(Content Warning: Partner abuse, rape, victim-blaming)
Here’s the truth: My ex-boyfriend abused me. He treated me worse than anyone outside of our relationship will ever know.
Some of you might believe me if I told you. But I’ve heard over and over again the common reasons for doubting survivors – and I can’t even begin to count how many of them can apply to me.
Life can feel very lonely as a survivor of intimate partner violence. For me, there is perhaps no lonelier time than when I realize how many people would think I was lying if I told them the truth.
I’m sure you don’t personally harbor all of the attitudes that lead people to doubt survivors. But for every reason I can name for why someone might not believe me, there’s somebody somewhere who would cite it as “proof” that my story is false.
So I’m talking to any part of you that just might buy into some of the common myths about survivors and intimate partner violence.
The part of you that thinks: “I’d believe a survivor if their story checks out, but why would anyone stay with someone who’s abusing them?”
Or: “Our legal system says everyone’s innocent until proven guilty, so I’ll believe it once the abuser is convicted.”
Or: “I know the person who’s being accused of abuse, and I just don’t think they would do something like that.”
I sometimes find that when survivors say that society’s not supporting us, people get defensive – because your support can fall short even when you’re only doing what you think is best.
But what many people see as a sensible approach to intimate partner violence often includes victim-blaming, shame, and judgment against survivors.
Too many people just don’t know how abuse works – and trauma can show up in lots of ways that you wouldn’t expect or can’t understand. I’ve had experiences and reactions that I wouldn’t have understood unless I went through it myself.
There are no easy answers to some of our questions about partner violence.
But what I do know is that common misconceptions about what proves or disproves that someone was “really” abused add a heavy burden to survivors’ pain.
These are some of the reasons someone wouldn’t believe that partner abuse happened to me.
1. My Abuser and I Don’t Fit Your Idea of Abuser and Victim
You wouldn’t believe me because you’d like my abuser if you met him. Everybody does.
He’d make you laugh, and seem like a really easygoing guy – not the type of person to hurt someone.
If you did happen to witness a flash of his anger, you’d think he was just having a bad day. You might pity him, even.
His abuse wasn’t always loud and obvious – it was also in the ways he could make someone else feel responsible for fixing him.
You wouldn’t believe he abused me because he comes from a good family.
They’re wealthy and well respected, and his mom gives amazing hugs, and his dad is the warmest person you’ll ever meet, and you can’t imagine what kind of person would want to ruin their lives by calling their son an abuser.
You wouldn’t believe me because I used to be one of those people who’d say, “If a partner ever hits me, I’ll leave.”
But I didn’t leave. Not right when I realized he was violent, or for a long time after that.
You wouldn’t believe me when I say he was abusive because I don’t even remember the first time he hit me – and because the abuse had already started long before then.
But you wouldn’t recognize verbal violence as violence.
You wouldn’t believe me because every time I tried to leave him, his threats felt closer and closer to an impending reality, and I didn’t know which ones he’d follow through on if I really did leave.
Because I knew I couldn’t outrun him. Because I was too exhausted to try.
You wouldn’t believe me because he’s been telling people I’m “crazy.” And if you had to choose between believing that a perfectly normal-seeming guy is abusive and believing that I’m “crazy,” you’ve heard enough stories about “crazy ex-girlfriends” to go with his side of the story.
You wouldn’t believe me because I’m a Black woman, and you know Black women – we’re said to be angry and aggressive and have “attitude,” even when we’re calm. Said to be criminals, even when our “attitude” is an effort to keep ourselves alive.
So you wouldn’t believe me because when he’d falsely accuse me of cheating and lose his temper, you’d understand why he was so insecure.
And you wouldn’t believe that he raped me, because aren’t bisexual women “always” up for sex?
You wouldn’t believe me because I seemed like such a devoted girlfriend. And who would be so devoted to someone who mistreated them?
From the outside, terror and control looked a lot like love.
2. I Never Talked About Abuse Like a ‘Perfect Victim’ Would
You wouldn’t believe me because I tried hard as hell to seem happy – and for the most part, I pulled it off.
You wouldn’t believe that someone who shows up to work on time was going through such turmoil, and because the one time I broke down crying to my manager, she told me I could talk to her about it, but I never did.
You wouldn’t believe me if you asked the people in my life if any of them knew what was going on at the time.
And because I don’t bruise easily. And because I covered up the scars he gave me with tattoos.
And because I perfected that thing survivors have to do sometimes – canceling plans with friends, but telling them: “Everything’s all right!”
Cupping my hand to the phone so they wouldn’t hear him yelling, and saying, “Everything’s all right!”
Rushing off the phone when they detect that something might be wrong, and saying, “All right, now! See you soon!”
You wouldn’t believe it was abuse because when he isolated me from my friends, he did it gradually. No locking me up and throwing away the key – the only thing in my way was my own shame.
