Why I stayed: A story of domestic abuse and the struggle to leave

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By Val Willingham

ATLANTA (CNN) — For four years, I dated a man who beat me.

The first time it happened it was around Christmas of my freshman year of college. I had known him a couple of months. He was the first guy I had ever had a physical relationship with, and I was madly in love.

But he had a dark side, a short fuse, and I was very vocal and told him what I thought. The problem was, instead of arguing with me, he just beat me up.

The episodes continued throughout our relationship. At one point, he actually put me in the hospital with a concussion, my face and body covered with cuts and bruises.

My friends begged me to leave him. His fraternity brothers did an intervention of sorts and told me he was a no-good, nasty SOB. But for some odd reason, which took hours of therapy to figure out years later, I just stayed with him.

It wasn’t that I was unpopular or lonely. I had lots of friends, men and women. I was a good student, a leader on campus. I came from a loving home, with a father who never hit my mother, or me. But for years, I had a secret that only the closest of my friends knew about: I was an abused girlfriend.

According to the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 32% of women are physically assaulted by a partner during their lifetime. I was one of them.

The question is, why did I stay?

The American Psychiatric Association says that women remain in abusive relationships for many reasons: lack of finances, poor self-esteem, children and even religious and cultural values. In my case, I felt I had done something wrong and deserved it.

It also might be because I was raised in a family where, and at a time when, sex was a little taboo. It was the ’70s, and I was in school on a large rural campus. You just didn’t do it unless you were married. So when I had sex at the age of 18 with this young man, I had pretty much made up my mind he was my future husband.

So I put up with it. There was a strange bond I had with him, because when he wasn’t beating me up, he was very nice to me. He treated me well, sent me flowers, took me places. We laughed, had a great time together.

But periodically when we argued, he would just lash out with his fists. It was horrible. But what was even more horrible was that I blamed myself for mouthing off. I thought if only I could keep my opinions to myself, the beatings wouldn’t happen anymore. How naive of me. How foolish.

The ironic part of this story is that he ended our relationship because I graduated from college and he didn’t. He threw me out. I guess he was jealous.

He was definitely a jerk.

Six months after we broke up, I was coming home to my little apartment, carrying decorations for my first Christmas tree as a working woman, and I found him sitting on my doorstep. I have no idea how he found me.

He asked to take me to dinner so we could talk. I reluctantly went. While chatting over the meal, he said he wanted to come back and that he “didn’t realize how good he had it.” I quickly answered back, “I didn’t know how bad I had it, but now I do!”

For once he didn’t whack me. He got up and left me at the restaurant, never to see me again. I had to take a cab home.

As I sat in the back seat I felt a sense of relief, but also shame that I had let it go on so long. But I was no longer a victim: I was free. As I look back on it now, It was the best cab ride I ever took.

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