Find a sheet of paper, maybe about the size of a piece of school looseleaf. Pick any corner and fold it over just a little, pointing it in toward the centre. Leave it there. A few days or a week later, fold another corner in; don’t worry about measuring your second crease to match the first. The sheet of paper is still usable, still resembles a pieces of paper. Leave the folding for a while and let the paper be, but don’t let yourself forget that at some point, you will repeat the earlier steps. Fold again, picking a place you want to bring in toward the middle whenever it suits you. Do this at random times. Make some folds chronologically close together, and go long stretches without folding. Leave them where you place them: do not open those tucks back up. Continue this process, grabbing some bit of the paper to draw into itself again and again, even if you only fold your paper once in a while, and soon you will have changed your  paper into something that barely resembles its original form. Creating new folds will become increasingly difficult, but the paper has been damaged so many times that the changes you make with each of your actions are absorbed by the paper’s new shape: your decisions don’t seem to alter it much any more since it has come so far from the starting point. Eventually, you will possess only a lump of paper that has literally collapsed in upon itself.

That piece of paper represents what happens to a woman with an abusive partner. Even if she decides to begin the process of unfurling all her edges and trying to return them to their original places, and even if someone comes along to help her unfold her creases and smooth herself out, the marks of those experiences can never be totally removed.

I know this because I spent a significant portion of my adult life in a verbally and emotionally abusive relationship. I haven’t blogged about it before, and I won’t write about the details of my experiences because they are too personal to share with a broad audience. What’s important to know, readers, is that I walked away from what my life had become. I chose to remove what was left of myself from a toxic situation and start over. It was, without a doubt, the best choice I have ever made. It was also the bravest and most gutting decision I’ve forced myself to follow through.

I’ve been waiting for a sign to bring up this element of my past. Tonight I emailed the writer of an advice column, Dear Prudence at Slate, to commend her recommendation that a young woman break up with a man who was exhibiting controlling and belittling behavior. I find there are so few clear, supportive voices for individuals who are beginning to doubt the health of their relationships. I also recommended a book that helped me stay clear of my ex-husband, come to terms with my experiences, and move into a healthy life. Prudie got back to me very quickly, and mentioned the coincidence that her colleague published an article today –linked to the same book, unbelievably– discussing Chris Brown’s behavior as a proven partner abuser and the public support he has received in spite of his unacceptable treatment of his former girlfriend, Rhianna. You can read the article here, and I sincerely request you do.

I ask for a sign that I should write about this, and the universe throws a figurative brick through my kitchen window rather than sending me a postcard. My life tends to go like that. Kay’s update: the sign I mean here is the sign to share this element of my past with my readers, not a sign to leave my past relationship. The sign I’m referring to is encountering two published pieces about the same thing on the same day, one referring to the book I’ve wanted to recommend to you for a long time. 

The book Emily Bazelon references in her article is Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, by Lundy Bancroft. Mr. Bancroft’s career has largely focused on studying and treating abusive men and discovering the reasons they mistreat their partners, and often children and others with whom they have contact, as they do. I have recommended this book in person, via Facebook, and over the telephone to many, many women. If I had the money, I would buy it by the case and leave copies in women’s restrooms, gynecologist’s waiting rooms, and beside the multi-vitamins at the grocery store. Yes, seriously.

I am aware that men do suffer in abusive relationships, but women are the dramatic majority in this regard and as such are the focus of my post today. This decision is in no way intended to minimize the pain suffered by any person who has been abused.

Why Does He Do That? is one of the results of Bancroft’s long and dedicated career. The book was and is so valuable to me because it walks a person through the myths society perpetuates about abusers, and through the beliefs we hold about what can stop abuse. The truth, in case you are wondering, is that abuse very rarely stops, and usually escalates, unless the abusive partner makes a very serious, sustained effort to change his own values that cause him to feel entitled to abuse his partner. Even then, success rates are abysmal. I rarely write in my books, but my copy of this one is absolutely full of circles, underlined phrases, and margin notes. There are also excerpts of eye-opening case studies of actual abusive relationships, as well as a breakdown of the most common types of abusers. It is an unbelievably valuable tool in the process of recovery, both for the woman herself and for the people who care about her.

Lundy Bancroft has no idea who I am. I’m not encouraging you to read his book for any reason other than my experience with it. It was a major step on my marathon to smoothing out my own creases, and it’s a book I still open now and again when something ugly bubbles up in my memory. If you are a woman, you need to read this book regardless of the health of your past or current relationships. If you are not a woman, but have a mother, sister, wife, niece, daughter or any other important female in your life, you need to read this book. The single biggest ally a woman who is attempting to exit an abusive relationship, or recover from one, can have is a caring supporter who understands the dynamics behind what she has experienced.

Rarely will I make as pointed a recommendation about a book as I have made about Why Does He Do That? Today, though, I have the sign I’ve been waiting for, and I recommend this book to you with all the sincerity I possess.

copyright 2012:

9 Comments Add yours

  1. lexy3587 says:

    That is a really good description of what happens to an abused woman. It takes a lot of courage to talk about a subject like that, especially one so close to your heart. I can’t even imagine how hard it would be to get out of that kind of a situation – I’m glad you got your brick

    1. Thank you. Enough time has passed now that I just look back and shake my head, but I never look back and regret my decision.

