As told to Laura Barcella.
I was 21 when I met Stephanie, the woman who would eventually become my abuser. I might not seem like your “typical” abuse survivor, but domestic/relationship violence doesn’t always look like what you see on Law & Order. Generally, it’s about control. Though it can include physical violence, it can also include insults, lying, manipulation, and intimidation. And, I’m not alone: According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, about one in 14 men has been physically assaulted by a partner, spouse, or date. Male survivors are simply less likely than females to report it.
Stephanie and I both worked in the performing arts. When we met at a show one night, we just clicked. She was pretty sexually aggressive, and I liked her. But, she was nine years older than me and definitely had a Peter Pan syndrome going on. Even though I knew I shouldn’t mix business and pleasure, I ended up working with her closely and becoming her boyfriend — which none of our colleagues knew. It felt fun and exciting; she was super-spontaneous and sexually open, so our relationship intensified quickly.
She had a history of dead-end, dysfunctional relationships, and I knew that one of her recent long-term boyfriends had been an abusive alcoholic. It became clear that she’d always been insecure and impulsive, with a tendency to use others for attention and validation. Stephanie also had a history of depression. Early on in our relationship, she complained of being lonely. After a long, touchy exchange in which she began to sound increasingly hopeless, she texted me: “I’m exhausted. 30 was a good run, now I'm going for a run. Done.” To me, this sounded suicidal — but when I called her friend to make sure Stephanie was okay, the friend insisted that Stephanie was just being her usual, emotionally manipulative self. It was a massive red flag, and I worried that this — that she — would be too messy. But, she did a terrific job at transforming, even after her darkest moments, into something dazzling and fun, so I’d get sucked back in.
Despite her flaws, Stephanie could be charming, caring, and generous, and she was always brilliant. I adored dating someone so creative, and music was a common bond for us. Still, our relationship began to grow more draining as it progressed. I never knew what might trigger her, and eventually Stephanie’s anger turned to physical violence. We were on a work trip to the West Coast the first time it happened; we had missed an important business meeting because she’d taken so long to get ready. We were on the highway, with me stewing in frustration and Stephanie getting increasingly agitated. She suddenly slowed the car dramatically, making cars behind us swerve and honk. Angrier than ever, she reached over, grabbed my neck, and dug her nails into my skin — hard, for quite some time. I was terrified — not only because I didn’t want to get into an accident, but because I’d never seen this side of her before. Her nails left bloody marks on the back of my neck, but my long hair covered them, so no one noticed. She didn’t apologize afterward. She acted like her behavior was no big deal— like it was justified, even. And, it was swept under the rug.
The next time Stephanie became violent, we were about to go to bed. Out of nowhere, she started shouting about how she couldn’t afford to live in her apartment anymore. She began throwing her clothes in a bag, saying she’d go to a women’s shelter, asking me why I’d let her pay for the apartment — as if it were my fault that she’d decided to move into her apartment. She started pushing me, hitting me, and saying nasty things. Soon, she was digging her nails into my arms enough that she drew blood. In the midst of all this, she accidentally fell and bumped her head on the sofa, and I ended up taking care of her for the rest of the night. It seemed like it was always my job to take care of her, and it was getting more and more exhausting. I felt totally frustrated, freaked out, and emotionally sucked dry. I was over dealing with her bullshit, but I still didn’t feel like I could walk away.
Things would improve between us for a while, before a fresh round of fighting would spring up, over anything and everything. She’d always say, “I’m a good person. I’m a good person” in the midst of a fight. I’m not sure if she was trying to convince herself, or me. The physical violence only happened a few times (she stabbed me with a fork once, too, but I only have vague memories of it — I guess I blocked it out), but the emotional abuse, verbal attacks, and manipulation ramped up after that.
