Toxic Romance: Physical Abuse

I was in high school the night I woke up to the sound of an argument outside the house. Looking outside the window, I saw my mom’s boyfriend rushing down the driveway, his father, who was visiting for just one night, chasing after him.

Curious, confused, but mostly nosey, I reached the living room just as my mom came into the house in tears. If I hadn’t been there, catching her in the middle of an adrenaline-fueled frenzy, she probably would have never told me that her boyfriend, drunk, had gotten angry about something completely and totally insignificant and choked her.

In the days that followed, promises were made about how the drinking would stop and the anger that had built into violence would be let go. After all, he wasn’t really mad at her. Abusers are never that angry at the people they abuse, not really. That anger has welled somewhere else, in this case a cocktail of unending unemployment during a recession, loss of children to an ex who was nothing short of abusive herself, and a handful of other perceived failures poured in a glass already chipped by existing mental health issues. When he poured a touch of vodka into the mix, the glass became too full and tipped onto someone who hadn’t seen it coming.

I have always wondered how she forgave him that night. How she, like so many women, found the space to forgive after years of saying “that will never be me.” Right or wrong, I also forgave him. But there is a difference between forgiveness and forgetfulness. I forgave him for what he did. I never forgot what he did. The memory came back when promises were broken like the seal on the bottle of vodka. It came back when the emotional and verbal abuse became too consistent to ignore, accompanied by the sickening thought, “At least he isn’t hitting us.”

In retrospect, none of us should have forgiven him that night. Sure, it ended up being the only time in a decade-long romance that he was violent toward my mom, and he was never violent toward myself, my brother, or my sister, which is more than many families can say. Instead, his anger came out in different ways, turning into emotional and verbal abuse that scared every member of my family in different ways over the years (see: my brother’s verbal tics, my sister crying whenever she hears Bruno Mars). But, until even that was too big to ignore, we continued to forgive. Now we are just working on forgetting.

The point of this isn’t to ask for sympathies or apologies or condemnations. The point of this is to ask ourselves why so many people who are not encumbered by underlying mental health issues, lack of resources, fear of continued harm, or other inhibitors choose to stay. Why do some women and men allow physical violence from a partner?

While there are many factors to such a complex issue, one thing that we as readers, writers, and publishers need to grapple with is that we are surrounded by abuse stories with happy endings. The romance genre, in particular, is full of examples where two people hurt each other until they run out of ways to do so, meaning it must be time for happily ever after.

Written in as lazy shock value, we have gotten so used to our male and female leads slapping, pushing, shoving, or worse because we have become comfortable with the argument, “love is messy.” The only time we seem to have a problem with blatant abuse is if the abuser is clearly not who our favorite protagonist should end up with.

This is the part of the article where we here at Three Houses Press typically open our favorite love-to-hate texts, point to a passage, and say, “Aha! You see?” But not today. Instead, I am going to challenge you to go back and read a few of your favorite romances and ask yourself if you would be comfortable with your partner putting their hands on you in the way some of these characters do each other. Don’t try and rationalize it with, “Well, they aren’t really together yet.” Don’t try and rationalize it with, “Well, they deserved it.” Don’t try and rationalize it with, “Their love is too big to be stopped by something like this.” Finally, and perhaps most importantly, don’t try and rationalize it with, “Is that really such a big deal?”

Think of the action. Think of someone you love, or even someone you don’t, doing that action to you. Think of how it would feel, both the pain from the action and the memories of the action.

Will that ever be you?  

Speaking from experience, it could be. And until we normalize women and men telling the people they truly love that certain behaviors are not forgivable, that will never change.

If you are experiencing domestic abuse in the form of physical, verbal, or emotional violence, please know you are not alone and it is not your fault. To learn more about options and resources available to you, reach out to the domestic abuse hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or you can chat with them here.