I thought I knew what abuse was. Physical violence that left marks. Unwanted sexual activities. Screaming at someone for every infraction, real or imagined.
True, those are abuse. But abuse encompasses more than that. The husband whose sexual advances are mechanical, devoid of interest in his wife's well-being: that is abuse. Depriving someone of financial independence: that is abuse. Using displeasure and temper tantrums to prevent someone from engaging in activities they enjoy: that is abuse.
I have personally experienced some of these forms of abuse. The interesting thing is that I didn't recognize it as abuse at the time. Mind you, I knew my experiences weren't "normal" or "ideal," but I used more benign terms. Problems with intimacy. Difficulty connecting with others.
It took a professional to open my eyes. One day in counselling I related an incident only to have my therapist say, "That's abuse."
I almost started to cry. "Thank you," I said, "it felt like abuse."
You see, when our souls tell us something is wrong and we insist on telling ourselves it isn't, we compound the injury. It is one thing for someone to harm you. It is another thing altogether to deny that you've been harmed, excuse the harm, or, more heinous still, find a way to blame yourself for the harm.
That self-denial teaches you to distrust your instincts, deny your feelings, and give others license to mistreat you.
Having your feelings validated, however, as my therapist did mine, begins to rebuild your sense of self and empowers you to treat yourself with respect. Only then can you expect others to do the same.
Now, do those who abuse us always intend to do so? I don't think so. We can all look back at our actions and find areas where we harmed others through insensitivity, selfishness, or ignorance.
However, regardless of how "innocent" the motives, abuse should never be minimized. You never deserve to be abused, physically, sexually, or emotionally.
If you are being abused, you need help. If you are being abused, your abuser needs help.
So what should you do if you know or suspect you're being abused?
Call a trusted friend. No matter what the next steps are going to be, it will be easier and more successful with a BFF by your side (or two or three...can't have too much love at a time like this).
Contact the National Domestic Abuse Hotline or Google "domestic abuse resources" in your state. They will help you determine the most appropriate next steps.
If you are in imminent physical danger, GET OUT and call the police. Grab your kids, if you have any, and run. Run to your parents, your sibling, your pastor, your local women's shelter, your police station. Do NOT pass GO; do NOT collect $200. Nothing is more important than your safety and that of your little ones.
The degree of long-term assistance you will need depends upon the severity and frequency of the abuse and the willingness of the abuser to change. Some issues might be resolved with good therapy, anger management, stress management classes, or the like.
More severe cases may require legal intervention, a temporary separation or restraining order, or divorce.
Whatever you do, do NOT believe the "I promise I'll never do ____ again" line. People don't change that quickly or that easily. Make the judgement of their willingness and ability to change based on concrete evidence: going to counselling regularly; implementing new stress management techniques; avoiding places, people, and things that trigger their violence; and reduction/elimination of actual incidents and threats of abuse.
That first call is terrifying. I know. I had to make it, too. For a while it felt like I'd opened Pandora's box. But I don't regret it one iota. Neither will you.