Recently my dad sent me the Web site of a speaker he heard at YWCA’s In the Company of Women luncheon to support programs and services for survivors of domestic violence and homelessness. When I read the site, my jaw dropped to the floor and I welled up with tears. New York Times Best Seller author of Crazy Love – the story of her abuse that is currently being turned into a movie for Lifetime Television– and domestic abuse survivor Leslie Morgan Steiner answered Breezy Mama’s questions on living with abuse, what to do if you suspect a friend is abused and more. In her own words, “I have an MBA and an undergraduate degree from Ivy League schools. I live in a red brick house on a tree-lined street in one of the prettiest neighborhoods in Washington, DC. I’ve got 15 years of marketing experience at Fortune 500 companies and a best-selling book about motherhood to my name. If only being well-educated and blonde and coming from a good family were enough to defang all life’s demons.”
On your Web site, you mentioned the first time your ex-husband abused you was before your wedding. Did you think it was a fluke?
Yes — in fact, every time he hurt me I thought it was an isolated incident that would never be repeated. My ex-husband was very smart in this way, because in fact he never did the same thing twice, making it hard for me to recognize a pattern of abuse. My denial that domestic violence could not be happening to ME was very powerful.
It is important to never, ever ignore red flags in a relationship. Potential batterers are surprisingly predictable. They are talented scouts for a vulnerable woman – almost uncannily so. They are looking for a woman who feels safe to them, a woman who won’t hurt them, who won’t abandon them. When my husband first spotted me on the New York subway, I think he somehow knew – that I was insecure, and kind, and desperate for intimacy.
Abusive men are charming, thoughtful and romantic at first, and wonderfully open-hearted and needy. For months my husband did not make a false move. He never threatened me. I never saw him angry. An abuser will never get upset on a first date – the point is to create a sense of security, to wait until you are vulnerable. Say by getting engaged, moving in together, quitting a job so he can “take care of you” or getting pregnant. Then the threat of violence is introduced. Perhaps he pounds his fist on a table or punches a wall, or says “if I weren’t such a gentleman I’d hit you…” In my case, my husband first threatened me the night we moved in together in New York City, when I no longer had a place to escape to.
If like me, a woman doesn’t balk at the threat of violence, the abuser gradually escalates the threat into a pinch or shove or something “mild” that can be dismissed away. Often the abuser takes steps to isolate his victim from friends, colleagues and family. My husband convinced me to move to rural New England, where I knew no one and worked freelance at home. By this time, my denial and dependence had developed. His first full blown attack was five days before our wedding. Maybe someone tougher, smarter, stronger would have left him – but I felt like I had no choice but to stay.
As amazing as it sounds, I didn’t even know that I was being abused. My denial was that powerful. I thought I was helping him resolve the problems of his childhood, where he had been terribly beaten by his stepfather from age four to 15. To me, our relationship was about love, not hate. I thought – no, I KNEW — he was my soulmate. I was going to save him. And in return, I thought he’d never leave me. I’ve since learned this isn’t a terribly health approach to an intimate relationship.
So my advice is at the first red flag – the first threat of violence or rage – end the relationship. It is the easiest and also the safest time. Because the longer you wait, the more vulnerable you become. Studies show that the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is when you leave – because when he feels he’s lost you already, he has little to lose by killing you. So leave at the first threat of abuse – while you still can. I have met dozens of women who were hit once, and successfully left right away. If you stay, the situation always gets more complicated and more dangerous. I have never heard of a single case where a woman was able to help her partner overcome an abusive temperament; a batterer needs qualified professional help and guidance, not romantic love.
How long were you married and how often did the abuse occur?
We were together for four years — four very long years. He abused me about once a week or so. We went for six months once without any abuse because he promised to stop. The last beating was the worst. He also stalked me for about eight weeks after the relationship ended.
Can you give your insight into why women stay in an abusive relationship?
There is no question I’ve thought about more deeply in the 20 years since I was abused. I had other problems as a young woman – anorexia, a predilection to abuse alcohol and drugs were the biggies. You might think these problems suggested a certain insecurity or vulnerability. But I recognized and overcame those problems before I met my abusive husband, so those problems are not clear markers in my mind. Based on 45 years observing my wonderful girlfriends, basically, I think anyone is vulnerable. We’ve all got chinks in our self-esteem, right?
