I’m generally someone who’s pretty good at self-reflection and analysis; when asked questions about myself, if you give me enough time I generally come back with an honest answer about my flaws, my strengths, my weaknesses, my mistakes, my successes, and so on. But there’s one big question – one I’ve been asked almost from the first moment I started opening up about what had been going on in my abusive relationship with Randall – that I still cannot fully answer.
“Meghann…why do you think you stayed with him so long?”
It’s the same question asked of all abuse victims. The one others ask of us, and the one we ask ourselves the longer we’re out of the chaos and able to reflect back with growing clarity on the reality of the hell we were once living in.
I get it; I’d be curious too. Hell, before my own experiences with it, that was one of the first things I’d ask victims of abuse. Not from a place of judgment, but from curiosity; trying to empathize by getting a little bit inside their hearts and minds. And in theory it’s a reasonable, fairly straightforward seeming question, like asking why you turned right instead of left.
Except any time I’m asked this, while I can acknowledge a few of the more obvious reasons – chronic gaslighting and conditioning meant while I was in the middle of it I wasn’t really seeing just how bad things were getting – I can’t really come up with a deeper answer that makes any sense. A deeper answer for how I was attracted to him in the first place without seeing all the warning signs everyone else in my life saw, and why I was able to be manipulated and abused and battered into questioning myself to the point of thinking perhaps he was right, that I had a mental health disorder, that I was unreasonable, that I was needy, that I was clingy, that I was stupid, that I was awkward, that I was unloveable……all things I’d never been told before and things I know at this point I am not.
I’ve talked to other survivors in my support group, and many of them struggle with the same thing. The “why” of it.
It’s a fine line to walk, analyzing that question; therapists council against getting too deeply into areas where victims may start blaming themselves for the abuse, since that’s the mindset we all have to climb out of after we first get out and start receiving help, love, and support. That mindset is key to an abuser’s control, because after all you can’t really hate someone for their actions if you believe that their actions are a result of your behavior, faults, flaws, or sins somehow.
But why? And how? I am haunted by these questions. Why did I believe such a thing, when I know better? How is it possible that all the knowledge and maturity I had when I met him ultimately did nothing to protect me? Why did I allow myself to be treated so very badly for so long? Why did I allow almost all of my red lines in the sand to be crossed over and over and over again, instead of leaving at the first sign of bullshit behavior? How had I become so dependent on him, in spite of his bad behavior and abusive treatment, that I would rather put up with it than face the world without him?
All these questions haunt me…and not in a pleasant way. Because really, they aren’t pleasant thoughts. I never pictured myself as ‘weak’ or ‘pitiful’ or ‘pathetic’ and yet those are words that come to mind as I ask myself those questions. Surely a stronger woman would have left…right?
My therapist disagrees. As do the leaders of my support group. All the experts insist that under the right conditions, just about anyone can become the victims of it. Still, it’s important to have a basic understanding of how it happened; that’s part of getting to a stronger place and shoring up an even stronger foundation. But the answer eludes me, remaining just out of sight and just out of reach.
Was it because of my insecurities? Was it because I wasn’t a perfect size and had a bit of extra padding in places I didn’t like and my thighs chafed if I wore the wrong shorts on a hike? Could it be that simple?
Was it because he was my ‘first’ everything, and there is power that comes with such a thing? After all, if I’ve never experienced anything else, how could I possibly compare notes and recognize bad behavior to separate from good? If his is the only ‘boyfriend’ voice in my head giving me opinions and thoughts, does that mean it was harder for me to hear and see reason?
Perhaps. All those reasons are possibilities…though I still don’t understand it. I don’t understand why I ignored all my friends and family, who were pointing out what they saw as a very bad thing. I trust these people I love; trust them with my life. So why would I question their motives in telling me they had grave concerns about Randall?
Abusers are good manipulators, and Randall was very good at spinning things in such a way that it was basically he and I against the world. His family hated me, and my family hated him, and we were going to prove them all wrong by having an amazing, powerful, long-lasting romance and build a happy, successful life together.
Quite a story…quite a fairytale…epic…but ultimately it wasn’t meant to be. It never could have been, because one of the main players wasn’t real. Randall wasn’t who he presented himself to be. He presents whatever a person needs to see, and nothing else. Who he really is remains shrouded in a dark cloud of manipulation, selfishness, and superficiality.
But here’s the trick…after selling me the fairytale, he tried to blame me when it all fell apart. And for a brief while, I bought into it. I thought somehow I was the unworthy one; I was the problem. Except I wasn’t……I couldn’t have caused it all to fall apart if it never existed in the first place.
Still, knowing that doesn’t really help me answer the ultimate question; doesn’t help me sort out the “why” of it.
I can list all kinds of tangible reasons – he was a great manipulator, I was insecure, I bought into his fairytale, trauma bonds are powerful once established in abuse – and put them all over a piece of paper like a game of connect the dots…but that still leaves me without a thread that connects them all together.
Maybe some day I’ll finally have an answer that makes sense. Maybe with more time and self reflection, I’ll be able to articulate that intangible thing I can’t quite explain yet. That glue that kept me so stuck to him, leaving me feeling like if I left everything in my life would fall apart.
Or maybe not. Maybe it will remain an unanswerable question. Something only understood by other men and women survivors.
One thing I’ve gained through everything at this point is the wisdom to let it go when necessary. If I’m meant to understand it, I will. If not…so be it. Does it still haunt me? Yeah, it does; it haunts me every time I recall a memory where he was particularly cruel. Every time I recall a betrayal that tore a new hole in my heart. All of it haunts me.
But for now…I have to just let it go as one more mystery of the universe to solve another time.
Meghann Andreassen is a businesswoman, investor, author, and personal success coach who contributes to this and other blogs on a regular basis. All people with inquiries, questions, and feedback can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer: Names and other personal identifying information of some individuals referenced throughout this blog have been changed to protect their identities.