I Didn't Realize My Husband Was Abusing Me — Because I Always Hit Back

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abusive relationship
Heartbreak

I kept my mouth shut, considered myself the guilty party, and stayed.

When my ex-husband hit me, he argued his abuse was ok because I resisted.  

“Well, you've been violent, too.”

“Yes, I've been violent, but only in reaction to you, only because you initiated it.”

“That’s enough.”

“And I agree, it’s enough! I should have left long ago.”

In the season finale of Big Little Lies, as Perry attempts to persuade her to stay, Celeste drops a truth rarely discussed in conversations about domestic violence. When people are hit, they hit back in self-defense. It may not be normal, it may not be healthy, and it is not what any abuse advocate will tell you to do — but some people fight back when they are hit.

Hitting back doesn’t make you the guilty party; it's just another reason you really need to go. I say this as someone who dearly needed to hear this a few years ago when I was in a physically abusive relationship and was convinced my ex wasn’t abusive. I thought this because when he hit me, I defended myself, and since I tried to alternately block and smack him while he hit me, I believed my then-husband wasn’t abusing me.  

The advice that advocates give to men and women who have experienced abuse is the exact opposite of what I did. An abused partner is supposed to gauge how angry and violent their partner is and calculate how much danger they're actually in.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline advises people that, in the moments when it’s obvious violence is imminent, you should "make yourself a small target. Dive into a corner and curl up into a ball with your face protected and arms around each side of your head, fingers entwined." The directive is pretty clear. Know your abuser’s potential to hurt you. Look for an escape. Protect yourself. Don’t hit back.

When I was being abused, I did eventually create an escape plan, but I never fully understood what provoked him and so I never accurately predicted the violence that occurred within my relationship. I was never good at finding a safe space and I never made myself smaller. Instead, I would end up cornered, trying to block his blows.

Almost inevitably, I’d swerve away from his hands, and when possible, hit him back. At the core of my actions was self-preservation. I was being hit, and my instinct was to hit back so that my abuser would stop hitting me. There was also, I think, a measure of hope. Part of me expected the shock of being hit to stun him so much that he would stop what he was doing.

My response never matched the rage or efficacy of my partner — I wasn’t hitting in anger, but out of fear and I didn’t have an equivalent muscle strength. It never worked and it served as the fodder my ex fed me when he justified what he did.

My ex rationalized his behavior multiple times in multiple ways. He was tired. It was unintentional. He hadn’t noticed me standing there. I recognized most of these as lies, but I accepted his reasoning and it made me feel responsible for the abuse.

The day after the first time, as both of us were standing in the kitchen and I warned him that next time it happened I was calling the police, my ex told me that I couldn’t because since I hit him back, I was as equally culpable. Even though he had struck first, when I blocked his blow and slapped him, I too had hurt him, so he wasn’t abusing me. He was defending himself.  

When I think through the logic now, I see how irrational it is, but at the time, I believed him, so I kept my mouth shut, considered myself the guilty party, and stayed.

There is no true sense or logic to how I acted, but I didn’t have a model for how to react when it happened to me. My father never hit my mother growing up; men hitting women in anger was not something I ever saw firsthand. I wasn’t sheltered enough to think men didn’t abuse women; I just  never thought it would happen to me.

Throughout the time we were dating, my ex never acted violently towards me. Though I can now pinpoint moments when his abusive nature came out before we were married, at the time my own myopia kept me from noticing these signs that signaled his abusive nature.

Embarrassingly, my middle-class, sheltered nature also blinded me to what was possible. I had an ignorant assumption that I, soundly middle-class with multiple degrees and a steady income, would be protected by my bourgeois accouterments. I didn’t think I’d ever be hit, so when it happened I had no reference point.

I process information by reading through conversations with close friends. In the months after I was initially hit, I could not find a chat room or a website or a book that had women slapping their husbands in self-defense. Shock and shame kept me from telling relatives and friends about what had occurred.  

So during the time we were married, movies were one of the things I examined to see how to deal with my situation. Not only did these movies not provide a model I could follow, but when I saw these films, how I reacted to what was occurring in my marriage indicted me and made me afraid of what I could eventually do to my husband.

Unlike me, I never saw any of the characters in these films fight back while they were being hit. Instead, the women in these films either endured abuse without physically responding, eventually left or escaped, or maimed, beat, or killed their abuser — always in a hyperbolic, utterly unrealistic manner — during the last third of the movie, as a last-ditch effort to save themselves from their now-obsessed stalker.

In Sleeping with the Enemy, Julia Roberts’ Laura kills her abusive ex, but only after she divorces him and he stalks her. Enough, a Jennifer Lopez vehicle, has the lead character learn krav maga after she leaves her ex and he stalks her, too. I watched these movies as a teenager and knew they were a fantasy-based response to a real problem.

