This month’s court decision in the Li Yang domestic abuse divorce case has caused me to reflect back to what was the most troubled and confusing relationship of my own life.
While the abuse in my case was never as severe as what Li Yang’s wife faced, my relationship forced me to deeply question to what lengths I would allow myself to be mistreated.
I’ve never publicly spoken or written about that relationship, as it’s such a personal matter. But if my story can help one person get out of a dangerous situation, I’m willing to share it.
When we think of abuse, we often think of those horrible news stories and Weibo photos of women who’ve been physically disfigured by abuse.
But not all abuse is physical. While women are more commonly the victims of abuse, men also are often victims — especially of emotional abuse. And emotional abuse can be just as destructive, and even more confusing to understand.
It’s confusing because often the hardest step in getting away from abuse is recognizing when a relationship is abusive. After all, you can’t address a problem you don’t know is there. That’s why it’s so useful that in his book The New Rules of Marriage, best-selling author and psychologist Dr. Terrence Real defines abuse:
Yelling and screaming
Name-calling: Any sentence that begins with ‘You are a…’
Shaming or humiliating: Communicating that someone is a bad or worthless person. Ridiculing someone, mocking, being sarcastic, humoring or being patronizing.
Telling another adult what she should do, or how she should think or feel.
Making promises and breaking them.
Lying or manipulating: Deliberately falsifying information or dishonestly changing your behavior in an attempt to control your partner, for example: ‘Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine out here in the rain. You go have a good time.’
When I read this definition, my first reaction was:
These behaviors are abuse? But they happen all the time!
But then, I thought: He’s right.
The behaviors he outlines are warning signs that a physically abusive relationship may develop. And, in and of themselves, they ARE abuse.
Abuse has no place in a healthy relationship
According to the experts, if when you are with your partner, you feel you have to walk on eggshells — constantly watching what you or other people say — in order to avoid a blowup, that’s a good sign your relationship is abusive.
Abuse has no place in a healthy relationship. Not even a little place.
The question people always ask about those who stay in abusive relationships is: Why doesn’t she — or he — just leave?
Well, that’s a complicated question, maybe one that only someone who’s been in that situation can fully answer.
Now, you may not think of me as the type of person who would get stuck in an abusive relationship. After all, I’m pretty empowered. I’ve had a top-notch education and a global career.
But I once dated an abuser.
He didn’t look like an abuser
At first, he seemed to be everything you’d want in a boyfriend: smart, funny, charming, good-looking and well-respected in his profession.
But he had a problem with anger management.
Anytime he felt slighted or disrespected, he would lash out furiously. He never hit me, but he yelled and screamed and recriminated, saying horrible things about me and others.
The provocations were nearly always minor. But his screaming tirades lasted for hours, leaving me in tears, and both of us exhausted. Few people other than me saw these episodes, because he was painfully conscious of appearances.
He seemed to be hardest on my family and friends. He came up with grievances against them, one by one. And citing those grievances, he started distancing us from them. I started getting isolated from the people I needed most.
Looking back, it seems entirely obvious: I should have walked away early on. But once I did start dating him, suddenly, it seemed hard to get out.
I stayed because when he wasn’t screaming, he was funny, and sweet, and good to me. He was good at apologies, and he always promised it wouldn’t happen again. And I’m an optimist. I believed things would get better.
I stayed because I thought that if you love someone, you should take the good with the bad. After all, I wasn’t perfect, either, and isn’t growing up learning to accept life as it is?
I stayed because at those times when the rest of the world didn’t understand him, he said he needed me. And I thought I could help him.
I stayed because change is scary, and the prospect of being alone was scary. It felt too hard to climb out. And I was tired. I didn’t want to start all over again, venturing out into the unknown.
I stayed because I lacked the courage to listen to my own heart. In a world which sometimes seems cold and brutal, at least I had someone to hold me.
Abusers don’t look like evil bad guys
What makes abuse so confusing is that most abusers are not like the evil bad guys we see in the movies. Abusers are human too, which means that at times, they can be warm and generous.
Abusers often don’t even know they’re being abusive. In their minds, it’s they who are the victims, misunderstood and under attack, and their abusive behavior is simply a response to a provocation.
But just because abusers don’t recognize their behavior as abusive does not make their abusive behavior any less dangerous to those who try to love them.
In my case, finally, I left .
I left because finally, I realized that even as our relationship was destructive to me, it wasn’t even really helping him.
By staying, I was actually reinforcing and enabling his abusive behavior. Because he needed to acknowledge that the problem wasn’t with anyone around him, but within his own self. He didn’t need me. He needed professional treatment.