Stephanie would constantly barrage me with insults and threats. “If you don't call me back right now,” she’d say, “I will kill myself. But, before I do, I will send a letter to every single fucking person you know, so they know it was your fault.” Once, she ran to the bathroom with a knife, like she was going to cut herself (she didn’t). More than once, she threatened to jump in front of a train (she didn’t). It terrified me. The most frustrating part was that I could never tell whether Stephanie was being sincere or just trying to wind me up. My biggest fear was that at some point her threats would be real — and I wouldn’t be able to act quickly enough to stop her.
Stephanie’s family lived across the country, so she came to me for everything — from clogged sinks to a lost wallet. I think she wanted me to believe that I could never leave her — that she’d fall apart without me. I felt that way, myself. She was trying to control me, to keep me trapped in the relationship. I felt guilty for wanting to leave her because I was genuinely worried that she’d commit suicide. But, I was also afraid of her behavior and felt desperate to get out.
There was a complication, though. Because I worked with her, I felt like I couldn’t just walk away from our relationship — I knew she’d try to sabotage my career if I did (she’d threatened to do so repeatedly). Stephanie wanted to get married and have kids; I had no interest in that sort of life with her. And, I think deep down she knew it wouldn’t work out — I was just too young. So, while we were still technically dating (but having big problems), I started gently suggesting that she build an OkCupid profile and look for other guys. That might sound callous, but I needed to extricate myself without making her lose it. I wanted her to feel like our impending breakup was her idea, in a way. By that point, we were both pretty miserable, so she didn’t fight very hard to keep our relationship intact; I only remember her getting upset once, saying it wasn’t fair that we “couldn’t be together.”
When she did eventually meet a new guy online, all her interests began to morph. Suddenly, she was drinking beer and watching sports. It was odd, but not particularly surprising. Stephanie had always been overly preoccupied with what people — friends, men, her parents — thought. Though (thanks to the new guy) our romantic relationship was finally dead by then, Stephanie and I stayed friends for a few months. She eventually severed all contact, including our work relationship. She said I wasn’t supportive enough.
Of course, an abusive relationship isn’t something you get over right away. I felt wildly embarrassed, like that kind of thing just wasn’t supposed to happen to men. I also blamed myself. Why hadn’t I been self-aware enough to catch things with Stephanie before they went off the rails? Why hadn’t I taken action sooner?
I was depressed, but I didn’t get therapy or talk about it much; I tried to tell my mom, but she was dismissive. I read some helpful books: The New Male by Herb Goldberg and Intimate Connections by David Burns. Eventually, I started recounting the details to a few close friends who hadn’t known about the severity of the situation with Stephanie. Once, while I was still with Stephanie, a friend saw my upper arms; they were covered with nail marks. “She’s crazy — are you going to stay with her?” he asked. It never occurred to him that I might actually be stuck in a dangerous place where I definitely shouldn’t have been.
The positive side is that, after working through some of my feelings about what had happened, I started to focus on becoming the person I really wanted to be. As men, we’re supposed to be the tough ones. But, I began to accept that our culture’s stereotypical ideal of masculinity (always silent, always “macho”) is flawed. Since I'm more “sensitive,” I differ from that false ideal, sure — but that’s okay. I don’t think I was a target for abuse because of my sensitivity, but I do feel that Stephanie kept pushing me because she knew I wouldn’t push back.
Today, I’m happy. I have great friends, a full-time job, and I’m currently in the healthiest relationship I’ve ever been in. But, I felt compelled to share my story because, in general, heterosexual men don’t talk enough about their experiences with abuse — emotional or physical. Sometimes, they don’t even realize they’re in an abusive relationship; we assume all abusers are men. It wasn’t until Stephanie was out of my life that I was able to recognize that something had been very wrong. I don’t want to see other men go through that.
Guys are taught to be stoic and impenetrable: Never be sensitive, never show weakness. We’re seen as the perpetrators of violence, not the survivors of it. The reality, as I know, is much more complex.
Author has requested anonymity; all names have been changed.