When Abusers Don't Leave Bruises
Content Warning: This article deals with sensitive subjects, such as purity culture, emotional and mental abuse as well as graphic descriptions of rape.
I grew up in a religious, Christian home. Purity culture (remaining abstinent till marriage, saving your first kiss, etc.) and courting (dating for the sole purpose of marriage) were integral to my upbringing and my belief system.
From the age of 13 or 14, I was obsessed with marriage. I believed that becoming a wife and mother was my highest calling. I wrote letters to my future husband. I fantasized over having only one true love, someone who was waiting for me like I was waiting for him. I knew if I prayed hard enough, believed hard enough, was pure enough, I’d have what I wanted most.
When I was 18, I met Luke. He wasn’t like anyone I grew up with. He was attractive and funny and he liked me. I was so starved for attention and immersed in my dreams of only courting one person, only marrying one person, he became my Prince Charming. We started courting, mostly long distance and our relationship grew deep and fast.
At first it was just little things. Luke became possessive, which I passed off as being concerned, or him “loving me”. In reality, he needed to be in charge of every aspect of my life. He needed to know who I spent time with and everything we talked about. I wasn’t allowed to spend time with any guys past 10pm. If I didn’t answer the phone when he called, he immediately accused me of cheating. A friend of mine had passed away in a car accident and I called Luke crying and told him who had died. He told me I had never mentioned my friend to him before (he was a guy) and accused me, in the middle of my grief, that the reason I was so torn up over a male friend I had never mentioned to him, must be because I had been cheating on him with this person.
Luke was a master at gaslighting and emotional manipulation. He would tell me things like I was stupid, that I was worthless. I’d cry and he’d ask me why I was crying and when I’d tell him it’s because of what he said, he denied he ever said it. That I must have heard something and that I was crazy. He made me see a doctor “because I was crazy” and then used my diagnosis against me like a weapon. Once, I woke up to him fingering me when I was visiting him and I told him to stop since at that point we hadn’t had sex. He told me he hadn’t touched me, even though I knew he had. But I believed him, because I loved him and he loved me so why would he lie?
But “I love you” was always conditional from him. In fact, our relationship itself was conditional. There was a list of rules I had to follow: no swearing, no drinking, no smoking, people I couldn’t spend time with, weight I needed to lose, books I couldn’t read and movies I couldn’t see. If I broke the rules, he’d break up with me. But if I broke up with him? He threatened suicide multiple times if I ever left.
The rules never applied to him and I didn’t fight it. He was justified in everything he did, and that was ok. He was my future husband. Courtship was practice for marriage. Marriage has its troubles, and you don’t leave over the little things, right? So if I couldn’t leave him once we were married, I couldn’t leave him now.
We got engaged and things got worse. Our engagement had caused an enormous rift with my family who weren’t supportive of our marriage. But I told myself that once we were married, Luke would be the head of my family. He was already the leader of our relationship. My allegiance and devotion was to him. I was doing what I promised to do as a young girl. I was following the rules. I was doing things right. I was waiting for my prize; a husband.
Luke’s rules began to alienate me from all of my friends and loved ones. In addition, during this time, we had been “sinning physically”. There were times I was scared, I was hurt, I started recognizing I was being treated badly (never abusively though, I thought) and I wanted help. But if I asked for help, I would need to tell someone I had gone “too far” physically even though we hadn’t had sex. The shame was just too strong. I reminded myself I loved Luke, he wasn’t perfect, but he’s who I chose to spend my life with and when you get married it’s “for better or for worse”, so I should get used to it.
At one point, Luke called off our engagement and wedding. He wouldn’t give me a reason. One day, he called me and said we’d stay together if I had sex with him. I agreed as long as he promised he’d marry me eventually. I was terrified of getting pregnant and being a single mom, so if he agreed to not leave me, I’d agree to having sex. When we eventually did, the next day he told me “he just didn’t think it would work out”. We didn’t break up that day, but the last months of our relationship would be an emotional rollercoaster filled with mental and verbal abuse and rape.
I never thought it was rape… he never held me down. But he’d fuck me over and over and over. Even when I was dry and ask him to stop because it hurt. Once we were arguing and he pried my legs open and I tried telling him no till I finally gave up.
Little by little, I started opening up to others about our “relationship problems”. Even though I never shared exactly how bad things were or that we’d had sex, some of what I shared raised alarm with those closest to me. My best friend told me that mine and Luke’s relationship was like her parents abusive marriage. That I didn’t owe him anything. That we weren’t married. I didn’t need to “obey” him. It was like a veil had been lifted. I broke up with him, this time for good.
It took me months to realize I had truly been in an abusive relationship. It took me years to realize I had been raped. Rape only happened from strangers holding you down and taking you by force. Abuse left bruises, black eyes. It took me years to realize that what happened wasn’t my fault. That no matter what problems I contributed to in our relationship never justified abuse.
The effects don’t end there. I was dating my now husband for almost two years before I believed him when he told me he loved me. I wasn’t used to “I love you” simply being a declaration, and not being used to get something, being conditional, or being used as a weapon. We’ve been happily married for five years and I still wake up from nightmares from the abuse. Memories of what Luke would say to me resurface during healthy arguments and I become defensive, angry and panicked which takes my husband by surprise and leaves me in tears.
His abuse didn’t leave bruises, but the marks he made on my life have lasted much, much longer. Even through years of love and healing and therapy, I still struggle with shame and resentment and hurt. I am happy now. I love my life with my husband and our child and the home we’ve built together. I’m thankful for the love and time that has made much of the years of abuse a fuzzy and distant memory.
But no matter how much time passes, even though there were no bruises, I’m still a survivor.
If you think you may be in an abusive relationship or marriage or know someone else who is being abused, please seek help. Call the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit their website at thehotline.org
You are not alone.