Names have been changed.
Meet Michelle. She is a 26-year-old female that grew up in New England. She comes from an emotionally stable home with loving parents. When I asked Michelle about her parents as a role model for relationships, she commented that all relationships are about power play, even healthy ones. Michelle also observes that her mother holds the power in her marriage and that her father defers to her mother, or at least seems to. She also commented that they love one another very much and are equally supportive of one another.
Michelle has had three abusive relationships.
Wesley was Michelle’s first abusive relationship. She met him when she was eighteen and they were together six months.
John was Michelle’s second abusive relationship. She met him when she was twenty-one and their relationship last a year and a half.
Steve is Michelle’s third abusive relationship. She met him when she was twenty-four and is still with him.
Using Social Status/Peer Pressure
When I asked Michelle about partners using social status or peer pressure in an abusive way, she told me that her current partner (Steve) will frequently make comments about women being subservient to men. She also commented that this is a learned behavior for him (from his father) and it does not bother her. She mostly brushes it off.
Michelle also commented that all three partners would frequently make decisions for her, but not necessarily in an openly stated way. As she puts it, they made her make decisions that she would not normally make, by being manipulative.
As far as acting as the “master of the castle” and assuming the dominant role in the relationship, Michelle told me that Steve does try to do this, but she does not allow him to. He also tries to define Michelle’s role as the woman in her relationship. Although he does not tell her to do things, he complains that he is the woman in the relationship because he does the cooking and cleaning. He tries to make her feel guilty, but not successfully.
When I asked Michelle about any of her partners threatening to expose her or tell lies, she told me that Steve will try to do this on occasion. Unfortunately for Steve, the secrets he threatens to tell are ones that Michelle’s friends already know. Michelle is very open about the decisions that she makes. She refers to it as hiding in plain sight. By exposing her weaknesses to others, no one can ever expose her or make her feel embarrassed. Although Steve tries to use information against her, he is not successful.
Michelle told me that John would frequently tell her that she was fat. She also commented that he was not wrong in telling her that because she had put on some weight at the time. He also told her that she was lazy, which she agrees with as well. He would also tell her that her friends didn’t like her. Michelle thinks that this might have been true, but it was John’s M.O. to put her down, which is why he said it.
Steve also puts down Michelle, but it is not effective like it was with John.
As far as name calling, Michelle told me that she has been called every profanity. She specifically mentioned that, toward the end of her relationship with John, he was calling her “cunt” like it was her first name.
John would also make Michelle think that she was crazy. Michelle would accuse John of being abusive and he would tell her that she was crazy and if she wasn’t acting the way she was acting then he wouldn’t have to treat her the way he did. John also told Michelle that she made him hurt her. “Look what you made me do.”
Michelle told me that John would play mind games with her. He would have a “violent fit of rage” and then when Michelle would go to console him a few minutes later, she would find him crying and he would tell her that he was depressed and that he had nothing.
John humiliated Michelle by refusing to acknowledge that they were in a relationship, even though they were sexually involved for sixteen months and living together nearly a year. They slept in the same bed and ate meals together. They were, by anyone’s definition, in a relationship. If one of Michelle’s friends would refer to her as his girlfriend, John would say “She’s NOT my girlfriend!”
After John was arrested, he told the police that his charges should not be domestic violence because he and Michelle were not in a relationship and were not sexually involved. Michelle told me that she had to go to a lawyer and sign an affidavit stating that they were sexually involved. She told me that it was humiliating.
In terms of guilt, Michelle commented that Wesley causes the most guilt, even now. She told me that he had a terrible childhood and has a mental illness that was not diagnosed until after they broke up. He has been homeless, in prison, and in various mental institutions since they broke up. Michelle feels responsible for this.
John also made her feel guilty. She comments that John did not work during their relationship and so she felt responsible for taking care of him. She would buy two packs of cigarettes, two six-packs of beer, two meals, etc. Not doing so would make her feel guilty.
Steve sometimes tries to make Michelle feel guilty about housework, but it is not effective.
When Michelle and I talked about being afraid in her relationships, she told me that she was only afraid with Wesley once. It was the day they broke up and he was having a negative reaction to drugs he had taken. He grabber her by the throat and pinned her against a wall, begging her not to leave.
With John, he would make her afraid all the time. Michelle commented that it started off in a relatively minor way with screaming and yelling. After some time, it progressed to small shoving. The next step was her being pushed so hard that she flew across the room.
John would also throw things. Michelle recalls that one time John threw something at her head and she dodged it, but it went straight through the wall.
One time Michelle tried to escape to her room and he broke her bedroom door down. He also tried to push one of her friends down a flight of stairs in what Michelle described as a “drunken rage”.
