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Not such a light topic

I watched the movie Waitress last night. It’s really good, great script, good cast. The story is about a young woman living in rural somewhere America with an abusive husband. She’s a waitress and has a major talent for cooking, she directs all her pent up emotions into creating amazing pie recipes. It’s quirky and funny, but also pretty intense as in spite of the fluffy trappings, the characters are more realistic that one would expect.

The reason I’m writing about it is because it brought up a lot of memories for me. I was in an abusive relationship in my late teens-early twenties. We were together for 4 1/2 years, living together for most of that time. My close friends and family remember that period with horror, they were terrified I would marry my boyfriend and end up more trapped than I already was. A user review I read of Waitress an iTunes panned it for having “stereotypical” characters. But the thing about stereotypes is they have some grounding in reality. And the abusive husband in this film was not portrayed just as a hulking, threatening, knuckle-dragger. He was also incredibly insecure, incapable of hearing any version of reality that made him uncomfortable – he would literally tell his wife exactly what words to say in order to make him feel better. He would beg for reassurance and induce guilt and fear to get it. When he couldn’t control the world around him, he became verbally and physically abusive. This is actually much closer to the reality of abusive relationships that the way they are often portrayed in cinema and on TV.

The relationship I was in probably looked creepy from the outside, but many of my friends and family didn’t recognize the warning signs, or even believe me when I first started talking about it – several years in. Abusive people can be charming, kind, generous, and friendly. They do not have “poor anger management” tattooed to their foreheads. My boyfriend was very smart and witty, kind of childlike in demeanor, and often generous to a fault with his friends. The side that very few people saw was the toddler-like screaming tantrums, the dangerous road rage, the stuff he broke in anger, the way he used fear, guilt, and shame to control and manipulate me, the fights he picked that would go on all night (often right before I had an important test or performance), the extreme jealousy, and the hitting.

People who have been in abusive relationships live with the stigma of having “allowed” these things to happen to them. As a result we often feel that others see us as weak-minded or innately damaged in some way. I still struggle with shame over having let this man, and other people treat me in a way I would never want anyone I love to be treated.

What people don’t understand is that abusers are master manipulators, and they don’t just use fear and anger to control others. They may also use flattery, gifts, affection, and charisma to get what they want. But underneath the adult body and vocabulary is usually a spoiled, terrified toddler who will do anything to feel safe and secure. Adult reasoning and ethics don’t apply, in fact my ex was a genius when it came to using big words to rationalize very irrational and often destructive feelings and desires.

The important thing to remember if you feel trapped in a destructive relationship of any kind (it could be with a spouse or lover, friend, teacher, employer, or relative) is the abuser needs you more than you need them. Most of their energy is spent trying to convince you that it’s the other way around, but it’s not. They may think that they can’t live without you, but you can live without them. It’s important also to remember that that intense need is also somewhat addictive, especially if you have your own insecurities about being lovable or desirable. Abusers are very good at magnifying and manipulating your fears.

If you have had an abusive relationship, another important thing to be aware of is your own need to control based on insecurity and fear. It’s well documented that abused children can become abusive parents. When I stopped having relationships where I was being controlled, I had to examine my own tendencies towards jealous and controlling behavior. I had to choose to deal with my fears direcly, rather than projecting them on my partner and blaming him. Having been abused does not make us incapable of being an abuser, but it does give us a greater responsibility to stop the cycle.

How do you know if a relationship is abusive? If the other person is very critical, makes you feel worthless or repulsive, if you have arguments that seem to stretch out forever, or if your partner gets angry if you spend time with other people or talk about your relationship with others, these are some major indicators. If you think you are in an abusive relationship, ask for help. Ask people you truly trust to listen to you without judgement, and talk to a counselor or therapist. You are not alone. You are not trapped. You are entitled to be treated with respect. Anyone who tells you otherwise is not someone you want in your life.