My boyfriend hit me, so why do I have a problem calling it domestic abuse?

Trigger warning: This young man's story of domestic abuse is a cautionary tale about how easily it can escalate

In my teens, I had a pretty clear idea of what domestic abuse looked like.

I had seen enough movies, plays and TV shows where the cruel, sneering man ruthlessly beat his girlfriend and every time I would think: ‘Leave! Leave! You’re worth more than him!’ I could never understand why she couldn’t just leave, why she wouldn’t hit back, why she wouldn’t stand up and fight.

At this point, I had no clue that when it comes to domestic abuse, physical abuse is only one fraction of a campaign to demoralize and control a romantic partner.

I met my ex-boyfriend in my early twenties and we remained together for two years. I had never met anybody like him.

He was smart and funny and the most charming person you would ever hope to come across. He showered me with affection, gifts, compliments and romantic gestures – sending me cute messages and recordings of him singing love songs.

I was in love.

I feel like that’s important to know.

It’s taken a long time to accept what happened between him and I. When I was in the relationship, I refused to acknowledge that how he acted could have possibly been abuse. When I was out of it, I refused even harder.

He ‘couldn’t have abused me – he loved me’.

I muttered this to my mum as I cried in the back garden of my parents house on the day the relationship ended. ‘James, sweetheart,’ she said. ‘He hit you’.

The warning signs

It seems bizarre to say this but the physical abuse started off as almost charming.

In the first few weeks of us dating, we went out dancing and a guy came up to dance with me, quite harmlessly. Before I could do or say anything my ex threw the guy across the room, ending up in a small fight and him being thrown out of the club.

My ex grabbed on to me and dragged me out.

Although I was a little taken aback, this was the first time a guy had ever been possessive over me. I hadn’t been hurt and although my ex seemed angry and aggressive, he clung on to me for the rest of the evening and… it was nice.

Over the next few weeks, things started to turn a bit more against me. We had gone to a bar in town but this time it was just the two of us.

We walked into a room to find that the bar was pretty full so I wandered to the left to see if there was another bar in another room. I felt a hand round my wrist and he pulled me back demanding to know where I was going.

I said I wanted to see if there was another bar with a shorter queue and he immediately started shouting. He told me not to lie and that I was going to go and see if there were other boys in another room.

People looked.

I reassured him: ‘No, of course not!’ but he threw my wrist back at me and stormed away.

When I found him again, it was as if nothing had ever happened, he kissed me and I felt like maybe I had been a bit stupid and I shouldn’t wander off again.

Noticing a pattern of abuse

Moments like this continued to occur nearly every time we went out, but I just pegged that down to alcohol and, really, who isn’t a bit of an asshole when they’ve been drinking?

I let him pull me out of bars.

He grabbed a drink out of my hand and threw it across the park because I had asked a friend to do some work for me and hadn’t asked him first.

I apologized to the bar staff because they sent a member of staff over to check if I was OK because he was shoving me against the wall and wouldn’t get off.

I picked up the picture frames when he slammed a door so hard in my face they fell off the wall and smashed.

But this was all fine. We were passionate, that’s all. I thought to complain about this would be to belittle what real survivors go through.

I was fine.

‘He hit me again. And again. And again’

Then he hit me.

We had gone out dancing and had had a great time, smearing glitter on new friends faces and kissing in the middle of the dance floor.

He suddenly announced that he wanted to leave and left the club, but I wasn’t done yet! I danced for about five minutes but I wasn’t having any fun without him.

So I made my way out of the club, where the bouncer stopped me. She wanted to know if a boy matching my ex’s description was my boyfriend. I said yes and asked if everything was OK. She told me to go and collect him from around the corner as he had been screaming and swearing at them about wanting to come back in.

I desperately apologized and went around the corner to see him on the other side of the road. I called his name and he saw me and stormed over.

Out of the blue, he swung his arm around and hit me in the face.