An insightful, destructive partner can exploit your insecurities to the point where you are being abused, physically or emotionally, without realizing it. So don’t fall in love with an abuser. Sounds simple – but of course we don’t “chose” who we fall for, and it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between prince charming and the dark knight, at first. But by minimizing your other vulnerabilities – by making sure you are economically independent, close to your friends and family, and feeling good about yourself — I believe you minimize the chance that you will fall in love with someone driven to take advantage of you.
What troubles me is how focused our society is on victims of abuse. It is not that difficult to understand why anyone — women, children, or men (because family violence does sometimes happen to men) — could become trapped in an intimate manipulative relationship.
But why would anyone hurt the people who love them most in the world? Why don’t therapists, researchers, police officers, judges and legislators ask more questions about the abusers who perpetrate the terrible cycle of family violence? Without abusers, we’d have no abuse. I am 100% behind efforts to help victims. But I believe long term change will come only when the hard questions shift to the perpetrators, rather than the victims, of family violence.
Did anyone who knows you suspect you were being abused? What can be done if abuse is suspected but a woman isn’t admitting it?
No one in my family — they were too close to the situation, and also in denial because they loved me and wanted my marriage to work. My husband’s best friend. Three or four of my best friends. My husband’s friend actually confronted me and I confessed to my best friend in college. Neither of these people judged me — for loving him, for staying, for trying to work it out. They just told me how scared they were for me. This is the best thing you can do if you suspect someone is being abused. Simply say “I’m afraid that you are not safe. Please know you can trust me if you need help.” This is a nonjudgmental, respectful and supportive way to break down a victim’s denial.
How did you finally find the courage to leave him?
It became clear the choice was him or me. I chose me. I was lucky we did not have children together and that I was not financially dependent upon him. Also, I was lucky that the police and my community recognized that what he did to me was wrong — criminal, in fact. I was also lucky that my ex-husband “let me go” and moved on to date another woman quickly. Most abusers continue to haunt their victims for months and years.
What steps did you take?
Although I was not used to asking for help from anyone, this time I needed to ask for help — from everyone! My neighbors, the police, a locksmith, my friends, my family, a therapist…I found an inner resolve, an ability to be adamant with myself that no matter how much I “loved” my ex-husband, I would never reunite with him.
What advice would you give a woman currently in an abusive relationship to help her get out?
Ask yourself a simple, but hard, question: is this how you want your life to be?
Most victims of abuse want the violence to end, but we don’t want the relationship to end. To end the violence, first you have to end the relationship. It is entirely up to the abusive person if they want to get counseling and help to stop the violence.
Although there are still many misconceptions about domestic violence, and not enough support in our criminal and family court systems, most of our society recognizes that physical abuse is wrong, a criminal act. There are many support groups, free anonymous 800 hot lines, shelters and advocacy organizations that can help you leave and start your life over.
You can leave the violence behind and rebuild your life. I have heard from hundreds of women — and men — whose abusive relationships are far in their pasts. They have reconstructed their families, their careers, and have been able to fall in love again with nonabusive partners.
What are some signs that a friend might be enduring abuse?
* Isolation from friends, family and co-workers, including geographic moves
* Overcommitment — offers to support you financially, to drive you everywhere, to pay for your cell phone, to give you a place to live, etc. that are ultimately designed to control your life
* A need for pity and special treatment and to be placed above all other needs, including children
* Control over clothing, jewelry, hairstyle, music choices, how money is spent, etc.
* The threat of violence (“If I weren’t such a gentlemen I’d hit you now…”)
Your story is very inspirational to women who are in an abusive relationship because you got out and fell in love again – this time with a non-abuser. Was it difficult to trust again?
The problem after escaping an abusive relationship is that most victims have trouble trusting themselves, their judgment, again. I never felt the abuse was my fault, and this helped me recognize that I had simply, innocently fallen in love with the wrong man, a very cunning man who had consciously or unconsciously set out to entrap me. So I felt it was fairly simple: I just had to be careful not to date a man with the same kind of troubles and anger/control issues. I promised myself I would never, ever be in a romantic relationship or any kind of relationship again that involved abuse. I took relationships very slowly. I remarried five years later to a wonderfully stable, loving man. We have three beautiful children together. My story has a happy ending.
I read that your first husband was abused as a child and continuing the cycle. How can victims of childhood abuse work through their violent past so they can end the cycle?
