She only hit me once: Why I stayed in an abusive relationship
As I write this, it’s been three years and sixteen days since I escaped my relationship with Eve Rickert, the woman I thought I would be with for the rest of my life. It simultaneously feels like it happened a lifetime ago and just yesterday.
When I stepped into my therapist’s office for the first time, the very first thing I said to her, before we even did any paperwork or introduced ourselves, was “I’m not okay.” Months had gone by since I’d left, and I was slowly dragging myself, step by step, nightmare by nightmare, from my state of shell-shocked disbelief. It was only just starting to hit me how poisonous and abusive my relationship with Eve had become.
Had been from the beginning, if I’m honest with myself. And god, that was so, so hard to admit.
By the time I left, I’d ceded so much control over my life I barely knew who I was any more. Inch by inch, I’d allowed Eve to assert control over everything I did: what I wore, what I bought, what I ate, when I saw my other partners. She’d inserted herself into every aspect of my life, taking control of things I’d done long before I ever met her. Midway through our relationship, she demanded that I turn control of my long-running polyamory website More Than Two over to her company, that I let her redesign the site, and even that I changed the software it was running on. She even changed the Amazon affiliate links to her links.
I knew something was wrong early on, but I stayed. I didn’t assert boundaries. I don’t think I even realised I was allowed. Bit by bit, I backed away from my own choices, and yielded myself to her. It’s taken me a long time and a lot of therapy to begin unpacking why I did that, and I’m still not finished. Eve manipulated those tendencies in me, but she didn’t create them.
A lot of people who’ve never experienced abuse will ask survivors, “why did you stay?” I ask myself that every day. Even now, in spite of what I know, I blame myself for staying for so long.
Back in the Before Times, whenever someone emailed me or asked me at a conference why people stay in relationships after they turn emotionally or physically violent, I’d repeat the standard narratives: abuse is about power and control; the abuser isolates the survivor from family and friends, leaving them no sources of support; the survivor can internalize responsibility for and shame about the abuse; the abuser can control the survivor financially; the survivor can fear retaliation if they leave; the survivor may not recognize the abuse...all the things you read in every book on abuse.
But I didn’t really understand it. I didn’t feel it. I couldn’t see it when it was happening to me.
I think...I think I didn’t want to. The problems started early—minor boundary violations that became angry outbursts that became physical violence—but every time, I convinced myself that it wasn’t real. She didn’t mean it. It was an accident. I must have caused it somehow, I deserved this, it was my fault.
It became very, very easy to tell myself it was my fault.
I didn’t see the pattern because I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to believe that this wonderful, smart, creative person I loved so much was also the angry, violent person prone to outbursts of jealousy and rage. The standard abuse narrative says “the survivor may not recognize the abuse,” but every time I saw that, I imagined it meant it was because they weren’t capable of seeing it. Not like me. I was much too smart for that. I’d never fall into a trap like that.
Turns out I wasn’t too smart for that. The truth, at least for me, is I didn’t want to see it.
I convinced myself, over and over and over again, that this outburst, this consent violation, this time she broke things, was an aberration. She’s not like that. This isn’t her. I just need to hang on until it’s over.
I know why I did it. I did it because the image I had—the image society taught me—of “people who abuse” is wrong. We make them out to be caricatures of demonic evil, all grotesque features and malevolent cackling. They aren’t. It would be so much easier if they were,
Most of the time, my relationship with Eve was wonderful. And I refused to see the toxic elements—the control, the emotional and verbal abuse, the steadily escalating violence—because I didn’t want to lose her.
When she stormed from the room screaming and rammed her fist into my stuff over and over because I got a text message from another partner, I called it an aberration and let it go.
When she erupted into screaming at me in the middle of a conference because the speaker was talking about WordPress and she thought I should have raised my hand to speak, then followed me down the road screaming at me when I walked out of the conference, I called it an aberration and let it go.