John pushed her into things and left bruises. He threw her phone into a toilet, poured a bottle of champagne over her head, kicked her in the lower back, hit her in the lower back with a bat, and smashed a mirror and pushed her onto the broken glass.
Michelle told me that in the beginning, with the gentle shoving, she was not afraid. As she puts it, “I had never thought that he would be capable of physically hurting me to the point where I had to go to the hospital.” I asked her if she was ever hurt so badly that she had to go to the hospital and she told me no, however once John slammed her hand in a door and broke her finger. Since there is not much that a physician can do for a broken finger, she taped it herself. Overall, John was very careful not to leave marks on her face or hurt her to the point where she had to go to the hospital.
When I asked Michelle if John ever threatened to report her to the police, she told me that one night he was in another drunken rage and a friend came to pick her up. As they were leaving, John was speaking into the phone reading off their license plate number, as if he was reporting her to the police. They drove directly to the police station and Michelle’s friend convinced her to tell the police what was going on with John. As it turned out, John was bluffing about making that phone call. However, once Michelle started talking about the abuse, the entire story came forth. She recalls that the junior police officer, who was male, was so disturbed that he could not look her in the eye, and could barely hold his composure.
Michelle described her emotional state during the questioning. She comments that she was completely hysterical and angry at her friend for making her talk to the police, because she did not want them to arrest John and they did. All she wanted was to talk to John and make sure he was okay. When a victim advocate called Michelle and let her know that there was a no-contact order in place, Michelle told me that she felt horrible because she desperately wanted to see him. She was also terrified that he would come back and retaliate, but she also wanted to talk to him.
Michelle has not heard from John since the incident occurred, aside from one email where he apologized for the way he treated her. Michelle guesses that it was a part of his sentencing to attend therapy and write a letter apologizing to her as his victim. When I asked Michelle how she felt about hearing from John, she told me that she was “so happy to hear from him”. She wrote him back right away but she never heard from him after that.
Michelle has done several illegal things for partners. She would drive drunk to get John alcohol because he needed it, and once she drove Wesley to get LSD.
John would frequently have sex with Michelle whenever he felt like it, but Michelle made it very clear that she is not traumatized from this. She was never forced nor did she protest. She told me that in a sexual relationship, you give sexual rights to your partner and they can have sex whenever they want to. She commented that this is the norm in most cultures. At the time, Michelle just felt that was part of the dynamic of their relationship. From the way she described it, John did not appear to take Michelle’s feelings into consideration.
Michelle told me that she would have weekly conversations with John about the abuse that was occurring. He would tell her that she was being ridiculous and that he didn’t remember behaving that way. She was told that she was over dramatic and a dramatic person. John would also tell her that she got upset about everything and would minimize her feelings.
Michelle also told me that John was only abusive when he was drunk, and she could always tell when he was going to become violent. As she states it, “His eyes would go black. The pupils would expand fully. There was no iris left. And his eyes were blue, so there was a huge black pupil and a small ring of blue. He would black out, he wouldn’t know. He legitimately would not know an hour later what had happened.”
John also flat-out told Michelle that the abuse was her fault.
As far as being controlling, John would get angry when Michelle would spend time with her friends, especially males. When she wasn’t with him, he would send her text messages the entire time. One night, while Michelle was at a party, John texted her over one hundred times. He would have emotional and angry outbursts. Once, Michelle recalls, she invited John over to her friend’s house to play a board game so that he would feel included. When John realized that he was not doing as well as the others in the game, he flipped out. He started screaming and her friends were horrified.
Wesley was very possessive due to his obsession with Michelle. About Wesley, Michelle told me, “He needed me desperately. I was his angel of goodness. I was the most beautiful thing in the world, he could not live without me, how could I go out with my friends when he might need me? He had no one. I took care of him for years after we broke up. He desperately cared for me, or thought he did, I was everything to him. There was always extreme guilt. He wasn’t guilting me on purpose. He wasn’t a skilled manipulator at all. He was just desperate.”
When I asked Michelle about how she felt about love and relationships prior to her first abusive relationship, she told me that her parents gave her a model for what an ideal relationship should be. She has never seen them fight or disagree about anything. Her father dotes on her mother and her mother does everything for her father. There was never any tension between them and they were a single unit. Michelle told me she thought that’s how relationships would be, but they weren’t.
Michelle also commented that because her father seemed to be subservient to her mother, she assumed that men were people who she could control and do with whatever she wanted. She assumed that all men would bow to her will. In terms of discovering her sexual identity, once Michelle lost her virginity she quickly realized that sex was a way to manipulate men and get them to do what she wanted.
Wesley reinforced this idea of what a relationship should be like, because he adored her so completely and let her do whatever she wanted. Michelle commented that he just annoyed her because he always made her feel guilty about not wanting to spend time with him every second of the day, and it didn’t feel quite right.