As a woman married to a man who dealt with pressure by slapping her across the face, what I found was a useless trope, and the trope was pretty clear: While in the relationship, women could run away or tell a friend, or be rescued, but they never directly defended themselves while being hit until they left the relationship.

And when they did become violent, it was a last resource and inevitably ended in death. This wasn’t helpful viewing and frankly terrorized me. Not only was I responsible for what was happening, but films with a domestic abuse plot consistently warned me that escaping would escalate the violence and that my wrongdoing could easily escalate into murder.

The public discussion of domestic abuse I was familiar with was just as unsuitable.

From the first time I was hit, on the day before my birthday, to the last time my ex attempted to hit me, the week before Valentine’s Day, the conversation I kept hearing in my head was Mike Tyson’s words during an interview Oprah gave him in 2009.

In the interview, Tyson discussed his marriage to Robin Givens, who had been labeled as a gold digger, a liar, and summed up as “the most hated women in world” at the time of their divorce. On Oprah’s stage, Tyson claimed that he never hit Robin, while also saying, “I have socked her before, and she socked me before, as well. It was just that kind of relationship.” The audience laughed at what he said. Oprah didn’t press him on his statement. And Tyson merrily continued on his comeback tour, which included being the central character in the subplot for one of the highest grossing films of 2009, The Hangover.

In retrospect, I doubt this was Oprah’s intention but to me, the message I received was extremely harmful because it clearly echoed the logic my then-husband had already explained. Mike Tyson had socked Robin, but he wasn’t being abusive because Robin had hit him back. Robin’s attempts to prevent herself from being abused, her “socking” back a man whose job it is to professionally beat others for a living, exonerated Tyson. He wasn’t abusive because, theoretically speaking, she gave tit for tat.

In my case, and I suspect this is the case for people in unhealthy and abusive relationships, the theory never matched reality.

The first time my ex struck me — leaving welts on my arm and chest which made it hard to carry the backpack I used as a part-time seminary student — I weighed about one hundred pounds to his almost one hundred-eighty. The last time he struck me, I weight eighty-five and he was within arm’s reach of two hundred.

Our bouts were never like what Tyson’s words insinuates: an equally matched round where each partner has equal force, is similarly equipped and has the same intention when they enter the ring. The moments of violence in my marriage were frightening and unequal.

I was shoved, or punched, or smacked by someone who was angry at me (whereas I was afraid). It was instances of him trying to hurt me. (When I slapped or scratched him, I didn’t want to hurt him, I just wanted it to keep him from hitting me). And, it was split seconds of someone who as stronger, and heavier, and intent on either punishing me or releasing his frustration on my me. (Honestly, I just didn’t want to be hurt and instinctively hit back because rolling up into the smallest ball I could make myself, which is what is commonly advised to do, was to counterintuitive for me to do.) I can see now that Tyson and my ex were wrong: neither Robin nor I was equally armed.

At the moment we blocked our partners and struck back, we weren’t the abusers — we were the abused attempting to defend ourselves.

Which is why Celeste’s response, “I've been violent, but only in reaction to you, only because you initiated it” is so pivotal to understanding how domestic abuse functions, and why I think everyone needs to hear this if they want to talk about domestic abuse.

Celeste, a character who, in previous episodes, has already been shown as an intelligent and capable lawyer, is wise enough to know her self-defense does not make Perry’s abuse okay. Big Little Lies further underscores Celeste’s lack of culpability by having Celeste use Perry’s argument as the tipping point for why she needs to leave. When Perry counters that her reaction was “enough,” Celeste responds by saying, “And I agree, it’s enough... I should have left long ago.”

And there it is. Self-defense does not justify your partner’s actions, nor does it exonerate his wrongdoing. It’s just another reason why you need to leave. 

On a Tuesday morning a week before I walked out, I stood in the backyard of our house and spotted a water cockroach. There hadn’t been any rain recently, and I had never noticed a cockroach inside or outside of our house before. Instead of shooing it away, I used a piece of paper to scoop it up and examined the roach.

Like my husband, it had beady brown eyes and a thin, bland smile. The screen door opened, and my husband stepped out into the open air. I remembered that tired aphorism: if you see one cockroach, there has to be a million more.

My then-husband wanted to know what I was doing. I realized then that, yes, if I was here, living with a cockroach, there had to be many more women out there who also led cockroach-infested lives. Which is why now, several years later, I’d like the women and men living with cockroaches to know that when their partner strikes out at them, remember Celeste’s words.

You’re not the guilty party, and your self-defense is enough reason for you to leave. 

 

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