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The Stockholm Syndrome of an Abusive Relationship

Two months after I got married, my husband put a shovel through my car window.

The Stockholm Syndrome of an Abusive Relationship
Illustration by Jesse Zhang

Staring at my phone. Why won’t my fingers dial 9-1-1? Do it, Katie, fucking call! I hear myself shouting in my own head. I lose my chance. I’m covered in glass. My knuckles are bleeding. Now I am screaming. I climb out my passenger-side door and instinctively touch my face. Blood. How hurt am I? I can’t feel anything.

“Katie, I am so sorry,” he says. The metal shovel he broke my car window with now out of his hands, he follows me inside, trying to stop me along the way. “Please, Katie, please, I’m sorry,” he pleads. Get out of my way. I must see how hurt I am. I walk into the bathroom and look in the mirror. There are lines of blood coming down my face, but I can tell nothing is deep. I’m wearing glasses and a knit hat, which thankfully protected my eyes from the glass that had just been launched into my face.

I stare at myself blankly in the mirror as I begin to dab at the blood. My heart is pounding, and I barely recognize myself. The blood-streaked reflection keeps looking at me, but who is she? How did I get here? He tries to take over at dabbing the blood off my face. I tell him to get the fuck away from me, and I look at my phone once again. Must call for help. How can I call with him standing there? I text my dad, “Please come get me.” Then he takes my phone away. Fuck.

***

This is how my marriage ended. I’m 30 and divorced. I’m educated, and I live what most would describe as a comfortable, middle-class, white-privileged life. Yet I experienced domestic violence for years. My marriage ended when my husband assaulted me and was arrested two days after Christmas. Upon his arrest, a full order of protection went into place. This meant he could not contact me for (at least) six months, or he’d be charged with a felony. We’d been married for two months.

That night, one cop asked how a “woman like me” could find herself with a “guy like that.” Were there really “no signs of behavior like this?” they asked. Of course there were signs. I hurt deeply with feelings that I had “known better,” that I had “seen this coming.” Though I was the victim of a crime, finding forgiveness for myself would prove to be the most challenging part of recovering.

***

Our first date was the best first date I had ever had. He was sweet and generous. We were vulnerable. We talked for hours. I gushed over it to friends, and I came back to the feelings it brought out in me many times when things got bad. At one point during that first date, he got up, walked over to my side of the table, and kissed me. Because he liked something I said THAT much.

At 25, I was more familiar with men treating me poorly than otherwise. But here I had a handsome Midwestern gentleman who could cook, sing, and dance, and he looked at me in a way I had never experienced. Finally! Wading through the sea of douchebags had led me to him. It was all very romantic.

I didn’t realize until I was out of the relationship that verbal and emotional abuse is domestic violence. The way he hurled insults at me during a disagreement, how he’d use his physical size to intimidate or block me from walking away, how nothing was ever his fault, how scared he could make me feel, how powerless. “You’re a bitch, and I’m not the only one who thinks so.” “What happened to the sexy, confident girl I fell in love with?” “Nothing is ever good enough for you.” “You’re a cunt.” “This is all your fault.”

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I couldn’t communicate openly and honestly with him for fear of how he might react. I held things in and always felt baseline annoyed with him. This is how abuse can become a true mind fuck. The victim (hate that word) of abuse struggles to accept/name the actions of a person they love as abusive. You love them and therefore want to believe in them — even when they’re doing everything they can to control you. He consistently played into my insecurities, using things I told him in confidence against me. He would tell me I was manipulative. That I was never happy. By the end of a fight, I felt dizzy and exhausted. I no longer knew what it was about, and I just wanted to move on.

***

Through the help of a domestic-violence counselor, I was able to assign terms to what happened to me over nearly five years, such as gaslighting and traumatic bonding. It took some time to truly accept what had happened as abuse. “He’s an alcoholic,” I’d say. “Not all alcoholics are abusive,” my counselor would retort. “I hear he was diagnosed as bipolar,” I’d add. “He didn’t abuse you because he’s bipolar” was the reply. She stressed to me that I had nothing to feel bad about. She gave me handouts about red flags in dating, and I checked off all the boxes as I reflected on my relationship with him. We talked about how fucked up our culture is, both in how we treat domestic-violence survivors and in how we demonize abusers (if we acknowledge them at all). I began to see the world with new eyes, and it was shocking.

In June, our divorce was official. Thankfully, we didn’t have kids or shared assets, and I have a wonderful support system. Getting out of my abusive relationship was much easier for me than it is for many people. But it wasn’t that easy. I was not able to annul the marriage. The requirements for this are completely outdated, and physical violence doesn’t qualify you. Unless you can prove you’re related, that one or both of you was intoxicated when you were wed, or that one of you is insane, you’re shit out of luck. Though I was unemployed at the time of the divorce, I didn’t qualify for any financial support. A divorce, without lawyers, simply to file, is just shy of $400. On the day of the divorce, despite the order of protection, we both had to be present in court, mere feet from each other.

Initially, I was pretty quiet about what had happened. Silence proved toxic. As my life progressed and I was about to open a business, I knew speaking up was the only option. I’m grateful that we are in a moment where more stories of abuse are being told and women are being believed, like when the former White House staff secretary’s two ex-wives, Colbie Holderness and Jennifer Willoughby, went public earlier this year with the violence they experienced.

The only way to bring about change is to bring it all to light. When I posted about my experience, I received a huge response. “Likes” poured in, and women began reaching out to me — to thank me, to ask for advice, to tell me about their experiences, or to simply send love my way. I also pissed people off and became the topic of conversation at the local bar in my small town. Some thought I was brave, others vindictive. I felt empowered.

Today, I own a yoga studio, and I’m launching an aromatherapy e-commerce business in 2018. I’m certified as a domestic-violence crisis counselor, and I volunteer at Women’s Support Services in Sharon, Connecticut. This year, their training had twelve participants. Previously, the largest volunteer training groups had just two or three participants. Change is coming. Our culture creates both abusers and victims, and when we realize that, we can prevent violence. Love shouldn’t hurt.

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Katie Shanley is a yoga teacher and holistic health coach. She is the owner of Buddhi Tribe yoga-and-wellness studio. You can learn more about her here.