The Unbearable Shame Of Being An Abused Wife

How could you have loved such a monster? How could you have stayed for so long?

woman with hand on window HTWE / Shutterstock

When I left the vortex of dysfunction and abuse that was named "My Marriage," there were a lot of things for which I wasn't prepared, but chief among them was the shame. Not the shame of divorce itself.

In our consciously­-uncoupling, we­-grew­-apart, we­-got­-married­-too­-young, maybe-monogamy's-unrealistic, understanding­-with­-more­-nuance society, I was no longer too worried about the shame of divorce. It happens. Frequently. Outside of my insulated religious community, the scandal level would barely pass into yellow.


But what I didn't know, what I couldn't know, what I wish I never had to know, was that there would be something worse that would follow me for years: the shame of having been abused.

I didn't know it would be humiliating. That it would be demoralizing. That I would have to continue to defend myself. When you leave a spouse who is nearly­-universally despised, there isn't much in the way of "Oh my god, this must be so hard for you." The sentiment runs more in the direction of "Oh my god, he was so awful, why did you ever marry him in the first place?"

In sorry attempts to validate your decision, family and friends and old acquaintances enthusiastically regale you with tales of just how disgusted they were by a person who you had, for whatever broken reasons, loved, ­and who was never capable of loving you in return.


As if you, who stood wiping tears from your newly­wed face as he grunted into you after your countless no's had been treated as irrelevant obstacles to his erection, could be horrified by any tale of social isolation that could be shared.

As if you, who washed sheets stained with acrid and oily detox sweat and scrubbed hardened crusts of liquefied fecal matter from porcelain bowls time after time after time, could be amused by any tale of his unwelcome bodily functions.

As if you, who listened as you were told while your infant slept in the backseat that he had planned to leave you if the pregnancy test hadn't developed that second line that chained him to you; who listened as you were told almost daily how fortunate you were that he had 'settled' for you; who listened as friends were told all the ways in which you have sexually failed him; who listened to yourself as you apologized­­ again­­ for making him feel bad about raping you  could be surprised by any tale of his cruelty.

The stories and exclamations of vitriol and accusatory questions pile up, and with them comes untold amounts of shame.


How could you have loved such a monster? How could you have stayed for so long? How could you have had children with him? Why did you want to get married when you were so young anyway? (That last question, by the way, nobody asks if your marriage works out just fine.) If your spouse ends up being a kind partner with whom you're able to build a good life, the fact that you married before you could rent a car is nothing more than a footnote.

But if you make the mistake of falling in love with an abuser, you get to spend the rest of your life explaining away the depressed, indoctrinated, and supremely messed­-up 21­-year­-old you were who wanted so desperately to feel worthy and loved.

Why you squandered your potential on someone who made you feel understood by confirming every sh*tty thing you believed about yourself becomes a topic of conversation at every family gathering. You share another piece of the hidden puzzle of the last decade­-and­-a-half of your life in hopes of making them understand the hell you've lived through  and can't fully escape because the courts only care if he hit you.

And the shame spiral begins again as they tell you he's gross and a troll and a loser, and you want to scream, "I know, I know, I know, I know, do you really think I don't know? But I'm not trying to talk about him, I'm trying to tell you about me."


Sometimes you comfort yourself with the possibility that if they understood that you were abused — ­­sexually, emotionally, psychologically, financially —­ they wouldn't be saying any of this. But you know them well enough to know that's probably not true.

The shame carries over, too. Thanks to the choices you made before your brain was fully formed because you joined yourself to a man who treated you as a receptacle for anything his vicious being could produce, you feel a need to reassure others you won't make the same mistake again.

Every new relationship, every new potential partner in your bed or your life, comes with the burden of proof. They must exonerate themselves from crimes they cannot fathom. There is no room for error.


To cope, you do the only thing that makes sense, the only thing that allows you to breathe and discover and enjoy: you keep new lovers away from everyone who has known you since back then.

You can't bear the thought of pointed questions, whispered assessments, and possible revelations you weren't prepared to bring to light. You can't bear subjecting a source of kindness to the skepticism and scrutiny, especially after you've provided so much on your own.

It feels as if there are too many eyes watching for the next misstep, the next implosion, the next layer in the disappointing cake of your derailed life. It's easier to love and hope privately, so you don't have to live the after publicly.

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Then there's the part where you still feel some degree of shame for still hoping you'll find someone who will love you—  because that's repeatedly referenced as the core of the problem that landed you in this mess in the first place. After all, if you hadn't wanted to be loved, you wouldn't have made such easy prey.

And so, the people who knew you back then miss out on really knowing you now. They do not know, in any valuable way, that you have loved, or whom, or why, or how deeply. They mostly know that you messed it up royally once upon a time and are likely to do so again.

They haven't let you forget, and you haven't let them back in.

The shame lives in other forms, too. The shame of being paralyzed with fear, frozen by the smallest of choices. The shame of feeling utterly incompetent. The shame of not knowing what you like or what you want or who you really are. The shame of having stayed for even a moment, for not having been able to walk out.


The shame of having come so close so many times, suitcase packed, keys in hand, but utterly unable to imagine better for yourself. The shame of bringing children into it. The shame of a home that was always broken. The shame of the un­amicable split, the need for no contact, the panic attacks when you have to be in the same room.

The shame of court­-ordered silence, because the affection of children shouldn't be subject to ugly truths, even the ones that protect them. The shame of watching powerlessly as the cycle repeats itself, knowing the legal system only sees bruises.

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The shame of wishing he would overdose, freeing you, and giving your children a chance to be whole. The shame of hoping he doesn't because state­-mandated visitations are the only breaks you get. The shame of finite funds and ruined credit and nothing to show for any of it. The shame of dodging questions and editing answers and a messy history that brands you with the mark of the messed-up woman.

The shame of knowing that everyone is more comfortable if you keep quiet if you pretend irreconcilable differences means you couldn't agree on your lifestyle and not that you'd begun to fear for your life.

Deep down, you know nobody wants to know, and it's better if you don't tell them. Because even though he was the one doling out the abuse, you know that in most ways, you'll always be the one shouldering the blame.

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Anja Brenton is a contributor to YourTango.