“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
Worst line from a movie. Ever.
The reason it’s the worst line from a movie is that there are people out there, both men and women, who actually believe that. They think that love is all about forgiveness and forgetfulness, especially if it’s the other person doing the forgiving and the forgetting. If you ask them to forgive or forget, though, you are asking too much.
I can kind of get behind forgiveness. I mean, people are people, and people screw up sometimes. You can remember something, though, without having to grind it in every day. You can’t completely forget something without running the risk of becoming a doormat.
I have a story to tell. About a friend. Yeah, I know. “A friend” is about as transparent as it gets. This is a conglomeration of people, though, not just one person, and not just me. I was in a bad relationship for a long time. I left. Life is very good now. That’s all that matters, for the purpose of this story.
I’m going to go with the guy being the abuser. It doesn’t always work that way, I know, but it’s the easiest way for me to tell it. I have heard a lot of these stories, and some of them end well. Many, though, don’t.
Girl meets boy. Boy is much more experienced. He seems very sweet at first, woos her, pays attention to all of her likes and dislikes, and makes sure not to push too hard. He asks her to move in with him. She refuses at first, then eventually gives in. Life is wonderful for a little while. After the honeymoon period is over, he starts getting more critical. He isn’t necessarily critical of her, at least not at this point. He’s critical of her friends. He doesn’t say they are bad. He just suggests that maybe she could do better. He points out any deficiencies, tells her they are not really good enough for her, and makes a point of complaining about any time she spends with them. If he spends time with them, too, he is the center of attention or he is not happy, and when they leave, he tells her all of the things they did that were unkind to him.
If he’s good at it, he undermines all of her friendships. If she’s really lucky, she keeps a few friends.
She loses touch with her family. Every time she wants to call them, there’s something he urgently needs from her. If there isn’t something he needs, sometimes he’ll just ask for sex, saying it has been a while and he misses her. Over time, she will not talk to her family much.
When she is sufficiently separated from her support structure, he begins tearing her down. He compares her to his previous girlfriends, and she always comes out badly. He compares her to people they meet, people who still have the glow of newness and unfamiliarity on them, and she never comes out looking good. “Why can’t you be more like…” becomes the beginning to a lot of questions, and she doesn’t have an answer. She thought they were doing all right, but she begins to doubt, thinks, perhaps, that she is not doing enough.
He wants her to quit her job. She has support there, too, and it threatens him. Maybe he offers to help her get through school, because school and work are hard to do well at the same time, and she could do so much better with more education. If she refuses, he starts complaining about the time her job takes away from their relationship. He tells her their friends look down on him for having such an uneducated girlfriend. He pushes constantly, calls her at work, says he misses her, and the quality of her work starts degrading, just slightly, because she can’t focus like she used to.
Maybe she’s one of the strong ones. She keeps her job, her lifeline to feeling less lost.
If she goes back to school, that, too, will eventually take up too much time. Either that or it will be a waste because her grades aren’t perfect and he doesn’t see why he should keep paying for it if she’s not serious. If she tries to do homework at home, he tries everything to distract her. “Let’s go out to dinner!” “We haven’t seen our buddies in ages – let’s go play pool. It won’t take long, you’ll have time to study.” As soon as she sits down, he comes up with something. If she objects, he gets angry, says she clearly doesn’t care as much about the relationship as he does. He’s putting her through school and now school is more important than he is. He works to make her feel indebted to him even more.
If she stays at school to study, he is not supportive. He says she doesn’t feel like the house is home, clearly, as evidenced by the fact that she doesn’t want to study there, to spend time with him at the same time she’s studying. Oh, and the house is never clean enough or decorated nicely enough, which is her fault, because she clearly just doesn’t care enough about the relationship. It’s always something.
The pattern, no matter the specifics, are that he gradually pulls control away from her, gets rid of all of her support, and then makes sure she feels unsure and afraid of everything. He sets himself up as the only sure thing in her life, even if his presence constantly hurts her. She believes that she isn’t doing something well enough. If she could do things right, he’d be happy.
That’s the key to this whole thing. He gets her into a position of wanting to please him, then he is impossible to please. He has power. She doesn’t. If she makes the mistake of being proud or happy about anything, he tries to make it look useless. He works on making her feel like nothing she does is good enough.
This is where the story stops, because it can go a few different ways.
One: she gets help – family, friends, a therapist, whatever. Someone gets through to her that she’s better than this, that he’s cruel and controlling.
Two: she stays, and eventually he has complete control. No one knows her as anything other than his shadow, and she has nowhere to go.
Three: it gets worse. He starts hitting her, and she defends him. He makes fun of her in front of other people and she supports him. Eventually, perhaps, she ends up in the hospital, or worse.
This last bit isn’t a story.
You may know someone in an abusive relationship. You might not know it, though, because abusers are very good at hiding who they are. They can look like perfectly nice people.
If you have time, volunteer at a women’s shelter. Help out at a crisis call center. Become part of the solution. If you see yourself reflected in this portrait of an abuser, get help. It’s possible to change, but you have to want to change and stop hurting people.
Most important, though, if someone asks for your help, try to give it to them. They may need you more than you can imagine.