Commentary Violence

Why I Stayed in an Abusive Marriage for Two Years

Erin Matson

I know all too well the shame and sense of shared understanding that Janay Rice has spoken of in recent days. It is why I stayed in an abusive marriage for two years, and why I am speaking up ten years later.

Read more about intimate partner violence and the Ray Rice case here.

It starts on the sixth day of our honeymoon. I am wearing the white satin negligee from our wedding night. We have just finished watching a movie. He turns to me, drunk as hell, and starts to scream. YOU WHORE. YOU FUCKING WHORE. I FUCKING HATE YOU. YOU’RE UGLY. YOU IDIOT. YOU FUCKING WHORE. He is throwing hairbrushes and toothbrushes and remote controls around our hotel room.

“What are you doing?” I am incredulous. This is not the brilliant, romantic love of my life I had just pledged forever to a few days before. He keeps screaming and throwing things. Nothing like this has happened to me before. I start crying. Oh my god. My finger. There is a wedding ring on my finger. Oh my fucking god.

I call my best friend. I don’t want to tell her. I don’t want anything but an erasure of space and time. “It’s really bad,” I whisper. We share static, not knowing what to say. Time passes.

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I got married at 22, young in my circles, and from the start it was an act of defiance. My friends didn’t want me to do it—I should get settled in my career first, they said. The chair of my undergraduate women’s studies department singled me out one day during our capstone class, saying I was capitulating to the patriarchy or some such. My family didn’t say no, but it wasn’t hard to figure out that they had expected me to marry later.

But we were these kids in love. The romance carried me away. I loved him madly. I would continue to do so during two years of an abusive marriage. The way he could write—”If love were to meet me, he would fall to his knees and beg for a taste.” The way he smiled. The way he seemed to understand me the way no one else could (in substantial part because I kept the insults and threats hidden).

So I picked up the bloody glass pieces from the clock he shattered while telling me to fuck off. I stopped washing the dishes and wiped myself as calmly as I could after he hocked a loogie in my face and told me I deserved to be defiled. I lied about the hand-shaped bruises on my arm during my best friend’s wedding, claiming a bullshit excuse. He threatened to kill me later that night. I believed him.

Mainly, I endured a lot of verbal and emotional abuse. He told me I was stupid. One night, I got a promotion and took him out to dinner. After I told him the big news, his first response was to point at my face and ask, “Sweetie, don’t you think you should go see a dermatologist?”

And he started to call me fat.

Fat. Of all things, that was the proverbial crossing of the line. I had narrowly escaped anorexia before he knew me. I would have been already dead if I hadn’t built up a zero-tolerance policy for my own internal “you’re fat” messages. To this day, every time I am tempted to see myself as fat, I respond internally, saying, “Shut up, you’re trying to kill me.” Beneath his howls and my trembles, it clicked. He was really trying to kill me.

So after more fighting and several refusals on his part to do so, we went to a therapist to discuss managing his anger. Largely, he denied what he was doing. But with the therapist, I was able to get him to hear the message that if the abuse didn’t stop, I was going to leave. That afternoon, in the park, he told me that I was worth it and that he was willing to work to change. Replaying this incident makes my heart leap a little, more than a decade later.

What you need to know is that I wanted this relationship to work, more than I wanted anything else. I was willing to wear pink eye shadow to make my puffy eyes look like something I had intended. I did not want to admit failure. I did not want to admit to being in an abusive relationship. I did not want to be divorced, a fate I considered in red-letter terms. I wanted what I saw as the love of my life back. I wanted to make it OK, and that’s why I stayed.

The abuse stopped for a time. We bought a condo. Perhaps you think that’s stupid. Perhaps you think it’s hypocritical that I was an outspoken and visible “young feminist” in public and a crying wife barricading herself behind a bedroom door for peace, quiet, and, yes, safety in private. Perhaps you think it’s a shame I let my parents spend all that money on the wedding. I have been afraid of you and what you might think for 12 years.

I’m not perfect, and I wasn’t then. Less than a year after I did walk out, I came back. We secretly “dated” for a few months while I had my own apartment. We watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in our old condo, and he held me while I cried, apologizing over and over into my forehead. The terrifying outbursts didn’t come back, but I realized I had to leave again, because I was afraid they might. I also came to be extremely fearful of pregnancy. I didn’t believe I could forgive myself if I brought a child into an abusive family—just one of the many reasons I am ardently in favor of abortion rights.

