real life

'I put up with abuse from my ex for more than 15 years. I'm now facing the messy truth of why.'

This post deals with domestic violence, and could be triggering for some readers. If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732). 

"That was great!" my husband smiled at me from across the table as I hung up on my ex, mid-sentence.

“It used to be so painful listening to you talk to him. He’d be bullying you and you’d just give in. Wow! Look at you now!”

I smiled back, placed the phone on the table. For the first time in years, I felt calm after an argument with my ex. Almost completely unfazed. I laughed. “Pretty different.”

Watch: Women And Violence: The Hidden Numbers. Post continues below. 


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Who was that woman four years ago, ten years ago, who passively stood by and accepted abuse from people? Not just from my ex either. From friends and strangers. From family members. Things I would never put up with now.

Why did I do that? Why do so many of us do it? I’ve been asking myself that lately, but I’m not sure the answer is a simple one.

“You’re one of the most passive people I know,” someone said to me a few years before my marriage ended.

That’s not how I thought of myself. I thought I was a strong, smart, capable woman. I thought he was wrong, but I didn’t say anything. I see now how completely right he was.

Passivity showed up every day in my life. It showed up in my pride at being “low maintenance.” I didn’t ask for or need much, from anyone. It showed up in my refusal to express my own needs or even acknowledge I had any. It showed up in people-pleasing, “helping”, and being gentle in instances when I should have been firm.

Why did I put up with abuse? Why was I so passive against it? I’ve been asking myself this as I try to change my behaviour.

Change is so difficult. It feels like I’m slowly unravelling and rebuilding myself, in dozens of painful moments of realisation and awakening.

I read and hear people making statements like, “Women just need to stand up and know their worth” or “If we stop accepting abuse, it will stop happening.” I agree. Why should we put up with it? Why do we? 

I’d love to say it’s as straightforward as just standing up and saying no. But like many of us, our “why” started in childhood. We’re so used to behaving one way, often we don’t even realise there’s anything wrong with it.

My mum, a strong independent woman, suffered from mental health issues and childhood trauma and, growing up, I became used to being well-behaved and easy. Walking on eggshells was my expertise. I learned how to be careful with a strong but fragile personality.

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People-pleasing became my normal and my worth tied up in it. It felt good to help. To rescue. To make people happy. It felt like I was loved when I was needed and necessary, because then they might stay. Then they might not abandon me as my mother did emotionally.

When your “why” starts in childhood, your broken parts feel whole. You can’t even see what’s wrong with how you behave or what you put up with.

I knew not to put up with physical violence, but there wasn’t any until near the end of my marriage. I put up with verbal and emotional violence, because I made excuses about his mental health issues. Because it might get better. Because it did get better sometimes. I put up with the bad times, because there was hope.

Sometimes he was lovely. Sometimes he was supportive and romantic and kind. 

I tolerated the months when things were bad because there was never anything I could put my finger on exactly. I didn’t understand yet what non-physical abuse looked like. 

I didn’t understand codependent relationships or people-pleasing or “white knight syndrome” or any unhealthy dynamics we were falling into. I blamed his mental health rather than myself. I never asked “why am I putting up with this?” I made excuses for him and escaped into a fantasy world to cope.

I thought I was strong enough to take it. Strong enough to fix him. To fix us. A couple of times I did break and tried to leave, but people made me feel guilty and I thought, “one more go.”

Because I didn’t want a broken home.

Because I’m not a quitter.

Because I thought “hanging in there through rough patches” was what was expected of me. It was what I expected of myself.

Because I didn’t expect it to go on and on and get worse rather than better.

Why did I put up with it? Because abuse isn’t always obvious and if he’d hit me, which he eventually did, I’d leave.

Why do women put up with it? Because it’s not as easy as you think judging from the outside. Life is complex and full colour and multilayered. It’s abstract art, a Monet, a maze. It’s not black and white and right and wrong and clear cut.

Why don’t we stand up and leave abusive marriages? Because most of the time, we don’t even know that’s what we’re looking at. We’re too close to the painting. We can’t see it until we step back, and all the pieces come together to form a picture. It’s only when we see it clearly we can find our strength and decide to stand up and say no.

That’s why.

This post originally appeared on Medium and has been republished with full permission. 

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home. 

You can also call safe steps 24/7 Family Violence Response Line on 1800 015 188 or visit www.safesteps.org.au for further information.

Feature Image: Getty.