When I was 10, my family moved to an affluent area of Montreal. One year later, my father moved out. Although I was not happy that my parents were separating, I was neither surprised, nor distressed. My father was a constant womanizer who left his young wife and children at home while he had affairs and partied. For years, I listened to my mother cry late into the night, as she waited for my father to return. His continuous deceptions, coupled with her feelings of insecurity, resulted in my mother becoming emotionally volatile and depressed. Throughout our childhoods, my siblings and I bore the brunt of her frustrations and woe: she was physically punitive and emotionally unstable. As a teenager, I clashed violently with her.
My father moved to Toronto with his second wife and was largely absent from my life after that point. On my 18th birthday, he relinquished all his financial responsibilities toward me, and since my mother could not afford to support me, I had to pay for my own education and living expenses. One year later, unable to live under my mother’s strict rules or handle her emotional outbursts, I moved in with my boyfriend. My mother was incredibly hurt and angry by my departure and she barely spoke to me for an entire year.
In 1984, I was 20 years old and attending McGill University in Montreal. I was supporting myself by working part time during the school year and full time over the summer. I had been living on my own for a couple years and believed that I was capable and intelligent, even if I was extremely lonely. That’s when I met an incredibly handsome, 28-year-old American art student.
He told me that he loved me the first day we met. Within two weeks of knowing each other, he moved from Boston to Montreal and started living with me. He quickly confessed that he had hit his former girlfriends and cheated on all of them. I also soon found out that he was running away from an assortment of creditors, including various credit card companies and unpaid student loans. But I was too young and naive to truly understand the severity of what he was telling me. I told myself that he would be different with me, because I had so much love to give him.
The abuse started within a month after he moved in. I said something to him in an argument and he called me a vile name. I was so offended and hurt that I slapped him. He, in turn, threw me on the bed and punched me in the arm a couple of times. Yet his actions didn’t scare me, as I was already accustomed to my mother turning violent and hitting me.
It quickly become evident that my new boyfriend was overbearing and punishing like my mother, and a handsome adulterer like my father. Yet I was too captivated by his zealous declarations of love and devotion. So, despite the warning signs, I plunged headfirst into our relationship and quickly started to overlook, or make excuses for, his bad behaviour.
The violence quickly escalated. Once, while we were at a party, he grabbed me forcibly by my hair, dragged me down the stairs and shoved me into the car, because he thought I said something derogatory to him. As we drove home, he continued to hit me over and over again. I don’t remember how it ended, but I do remember letting him hit me while falling deeper and deeper into a state of confusion and distress.
That summer, I agreed to move with him to Cape Cod, Mass., to work in a resort town for the summer. He was becoming increasingly jealous and once, after my shift had ended, he caught a glimpse of me through an upstairs window and became enraged because he was convinced that other people had seen me put on my jeans. He yelled at me, chastised me for deliberately flaunting my body and kicked me in my lower back, bruising my tailbone so badly that I had trouble sitting for weeks. Another time, he punched me in the face and knocked me down a staircase, because he found me next door socializing with some women he didn’t approve of. After each violent episode, I tried to convince myself that it would never happen again. I would forgive him, hoping that he would love me again and assuage my pain.
I never knew when, or why, his anger would erupt. It could be something I said, or how I looked at him. It could be the way I prepared a meal, how I dressed or what music I listened to. I tried to make everything perfect for him, just to avoid his criticism, his scolding and his fists. When something did happen, I would cover it up.
Finally, I called my father in tears, begging for him to send me a ticket so I could return home. I was 21 years old, scared and alone. When my boyfriend found out, he burst into tears and fell on his knees, begging for me not to go and proclaiming his sincere love for me. He repeatedly told me how much he hated himself for the way he was and that he was sorry.
I was tormented and conflicted, but at the same time, I was overwhelmed by his fervent love and constant attention. I never called my father back, and he never called me to find out if I was OK.
* * *
In 1985, my father offered me the opportunity to study fashion design in New York City for a year. I didn’t know anyone in the city and was totally unprepared for life in such a huge metropolis. Although my boyfriend and I had broken up after our summer in Cape Cod, he also moved to New York, and we eventually started seeing each other again. I was lonely and missed feeling wanted and loved. He said he loved me and wanted to marry me one day. I thought that perhaps it would be different this time around. He told me how much it hurt when I left him and I felt bad for causing him so much pain.
