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Why did you stay?

He wouldn’t do those things if he didn’t really love you.

I’m sure you’re exaggerating.

What did you do to make him do that?

Those are just some of the things that were said to me after I left my husband. Some believed his stalking was proof of his love for me. Some believed that it was a matter of two sides to the story and they were only hearing mine. Some believed that something I did caused him to push me against a wall, hold his arm against my throat until I could not longer breath and hiss that he would kill me.

People that love an abuser, and I don’t mean the victim, I mean the friends and family of the abuser, they don’t see the other side of him. They see the fun guy, the charismatic guy. They see the guy that always helps hang sheetrock or give a ride to the airport. They see the guy that offers help with that fence that fell down. They see the good side of him. Everyone has a good side. Even abusers.

In fact, there are abusers who have a side so good, so fun, that most people would never believe he is an abuser. That was my ex. He was the life of the party, the guy who was always there when you needed him. He was also the guy terrorizing his wife if you made her laugh too loud or look at you too long.

That is another one of the parts of abuse that make it so difficult for victims. It’s hard for most people to reconcile the perceptions of an abuser with the person who is always willing to lend a hand. It’s hard for any mother to look at her son and think of him as a man who would threaten his wife with bodily harm. What sister could look at her brother and think he would batter his wife?

There are different relationships built on love and on denial. Maybe they see things. Maybe the jealousy rears its ugly head from time to time. Maybe the control shows a bit as it worsens. But usually it’s laughed off. That’s when you hear, “He must really love you to be jealous like that.”

When I left my husband, he threatened to kill me. More than once. He tapped my phones sure that he was going to find the proof he needed. Needed for what? He never could understand that there was no other person involved in my decision to leave him. There was nothing for him to find and why did it never occur to him that if he did find something that it should be proof of how broken the relationship was and not some bargaining chip to force me back?

That’s the part that most don’t understand. Leaving an abuser isn’t easy and it isn’t always safe. How do you reason with a person who believes if they could only catch you they could keep you?

So why does she stay? For a lot of reasons that may not make sense to you. And no. The fact that he followed me everywhere was not proof of his love for me. It was some scary stuff and nobody should have to live like that. We should be free to leave a relationship for any reason. And we don’t owe those reasons or explanations to anyone.

Peggy is a mom and student at The CUNY School of Professional Studies. Peggy hopes to change the perceptions about what a victim looks like as well as raise awareness about domestic violence. Peggy believes it is possible to break the cycle.

Let me tell you about the first time someone mentioned domestic violence and me in the same sentence. Over ten years ago during what I thought was an innocent conversation with an acquaintance from my kids’ school she dropped the bomb. She missed my son’s birthday party but not the gossip that followed. My husband had not been on his best behavior though it was something that seemed normal to me. It was normal for him to verbally abuse me though usually he was more careful when people were around. Not this day. Funny thing is that the incident wasn’t among the worst when it came to his abuse but I still remember it today with such clarity. Maybe because it was the beginning of the end.

She told me she had worked with women like me, domestic violence victims, and I turned around to see who she was speaking to. Surely she didn’t mean me. I turned around sure that there was someone behind me but there wasn’t. We were alone. I turned back around and stared at her, dropped jaw. Me?!

I extricated myself from the conversation as quickly as possible and went home lost in thought about my son’s birthday party. Rather than feel horror about his behavior, I was instead horrified that I was the subject of gossip and I spent my energy wondering which mom was the gossip and the best way to do damage control. It was crushing to think that people were talking about me and that their talk implied that I was weak. It never dawned on me that the talk was sympathetic or supportive. Abusers have a way of building paranoia and my own paranoia set in.

I wish I could say that was the day things changed. I wish I could say that that was all it took to make me leave. But it wasn’t. There were many more years of abuse, abuse that escalated. By the time I did leave I was afraid for my life. I was afraid that he would kill me and that he would get away with it. I was sure that if he killed me he would get away with it.

What still saddens me when I think back to that awful time is how much blame I put on myself for his actions. I look back at myself and wish that I could give me a hug. I wish I could wrap my arms around that girl I was and tell her that it wasn’t her fault and that she didn’t deserve this. But there’s no going back. Only forward.

There was a long time that I couldn’t look back. It was too painful. I felt dumb. I was ashamed. But then it dawned on me that by not dealing with it I was sending a terrible message to my kids. I looked at my sons and imagined the future. I never wanted a daughter-in-law looking at my son the way I looked at my husband. I never wanted any woman to fear my sons or to hate them. I looked at my daughter and knew that it would kill me to ever see her in a relationship that was abusive. I loved my kids and I knew that the best way to love them was to break the cycle of abuse.

I had to look at the past and understand what happened. It was no longer about blaming me but trying to understand why I missed so many red flags. They were easy to see in hindsight but why did I miss them at all? Looking back I can tell you there were many red flags not just for me but for my family. We all saw them yet we found ways to excuse or justify his behavior. Why did we do that? All of us?

As I sit here and write this I still have questions though I’m much stronger. I still want to go back and hug that girl that I was and I want to hug that woman who was afraid to leave for so many reasons. I want to share my story because there are many others out there who think they are alone or that nobody will believe them or understand or they are just too fearful to leave. And there are others who don’t think they are victims. When confronted they will turn around, like I did, and look to see who is there. I want to be there. I want them to turn around and see me or at least me through my story and know that there is help and there is hope.

Peggy is a mom and student at The CUNY School of Professional Studies. Peggy hopes to change the perceptions about what a victim looks like as well as raise awareness about domestic violence. Peggy believes it is possible to break the cycle.