When I fell to the ground pretty quickly, things felt very slow. I thought that was it and we would argue or something when he hit me on the back of the head.

I gasped ‘stop’ but he hit me again.

And again.

And again.

I lay on the floor and pathetically waited for him to stop. I rolled into a ball and sobbed into my hands, waiting for the blows to stop. Eventually they did but I didn’t want to look up.

I waited for a long time and when someone touched me, I jumped. A stranger had seen what happened and offered to help me up.

(Fun aside: the stranger mugged me).

‘I didn’t talk about it to anyone’

I don’t think my ex remembers doing it, we never talked about it. I didn’t talk about it to anyone – I didn’t tell my friends, I didn’t tell the police.

If I had done that, I would have gotten the man that I loved in trouble. He was my boyfriend and we had an apartment together – a life together. He loved me and I loved him.

I felt like what he had done wasn’t that bad. He hadn’t broken any bones. To complain about this would be to complain about nothing.

How can I think, even now: ‘He didn’t almost kill you, so it doesn’t really count?’

I think it’s to do with emotional abuse.

By the time he hit me, I was already in a position where I would write the physical attack off as nothing to be concerned about. I had already lost faith in my judgment, doubted my strength and cared very little about my own worth. At home, every attempt was made to bring my self confidence lower and lower.

Constant belittling

Even from early on in the relationship, my ex seemed to rejoice in calling me names. On a daily basis, he’d call me stupid, incompetent or talentless.

I’d be the butt of jokes, if it was just us, if we were home with our flatmate, or worse – at social events.

Calling me ‘so socially inept I’m basically autistic’ was one of his favourite punchlines. I asked him to stop but he said he’d only done it once and that I should stop overreacting.

Except I remember every time he did it.

I would leave every social event I attended with him feeling like I didn’t deserve to be around him, like I didn’t deserve to be at any event we attended together.

At home, he treated my hobbies and interests as bizarre. If I showed him something I was proud of, he would respond in disdain.

I began to fear making mistakes because I knew this would result in a severe telling off.

Whatever I seemed to do would result in me being called an idiot. I couldn’t be too early, too late, too loud at an event, too quiet at an event.

Cutting friendships for my boyfriend

I was told to stop talking to boys I knew at work.

I came home one day to tell him I had been chatting to a guy I worked with who was also gay. He demanded to know what we had been talking about, why I’d been talking to him.

When I mentioned we had been in the pub with around 8 other colleagues and we had been talking about sex, he hit the roof. He screamed that I should never have discussed sex with this guy, that I had no business talking to him and that he was furious I had done so.

I didn’t like upsetting my boyfriend, so friendships were cut.

Meeting him and knowing that I had upset him would feel like I was walking to the dentist.

I came to expect a scolding and then long periods of silence where I would have to apologize over and over to get him to talk to me again.

A man collapsed on the tube and as I helped him and helped the emergency services, all I could think was: ‘I can’t be late to meet him, I’ll be in so much trouble. He’ll be so angry if I keep him waiting’.

Gaslighting

If I was to bring this up with him now, he would probably tell me I was making this up. This is something I came to expect.

I wasn’t aware what gaslighting meant until after this relationship.

When talking through with a close female friend, she explained that if a partner is making you question your own sanity – if their response to your complaints is ‘that never happened’ or ‘you’re making that up’ – they may be putting you through a form of abuse called gaslighting.

It’s hard to argue your case if your partner dismisses it as fiction.

Constantly being told you’re crazy or overreacting to events starts to gnaw away at your own self-belief. Events which were true the day before would be denied the day after. Arguments which had been and gone would suddenly become twisted to having been your fault.

Words would come out of his mouth, which, if brought up again two minutes later, would be refuted with ‘I never said that’.

I was constantly told I was overreacting, constantly told to not make a fuss.

When I found he had been sending photographs of himself in only his underwear to men, I was told to ‘stop overreacting, I’m only doing it for my career’.

