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Living Through Abuse To Trust Another Day

Today’s post is about a deeply important subject, one that I’ve seen play out for so many people close to me. It’s about learning to trust again after an abusive relationship. It’s about the hope that things can get better and the bravery of knowing when to leave. If this helps just one of you leave, or heal, or take one step down the path to wholeness, it will be worth all of Jamaica‘s bravery in writing about it. And even if this has nothing to do with your life experiences, it’s one to take into your heart and ponder.

There’s always a chance of rain in Portland. Scant hours before our wedding on the morning of September 17th, 2011, Mitchell and I sipped coffee in a corner café and watched the water begin to crease the window panes. We were calm, and surprisingly, it didn’t feel like a reaction before a storm. I think we were shocking my mom; she looked for any disappointment that the planned backyard wedding was a muddy bust. Nope. Acceptance. What will be will be, and moisture is a fact of life in the Pacific Northwest.

It’s now been over two months since that morning, and what I keep realizing is that Mitchell and I had the perfect wedding.

We compressed all twenty five guests into the living room of our dear friends; Mitchell’s honorary uncle Glen wrote and performed the ceremony; we read thoughts on love and connection from Douglas Adams, Carl Sagan, and Ranier Maria Rilke; we ate lemon-blueberry buckle (yum!) and played word games (more yum!); and we were ourselves.

The big question going into planning a wedding event was how to tailor the day for two compassionate and crude introverted nerds who are madly in love, who love quiet and tea, and who both feel extremely close with their family and friends (introverted, but not shy!). A mix of happy accident, mindful planning, and setting gentle but firm boundaries about what we would and would not do ended up creating a really good day. A day, may I note, with an awesome party favor: Mitchell was now my husband.

Ever since that day, I keep getting asked a variation on the question “How is married life?” And I keep wondering what exactly is different, or whether it should it be different. Should I have something new to say? Mitchell and I bonded over silent movie trivia more than five years ago, we kissed for the first time four years ago, and we’ve been living together for two years and counting. We were committed in so many ways before that vow-laden smooch.

So… everything is… the same?

Not quite.

I’m pretty sure that voluntarily entering into a legal and emotional bond with another person, stating your promises in front of an adoring throng, is a different experience for every person that goes through it. Scuffing sand between my toes on our honeymoon on the Oregon Coast, I told Mitchell that, for me, it boils down to trust. What does being a wife mean to me? What does having a husband mean to me? I spent a lot of time thinking about these things in the six months leading up to an actual marriage ceremony. It means that I have trust in him, as the beautiful individual he is, to work at not screwing things up—between us or with respect to his own goals. I trust him to trust the same in me (hell, I trust me to trust the same in me). For me, marriage was the next step in a deeper faith with the world.

I stopped talking, digging my toes further into the sand and sand fleas. “Thinking about….?” my husband asked. My facial expression alone told him what stories in my past I was recalling. “Yeah,” I answered.

I originally began this post with a long ramble about “physical abuse,” ”rape,” or “emotional manipulation.” All are parts of the larger truth. Then I hit “delete.” This isn’t an exposé titled “All About The Awful Things That Have Happened to Me”; this is about what happened after.

It was really hard to pull away from the abusive relationship that was my first engagement. By the five-month mark of the relationship I was convinced that I was undesirable, that I was unintelligent, that I should give up my dreams of college and career, and that I was crap in the sack. I was also convinced by my former lover to not talk to friends or family, and by age 21, four years into our partnership, I was sure that my feeling of absolute isolation was an emotional state I deserved.

(Please note the obvious: that no one deserves this. I choked on my coffee when, in 2009 at age 24, I started reading about intimate partner violence in college and realized how not alone I was in my experiences.)

I stopped trusting my own judgment of the situation and fully intended to go through with my engagement, which seemed like an unbreakable promise.

And then I broke it. On Valentine’s Day, 2007, I handed the fake-turquoise promise band back to my lover after he proclaimed that snuggling and watching Groundhog Day had ruined his night and depleted his energy, and that I was a self-centered bitch for spoiling his plans to make me breakfast the next morning. Deep breath. Okay. Step back. Sit back. Suddenly the leather of that couch felt more real, and I was sure of one thing: “I don’t trust you. I don’t think I should be engaged to you, forgetting for a second the idea of ever marrying you at some point in the future, without that trust.”

I didn’t break up with him then—that happened in the summer of that year—but a small fact still churns in my head.

The end of the relationship was, at least for me, a given after the return of the ring.

I told Mitchell early on that part of me didn’t care whether or not we got married as long as we had that trust, that respect, that love. I’d have chosen being his committed, unmarried partner in a second if we had felt that getting married wasn’t for us. It’s the fact that with my ex-fiancée, I woke up; I lacked the faith that the future would be what I wanted to be (and I realized that if I died right then, from partner-dealt injury or accident, I’d be pissed at me).

A friend with a similar horrible relationship experience wrote to me recently and asked, “How do we trust, you and I? How do we trust anyone after what happened to us?” My answer? Step-by-step, and I don’t know. I really don’t know. Having a partner who obviously loves and adores me for me, and sometimes nibbles on me to demonstrate those emotions, helps immensely.

For the first couple of years after I left—the bad relationship, the city, the state—I watched over my shoulder. I had nightmares every night and I doubted my reality, my surroundings, every day. I’m still constantly managing symptoms of PTSD and depression, but… I’m happy. I do love and I do trust. I’ve worked hard to retain and build on the capacity for both. I would have done so had I remained single after leaving a bad situation, but I ended up honing those traits with Mitchell.

For any of you who have lived or do live in an abusive relationship, I wish to send unconditional love and support to you. Every situation is different, and I can’t tell you how to resolve yours. I’m still not sure how exactly I left mine, and I haven’t completely finished resolving it. I can tell you that you aren’t alone, and that it is never too late to leave. I reconnected with several friends who made themselves available for caring conversations and lugging boxes filled with possessions.

I am really lucky. I wear another type of ring now. Actually, I wear two, and each has its significance. The recycled silver ring on the left hand is my wedding band, which represents my trust in Mitchell, his trust in me, and the promises we made to each other on September 17th. The silver circle on the right is my engagement band, which Mitchell and I bought before I traveled to Chile for three months earlier this year. Originally, the ring meant something about love and connection, but now I see it somewhat differently—I view it as a sign of reclaiming my faith and trust in me.

Just as the meanings of these rings are not static, neither is the definition of marriage. When I was with the ex-lover, my idea of wife resided somewhere between that feeling you get when that don’t quite know what a word means and the pain of holding your hand in a bucket of ice water. With these rings, with this marriage to Mitchell, I reclaim the word wife. I redefine the word to include the trust I require in taking a long journey with a life partner. Not just any life partner, but this awesome, lovely guy who makes me believe in the future. Who gives me space, provides me with loving cuddles, plans the perfect wedding day with me, and stays with me in a Dr. Seuss room on our honeymoon.

Photo by: Jessica Copi

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