It wasn’t long before the emotional and physical abuse started again. One time, he held a small knife in his hand, as he punched me in the stomach. I screamed at him to stop and he said that I wasn’t dead yet. At first, I thought about fighting back, but concluded that doing so would only make him more violent. I realized then that his anger had no boundaries and that he could not control it.
In 1988, when we were having an argument, he picked up a metal ice cube tray and slammed it into my face. My glasses crushed into the bridge of my nose and blood gushed out, as if a tap had been turned on. I cupped my hands under my nose, hoping to catch the blood, so it wouldn’t spill on the furniture and carpet. After he called 911 and the police rushed in and saw what was going on, they arrested him and I was put in an ambulance and taken to the hospital.
Back then, it was up to the victim to press charges. I had no family to turn to, was ashamed to tell my new friends what was happening and had no legal counsel. I went to the courthouse by myself and met my boyfriend’s lawyer. He looked at my black eyes and bruised face and declared that I didn’t look so bad and that I should drop the charges. Once I saw how scared and shaken my boyfriend was after spending time in jail, I felt heartbroken. I just wanted everything to be better, so I dropped the charges and we went home.
“It wasn’t too long before the emotional and physical abuse started again”
I put on makeup to hide my black eyes and slept sitting up, so I could breathe through my swollen nose. I hid the terrible things that were going on in my relationship and invented stories about how I got my injuries. I wanted everyone to think we were a happy and fun couple, and that I really did have a cool, good-looking boyfriend.
After seeing my injuries, my therapist tried to persuade me to leave him. But the thought of being alone, of failing at this relationship and of revealing all the suffering and shame I had experienced, was too much for me. I told her that it felt like I would be falling into a black hole if I left him.
“I told her that it felt like I would be falling into a black hole if I left him.”
When we got married in 1988, he promised me that his infidelities and violence would cease. We had been together for almost four years and many of our friends were already married. Although my family didn’t like him, most of them didn’t try and stop me from marrying him. The one exception was my younger sister, who, after seeing some of my injuries, objected openly. But she was told again and again not to interfere in my relationship.
By 1990, I was pregnant with our first child. Since we had no health insurance in the United States and I wanted to be near my family, we moved to Toronto. I was looking forward to reconnecting with my family, even if my husband openly disrespected and disliked them.
His anger continued to erupt over the smallest of things. He could get angry if I put the toilet paper roll on the wrong way, or did not cook his steak exactly the way he liked it. To him, these were all examples of how I didn’t care about him, or how I was deliberately doing things to annoy him.
In 1997, I was pregnant with our fourth child. My eldest daughter was six years old then and wanted to come home for lunch. When I told my husband that I had picked her up, he was furious because he had not been consulted and wanted to spend lunchtime alone with me. He pushed me violently against the front door, so I quickly walked outside to get away from him. But he followed me and shoved me so forcefully from behind that I fell off our front balcony, down the concrete steps and onto the walkway below. My foot had twisted so badly that all the ligaments on both sides of my ankle had torn. I noticed that my pants were ripped and that I was bleeding from my knees and hands.
My young daughter was looking at me and crying. My son had run out onto our snowy balcony to witness the violence that had just unfolded. My leg began to swell and I had to cut off my sock and jeans, in order to wrap my ankle. My husband was neither remorseful, or concerned, and we all went out for dinner that evening, even though I could barely walk.
Around the same time, my husband started having an affair with a single mother who we had recently befriended. He immediately went from never letting me out of his sight, to doing anything to get away from our family. He also got angrier and his physical abuse increased.
My fourth pregnancy was beyond stressful. I was barely able to eat enough to gain weight and care for my other children. I was so upset and anxious that I broke out in hives for months. I had constant digestive problems and sometimes I barely had enough energy to speak.
After the birth of our fourth child, my husband’s affair ended and we went to couples counselling. He apologized for his behaviour over the past year, but continued to deny the fact that his relationship with the other woman was romantic in nature. I was encouraged to forgive him, even though I felt that something was permanently broken.