He would disappear for 14 hours when due home – no phone contact, no messages, nothing. Then he would reappear and tell me I ‘wasn’t allowed to be upset’.

He denied every circumstance that could potentially upset or hurt me. I was frankly not permitted to be upset over things and if I was upset, I was unjustified and crazy. If I was to continue getting upset at things like that, he would leave.

This is what gaslighting feels like

I never wanted him to leave, so I shrunk. I grew smaller and quieter and then I stopped making a fuss as I told myself to stop reacting.

He was right and I was crazy. I was dramatic. I was just some idiot who couldn’t understand why the boy he loved scared him so much.

Why couldn’t I accept what he was doing to me? Why do I still find it so hard to say abuse?

Is it because friends who know the truth about us, know that he hit me continue to be his adoring friends?

Or is it because I meet strangers who tell me ‘he’s so kind and charming and what a lovely person’ he is?

Is it because I know that he would stop to give money to homeless people, that he squeals at puppies and that he fiercely loves his family?

Or is it because he crushed my self confidence, made me question my emotions and ignored or refused to admit to any time he grabbed me, pushed me, belittled me, punched me or screamed in my face?

Or is it because to acknowledge what was happening to me was to acknowledge my own abusive behaviour? To sit and think: ‘Is what I’m going through abuse?’ forces you to reflect on your own behaviour.

Was I an abusive partner too?

In past relationships, I had certainly been cruel.

I had called partners names, I had made mean comments on things which I knew they were insecure about and I had belittled them in front of friends for a cheap laugh.

Was I an abusive partner too?

Was this merely a case of what goes around comes around? In this new relationship, I certainly wasn’t a saint. I was manipulative, needy and possessive.

I asked him to do things which were unfair and controlling, I overreacted to moments that did not need a reaction – I was impatient and insecure.

For a long time, this lead me to think that maybe he only reacted like that because of how I behaved and how abusive I was.

The thing is, we have such a warped idea of what abuse looks like. To most of us, it’s an abusive man and a fragile, smaller abused woman.

I can give you dozens of examples from TV and film of that cruel, physically abusive man and that timid, terrified woman. But most of us don’t know what an abusive gay couple looks like.

I’m a 6’2″ man (188cm) and people asked why I didn’t hit him back.

Well, I didn’t want to.

Why would I hit the man I loved? He wasn’t the dribbling, hulking monster that you see in movies or on TV. He was a kind, affectionate, sweet guy, or at least, he could be.

‘It felt like… a kiss’

There’s a really hideous line at the end of a very famous Batman comic where one of the characters (Harley Quinn) is lying in bed in hospital after her abusive boyfriend (The Joker) has just pushed her out of a window.

The doctor asks her how she feels knowing that she let herself be controlled by such a man and she replies: ‘It felt like… a kiss’.

What I went through doesn’t feel like abuse.

I don’t think that anyone who lives through abuse will ever feel like they can admit wholeheartedly that’s what they went through. Someone I love very much was abused over 40 years ago and she still feels like it was her fault – that somehow she asked for it.

That’s how I feel.

At the end of the plays, movies and TV shows I saw as a child, it was black and white.

The abuser was cruel and defeated – they slunk away, never to be seen again. The survivor remained, innocent, gentle, triumphant, strong, powerful.

Neither of us were those figures.

Occasionally, I see a photo of him online, liked by a friend or retweeted by a colleague. He smiles out at me, surrounded by friends.

I don’t know if he recognizes what he did.

Meanwhile, I see myself. I am single, I find it hard to make new friends. I am afraid of any form of relationship.

While I have grown to acknowledge that my own faults do not excuse the treatment I received and while I have grown stronger and prouder and louder over the past two years of being single and free, I continue to doubt myself.

This is even to the point where I don’t think getting punched by my boyfriend counts as abuse.

But it does.

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