By Leslie Morgan Steiner, published on May 1, 2009 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
We all have secrets we don't reveal the first time we cross paths with others. If you and I met at one of our children's birthday parties or a neighbor's barbecue, you'd never guess mine: As a young woman I fell in love with and married a violent man who beat me regularly and nearly killed me.
I don't fit most "battered woman" stereotypes. I have an undergraduate and an MBA degree from Ivy League schools. I live in a red brick house on a tree-lined street in one of the prettiest neighborhoods in Washington, DC. I've got 15 years of marketing experience at Fortune 500 companies and a best-selling book about motherhood to my name. A smart, loyal husband who has a sexy gap in his front teeth and who puts out food for the stray cats in our alley. Three rambunctious, well-loved children. A dog and three cats of our own.
I met my first husband in 1988 when I was 22. I had just graduated from Harvard. I had an exciting job as an editor at Seventeen, my first American Express card, and a funky New York City apartment. Conor was smart, handsome, charismatic, and very troubled—although, of course, I couldn't see that at first. He was nothing if not persistent: He tracked me down at my job a month after our chance meeting on the New York subway. My love grew with every fact I unearthed about his childhood: an abusive stepfather, a mother on welfare, and circumstances that forced him to drop out of school in eighth grade. He had accomplished so much in spite of his nightmarish upbringing—it was touching and admirable to me.
He first attacked me five days before our wedding at Memorial Church in Harvard Yard. I was so stunned that I wrote it off to pre-wedding jitters. The ten bruises on my neck healed just in time for me to pose for photos without beige cover-up.
During our four years together, he sometimes encouraged me to reach for my dreams: being a successful writer, getting an MBA, becoming a mother. Then, at increasingly regular intervals, he pushed me down the stairs, pulled the keys from the car ignition as I drove along the highway, choked me when I screamed during an argument. He once jammed my head into the floor with his knee so that he could press a gun muzzle against my temple. For days I had a perfectly circular, red-brown tattoo above my cheekbone.
He threatened to kill me regularly and several times came close to doing so. He never commented on the bruises he left on my neck and arms and face and rib cage. He never apologized.
No one else said anything, either. I hid the bruises and tried to convince others we had a good marriage. Why did I stay? It's simple. I couldn't wake up one day and not love him, no matter what he'd done the night before. His rage was not an inherent, evil part of him. He'd been beaten almost since he was born, taught by his parents that violence was linked to intimacy.
It took me years to realize that the abusive behavior was Conor's responsibility, even if it wasn't his fault. Two policemen who came to our apartment following one final, terrifying attack convinced me that the man I loved more than anyone else on earth would kill me one day if I let him. The choice became simple: him or me.
I'm here today because I chose me.
For a long time after our marriage ended, I tried to understand how I could have lost myself to a man who was willing to destroy me. I studied books by domestic abuse experts, puzzled because their theories read like bad TV movie scripts, lacking the complicated emotions and misguided hope I'd experienced. I struggled to keep silent during cocktail party debates about why women stay in violent relationships. I walked away after hearing the smug pronouncements: that abused women are weak and self-destructive, society's most despicable victims. That wasn't me. My story was far more confusing than any stereotype.
Part of my problem was that it took too long for me to realize I was indeed a battered wife. Sure, I came from a good family, had a fine education, and had all the benefits of a successful career, including enough financial independence to walk out the door at any time. But none of that made me impervious to the seductive power of hope and love. I now know that domestic violence can happen to nearly any woman with a few chinks in her self-esteem. Like most humans, I had plenty.
Why does a woman stay with a man who beats her? The reality is more complex than our standard explanations, which tend toward the concrete: lack of money and resources, cultural taboos against divorce, children to protect. I had none of those binds, and yet I stayed with an abusive man for years.
It has taken me over a decade to see how lucky I am that I learned, albeit the hard way, from my mistakes in love. I didn't stay trapped in a destructive relationship, or repeat a series of destructive relationships, the way some unfortunate women do. Almost in a karmic way, that final beating changed me forever. No matter how sorry I felt for my husband, no matter how much I cared, I was finished for good with loving bad boys. I never wanted to be in a relationship with another man who'd shut down part of his heart or who couldn't love me back, no matter what the reason. I wanted a kind partner with a generous heart. I had no idea how I'd find such a man. I figured it was fine if I took my sweet time sorting that part out.
If I were brave enough the first time I met you, I'd try to share the strange torture of my crazy love story. Listening to me, maybe you'd understand what compelled me to stay for years, and what it finally took to abandon someone I loved—almost more than myself. Then maybe the next time you met a woman struggling to put a violent relationship behind her, you'd see past our society's stereotypes and simply help her on her way.
From Crazy Love by Leslie Morgan Steiner. Text © 2009. Reprinted with permission from St. Martin's Press, LLC. Morgan Steiner (www.lesliemorgansteiner.com) is also the editor of the anthology Mommy Wars.