In this personal piece, Fumble writer Robyn Bell shares a story that shows abusers don’t wear warning labels
Abuse is often portrayed as something simple.
Something bad, on the opposite side of good. It’s easy – just avoid it.
But abusers don’t walk around under a sign flashing Bad Bad Bad.
Abusers don’t wear warning labels. They don’t hit you on your first date. They don’t send you messages detailing how they will threaten and intimidate you. They don’t wear pin badges that say “controlling”. There’s no “I will make you feel small” in their Tinder bio.
And victims of abuse do not write “I want you to harm me” on their own profile. People do not become trapped in abusive relationships because they decided to. It doesn’t work like that.
Abuse can come from people who love us. Abuse can come from people who have suffered abuse themselves. Abusers can even make you feel good. Especially when you first meet them.
They reply to your messages instantly. They remember your birthday. They wish you luck before every exam. They want to spend time with you. They’re there before anyone else is there. They make you their world.
It becomes more toxic and more complicated as time passes by.
The first time I got hit, I didn’t see an abuser.
I saw my first “proper” boyfriend, who I trusted, who loved me. A tall, freckled boy. He played music. He did voluntary work. He cared a lot about his mum. A vegan. Funny. Kind.
He didn’t come with a warning label.
When someone you trust first lashes out, it can be easier to blame a bad day or a rough patch, rather than doubt all your feelings for that person.
It’s also easy to blame yourself.
“I drove him to do that. I must have pushed him to the edge.” So I thought, and so he encouraged me to believe. I knew him and he would never want to hurt me.
The first time, he apologised profusely afterwards. He loved me, he insisted, over and over.
And things went back to feeling good for a while.
But by the third, the fourth, the fifth time… he was also insisting that I made him do this. I was making him – a good person – into a bad person.
Still, I told myself he didn’t really want to hurt me.
It turns out he did want to hurt me, especially if I was doing something that he didn’t want me to do. Like skinny dipping with a friend, or planning a trip that didn’t include him, or talking to a boy he didn’t know.
He was possessive and jealous and controlling. If I did things that he didn’t like, it made him angry.
Yet, still, I couldn’t see an abuser. I saw my insecure boyfriend with a controlling father. He was a person who needed my love and support. I needed to try harder, rather than make him lose his temper.
My ease at blaming myself is not unusual.
Victim blaming culture runs deep
That’s why we ask victims of sexual violence what they were wearing, if they were drunk, if they walked home alone in the dark.
And it’s why we ask victims of abusive relationships why they stayed, why don’t they just leave, why they became their partner in the first place.
It’s taken me a nearly a decade to understand that I wasn’t to blame.
It is not my fault that I was in an abusive relationship. I am not to blame for being with him. I did not turn a “good” person into a “bad” person.
Even after I’d escaped that relationship, it took me over a year to untangle myself completely from him. It’s taken me many more years to begin acknowledging him as abusive.
In a society that portrays abuse as simple and victim blaming as normal, it can be incredibly difficult to unravel abusive situations and relationships.
We have a specific idea of what abusers look like.
We imagine men, wearing wife beaters (hence the name…) drinking beer, brawling at the pub, screaming at the football, screaming at their wives.
But abusers can be anyone. They come in all shapes and sizes.
They can be funny. Kind. Female. Successful. Queer. Politically left-wing. Politically right-wing. Vegetarian. Charitable. An artist. A therapist. A CEO. Athletic. Academic. Charismatic.
Abusers don’t wear warning labels. They are not simple to identify. And it’s not the victim’s fault for being abused by them.