  2. Cinderella says:

    Outstanding article in Slate and very accurate.

    Men who hit women do so deliberately. They do not change, they are not sorry (except for feeling sorry for themselves), they have no empathy, no interest in impulse control and get off on the power of hurting someone else.

    Think of OJ Simpson, another classic case.

    I dated a cop who hit me. I was the classic ‘oh, it won’t happen again. He said he didn’t do it on purpose. I love him, I’m afraid to leave’.
    He would hurt me where it wouldn’t show – covering my face with a pillow so I couldn’t breathe, bending my finegrs back, things that wouldn’t leave marks.
    Guess what? No surprise – even though months apart, It DID happen again. And again, and each incident kept escalating until the day he punctured my eardrum pretending he was kissing my ear.

    Women who mistake controlling men intially foe ‘loving or caring’ often find themselves in a horrifying situation, and have been emotionally battered as well to the point of being afraid to leave or being so in denial they think their love can ‘heal” him and it won’t happen again if they just don’t x, or y or z – which is of course impossible since a rage-a-holic will always find SOMETHING to go off on.

    They don’t want to get help. They are actually quite satisfied to stay just the way they are – and find a woman whose self-esteem is low enough to be willing to be a punching bag.

    I also very much recommend
    it doesn’t focus on battered women as much as it does recognizing the signs of what ANY kind of abuse/unhealthy behaviors looks like.
    How to regain a sense of what a healthy boundary is.
    How to walk away from – and no longer be interested in the kind of man who treats a woman poorly, using any excuse to do so.

    Good for you for getting away from an abuser, and making choices that would support you, Kay. It’s all about changing the way you think, believe, act and seeing that being smacked around physically or emotionally is NEVER okay for any reason.

    1. Thanks for your support, Cinderella. I also really like Baggage Reclaim, and it’s helped me even in dealing with acquaintances and co-workers, not just in relationships.

      Your past relationship with the cop sounds horrid. I’m so glad you’re in a safe place now. You are absolutely right that people who behave in these ways do not change, and why would they, when they so often have things arranged just how they want them.

      Your most poignant line for me in this comment is, “they are not sorry (except for feeling sorry for themselves).” How absolutely true. An abuser only feels sorry for his choices when those choices lead to him losing something, not for the damage it causes to the people he mistreats.

      Here’s to a healthy future!

  3. Cinderella says:

    P.S. I did read the book years ago, and found it helpful.

    I also found that I now think it doesn’t matter WHY they do what they do – it just matters that they do it.

    I couldn’t care less what their reasons are for being absuers – I just am going to be very careful about identifying red flags in the dating process – and stay 1,000,000 miles away if I see them.

    But the book is very helpful when you are first starting to try to get back on your feet and figure things out.
    As a woman – any woman – you just have to remember – it isn’t about “understanding them” so you can FIX it.
    It’s about fixing yourself so you pay attention to the red flags as soon as possible and stay away from creeps like them.

    1. Very true, Cinderella, that a woman needs to know the warning signs rather than breaking down specifically why a person acts in these destructive ways once it’s already happened. For me, coming to terms with the patterns of abuse and the fact that they were completely unrelated to my value as a person was what allowed me to go and stay gone. I needed to know that it truly wasn’t my fault after being told for years that something I had done was always the root of the mistreatment. Also, realizing that no amount of trying, compromise, or “fixing” on my part could repair a relationship with someone holding the personal beliefs that lead to abuse.

  4. I was in a verbally abusive relationship, and I understand how hard it can be to leave. I applaud your courage to take charge of your life. The only good thing I can say about the relationship that I left is that it made me appreciate the kindness of Cap’n Firepants even more.

  5. pipersmom says:

    I’d love to read the book, but even reading about a man abusing a woman makes my hands get clammy. I’ve been in that type of relationship and refuse to ever be that woman again. My friends and and my family were the rock I held on too, and they were what helped pull me out.
    I’ve always considered myself a strong woman, me? abused? never! I was so sure that I would know if it was happening to me, that it took me almost 3 years to realize what he was saying and doing was abuse. I wasn’t “worthless”, and I didn’t “do everything wrong”. No matter how much I loved him, he wasn’t going to change, he couldn’t be “fixed”.
    When I see the signs in other men, I make sure I make time to speak to their girlfriend/wife, let them know that sometimes abuse doesn’t have to be a black eye, it can be more subtle than that.
    I’m glad you chose to speak out Kay, hopefully you reached some women who are too shy to speak up, but will go out and get the book, and hopefully it’ll help them too.
    Heck, maybe even women who are being the abusers might read the book, and get help.
    Domestic violence is unisex, lets stop it altogether. 🙂

    1. Thanks, you’re welcome, and you’re correct, Piper’s Mom.

      It’s astounding how many women have their own stories of abuse to share once we get talking. I’m so glad you’ve found a healthier place to be.

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