Artwork by Teresa Grassesch
* * TRIGGER WARNING * * This post contains content about domestic abuse and suicide. If you or someone you know needs help please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 in the USA. Click the links for more resources.
When people think of domestic abuse, they often focus on domestic violence, and domestic violence is typically depicted as a crime perpetrated by men against women. The facts paint a bigger, more alarming picture: 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men experience sexual violence, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime; approximately 1 in 5 female victims and 1 in 20 male victims need medical care: female victims sustain injuries three more often than male victims; 1 in 5 female victims and 1 in 9 male victims need legal services
What’s also true, is that men under report being victims of domestic violence. Ironically, the social stigma is often greater when the victim is a man (regardless of if the abuser is a woman or same-sex partner) because of the unconsciously accepted narrative that men should be able to defend themselves because they tend to be bigger and stronger. In addition, male victims historically receive unequal treatment when reporting their abuse to law enforcement and medical professionals, often not being taken as seriously, being mocked, and their injuries not being treated adequately. As a result, men minimize their abuse and often end up hiding or denying it in order not to suffer further shame and embarrassment. Yet another tip of the hat to the harm wrought on all genders by patriarchy.
Early 2022 I visited some friends in Brooklyn. For reasons still entirely unclear, V believed I had sex with one of them. She interrogated me repeatedly about the visit, comparing every minute detail of my recounting. Any variation became evidence of a betrayal that never happened. I understood that her past traumas of betrayal and abuse were being triggered, so I was determined to ride them out. It wasn’t the first time either of us held space for the other as we worked through our individual issues. But this felt different, more pervasive. We kept coming back to it, and with each revisit our emotions escalated.
On what would turn out to be our final weekend together, things reached a scary and violent breaking point. It started as yet another interrogation and accusation. Her anger grew, as did my exasperation. She started throwing things; not at me initially, but I soon became the target. We had canvas prints of photographs from our travels in various rooms. She went after them with a pair of sharp scissors, stabbing and shredding, carving deep holes in the drywall. Then the shoving started. She hadn’t ever laid hands on me in anger. The angrier she got, the more she shoved and cursed, the more shock started to set in and the quieter I became. I could feel myself shutting down, not responding, which seemed to infuriate her even more.
As I stood stunned by what was happening, she went to the kitchen and returned with a large knife. She held the point to her neck, demanding to know why she shouldn’t end her life right there and then. Three thoughts immediately came to mind: she is bluffing and this is as bad as it will get tonight; she is not bluffing and I might have to bear witness to the death of someone I love for the second time in my life; this could go sideways and my daughter could lose another parent. And then I really saw V for the first time that night: someone collapsing under the immense weight of the unresolved and unimaginable pain she had been carrying since childhood. My heart broke for her.
I credit my pastoral training for the next thirty minutes it took to de-escalate her emotions, take the knife, and get her to bed. She slept for the entire next day, while I vacillated between states of shock, trying to process what had happened, and contemplating what to do next. I began to rationalize all the ways we could turn this around: maybe if she got better help; this was probably an isolated incident anyways; this was just a bad fight, it didn’t qualify as domestic abuse; once she was fully regulated she would be able to think straight; our love was strong enough to recover from this; what kind of person would I be to abandon my partner in her moment of crisis; if I left it might truly push her over the edge and I would never be able to forgive myself for her suicide.
A feeling of familiarity slowly began to wash over me. I had heard these thoughts before. They came from individuals sitting in my office recounting their own past and current struggles. In the cases of ongoing relationships my recommendation was always the same: please safely extricate yourself, because the only outcome of staying would be further pain and suffering, and you are worthy of more. I realized I had to take my own advice. I had to choose me.
Our decoupling was its own adventure, which I won’t go into right now. I will share, however, that I found a therapist within days of leaving which was fortuitous for a whole other reason. Two weeks later I would get a call letting me know that my dad was dying, and could I fly home to Barbados to help take care of him. When it rains, it pours.
When I started writing this post I hadn’t planned to share this part of my journey in such detail. It was originally going to be a paragraph or two, almost a footnote meant to show how a previous relationship experience informed my current choices. But as writers will tell you, at some point we just become conduits for the stories that demand to be told. This telling became bigger than the beginnings of my polyamorous life, and it was clearly another step in my healing. I haven’t carried the burden of it alone. I’ve processed it in therapy, and I’ve talked about it with my closest friends and family immediately after it happened. But this is the first time I am writing about it, being public with it, being vulnerable with the world.
I didn’t write this post in a single sitting. Every time I sat to write, a multitude of feelings arose: deep sadness because I left a best friend and lover and partner; flickers of shame and embarrassment from imagining what others might think; remnants of tension in my body from the shock and stress and abuse; pride and empowerment from being in a place to tell my story; hope that my story might inspire others who survived similar situations to share theirs, that we might inspire those still trapped in similar situations to know they are not alone and to seek help; relief that the situation did not get any worse; compassion and concern for V; acceptance and patience with my ongoing healing; immense gratitude for the love and support I received from friends and family; awe in how far I’ve come since then; appreciation and love for my current partners.
A really close friend once pointed out that since Jennifer’s death, my choice in partners incrementally improved. My relationship with V cast some doubt on that observation, but she wasn’t just only her trauma, nor deserved to be reduced to her worst moments. What my friend was really saying was that I was getting better at knowing who I was beyond marriage and during grief, as well as what I was worth and who I deserved to be with. I had a history of putting my partners’ needs and desires before mine, essentially choosing and staying with partners based on my ability to meet their needs. I thought it made me a good partner, but it was based on a lack of self-worth, a fear of conflict and abandonment, and a scarcity consciousness. Definitively not good partner material. Looking back, it was a wonder any relationship made it as long as it did.
The ending of my relationship with V was very traumatic. My healing was that much more challenging while hospicing my father. In the wake of both endings, however, I felt like I was on the brink of a new way of being, of living. And as life goes, I got so much more than I bargained for.
The story continues in Poly Notes 4: Deconstruction Dive