I’m not sure what I was expecting from a group of strangers on the internet. But I needed advice about my relationship, and I wasn’t about to ask my friends. Sometimes I wondered if I was being foolish for overblowing our problems; other times I wondered if I was being foolish to tolerate them. Either way, I was too ashamed to talk to people who knew me, and so I tried people who didn’t.
It was a wedding website, of all places. In a fit of lunch-hour Googling, I’d found a page on the site dedicated to fights, where women — and it was all women, as far as I could tell — would explain their problems, and others would weigh in with support and advice.
I read through pages and pages of threads before deciding to make a throwaway username and post about my own problem. It worked, and much more quickly than I’d expected: Within minutes, people were responding. They offered words of encouragement, and they asked smart questions, forcing me to confront what was really going on with us. All I’d done was describe my relationship in general terms, and ask a simple question: Was what I was experiencing normal? The answer I got back from multiple commenters, kind but emphatic, was no.
We met at a party. I had been struggling with depression for about a year and had recently wrapped up an awful semester at a community college near my Midwestern hometown. I was 19, and it was the first time in my life I’d had no direction or plan, just a part-time job as a barista at a local coffee shop.
He was a few years older than me, and was finishing an impressive-sounding degree at a school out of state. When he started to show interest in me, I was bewildered. I didn’t think it was strange when he didn’t ask me to be his girlfriend, or when he told me I was being childish to want to have a conversation like that. I was just happy to be liked by someone who seemed to have their life together, at a point when mine felt like it was falling apart.
After six months together, I reenrolled in the university I’d left after my freshman year. It was a good step for me, one that I organized by myself. When I brought him with me to sign my lease, excited to show him my apartment and share a significant milestone, he yelled at me in the leasing office for not letting him check the place out before I committed to it. It was the first time he yelled at me in public, and I was caught off guard, embarrassed. I signed the lease despite his anger, and when he seemed to be over it later that day, I didn’t bring it up again.
I buckled down and excelled in school, the depression lifting slowly but surely as I realized I had turned things around. He wasn’t impressed; when I started talking about possible opportunities — research overseas, a job in foreign policy — he was hostile. Instead, he’d talk about me moving with him across country, where he got a job shortly after graduating the year before I did.
When he proposed two years into our relationship I said yes, despite all the moments he terrified me. All the times he yelled at me — at a friend’s wedding for having a few too many drinks, at the bar for wanting to go home early to spend the evening with my mom, at my own apartment when I told him I was too tired to sleep with him. All the dismissive comments about how I was “just a little girl” who didn’t know enough about life, the way he would possessively grab me while I was talking to other men, the aggressive sense of entitlement he showed to my body. In everything, he positioned himself as a grown-up showing a child how to act like an adult. So I did the adult thing: I got engaged.
Ten days after graduation, I moved across the country to live with him, meaning I was entering his space. Everything seemed to set him off, like when I chipped a glass bowl, or failed to fill the gas tank all the way. Or when I tried to explain to him my passion for foreign policy, and how much I wanted a career. “Our family will be your passion,” he said flatly.
Looking back, it seems odd to me now that I didn’t see the abuse from the very beginning. But that word felt so loaded; he had never hit me, so could I say I was in an abusive relationship? The yelling, the coercion, the manipulation, the dismissiveness of my ambitions — it clearly added up to something, but was it really abuse?
So these were the questions I took to strangers. After their encouraging responses that first day, I kept coming back. I’d spend most of my workdays with at least half an eye on the forum, keeping it open in a side tab so I’d never miss a new message. Meanwhile, at home, things were getting volatile. I’d expressed interest in graduate school, which infuriated him; from day to day, he’d be either angry or apologetic. I didn’t know what would set him off.
But I kept checking in with the women on the forum. I’d tell them he brought me flowers and ask whether he might be turning a corner; they responded with encouragement and a reality check. I knew that a therapist is who I probably should’ve been telling all of this to, but I didn’t have insurance or the resources and language I needed to ask for that kind of help, so I told these women I only knew online. I didn’t know any of their names, and I doubt we’d ever meet in real life. Still, because of them, I wasn’t alone anymore.
Things at home kept getting worse. At a party, he yelled at me because I didn’t intuit that he wanted to go home; in the car, he told me the only reason my friend had been talking politics with me all night was because he wanted to sleep with me. Soon after, when I refused to have sex with him, he punched a wall in fury. I ran to the spare room and locked myself in; I’d sleep there as long as I continued to live with him.
The women in the forum were the first to know all of it, and to offer relationship advice I now give others. Because of their encouragement, I became more assertive. I researched moving trucks and graduate programs back home in Illinois. I set an ultimatum: If he didn’t get help for his anger issues by a certain date, we weren’t going to get married. That date came and went. I gave him back his ring.
I knew now that I wasn’t overblowing our problems. Finally, slowly, I started reaching out to friends and family, not telling them everything but letting them know that things weren’t good. I was afraid our mutual friends would side with him; I was afraid my family would think I was moving backward by moving back in with my mom. But the women on the forum told me not to give into these fears, and they were right. My friends and family rallied around me, and with that support on top of my online friends, I finally did it. I left.
He insisted on driving me to the airport. He parked, got my suitcase out of the back of the car, and turned to say good-bye to me. I said nothing, turned around, and walked away.
Almost a day later, I landed in Illinois, where my mom and sister met me at baggage claim. When I got home, I logged into the forum to leave one last message.
“I’m out. I’m home,” I wrote. “Thank you for everything.”