You wouldn’t believe me because I’ve kept quiet – but if I spoke up, you’d think I was just trying to get attention.
You wouldn’t believe me because I’m writing this anonymously, and if I was telling the truth, you think I’d have no reason to hide. And because I have plenty of reason to hide, but I don’t know how to put it into words – I can only explain it as a chill in my bones.
You wouldn’t believe me because I don’t remember all of the details of what he did to me. If I tried to piece them together, in the right order, and you were looking to poke holes in my story, you probably could.
Yes, my story changes. Years later, a certain smell or sound or phrase can still make me remember something I hadn’t recalled before. Sometimes I bury the memory away so quickly that I wouldn’t be able to recall it again.
You wouldn’t believe me because the first time I told someone about the physical abuse, I laughed about it.
I’d run out of excuses for why my body ached, and as the truth stumbled from my lips, it seemed like such an absurd thing to admit that I chuckled.
You wouldn’t expect a victim of violence to chuckle.
You wouldn’t believe he abused me because I never filed a police report. Especially because I had several opportunities to do so – neighbors called the police many times.
You wouldn’t believe me because I didn’t trust the police to protect me, so I told them I was okay and sent them away.
You wouldn’t believe me because I didn’t even have him arrested that time when I was the one who called the police. The time I felt like I had no other choice, because I was sure he was going to kill me.
You wouldn’t believe me because when he threatened to kill himself rather than going to jail, and later, when the officers asked me, in front of him, if he’d physically attacked me, I thought about his loving family and our friends, and I thought I was about to ruin everyone’s life, and I decided my safety wasn’t worth it.
You wouldn’t believe me because if you had asked me then if I was being abused, I would’ve said no.
You wouldn’t believe me because his roommates were never the ones who called the police, even though they lived in the house where much of the abuse was happening.
You know. Bro code.
You wouldn’t believe me because I didn’t usually fight back. Why wouldn’t I fight back?
A few times, I did fight back, so you wouldn’t believe me because I wasn’t always meek. You’d take that as proof that I was indeed crazy, so maybe I’m the only one who will ever know I was fighting for my life.
Because every news story of a woman being killed by her boyfriend reminded me that he could kill me, but I still stayed.
And if told you about that, you’d think I only had myself to blame.
3. It’s Over – But That Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means
I tried to warn the woman he dated after me about him. Maybe I shouldn’t have done that, and maybe you wouldn’t believe he was abusive because that just makes me look jealous.
After it was over, I smiled in photos. I went out with friends. I had lots of sex, and I don’t regret it.
You wouldn’t believe me because you could’ve caught me looking like everything was fine.
Because after it was over, I didn’t seem like I was hiding out or terrified of going through such hell again. Because I danced seductively, and flirted, and dated, even fell hard for a girl before I realized I wasn’t ready to fall hard for anyone, and then I broke her heart.
I still feel bad about that, but you wouldn’t believe I was traumatized, because I just looked ruthless.
You wouldn’t believe he abused me because he did it years ago, but some of the trauma didn’t catch up to me until now.
You wouldn’t believe me because I can’t be honest with just anyone who asked about it. Emotionally, it’s hard to talk about – and there’s also the fact that so many of you wouldn’t believe me.
It hurts like hell to be vulnerable and open about something so awful, just to have you call me a liar.
You wouldn’t believe me because I hardly ever talk about him anymore. If you talked to me regularly, you might think he’s just a blink in my past, long forgotten. You wouldn’t know how often he shows up in my nightmares.
You wouldn’t believe me because if I ran into him in public now, I’d smile.
You’d think if he really treated me so badly, I’d go screaming in the opposite direction. But I imagine my panic would stay within me.
I’d be glancing around, looking for escape. And I’ve learned that with him, it’s best to plan my departure quietly.
You wouldn’t believe that screaming in horror can be so quiet.
You wouldn’t believe me because I don’t call him a monster. Because I see him as a human being, capable of terrible things that people among us of all personalities and backgrounds and genders and identities can be capable of.
You wouldn’t believe me because some of the abusive things he did are common behaviors society encourages in men. Because you’d perceive him as impressively confident, strong, dominant – just like a man should be.
You wouldn’t believe me because I get how people can call him a nice guy, a cool friend, a good son – in spite of what he is to me.
You wouldn’t believe me because I understand how other survivors can still love their abusers. Can tell you nice things about them. Can blame themselves for everything, when the world finds any number of reasons to blame them.
You wouldn’t believe me because I don’t tell other victims to “just leave.” Even if I want them to flee from their abusive partner and never look back, I understand just how hard that can be.
You wouldn’t believe me because I’m not broken, in spite of all of this. Because sometimes, I can face the violence in my past, and sometimes, I can even do it without flinching.
You wouldn’t believe me because I only flinch when you look away.
But if I take the risk of telling you the truth, you should believe me. You really should.
Because you think you have plenty of reasons not to believe that he abused me – but all of them are wrong.