So I was watching this TED talk recently, of Leslie Morgan Steiner talking about being a victim of domestic abuse. She was the classic “battered wife” and she talks in this video about what was going on in her mind, why she didn’t leave her abusive husband. Well, eventually she did leave — she’s very happily married with kids these days — but she talks about what she told herself that kept her stuck with a man who beat the tar out of her.
I pray her story is irrelevant to your situation. Being cheated on is horror enough, if you’ve suffered physical abuse as well, my heart breaks for you. If you watch the video, you’ll see that what she says pertains to infidelity, as well as physical abuse.
Steiner says what kept her stuck is that she didn’t KNOW it was abuse.
That was not her narrative. Instead she told herself that she was a very strong woman in love with a very troubled man, and only she could save him.
That’s what kept her there.
In that sentence she just summed up the entire Reconciliation Industrial Complex. Isn’t that the unicorn narrative? You are very strong to reconcile, and this person who cheated on you is troubled, in a fog, being terribly difficult. But you can Save This. You are a very strong person in love with a very troubled person.
She maintained that narrative until she couldn’t. Until the risks to her own physical and mental health became too much. Until he nearly killed her. At that point she had to ask herself — what is the cost to myself staying?
How much easier it is to judge someone in a physically abusive relationship. The pain is so obvious, so intended — unlike fucking around on someone. Because that “just happens” and they “didn’t really mean” to hurt you.
Steiner’s abuser apologized and wept and promised to change.
And she clung to her narrative. She tried harder to be there for him. Found identity in being the special person who Really Knew Him. The man who was beating her wasn’t the Real Him.
Until he beat her so hard she had to admit to herself — yes that was the real him. And all his apologies and better qualities didn’t matter. He was a man she could not be safe with — ever.
What do we tell ourselves that keeps us chumps? What was your narrative? She really loves me. This is just a midlife crisis. She’ll come back to her senses. I’m the one he really loves. The affair(s) meant nothing. We have so much shared history. My children must grow up in an intact home.
Until they do it again, and forget their promises. And you ask yourself — at what cost am I staying?
Steiner said she didn’t know it was abuse. I get that. I knew infidelity hurt like a motherfucker, but I didn’t think it was abuse. It took me a long time to realize that it was intentional. Planned. Justified. That if Steiner was of use as a punching bag, I was of use as a chump. The person that must be triangulated against, cheated on, the dupe who makes the sex naughty. The giver of resources. The front of normalcy. I was all those things. I just didn’t wake up with a bloody head on a bathroom floor.
What makes this community powerful, what makes Chump Lady unique in my opinion is that we clearly articulate that infidelity IS ABUSE. They aren’t in a “fog,” cheaters know what they’re doing, they just don’t care. It’s manipulation and mindfuckery. They are gaining advantage, keeping themselves in a one-up position, and the chump subjugated. Cheating is as intentional as a slug to the face. A slug to the face is at least somewhat honest. Infidelity is a sucker punch from behind. The unfairest of fights.
Infidelity is abuse. And when you know that, you can leave.