Looking back, I was lucky. The relationship lasted less than a year, and the level of abuse that I endured was much less intense than what other victims face.
Because we never got married and never lived together, our times together were separated by days when I retreated back to my own life and had time and space to think over the situation.
After struggling for months with my decision, I left. Leaving brought me a huge sense of relief and even of empowerment, a feeling that I was taking charge of my own life, and deciding how I need to be treated instead of letting someone else decide that for me.
Leaving also allowed me later to meet Mr. Wonderful, and with him, to build a loving, stable family environment for our kids.
My situation ended happily, but many abuse situations end tragically. The damage brought about by abuse can be severe and long-lasting. An abusive relationship can destroy your self-worth and make you feel helpless and alone. And all this can lead to depression.
No one deserves to endure this kind of pain.
How can we protect ourselves and our family and friends from the scourge of abuse?
If you’re single…
If you’re single, here’s what I propose as a simple and easy-to-remember rule: Don’t date or marry a screamer.
If you’re dating someone and you start to notice screaming or any of the other behaviors in the definition of abuse, then firmly speak with your partner about the situation. If the abuse does not immediately stop, then walk away.
If someday, you want to be a parent, remember that you are headhunting for a role model for your future children. Because, as I’m reminded every day, kids learn by our example, good and bad. It’s up to parents to show kids to how to be a mature adult.
If you’re dating someone who says his abusive behavior is normal because that’s how his parents related to each other, or that he’s just responding to other people, that tells you that he needs to grow up before dating you or anyone else.
Because the process of growing up is the process of learning to take full responsibility for our own thoughts and actions. And there is no excuse for abuse.
Abusers lack the emotional skills necessary to have functional relationships. We can have compassion for them, but there is absolutely no reason why you should spend your life tied to an abusive partner. Being a nice person does not require you to use up your life playing nurse to an abuser.
There are plenty of good men and women in this world who do not perpetrate or condone abuse. .
If your family is experiencing abuse…
If you’re married, and your spouse exhibits abusive behaviors (or you yourself exhibit abusive behaviors), seek help right away, for your sake and the sake of your family.
When we ignore or cover up abuse, it does not go away. It escalates. And abuse has cascading impacts on future generations, because children who grow up witnessing abuse have a strong chance of perpetrating abuse as adults.
Acknowledging the problem and seeking help doesn’t mean you’ve failed as a woman or a man or a wife or husband. You are not to blame and you are not weak.
Reach out and talk to a friend or family member you can trust, and seek professional help.
You can and must demand that your family be healthy. That is a basic demand. Your children deserve a family life which is joyous and warm and stable and free of abuse. That’s something that you deserve too.
If you suspect that someone near you is being abused…
If you suspect that someone you care about is being abused, let him or her know that you’re concerned. Identify the things you’ve noticed that worry you, and tell him or her that you’re there to talk confidentially anytime he or she feels ready. Offer to help with any needs such as finding a safe place to go when abuse does occur.
You may hesitate to get involved. Maybe you think that it’s none of your business, or that you may be wrong, or that he or she may not want to talk about it. But remember that abuse victims often feel confused and conflicted, and that, while they need help to get out, often they’ve been isolated from their family and friends.
You may just be the person he or she needs to get out of an abusive situation and begin healing.
Whether abuse is a part of Chinese culture is up to us now
Of all the news that’s been spilling out over the past 18 months from the Li Yang abuse case, the one quote that’s stuck with me was from Li Yang himself. In justifying his abusive behavior, Li Yang said that abuse is just a normal of Chinese culture.
Our society contains too many families ripped apart by abuse. Perhaps today, some people consider this situation to be normal.
Let us resolve to not live in a society governed by abuse.
Abuse thrives on silence, and the only way we can rid ourselves of this scourge is to break the silence and speak out when we see it.
Recently, I was chatting with Maple Women’s Psychological Counseling Center director Yao Yue, and she said that after 20 years of supporting abuse victims, they’ve concluded that we must be zero-tolerance from the first occurrence of domestic abuse.
And that the answer to the problem of abuse is love. We must love our selves enough to say abuse is never OK. Not for us, not for our sisters, our brothers, our friends, our parents, our children, nor for our children’s children.
If together, we all link arms to say no to abuse, then in one generation’s time, no one ever again will be able to say that abuse is a normal part of Chinese culture.
Because now, we’re all making culture. And it’s up to each of us to ensure that the culture we create is based on dignity and mutual respect for everyone.