After the relationship with Wesley ended, Michelle still felt that she could have any man who she wanted and for any purpose that she deemed fit. She commented that she would frequently say this, out loud, at twenty-one: “I will have any man that I want, I will have him for as long as I want, and I will have him as much as I want. When I am done with him, he will be gone.” When she met John, she told her friend that he was very attractive and that she was going to have him. And so she did.
Michelle told me that everything was going fine until one night, they were having sex and John was “black-out drunk”, and he said to her: “You need to leave me. I’m going to hurt you, you need to go. You need to leave. You need to never see me again. I’m going to really hurt you.” Michelle told me that she called him crazy and he agreed with her, telling her that he really was crazy. John did not remember this happening, but Michelle told me that she found out after they broke up that he had severely abused his previous girlfriends.
After Michelle’s relationship with John ended, she told me that she did not see anyone for a long time. She was severely emotionally traumatized. If a man raised her voice or acted aggressively, she would flinch. Michelle wasn’t eating or sleeping. She was found sitting in her apartment among the broken glass and mess from John’s final outburst.
Michelle told me that the violence center had a list of abusive behaviors that they called a “severity index”. When she listed the things that John had done to her, she was told that it was the most severe case they had seen that year. As a result, her therapy was free of charge. Michelle attended therapy, began doing yoga, and started to feel much better about what had happened to her.
When I asked Michelle if she felt that the way she was being treated was abuse at the time, she told me yes. When I asked her why she stayed in those abusive relationships, she told me that she has spent a lot of time thinking about it since the events occurred. Michelle told me that prior to John, she had never attempted anything and failed. She was successful in every area of her life. Michelle, after reflecting on the events that occurred, realizes that she stayed with John because she was not going to fail because she had never failed. She was going to save him.
Michelle reflects that the methods she tried to use with John were not effective, but they have worked with Steve, her current boyfriend. She told me that he is a much different person now than when she met him and she credits her influence in his life. They are very competitive and every time she makes a decision to better her life, Steve wants to out do her. It is for this reason, Michelle believes, that Steve is graduating from college, in better shape, and makes better life choices. These methods are effective with Steve, but were not with John. With John, when it did not work she tried even harder. He took advantage of Michelle’s efforts and used that part of her personality to get her to do anything he wanted.
When we talked about Wesley, John, and Steve collectively, I asked Michelle what personality trait they all share. She gave it some thought and told me: They are all weak. They need something – emphasis on the word need. They all have terrible mothers. Michelle told me that although they are all “mama’s boys”, their mothers have severely mistreated them.
Michelle also commented, about abusive men, “Men who are abusers have learned to hate women because they have had a woman display extreme dominance over them, often their mother, or perhaps from a previous relationship. They have learned to lash back and see all women as wanting to seize control.”
Michelle does not feel anger towards any of her abusers. She still believes that relationships are power play, but now sees that even during those abusive relationships, she held all the power. It was never taken away from her. Michelle appears to have a very healthy outlook about the things that have happened to her.
She also observes that whereas previously men were seen as the dominant force in our culture, things are changing. Men, particularly white men, are the downtrodden members of society. There has been such a push for female rights that men are sort of being shoved into the background. Michelle told me that at a lot of colleges, there are more female students than male ones. She also believes that school program are geared toward women and their success and that men are falling behind.
Michelle also feels that men should always love women more than women love men. She told me that her father told her once, “The perfect marriage is one where the husband loves the wife a little bit more than she loves him, and the wife is a little bit smarter.” Michelle does not know why he feels this way, but credits his parents’ relationship and his own marriage with her mother. When I asked her if this is the model she has with Steve, she told me it is the model she wants to have.
I asked Michelle why she is still in her current relationship even though she classifies it as abusive, and she told me that it’s different with Steve. It is not their relationship that is abusive, but Steve does have an abusive personality. He is abusive to everyone, not just Michelle. As far as the power struggle in the relationship, they do struggle for the power, but one person does not hang on to it for very long. It is like a pendulum. One will have it for a while and then decide to give it to the other person for a while. Michelle believes that this is more balanced than her previous relationships, and would not want to be in a relationship where one person abuses the other the majority of the time.
Michelle’s outlook on love and relationships appears to be relatively healthy, even though it is the exact opposite of what society and the media tells us a relationship should be. The reality is that whenever two people are put together, survival instinct will kick in and one person will assume a leadership role. She is also very frank about her partner’s shortcomings, but has positive things to say about him as well. Overall, she appears to be one-hundred-percent aware of what is happening, and also in complete control of what happens to her. She is not a victim anymore. Her relationship with John taught her that she can set her own boundaries and demand that others respect them.