Sometimes when we hear about women who are in abusive marriages, we think, “Why the hell did she stay with him?” My own experiences have taught me that we just can’t judge that.


I am 42 and I have a daughter, who is nine and a son, who is six. Both of my pregnancies were planned and intentional. I really wanted to have children.

How did adding children affect my marriage? That is a difficult question because my ex-husband was abusive. He was verbally and emotionally abusive and at times physically intimidating and financially controlling, but he was not physically abusive.

The abuse that I was experiencing was very invisible to me and I made a lot of excuses. He wasn’t always an abuser, but it got considerably worse when I was pregnant with my first child. After she was born, it stepped up even more. I know now that that’s not an uncommon pattern. Getting pregnant and having children often end up being points in time when an abuser will escalate their behavior because you’re more trapped in the relationship. My ex could be very charming and we had many wonderful times together, but the times when I was walking on egg shells and waiting for a shoe to drop became longer and longer and his outbursts of anger toward me got progressively worse.

I thought that the reasons he was angry had to do with his job and some chronic pain. When I would say, “Please stop yelling at me,” he’d say I didn’t understand how hard his life was. I tried to give him more support and understanding. I really, truly thought that if he was happier in his job, he would yell at me less and throw his anger around the house less. So we packed up and moved the family across the country so he could take a job with less stress. I really thought it was going to change and instead it absolutely got worse. It got so much worse.

Sometimes when we hear about women who are in abusive marriages, we think, “Why the hell did she stay with him?” My own experiences have taught me that we just can’t judge that. The only person who knows when the moment will be right to leave is the woman who’s in it.

I couldn’t leave right away. I had a part-time job. I wasn’t making much money. I was in a new city. I lived far from my family. My children were young. Even though it had been getting worse, until then I had deluded myself into thinking that I was only one he was abusing, but I became more aware of his treatment of the children… I remember that year, on Valentine’s Day, my daughter came home from kindergarten all excited because she’d learned this new little Valentine’s song and she sang it for me. We were in the kitchen and I told her how great it was and then she said, “I’m going to sing it to Daddy.” And she skipped to the study where her dad was on the computer and she said, “Daddy, Daddy. I have this new Valentine’s song,” and she sang the whole song to him and he sat there, staring at the computer screen. He never looked at her. She finished her song and waited for a minute. He said nothing and so she skipped back to me with this giant smile on her face and said, “I think Daddy really loved my song,” and I thought, “He is freezing her out like he freezes me out. She is fooling herself into not seeing it because she has watched me not see it.” I thought, “I can’t let that happen. I have to leave and so that’s what I did.

Right before Easter, I told him that I wanted to take the kids to my parent’s house. I knew that I wasn’t coming back. I took copies of the birth certificates and I loaded the kids up in the car, pretending it was just a little visit, and we left. I cried for most of the drive. I called to tell him our marriage was over. I was very scared of him so I said that I was not coming back home until he had moved out of the house.

He’s never hit me, but there were several times during those months when I thought he was going to. I was terrified of him. I had dreams of him breaking into the house and beating the crap out of me and raping me while the children watched. I was afraid my parents wouldn’t be supportive because I come from a fairly religious and conservative family, but they were incredibly supportive. I was afraid my friends weren’t going to understand because I thought I had covered it up for so long, but they all knew. I was grateful at how much deep support and love and help I got. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever, ever, ever done in my life.

This experience has made me kinder, more compassionate, and more generous with other people and also with myself. I didn’t stay in the relationship because I was weak. I was able to stay in it and get out of it as healthily as I did because I’m really strong.

Advice for other mothers in my position? You have to believe in yourself. Abusers make you doubt your whole world view and make you think the worst about yourself. They turn everything into your fault. So one of the hardest things to recover is knowing that you are right. It doesn’t matter what he says. It doesn’t actually matter if no one else in the world believes you. You’ve got to believe in yourself.

How have I changed? I think that I’ve become hyper-aware, perhaps to a fault, of being who I am and not being who someone wants me to be–in all areas of my life. For a long time I was afraid to sit with myself and really feel my feelings because I didn’t want to know how bad it was. If I’m sad now, I’ll just let myself be sad and if I’m angry, I’ll let myself be angry. I do try to spend a lot of time helping my kids have faith and trust in themselves to know that their thoughts, their feelings, and their read of situations can be trusted because they are wise.

I teach a Gender Studies course here on campus in addition to my other university work, I tell my students my story and they’re gob smacked. Because we have this idea that anyone who is being abused is this poor, helpless woman. The person with the black eye who looks like she hasn’t had a good meal lately and that the men are always blue collar. People don’t understand what abuse really is and I feel like it is now part of my mission in life to dispel that.

One Response to “Sometimes when we hear about women who are in abusive marriages, we think, “Why the hell did she stay with him?” My own experiences have taught me that we just can’t judge that.”

  1. mesfin tegenie says:

    Oh! what an interesting story. it is really an important lesson for those who have experienced such domestic violence and are still facing it. lisa, I am currently working in an NGO implementing women socio-economic empowerment program here in Ethiopia. I think I will gain good experience from you which would help me to adopt the mechanisms how to solve such problems in our society context

    Have a nice day!!


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