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7 Women on Realizing They Were in an Abusive Relationship

Photo: Jessica Lindahl/EyeEm/Getty Images

Over the past week, both of the ex-wives of Rob Porter, former White House staff secretary to Donald Trump, have spoken out about the abuse they endured during their respective marriages. Colbie Holderness, his first wife, shared photos of herself with a black eye, writing in the Washington Post, “I walked away from that relationship a shell of the person I was when I went into it, but it took me a long time to realize the toll that his behavior was taking on me.”

And Porter’s second wife, Jennifer Willoughby — who had previously shared her story in a 2017 blog post — published a powerful essay about sexual violence in Time, and told CNN that Porter had asked her to release a statement downplaying the abuse.

Despite continuing to protest his innocence, and despite continuous statements of support from other White House staffers, Porter announced his resignation last week.

Willoughby’s and Holderness’s accounts of the physical assault and emotional abuse they endured felt all too familiar to scores of women across the country. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that one in three women has been the victim of physical violence by an intimate partner, and 48.4 percent of women have experienced psychological abuse on at least one occasion. Just this week, reports emerged that Nikolas Cruz, the suspect in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, had allegedly been abusive to his ex-girlfriend.

I talked to a number of women about the moment they realized their relationship was an abusive one. First, though, it’s important to write about what happened when I posted this question on social media and asked women to message me if they were willing to talk about their experience.

My in-box was flooded with messages. The women were young, old, middle-aged, poor, and wealthy. They represented a range of races, cultural identities, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Some had a high school diploma. Others had master’s degrees. Every one of these women, without exception, detailed the emotional and physical abuse they’d lived through, and then said some version of, “For a long time, I thought it was my fault.” They also shared the same motivation for telling their stories: the hope that another woman in a dangerous relationship would see something familiar, recognize the reality of her situation, stop blaming herself, and get out.

My college boyfriend and I were sleeping together in secret because he didn’t want anyone to know, which should have been an obvious red flag. We were close friendship-wise, and people clearly knew, but he kept me from talking about our relationship.

I fell in love with him, and every time I tried to bring up emotions and feelings, he would shoot me down, and tell me we couldn’t be together if I had feelings. He’d be cold and distant around our friends, going so far as to make jokes about how relationships with friends always go wrong and become painful. He’d dump me for long enough to make me feel terrible, and I’d start to pretend I was over him. Then he’d sweep back in and apologize and promise he would be better to me.

We see-sawed like that for like two years, and I was convinced he loved me back. I’d try to change my personality whenever he decided I was getting too affectionate or clingy so he would change his mind and stay. Then he decided he was moving to the Bay Area and he didn’t talk to me about it or even bring it up at all, and that was the last straw. I realized he didn’t care at all, and that this was abusive and damaging to me. I memorized the speech Martha from Doctor Who gives when she breaks up with the Doctor and leaves the show. I said it to him and then shut my door in his face.

My best friends held a Skype intervention to tell me I was in an abusive relationship. My ex wasn’t physically abusive, and he wasn’t abusive in person, but when he was drunk he would send me the worst, cruelest texts about my looks, my weight, how my mental illness ruined his life, and swearing I cheated on him so many times when I didn’t. The next morning he’d read what he wrote, apologize, and say he would never drink again. We were in a long-distance relationship while I finished college, and every Thursday I would panic because from Thursday night to Sunday morning he would be drinking and everything he had bottled up about me would come out. I didn’t say anything for a long time because I thought I deserved it. The constant abuse caused me a relapse of my mental illness and led to a suicide attempt. That’s when I showed my best friends the text messages and they got together for the intervention. It’s hard. You can’t see it when you’re in it. The red flags only show up in the rear-view mirror.

I don’t think there was a moment I realized it was abuse as much as there was a series of sinking feelings that got worse and worse, which eventually blossomed into an understanding that the relationship was abusive. There were the bruises, the repeated cheating, and being able to feel the difference when a guy friend treated me well — or just normally. I like to say that “hope is the strongest force in the universe,” and I was always hoping things would improve. It wasn’t until after the fact (which included some therapy, self-exploration, and dating someone else) that I was properly able to recognize it as abuse.

I was 18 with my first boyfriend (before I realized I was queer). I thought it was normal that he made constant negative remarks about my body and my friends, and pressured me into sex before I was ready after I told him I wanted to wait. I only realized it was abusive when I told therapists and teachers about it and they kept asking me if I felt “safe.” I showed one teacher bruises on my body, which I thought were ok because they were just from “rough” sex. She told me to leave him. I didn’t.

I moved from New York City to Nicaragua, and like a month in I met this gorgeous guy. He was definitely a womanizer and had a reputation around town, and I kept shutting him down. He was calling and texting often, really putting in a lot of effort, so I decided to give it a chance. A friend came to visit me, and he threw a fit when I told him I planned to stay with her in the hotel we’d booked together before I even met him. She and I went to the bar he was working in, and he completely ignored me. We went out dancing, and he eventually showed up. It all seemed ok until the end of the night when I told him I was headed back to the hotel with my friend. He picked a huge fight, screaming at me in the middle of the street. I was so embarrassed and overwhelmed, and just wanted to not be doing that in public.

He slowly eroded my confidence by making tiny, snide remarks, laughing at me and diminishing my accomplishments. Once we were having breakfast at an American-owned bar, and I ordered a Nicaraguan meal. He flew off the handle and was like, “What are you doing?! If you wanted that we could’ve gone to a Nicaraguan place, you’re so stupid, you are not ordering that here.”

It really wasn’t until like five months later when I moved back to the U.S. that I realized he had been legitimately psychologically abusive. I’d been in a foreign country where everything seemed upside down already and I didn’t have any good friends around to say, “Hello, no, this is wrong.” He was able to really take advantage of that.

The moment I realized my relationship was abusive was literally the moment it was hitting me in the face — the night my boyfriend attacked me in a violent rage. Denial is a powerful thing and I had managed to rationalize all the times he shoved me into a wall, or belittled me, or insulted me. But when he escalated to a beating that lasted for hours there was no more denying it. I ran out that night and never went back, although I had to survive stalking and harassment from him for a few years following that incident. Painful as it was, I’ve grown past it (it happened over 15 years ago), and a couple times I spoke to groups of at-risk girls in a Chicago high school to help them understand healthy and unhealthy behavior in relationships.

My ex-husband would gaslight me into believing that my needs and expectations were unreasonable, and friends started calling that out. He would say things like, “You never remember any of the good things I do, just the bad,” and if he broke promises and I called him out on them (like forgetting to pay bills on time and not letting me have control over the accounts, etc.), he would tell me I was being emotionally manipulative.

Then he was obsessing over a woman he thought he was in love with, and as his wife and friend, he expected me to talk through that with him. We didn’t have an open marriage. And again, if I got upset and cried or showed my distress, he would storm out and tell me I was being emotionally abusive.

He’d threaten to jump in front of the subway. He’d leave the house and turn off his phone and never come back. I’d know he was alive by watching the WMATA Twitter account until they closed for the night, and then I’d go to sleep.

I told him in the end that he’d have to choose to go to therapy to stay with me. He wouldn’t, and then he told his family and all our friends that he was divorcing me because I was “abusive.” To this day, he still routinely calls for mutual friends on Facebook to delete and block me, because he says they’re enabling my “abusive” behavior. He thinks I’m stalking him and that I want to get back together.

I’m happy and fine, I’m not looking back, but it’s really intense and strange to have that pop up again, still, five years later.

Interviews have been edited for clarity and length. 

7 Women on Realizing They Were in an Abusive Relationship