time I claimed to be alone studying with a male friend, he would be noticeably suspicious or even blatantly angry.  I wanted to spend time with the new friends I was making, but if I told him I wanted to get together with friends instead of visiting him, he would always get angry or at least annoyed.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of this relationship was that he cut me off from my family.  My parents never liked him, which, obviously, as an 18 year old, made me even more defiant.  However, he gradually convinced me that my parents weren’t the people I thought they were.  By the end of the relationship there was a noticeable distance between my parents and myself.  He had convinced me, over a period of years, to be completely on his side, mistrusting my family.  He manipulated me into believing that he knew what was best for me better than my parents did, so I trusted the things that he told me about them.  It was a vicious cycle.

He was never physically violent with me, and I’m grateful for that.  There were times when I worried about it, especially when he got angry.  Still, I know that plenty of people experience violence and abuse in relationships much more severe that what I catalog here.  But if you’ve experienced this sort of gaslighting and manipulation, I want you to know that you’re not alone.  If you are reading this and wondering about the state of your own relationship, don’t hesitate to reach out to me or someone you trust.  Because this isn’t just about me.  It’s about equipping others to leave unhealthy relationships, and healing in the aftermath. It’s about recognizing the signs before it’s too late. It’s about teaching (not exclusively but especially) our men deeper empathy and compassion.  Even the strongest among us can be emotionally abused, and the first step toward stopping it is realizing that it’s happening.

I Am Afraid of Men

TW: sexual assault, emotional abuse

I can’t say when it all started, exactly.  When I’m on the train, when I’m walking down the sidewalk, when I’m in a store – I am always on guard.  I put on my “resting bitch face” and my sunglasses and my headphones so no one will bother me.  I feel much safer when I’m surrounded by only women.  This doesn’t mean I hate men.  I love my father, I love my partner, I love my male friends.  I am not afraid of them because I know them.  They have proven to me that they are trustworthy.  But sometimes, even the men who find their way into my inner circle are not trustworthy.

I was emotionally abused for years by a previous partner.  He told me what I could or couldn’t wear.  He expressed an irrational, jealous rage if I ever spent time alone with a male friend.  When I went to seminary and developed into a budding feminist, he told me my views were wrong.  He yelled at me for taking naps when I was tired instead of spending time with him.  He used guilt to control me.  At first, though, he was charming.  But after a few months of sweeping me off my feet, he became distant and inaccessible while also needing to know everything about what I was doing so he could keep tabs on me.  Our relationship went through cycles of growth, but he always returned to his controlling patterns.  He taught me that relationship does not mean I should not be afraid.

I was sexually assaulted by a friend.  I’ve written about this experience before, but it’s important to emphasize that this didn’t happen to me in a dark, damp alleyway with a scruffy stranger.  Like many women, I was assaulted by someone I knew.  We had a budding friendship and I was developing feelings for him, but he still took advantage of me when I was vulnerable.  He taught me that friendship does not mean I should not be afraid.

If I haven’t even been able to trust the men closest to me, it is not wonder that I feel afraid to walk down the street.  I feel my body tense and my heart race each time I pass a man on the sidewalk, bracing myself for catcalling.  When I get on the train, I look for a seat next to a woman.  When I enter a public restroom, I look around to make sure there are no men lurking in the corners, waiting for an unsuspecting woman to enter.

I work at a social service agency, and we primarily serve men.  Whenever I have to walk through our lobby, with rows of men waiting to receive services, I clench my jaw and ball up my fists.  I worry about being grabbed.  Instead, I usually get comments about my body or asked for my name followed by a “mmm” or a “damn”.  While we are currently working to improve what safety looks like in our organization, for the reasons I mentioned as well as several others, it wasn’t until this week that I came to the realization that I am constantly afraid.  I am afraid in my workplace.  I am afraid on public transit.  I am afraid walking to my apartment, even in the daytime.  I often create scenarios in my head so that I have a plan prepared if something bad were to happen.

All of this fear is exhausting.  Being in a spaces with only female-identifying individuals is like letting out a breath I’ve been holding in.  I don’t worry about my body.  I don’t worry that my smile will be misinterpreted.  I want to feel this way all the time.  I don’t want to hold all this fear in my body.  But until men can prove to me that they are not a threat, I continue to clench my teeth and ball up my fists.  We are learning every day about more reasons to fear men.  For the past few months, it seems like every morning there is a new name to add to the list of famous sexual harassers.  It’s hard to face a world of men when I hold my own sexual trauma and constantly hear about the trauma of others.