Each time she kept me up until 2AM yelling at me and hitting the wall next to me, I called it an aberration and let it go.
When she told me—on many occasions—I wasn’t allowed to spend time with my other partners, and tore them down in front of me, I called it an aberration and let it go.
When she had a screaming, crying fit and demanded I stop messaging a fellow poly organizer and activist, I called it an aberration and let it go.
So many incidents, so many aberrations. I let them all go.
I called each one an aberration and let it go because after these episodes, the other Eve, the Eve I adored, always came back. She always told me she was sorry. She always told me how ashamed she was. And I didn’t want to lose that Eve.
That’s the thing I didn’t see described in the books I read, and the thing I didn’t resonate with in the standard narrative about abuse—that overwhelming desire to keep the parts of our relationship that were wonderful.
And they really were wonderful. There was so much good and amazing in my relationship with Eve, so much that was incredible and joyful, it became easy to focus on that and let the rages and the violence slide. I convinced myself that if I could just be the right person, make myself small enough, do what she told me to do, be better, I’d get to keep the wonderful Eve, the Eve I loved.
And I mean, it wasn’t like I was really being abused, right? I’ve met abuse survivors. I’ve talked to survivors. The things they talk about always sounded so much worse than what I experienced. They had bruises, scars, broken limbs. I didn’t. How dare I even think about calling myself an abuse survivor, when other people need—and deserve—the support so much more?
Yes, I know exactly how cliched that sounds. Sitting here now, looking at what I just wrote, I realize that I never understood it before. Not emotionally. Not as lived experience. Not as a gut punch and the crack of my heart breaking all over again.
I always believed her when she said she was sorry. I always thought, it really won’t happen again.
I kept doing that even after the night she hit me.
That night is branded on my memory. It was August 11, 2017. It happened near the end of a blissful week with my wife and all my partners except Eve, who’d been invited but declined to come. We were on our way back from a wedding ceremony at my wife’s parents home in California to do a handfasting at a dance retreat in Washington. Eve drove down from Vancouver to the retreat, and that night, as we sat in the back of her van, I confessed that I’d screwed up the schedule and my partner M would be staying in the US a day longer than I thought. I told her I wanted to spend the extra day with M, as we normally lived a 14 hour journey apart.
She screamed and yelled and, finally, hit me. She picked up her laptop and slammed me with it.
I froze. I was in shock. I couldn’t believe it had happened. I felt the world drop out from under me. That didn’t just happen. She didn’t just do that. She didn’t mean it. She was trying to hit the wall beside me, she does that all the time. She was trying to hit the bed next to me, she does that all the time. She couldn’t have done that. She wouldn’t. She loves me. This isn’t real.
The instant she did it, she burst into tears. She said “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” over and over again. And the weird thing about that, the thing that really got inside my head and twisted me up, is I felt bad for her.
She cried and she yelled and she told me she couldn’t breathe, and I felt bad for her. My first reaction was to reach out to her, to try to make sure she was okay.
My therapist calls this a “fawn response.” I’d always heard about the “three Fs” of fear—fight, flight, or freeze—but some people placate their abuser, trying to please them, hoping to fend off more attacks.
I just wrote “some people.” I keep catching myself doing that. Me. I am those “some people”. I do that.
She left me there that night. We’d planned to stay in her van together for the dance retreat. Instead, she dropped me off at the hotel room of E, a long-term friend, at four o’clock in the morning and drove away.
I walked through the retreat in a daze the next day. My wife and I had a handfasting ceremony, but all through it, even as I smiled to hide the panic, I kept thinking, What just happened? What did I do wrong? How do I make it up to her?
I talked to my wife and my other partners and I said “I think Eve and I just broke up.” It didn’t seem real. Everything was confusing and uncertain.
