My husband of five years and I were unofficially separated in 2010 when I had lunch with a mutual friend who told me, carefully, “He doesn’t treat you well.” I defended him. “No, you know how he is. He’s just tough on people. He’s good for me. He challenges me.”
We dropped it. The friend never brought it up again, and I didn’t think about it for years. But it mattered. No one had ever said that to me before. No one had ever suggested I didn’t deserve this kind of marriage.
Six months later, I told my husband I wanted a divorce. Almost immediately after I told my mom, she said, “It wasn’t my place to say, but I didn’t think he treated you well.”
After the 2016 presidential election, I learned the word “gaslighting” from Teen Vogue. In an op-ed, Lauren Duca wrote of the president-elect’s “systematic attempts to destabilize the truth.” She suggested Donald Trump was employing the psychologically abusive tactic of manipulating his victim (in this case, the whole country) into questioning their own sanity or perception of reality. The article describes the play from which the term takes its name: “Jack terrorizes his wife Bella into questioning her reality by blaming her for mischievously misplacing household items which he systematically hides.” Reading it again makes my stomach lurch.
Six years after I left my husband, I realized I’d been abused. Two years on, I’m still struggling with whether to call it abuse. That can’t possibly be right.
When he isolated me with warnings that men only cared about one thing, that women were all vapid, it was jealousy. When he perpetuated my insecurity by critiquing my diet and exercise habits, it was high standards. When he guilted me into sex to prevent “blue balls,” it was guy stuff I didn’t understand. When he got me to question my memory by insisting on what I’d agreed to in past conversations, it was a couple spatting.
For the past year, as it seems, tragically, every woman I know has been posting “#MeToo” to Facebook and Twitter, I’ve stayed silent. I thought, This isn’t my fight. I thought, I don’t want to be dramatic. As I write, I’m still fighting the urge to defend him. Certainly he wasn’t hurting me as intentionally as Jack hurt Bella. He didn’t mean to manipulate. He’s not, like, an abuser. Right? I’m way too clever and strong to have let that happen to me.
I’m afraid to try therapy, because it could confirm it happened. Or worse, it could confirm he was right, that it’s all in my head. I’ve tried to write this several times over the past two years.
The word “gaslighting” blasted down a wall in my brain, and I’ve been slowly wading through the rubble to understand my marriage and likely lasting effects I still don’t know about. So why am I finally getting it on the page this time?
Because of one colleague who speaks openly and frankly about her past abuse, who helped me wade through an article to help others recover financially after leaving abusive relationships. Because of the reader who wrote to say she was sharing that article with fellow survivors at a shelter she’d recently escaped to. Because of a coworker I watched leave a relationship and slowly bloom into the amazing woman she admitted her partner had oppressed. Because of a writer who posted on Facebook about her abusive marriage —and said it had taken her years to realize what it was.
Because I only recently remembered the conversation I had in 2010 with that friend, and I realized I should thank him. I realized he’d said a difficult thing, and I made it more difficult by arguing with him. I realized he might be hesitant to say something if he ever sees signs of abuse again. I realized many people, like my mom, are afraid to meddle.
I realized many women, like me, don’t think they’ve suffered enough to say “me, too.”
That one quick comment from a friend let me know I might not be crazy. It was the first loose thread I could hold onto to eventually unravel the world my husband had built around me. Every suggestion after, every story that sounded way too familiar, every reminder that abuse takes many forms—they helped me tug at the thread.
I still have a long way to go. I’ll probably be unraveling my experience for years. But I’ve written the word “abuse” in black and white seven times since starting this piece, so I think I’m making progress.
I’m writing this now to beg everyone to say something. You might not be satisfied with what happens right away. You might face denial, strain friendships, feel exposed, be accused of being dramatic or flat out lying.
But it matters.
Dana Sitar is an editor at The Penny Hoarder and a freelance blogger. Say hi and tell her a good joke on Twitter @danasitar.