Relationships end for all sorts of complex reasons, but abusive ones tend to go out with a bang rather than a fizzle — not so much a ‘misalignment of your astrological planets’ as a collapsing star creating a supernova-grade explosion of emotions. Yet, while explaining these sorts of relationships to friends, family or a new partner is complicated and difficult for abuse survivors, the abusers themselves often make it pretty simple: you’re crazy.
They subjected you to years of verbal and emotional abuse and eventually with professional psychiatric help you managed to leave the relationship? You’re crazy.
They belittled you on a daily basis and controlled where you went, who you spoke to and how you spent your money until you found the courage to escape to independence? You’re crazy.
They made threats to physically harm or even kill you and your loved ones unless you didn’t do what they wanted, so you went to the police and got a restraining order? You’re crazy.
It’s best for survivors of domestic violence if they no longer have any contact whatsoever with their abuser — not in person, not via text or email, not even shared spaces on social media platforms. Ideally, you won’t even run into them in the grocery store because you live in separate communities. But reality doesn’t always present us with circumstances that allow for best-case scenarios, and many people who are forced to maintain some semblance of contact with an abuser (whether directly, or through a shared friends circle) are plagued by a singular, nagging question: what did they tell other people about what happened?
What does “their side of the story” look like to them? How did they present it to others? What could they possibly have come up with in terms of justification for their abuse that allows them to maintain relationships or form new ones with people who were supposedly made aware of their actions?
Seriously, how did they talk their way out of this one?
The truth is, he probably tells people you’re crazy.
“More often than not, I suspect, most men don’t realize what we’re saying when we call a woman crazy. Not only does it stigmatize people who have legitimate mental health issues, but it tells women that they don’t understand their own emotions, that their very real concerns and issues are secondary to men’s comfort.”
While abuse can come in many forms and from any type of person — regardless of gender or sexual orientation — the use of the word “crazy” has its roots tangled in gender and misogyny and you’re most likely to hear the label slapped on a woman by a man. As dating coach Harris O’Malley writes for the Washington Post, calling a woman crazy is a convenient way out of an explanation that would require growth and introspection, absolving men of their responsibility for how they treat others. He calls it an “all purpose argument ender.”
“When we talk about why we broke up with our exes, we say, ‘She got crazy,’ and our guy friends nod sagely, as if that explains everything,” he writes. “Except what we’re really saying is: ‘She was upset, and I didn’t want her to be.’ Small wonder that abusers love to use this c-word. It’s a way of delegitimizing a woman’s authority over her own life.”
Abusers abuse people for a number of reasons, exactly zero of which make it okay. But when your abuser explains why your relationship ended to their family members and friends (some of whom may be mutual) it’s unlikely they’re giving a rigorous dissertation on their unique mental health circumstances and the steps they’ve taken since the break-up to try and become a better human being more capable of exercising empathy and restraint from violence.
He probably just tells them you’re crazy.
“It’s a form of gaslighting — telling women that their feelings are just wrong, that they don’t have the right to feel the way that they do,” O’Malley says. “Minimizing somebody else’s feelings is a way of controlling them. If they no longer trust their own feelings and instincts, they come to rely on someone else to tell them how they’re supposed to feel.”
It hurts to think the real version of the events that so strongly shaped you is being reduced to a sexist trope and a lie. It hurts even more to realize that this lie is a continuation of the abuse you endured and escaped — that even though you’re no longer trapped in the relationship, he continues to degrade and devalue you to others just as he did when you were together.
But ultimately, we can only choose the words that come from our own mouths, not the mouths of others.
Part of the domestic violence recovery process is accepting that we won’t always get closure. But closure isn’t necessary for you to lead a happy and fulfilling life after experiencing relationship abuse. In controlling the things we can, like the friends and family we surround ourselves with, survivors will make our own joy and live our own truth — and that’s more of a win than getting the so-called final word.
Abuse can come in many forms and from any type of person — regardless of gender or sexual orientation. If you feel that you may be in an abusive relationship, seek help. The National Domestic Violence Hotline can help victims and survivors of domestic violence. Call 1–800–799–7233 or chat with an advocate on their website. Click here for updated information on COVID-19 for survivors and victims of domestic violence.