But I don’t want to feel this way.  We don’t want to feel this way.  Women do not want to be afraid all the time.  So, men, prove us wrong.  Be kind.  Be vulnerable.  Show sensitivity.  Do not be defensive.  Open yourself to the possibility that you don’t know everything.  Listen to what we have to say.  Do not assume we owe you anything.  Do not say something to a woman you don’t know that you wouldn’t say to a man.  Stop catcalling.  Make sure your coworkers are being fairly compensated.  Be confident enough in your sense of self that you do not see a strong woman as a competitor to be squashed.  Be our partners, not our hunters.

Disclaimer: This piece deals with gender in a binary way.  I apologize to those who are trans, genderqueer, and nonbinary.  You have a place in this conversation too, but I cannot speak to your experiences of gender, so I have not included them here.  Please speak your own truths to better inform all of us.

New York

“I came here to see it…”
they say she is a city full of
all those good things
opportunity
success
adventure
love

bright lights
mean I can learn to
be bright again too

“…with new eyes…”
like reading your same favorite book
the same time again each year
and realizing how different you are
each time you encounter it
I am a new creature now
in a way I wasn’t
last time I saw her
this time I need this wildness
my body craves her streets
her crowded subways
her tall towers packed together
her old and new juxtaposed

“…and feel it.”
she taught me that I can still do this
that my tenacity is still intact
that I can move beyond merely enduring
that I can get drunk on wine
with my parents and take a
late night walk through the West Village
that I can write my phone number
on a napkin and slide it across
the bar to a British man
that I can take a cab through
the city alone and confidently
get where I’m going

“It’s up to you, New York.”
she was the climax
of a summer of adventures
to remember where my core is
among all this debris
because New York knows
what it’s like to try to
find yourself again
among debris
and rise from it in the most
poetic and heart wrenching of ways

Returning to Ashes & Falling in Love

Ever since I realized that Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday were going to fall on the same day this year, I’ve been trying to reconcile the spirit of both of them.  Until this morning, I wasn’t sure at all how to hold them at the same time.  I love Valentine’s Day.  I love celebrating the other couples in my life, my own partner, and the ways in which I love my friends and family members.  I also value the traditions of the liturgical calendar and find meanings in its seasons.  So, how am I supposed to do both at the same time? On one hand, they seem to be opposites.  Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, calling us to make sacrifices, remember our own sin and mortality, and look to the suffering and redemption of the cross.  Valentine’s Day on the other is bright red candy hearts, balloons, chocolate covered strawberries, and kisses.  They seem to almost be opposites – one full of mourning while the other is full of celebration.

However, the more I considered what it truly means to love each other, the more the partnering of these two days began to reveal itself.  Loving others is difficult.  Heck, loving myself is difficult.  So, what better to remind us of our own mortality and shortcomings than a day also focused on love?  Love requires sacrifice.  It requires relinquishing our desire to always have our way. It calls us to stop being so selfish all the time.  But, as Ash Wednesday so poignantly reminds us, we are always falling short.  Our ability to love others is stained by the traumas of our past, our family systems, and other times that love has failed us.  Love shows us how truly broken we are.

For the past two years, I’ve been in the healthiest and most rewarding relationship of my life.  Given, many of my previous partners were abusive and manipulative in a variety of ways, but my current partner is a true gem.  As we’ve grown closer, though, we often find ourselves in disagreements because of the baggage that we carry.  Our families taught us to handle conflict differently.  We organize our homes in different ways.  Our personalities are just different: I don’t know how to slow down and rest while he treasures an afternoon doing nothing.  I’m easily distracted during conversations, interrupting to point out dogs or funny signs, while he feels hurt when it seems like I’m not paying attention.  I’m grateful for the ways we’ve learned to navigate these differences and learn about each other.  But it is work to love another well.

Despite the difficulty, though, we are called to love others.  Nothing could be more clear in the Christian scriptures and throughout the sacred texts of other traditions.  Love one another.  Even though we are going to disappoint people that we care about, we are called to love them.  Even though we might get hurt, we are called to offer our hearts.  Even when we don’t agree, we are called to offer love instead of division.  What else is there to do in our brokenness but love?

This Ash Wednesday/Valentine’s Day (VaLENTine’s Day?), let us hold space for both love and imperfection.  How can we offer forgiveness to those who fail to love us perfectly? How can we make the sacrifices we would want others to make for us?  How can we fight to overcome our brokenness to offer love and, in turn, be made more whole?  We are from dust and we will return to dust, but in the meantime, let us honor our fragile condition by handling each other with the care we each deserve.