It took three years after the first time I left to finalize our divorce and sell our jointly held property under the direction of a judge (my ex refused to cooperate). I sent him childish, often angry, emails. I cried in his arms throughout many of these steps, often after splitting a bottle of wine in a cozy bistro. I was not a “perfect victim.” I loved this man. I thought he was drop-dead gorgeous in the hallway outside the family courtroom. I threw up in my closet when the condo sold.

I have not written about this before, and I am nervous about doing so. When I tell people in the course of conversation that I was in an abusive marriage, a common question is whether it was physically abusive or “just” emotionally abusive. This is the worst question. It empowers abuse of all kinds.

The reason why I am speaking up now is simple. I believe that violent relationships flourish under those conditions, when women are made to feel ashamed for having “imperfect” stories of abuse. We are made to feel that if we admit a problem, we are then branded with it—that it is a reflection upon us. We are made to feel that scrutiny of our actions in these situations will lead to public scorn and private danger. What we need most from our friends and family is social support that will not further isolate us when we stay, and that can be ready quickly when we choose or are forced to leave. In the moment, that rarely feels possible.

What Janay Rice has said in the last few days makes a lot of sense to me.

“To have to accept the fact that it’s reality is a nightmare in itself,” Rice posted to Instagram on Tuesday. Her husband, Ray Rice, has continued to swirl through the headlines, having been fired by the Baltimore Ravens and suspended by the NFL months after a video surfaced of him dragging her unconscious, beaten body from an elevator. “If your intentions were to hurt us, embarrass us, make us feel alone, take all happiness away, you’ve succeeded on so many levels. Just know we will continue to grow [and] show the world what real love is!”

I know this shame and sense of shared understanding only too well. It is why I stayed in an abusive marriage for two years, and why I am speaking up ten years later.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.

News Law and Policy

Court Blocks North Carolina’s ‘Discriminatory’ Voter ID Law

Imani Gandy

“[T]he new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision," Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the court, describing the North Carolina GOP's voter ID law.

A unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down North Carolina’s elections law, holding that the Republican-held legislature had enacted the law with discriminatory intent to burden Black voters and that it therefore violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The ruling marks the latest defeat of voter ID laws passed by GOP-majority legislatures across the country.

“We can only conclude that the North Carolina General Assembly enacted the challenged provisions of the law with discriminatory intent,” Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the court.

HB 589 required in-person voters to show certain types of photo ID beginning in 2016, and either curtailed or reduced registration and voting access tools that Black voters disproportionately used, including an early voting period. Black voters also disproportionately lack photo IDs.

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Republicans claimed that the law was intended to protect against voter fraud, which has proven exceedingly rare in Republican-led investigations. But voting rights advocates argue that the law was intended to disenfranchise Black and Latino voters.

The ruling marks a dramatic reversal of fortune for the U.S. Justice Department, the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, and the League of Women Voters, which had asked the Fourth Circuit to review a lower court ruling against them.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder in April ruled that plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate that the law hindered Black voters’ ability to exercise political power.

The Fourth Circuit disagreed.

“In holding that the legislature did not enact the challenged provisions with discriminatory intent, the court seems to have missed the forest in carefully surveying the many trees,” Motz wrote. “This failure of perspective led the court to ignore critical facts bearing on legislative intent, including the inextricable link between race and politics in North Carolina.”

The Fourth Circuit noted that the Republican-dominated legislature passed the law in 2013, immediately following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby v. Holder, which struck a key provision in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.

Section 4 is the coverage formula used to determine which states must get pre-clearance from the Department of Justice or the District Court for the District of Columbia before making any changes to election laws.

The day after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Shelby, the Republican chairman of the Senate Rules Committee announced the North Carolina legislature’s intention to enact an “omnibus” election law, the appeals court noted. Before enacting the law, however, the Republican-dominated legislature requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices.

After receipt of the race data, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted legislation that restricted voting and registration, all of which disproportionately burdened Black voters.

“In response to claims that intentional racial discrimination animated its actions, the State offered only meager justifications,” Motz continued. “[T]he new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

The ruling comes a day after the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and one of the primary organizers of Moral Mondays, gave a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention that brought convention goers to their feet.

During a protest on the first day of the trial, Barber told a crowd of about 3,500 people, “this is our Selma.”