In the fall of my 18th year I made two life-changing decisions: To marry my dysfunctional boyfriend and join the Air Force. I can’t even explain or rationalize my decision to get married to such an abusive, controlling person except to say I let myself be swept along with his wants. The same with joining the military. He thought it was a good idea for both of us to join, and I went along with it. Looking back at my 18 year old self now, I hardly recognize her. Who was this passive child-woman that allowed herself to be isolated from family and friends and controlled by an angry and suspicious boy who took out his anger on me with his fists?
Relationship abuse was not openly or frequently discussed when I was in my teens. There were no battered women’s shelters or hotlines to turn to, and admitting my ugly secret to anyone was out of the question. By my junior year I’d abandoned my previous close relationships with my high school girlfriends in order to devote time and attention to my steady boyfriends and their needs. At the end of my junior year, my parents sold our house and moved the family 50 miles away. This meant that I was to leave the town I’d always lived in and the schools I’d always gone to, and start my senior year in a completely different school. I don’t think my parents understood the impact this decision was to have on me – a normally shy person who didn’t make friends easily. It also did not sit well with my boyfriend, who had not yet begun physically abusing me, but was exercising various forms of emotional control. Shortly after the start of the school year, at my boyfriend’s urging, I ran away from home and went to live with him and his father.
To my parent’s credit, they didn’t force me to move back home and the restraint this took was not apparent to me until many years later. My father, a firm believer in raising independent children, signed the emancipation papers so I could reenroll in my old school and finish my high school education. In other words, my parents let me make my own mistakes, knowing that trying to prohibit me from leaving would be worse than trying to keep me home. To this day, I have a great respect for my parents for the way they handled that situation.
So there I was, a teenage girl living with my boyfriend and finishing high school. To say I had little in common with my girlfriends by then is an understatement, so when the physical abuse started I really had nowhere to turn. When he blamed me for making him angry, I believed it. When he insisted we get married, I agreed. When he decided we should join the Air Force, I signed the papers.
So in September of the year we graduated, we got married and he left for boot camp in San Antonio. I followed 2 months later, and in those two months I noticed something different about myself. I felt relaxed. Even better, I began to feel the beginnings of happiness blooming inside of me. Being separated from my now-husband underscored the huge amount of control I’d been subjected to. What on earth was I going to do now?
Boot camp was my first taste ever of female camaradarie. Instead of hating basic training, I found it comforting and safe. It was the first time I’d worked together as a team with other women, and I listened to them as they talked about their relationships with men – good men and bad men, understanding boyfriends and abusive bastards like my husband. I realized for the first time that I didn’t have to settle for poor treatment. That I deserved better. I never admitted what I was going through, but I kept my ears open and learned.
In the meantime, he had finished boot camp and was at training school in northern Texas. But things were not going well for him – his anger and poor attitude were rearing their ugly heads again. When my boot camp was over, I received orders to report directly to a base in Austin, just 70 miles up the road. I moved into the female barracks (barracks were not coed back in 1975), and again found myself surrounded by women. On weekends, my husband made the several-mile trip down to see me and we’d shack up in a motel. Things had gone fairly smoothly between us for a few weeks, but it was not to last. The inability to control my day to day life and the knowledge that I was making new friendships began to irritate, then enrage him. During our final weekend together, he convinced himself I was sleeping with other men and proceeded to beat me until one of my eyes was blackened and my face was swollen. The following day was Sunday. I allowed him to apologize – standard procedure – and the apology was profuse. I let him believe I still loved him – to do otherwise would only prolong his stay and I needed for him to leave so I could do what needed to be done. He took me back to the barracks. The next day I filed for a divorce.
I’m telling this story because it emcompasses so many typical aspects of abuse. But more importantly, it’s a story about camaradarie. My first experience with the power of female friendships was literally life-changing and quite possibly lifesaving. The support and friendship I received from other women is what gave me the courage and the self-esteem to assert myself. Without them, I would have been lost for a very long time.
Over the years I’ve come to rely on my female friendships for many things – but most importantly for sanctuary. Through the sharing of ourselves, we lift each other up. When one of us cries, the others offer hugs and understanding. When one of us rejoices we all celebrate with her. The truly amazing thing is that this is true even in our blogging world, and I see it happen every day. So thank you – my friends, my solace, my sisters. I love you all!