both sides of the story

Let’s go on another hypothetical mind-journey! (Or story, if you’re boring and don’t appreciate my attempts at levity.) Here we go: You’re woken up early Saturday morning to a phone call from one of your closest friends. Let’s call her Sara. (No offense, Sara(h)s. You have a perfectly lovely name. It’s just common enough that it’s convenient for a random narrative. Continue being your wonderful, beautiful Sara(h) selves. I promise this is nothing personal). You answer it, because seriously, who actually calls unless it’s an emergency? Sara sounds a bit distant and shaken. Her voice trembles as she’s tries to gain her composure. Her fiancé hit her last night, she finally blurts out, as if she has to say it quickly because she doesn’t know how else to get the sentence out of her mouth. Let’s call him John (Again, simply because “Jo(h)n” is a common name. Jo(h)ns, please know the aforementioned Sara(h) explanation applies to you as well. I’m sure you’re lovely. Thanks for reading my blog.) You’ve met John quite a few times over the years, he’s always been perfectly sweet. You’ve never had any bad feeling about him. In fact, you really like him. He’s always been funny and thoughtful.

Sara goes on to explain, she’d gone out with co-workers for happy hour, and accidentally ran late for her dinner plans with John. They’d gotten into a fight, and this one little issue brought up seventeen other issues. Things got heated. They started yelling at each other. Sara says it turned into a bit of a blur. At a certain point they obviously weren’t anywhere near a productive conversation. She admits she’d said some things she knew were mean, just because she’d already felt so hurt and sad. You hear the crinkle of an ice pack as she adjusts it on her face, hoping to keep the swelling down. He finally stormed out a few hours ago, she continues. Now it’s early morning and he’s been leaving apologetic voice mails. He’s so sorry. His voice sounded sincere. He doesn’t know how all this happened. He loves her so much. He’s just so, so, so sorry. Sara is his world.

You listen to her intently. Over the course of twenty minutes, she shyly reveals this isn’t the first time. In the past, he’s grabbed her arm hard enough to leave marks and he’s occasionally slammed her into the wall. He throws things across the room sometimes. All the while, you’re desperately trying to picture it. John? Sara’s John? They’re the perfect couple. You’ve known him years. This sounds crazy. This is not the man your friend is engaged to. She texts you a couple photos.

There she is. Sara. She’s standing in front of a mirror in a beige bra and sleep shorts. Her face strategically cropped out. Different angles. A large bruise on her thigh and another on her shin. Hand marks on her upper arm. Other parts of her body just look sort of red and splotchy.

There’s a silence as you swipe through the photos, all you hear is Sara’s exasperated breathing over speaker phone, as if she doesn’t even quite understand what’s happening.

You breathe in deeply, taking in everything she’s just told you. You’ve known Sara since college. She’s one of your favorite people.

Finally, you kindly respond, “Well, there are two sides to every story.”

The Isolation of Empathy (detail) • Carly Swenson • 2019

Super shitty, huh? Because, generally speaking, I think we can agree that is an inappropriate response to physical abuse. However, in my experience, a casual dismissal of lived experiences was impressively frequent when referring to emotional abuse. Abuse is abuse, and it’s all awful. There are no “two sides of the story” with abuse. Because, honestly, I don’t give a fuck how funny, delightful, kind, thoughtful, charismatic, or fill-in-the-blank-with-your-compliment-of-choice, someone is to other people. If someone has experienced abuse, the abuser’s intent, or how they treat anyone else is irrelevant.

When most people, from my closest friends to mutual acquaintances genuinely asked about why my marriage ended, I’d explain to varying degrees, that my husband had been controlling and emotionally abusive. And while, I’d initially left because I knew I needed a change in the trajectory of my own life, after I’d done so, I had to deal with the ramifications of the true nature of our relationship.

Well, every story has two sides. They’d usually respond. Whether they’d intended to or not, what they actually said was “I don’t believe you,” hidden behind a thin veil of impartiality. These interactions only added to the emotional trauma of the original gaslighting.

It’s true. Every story does have two sides. Absolutely. But that isn’t an appropriate response to abuse. For example, the cleanliness of our shared home has two sides. I may say, I wasn’t as messy as my husband made me sound, and he was basically OCD. He’ll likely say he’s particular, and just likes things tidy, what’s wrong with that? He’s already relaxed his standards quite a bit. That is definitely a situation where reality is somewhere in the middle, between two differing perspectives on one situation. However, if I say my husband controlled our finances, he might explain that’s not exactly true. I had my own bank accounts (that he also had access to) and he had his own bank accounts, I didn’t have access to. This would be an example of controlling behavior. There are two different sides, but both reinforce my original narrative that we had an unequal power dynamic with our finances.

After leaving my husband it took months to come to terms with the fact my husband had been controlling and emotionally manipulative. It took years to forgive myself for staying in an unhealthy marriage, for not realizing sooner that my relationship was a choose-your-own- adventure of gaslighting. As I’ve grown and healed, I’ve read articles about emotional abuse, manipulative behavior, and gaslighting. Like anything, abuse is nebulous, it takes varied forms. Emotional abuse exists without checking every single box. It’s still real. See? Even now I’m trying to defend my own life experiences to the internet-abyss.

But that’s the impressive part of emotional abuse, how accustomed you get to blaming yourself–always. If I’d been more understanding, if I weren’t so sensitive and weird, if I were just cleaner and more considerate of his time and his needs, if I were just more organized and less lazy, if I just gave a little more of myself and tried harder. Gaslighting and grooming further ingrained this behavior. Making me question my own experiences and conversations. In any disagreement I felt I could never truly trust my own perspective. This man loves me, he wants what is best for me–why am I so difficult? Why am I so hard to live with? Why am I so hard to love? Why am I always doing this? Why can’t I just be normal. I’m so lucky he’s willing to put up with me and my mental health issues. Things would be fine if I could just be better, and more, and try…

So, I’m left with this tiny voice in the back of my head says, “But was he really abusive? I mean really? I know he was a dick sometimes, emotionally unavailable, selfish, and likely had undiagnosed OCD–but emotionally abusive? That’s a pretty big label to put on it. You sure, Swenson? To make a claim like that you’d better be able to back it up. So….are you really sure?

I am.

Memories are weird. And faulty. It took years for me to learn how to trust myself again. I’ve embraced my truth and come to terms with the loss. I lost my twenties (my ‘hottest’ years). I lost personal boundaries and my sense of self. I lost my closest friends. I lost my perceived sense of future security and stability. Now I’m going on five years since I ended my marriage. I’ve learned a lot, found a sense of closure, spent a year in therapy, and I’m growing into the woman I want to be.

However, one pain still lingers. It hurts that can see how so many of my friends don’t believe me. I mean, they believe I “perceived” things as abusive. But they don’t really believe I was abused. Many of my friends are still connected to him on Facebook or Instagram. They’ll comment back and forth or like photos occasionally. Even one of my closest friends can only say how funny he was, while never quite acknowledging my hurt.

And I guess, my point is, if you really believe a victim, you shouldn’t want to stay in touch with their abuser, no matter how funny he is. And you shouldn’t respond to their history of abuse with, “Yea, well, you know, there are two sides to every story.”

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