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.

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