Finally, after two years in therapy, he confessed the true nature of his affair, which reignited my anger and resentment. Out of desperation and ire, I had a one-night stand, in the hopes of getting even with him. When I admitted my indiscretion to my husband, his anger exploded. He berated me constantly. He yelled at me, screamed at me and hit me. He would deprive me of sleep by waking me up in the middle of the night, ripping the covers off the bed, turning the lights on and kicking me. I would lie there shivering, hoping that the storm of anger would soon blow over.
“I KNEW I HAD TO LEAVE HIM”
His fury over my infidelity continued unabated for months, as he harassed and abused me day and night. One night, I couldn’t take it anymore and called 911. He was arrested and ordered to take an 18-month anger-management class, in exchange for an expunged record.
Although he took the course, his behaviour never really changed. He demanded that I be with him at every moment. He monitored my every move. He took my cellphone away and smashed it. He monitored my computer activity and called me incessantly whenever I went on an errand without him.
And then he began to insist that I work at his office, instead of from home. I hated the idea of being with him so much, but I had no choice – I was too fearful and emotionally and physically beaten down to say no. I just wanted to keep the peace for my children’s sake. I didn’t have the strength to even contemplate running away with my four young children. I was too afraid that he would find us and hurt us.
After years of abuse, I had also lost the ability to discern what was right or wrong in a relationship. How much screaming or fighting is acceptable? How much should your spouse determine where and when you go places? Did I really not take his feelings into consideration? Were his criticisms of me correct? All these questions became a confusing muddle that I didn’t know the answers to. It seemed easier to simply learn how to tolerate all the screaming, name calling and physical abuse.
His anger over my infidelity finally subsided after the sudden death of my father in 2002. My life was slowly getting calmer, as my children were all in school full time and I was accompanying my husband to work practically every day. I desperately wanted to believe that my life was starting to become manageable.
* * *
In 2003, I discovered that my husband was a member of an online dating service for married people who are looking to have an affair. I printed the email, threw it on his desk, went home and had an epiphany that would change my life: I realized that I did not love him and had not loved him for longer than I could remember. Although I had often been encouraged by therapists, clergy, family and friends to forgive his transgressions and love my husband, I truly did not. And although he demanded that I love him, I simply could not.
I knew I had to leave him. But I had lived for so long in a state of fear and confusion, that I felt overwhelmed and unsure of how I could make it happen. I was afraid he would lash out in anger and violence. I was afraid of the tremendous emotional turmoil, which always left me feeling weak. I was worried about where I would go. Should I run away with the kids one day and hide out in a shelter? I didn’t want my children to lose all their possessions, their home and their friends. I was scared that they would be even more upset and terrified if I took them away all of a sudden. I couldn’t do that to them.
By 2004, his business had shut down and he had accumulated a tremendous amount of debt. There was no money to pay the mortgage, or the bills, and creditors were starting to harass me day and night. I knew I had to support my children, so, in May 2005, I opened my own business. My husband wanted to be a part of it, but I deflected his attempts and avoided him as much as possible.
In December of that year, I told him unequivocally that I wanted a divorce. But he refused to leave. He kicked me out of our bedroom and told me to leave the house, since I was the one who wanted the divorce. At that point, I knew for sure that he would not leave peacefully.
In February 2006, he attacked me in a parking lot. I called the police and he was arrested. I knew that this was my opportunity to finally get away. A restraining order was issued and he knew that I would call the police if he ever came close to me again. He was convicted in December 2006 and given 18 months probation and ordered only to contact me by email to arrange visitation with the children.
“I have also learned that it is up to me to ensure that what i do truly brings me joy”
Today, my children are all grown up. As my daughters and sons navigate their relationships, I am vigilant about looking for signs of abusive behaviour. I tell my daughter not to overlook it when her boyfriend shoves her rudely aside when he’s drunk, or pressures her to feel guilty for going on vacation. I tell them that continually being berated and criticized is not part of a healthy relationship. I worry that my sons may try to save an emotionally volatile, or excessively dependent, woman. But I am close with all my children and although I try to resist using my marriage to their father as a comparison to their relationships, I know they trust that I can recognize potentially abusive behaviours.
During that time, I have reflected on my past marriage and tried to understand why I couldn’t leave for so long. I have had to re-learn that I can trust my own instincts and that I have control over my decisions. I have also learned that it is up to me to ensure that what I do truly brings me joy and that this is my life and no one has the right to take away my confidence or happiness ever again.