When I returned to Vancouver, everything was fine. The Eve I loved was back. We went on a trip ourselves, just the two of us, to watch the solar eclipse, and it was as if all the bad had fallen away like it never happened. She blamed the smoke in the air from forest fires around the dance retreat and I...I wanted to believe her. I wanted to believe her so badly. Having something else to blame made that easy, even the flimsiest of excuses would do. Oh, it was the smoke, it gave her an anxiety attack, it wasn’t her, she would never do that.
It was always wonderful when it was just the two of us. The first book tour with her was one of the happiest times of my life. Eve spoke about these times often, about how we created a ‘bubble’ that was just the two of us, separate from the world; about how she felt the most safe and secure in that bubble.
Her other partners were invited into the bubble. Mine weren’t. She invited another lover with us on our European book tour, but when I wanted to invite one of my lovers to join us for part of the tour, that provoked a huge fight.
Well, I say fight. It really wasn’t. It was Eve demanding that I absolutely under no circumstances bring my partner with us, and me quietly acceding. Looking back now, I can see the pattern: when my other partners made their presence felt, that was when the cycle of rage would start again. She isolated me from them, to alienate me, telling me how bad they were for me, how she didn’t see why I wanted them in my life. When I left her, I downloaded the history of my chat logs and Facebook Messenger with Eve and going back through it is like waking from a dream...I keep asking myself, How did I let her talk to me this way about people I loved? How did I not see this?
Later, of course, she would claim I turn my partners against each other.
E came and stayed with Eve and I for three weeks, some months after that. Later, when she returned home, she told me she felt that she had to make herself small, contained, around Eve. Nothing overt, nothing aggressive...but Eve made it clear to her they weren’t friends. She was my guest, not Eve’s.
She also raised, in her gentle way, some questions about the things she observed about Eve’s level of control over me. My long-term partner M had done the same thing much sooner, and much more directly. Weirdly—and I realize this sounds completely backward and mystifying—the fact that M was so much more blunt—‘Franklin, this level of control she has, this isn’t really healthy, she’s telling you what to wear for God’s sake’—was easier to dismiss than E’s ‘I don’t understand these things I saw, what’s happening here?’
I’ve spent a lot of time unpacking this with my therapist. Why didn’t I pay attention to M (and others!) who were expressing that they thought Eve’s behavior was problematic? I’m not sure I really understand the answer, even now. Part of it, I think, was that wilful blindness, that desire not to believe this wonderful woman I loved so much was controlling me, manipulating me, abusing me. Couldn’t they see? Couldn’t they see how awesome she is? Couldn’t they see how amazing she is? Eve, this wonderful person I love so much, controlling me? That can’t be right!
I rejected their attempts, I think, because I believed that they didn’t see her virtues, didn’t see her the way I saw her. I was, I thought, the only person to see her truly. They were biased, they were misunderstanding her, she was a passionate person but creative people often are! That’s not her fault, they were just being too harsh on her.
If she was abusive then clearly she couldn’t also be wonderful. And I knew that couldn’t be true.
E’s gentle interrogation left room, I think, for both realities: Eve was an amazing, smart, creative, wonderful person who also became controlling, angry, violent, and abusive when she felt jealous. Often, we caricature abusers, constructing slaving monsters that lurk in the closet, cartoonishly evil villains without redeeming features. I think maybe that black-or-white thinking comes from a desire to feel safe: the abuser is a Bad Person, and if we can just get rid of all the Bad People, we can make our communities safe. Our loved ones can be safe. We can be safe. Problem is, this all-or-nothing, black-or-white thinking makes it easy for abusive people to hide in plain sight.
People are rarely only one thing.
The questions E asked, the room she left for both sides of Eve, were the start of the long and painful process that finally led to me climbing on a bus with everything I could carry packed into my suitcase and pulling away from Vancouver on that day. I knew, when I stepped on that bus, it was over.
It still took everything I had to take that first, tentative, shaking step.
That was three years and sixteen days ago. I still don’t completely understand how I let it get so bad. But inch by inch, one step at a time, I’m getting there. I’m getting me back.