There are many therapy groups for abuse victims. The most important thing is to admit that you have been abusive and that you need help to break a destructive pattern. You need to accept responsibility for your behavior — without blaming yourself.
Can you tell us about your book, Crazy Love?
I worked on Crazy Love, in various forms, off and on for about 10 years. I imagine I could have kept writing for another 50 years, because with an experience as complicated as domestic violence, you are always gaining new insights into what made you vulnerable to abuse.
My first book, Mommy Wars, was all about being honest about the realities – joyful, horrible, frustrating – about motherhood. Mommy Wars readers encouraged me to tackle my story of domestic violence, which I had mentioned briefly in the introduction, with the same candor.
It’s impossible to explain in a few words what it is like to be drawn into an abusive relationship, and then after months or years, to decide to leave…it took an entire book to capture how confusing and complicated the experience is. And Crazy Love is currently being made into a Lifetime Television movie…another wonderful way to tell the story.
I’m lucky I wasn’t seriously hurt or killed during my four years with my ex-husband. Every year, thousands of women and children are killed by family violence. Three women are killed every day and 15 million children are exposed to family violence every year. I easily could have been one of these fatalities.
I’m fortunate I did not have children with my abuser. Often people who abuse their partners also physically abuse their children – it’s the same intimacy-and-violence paradigm. Even if the children aren’t physically hurt, children who witness their mother being beaten are irreparably damaged, and many of them grow up to repeat the cycle of family violence.
I never want to repeat the experience or the risks that I took. But I am very, very grateful that I found a way to leave my abuser and start my life over. And I’m also grateful that, unlike a lot of domestic violence survivors, I’m free to tell my story. I don’t have ties to my ex-husband and little family or cultural pressure to keep silent about what happened to me. Because I’m a writer who specializes in memoir, it’s natural for me to tell this story.
Any other advice you’d like to share?
Love is ALWAYS about respect, joy and kindness. Violence and abuse NEVER should play a role in an intimate relationship – with a lover, a parent, or even a supposed friend. You are not showing your love by letting someone take out their anger on you. Over time, rage always trumps love. So no matter how much you love someone troubled, get out now. You can start over, no matter how long you have been abused.
For advice and support, call or visit the following free, anonymous
•National Domestic Violence Hotline — 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) TTY 1.800.787.3224 www.ndvh.org
•National Sexual Assault Hotline — 1.800.656. HOPE (4673) www.rainn.org
•Family Violence Prevention Fund — 1.888.RX.ABUSE www.endabuse.org
•National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline — 1.866.331.9474 TTY 1.866.331.8453 www.loveisrespect.org
•Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline — 1.800.4.A.CHILD www.childhelp.org
•Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender National Help Center — 1.888.843.4564 www.glbtnationalhelpcenter.org
•National Center for Victims of Crime/Stalking Resource Center 1.800.394.2255 TTY 1.800.211.7996 www.ncvc.org
•National Center on Elder Abuse — 1.800.677.1116 www.ncea.aoa.gov
•Resource Center on Domestic Violence, Child Protection and Custody 1.800.527.3223 www.ncjfcj.org
•National Network to End Domestic Violence www.nnedv.org
Leslie Morgan Steiner lives in Washington, DC with her husband and three young children. Her memoir about surviving domestic violence, Crazy Love, is a New York Times bestseller, People Pick, and Book of the Week for The Week magazine.
She is the editor of the critically-acclaimed anthology Mommy Wars: Stay-at-Home and Career Moms Face Off on Their Choices, Their Lives, Their Families (Random House 2006) a frank, surprising, and refreshing look at American motherhood from 26 different perspectives.
From 2006-2008 she wrote over 500 columns for the Washington Post’s popular daily on-line work/family column, “On Balance.”
She currently writes the weekly column, “Two Cents on Working Motherhood,” for Mommy Track’d: Managing the Chaos of Modern Motherhood.
Steiner has been a guest on the Today Show, National Public Radio, ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox News, MSNBC, and has been profiled by Newsweek, BusinessWeek, Elle, Parenting, Parents, Self, Glamour, Vanity Fair, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.
Steiner holds a BA in English from Harvard College. In addition to years as a nonfiction magazine writer and editor, Steiner has an MBA degree in marketing from the Wharton School of Business.
To purchase Leslie’s book Crazy Love — click here.
To purchase Mommy Wars — click here.
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