The Women Who Put Up With Abuse

Susan Christian is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Just leave the jerk; you have no legal ties to him.

Single women involved with physically abusive boyfriends hear that advice repeatedly. However, as is often true of free advice, that black-and-white solution falls short when confronted with reality's gray zone.

Marie, who requested anonymity, can testify to the emotional difficulty of severing an abusive relationship. When she met her former boyfriend 6 years ago, she had just ended a marriage in which her husband hit her regularly. "I swore I would never let that happen to me again," she said.

For their first 2 years of courtship, Marie and her new boyfriend had what she considered a "normal dating relationship."

Then little verbal insults began to trickle into the couple's banter. "I'd make some comment, and he'd say, 'So? Who cares what you think?' " Marie recalled.

One morning, Marie's boyfriend appeared at her door 12 hours later than she had expected him. "I asked, 'Where were you last night?' That's all it took," she said. "He slapped me and pushed me down.

"I called the police immediately, but the policeman who came out discouraged me from filing charges."

The Huntington Beach woman, now 33, refused to see her boyfriend for 2 months. "He kept coming by and bringing me little gifts and cards and telling me I was blowing things out of proportion," Marie said. "Finally, I gave in."

Not long after their reconciliation, Marie moved into her boyfriend's house and soon found that she had not been "blowing things out of proportion."

"The verbal abuse got so bad that I'd go in the bathroom and cry, gritting my teeth so that he couldn't hear," she said.

His criticism "started cutting me down inside; I started believing it."

The physical abuse also re-emerged. "It slowly crept back in," Marie said. "At first I thought, what did I do wrong? That's something women who stay with abusers do--they blame the abuse on themselves."

Before living with her boyfriend, Marie had a responsible job as a store manager, a nice apartment and a car. "The only thing I was missing was a man to share my life with," she said.

Three years later, she had not only given up her apartment, she had also quit her job and sold her car. "I was totally dependent on him," she said.

"It's not fair to say that he took those things away from me because I did it do myself. But he would encourage me to play hooky from work; I think he wanted me to be helpless."

When the couple had a baby, now 2, Marie stayed home with the child, at her boyfriend's demand. Yet, she said, he was never satisfied: "He'd yell at me about how I didn't do a thing around the house, although the house was spotless. No matter what I did, it wasn't good enough."

His temper seemed to "turn on and off like a light."

"He'd slap me, then 5 minutes later he was as sweet as he could be, as if nothing had happened," Marie said.

She knew that her relationship was destructive, Marie said, but she stuck with it out of a sincere love for the man and, more important, because she felt as if she had no options.

"I felt trapped, like I had no place to go," she said. "I was so insecure. He'd say, 'Nobody's going to want you. Here you've been married twice, you have a baby.'

"I started to think, 'He's right.'

"My father verbally abused his kids; he'd tell us we were stupid all the time. And he'd hit my mother. I think that's where my insecurities came from."

It took a beating that left "every square inch" of her body bruised to discover the option she didn't think existed.

"For the first time ever, I had fought back," Marie said. "When he hit me, I picked up a metal toy and hit him back. He went into a rage; I don't think five policemen could have pulled him off me. He choked me, then he pounded my head against the wall and hit me with the toy."

Neighbors who overheard the beating called police. Marie, limp and barely conscious, was taken by ambulance to a hospital.

At the hospital, Marie learned of Interval House, a center for abused women and their children. The home provided her and her son a place to stay until she could put her life in order.

Eventually, battery charges were dropped against Marie's former boyfriend because of insufficient evidence. A year later, Marie and her baby survive on welfare and live in a rented room.

But at least she has escaped the abusive relationship--and has learned something about herself in the process.

"I have to see him occasionally because of the child," she said. "He is still very charming toward me. If you were to meet him, you'd think, 'What a great guy.' And he is--he's generous to a fault, conscientious, hard-working, a good father.

"To this day, I love him. But now I know there's this other side to him, and it's not my fault, and he's not going to change."

Officials at three Orange County counseling centers for abused women estimated that about 40% of their patients are unmarried. And, they emphasized, single women face emotional obstacles similar to those of their married counterparts.

Barbara Clippinger, program director of Women's Transitional Living Center of Orange County, a halfway house for abused women who have separated from their mates, said: "It may be harder for the married woman to leave, in terms of going through the legal system; there's more red tape. But emotionally, I don't think there's any difference whether the woman is married to the abusive partner or not--that hook is there."

"Abusive relationships are so different from the typical relationship," said John Taylor, district director of the Family Service Assn. of Orange County, a Tustin-based counseling agency. "These people--both the male and the female--almost always come from violent families; they are re-enacting their childhoods.

"So whether married or unmarried, a lot of what's going on is the same. Often she's afraid that even worse things will happen if she tries to break the relationship off."

In some ways, the single woman may endure even greater problems overcoming a violent relationship, because she lacks the understanding that society grants married women in her situation.

"People really don't understand why this woman is so entrapped in the relationship, especially when there are no children involved," said Mary Walton, executive director of Interval House. "There are fewer supports for unmarried women."

That just-leave-the-jerk attitude extends to the legal system, Taylor said: "Sometimes the law-enforcement community doesn't react with the same vigor when dealing with an unmarried woman who has been abused--particularly when it's dating violence and she doesn't live with the man. The tendency is to say, 'Well, gee, why does she keep going out with him?'

"But that simplistic view does not take into account the complexity of these relationships. The woman becomes addicted to the intensity and excitement of living on the edge."

Marie is learning to give up her attraction to "exciting" relationships. Recently, she went on a date that she later described to her girlfriend as "boring."

"Boring is good," her friend reminded her.

DR, STEVE LOPEZ / Los Angeles Times

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