My mother was a screamer, a hitter, and a destroyer of things. She taught me the power of language when she wielded her words like weapons that could slice you to the bone and pierce the deepest parts of your soul. The boom of her voice was enough to terrify us, the sharpness of her tongue enough to spring tears, the force of her blows enough to break us.
I vowed early and often to never be my mother, that I would never hurt the people I love. Any home that I built would be filled with love and laughter, a place where raised voices and name-calling didn’t exist and wherein any children of mine would only ever feel the weight of my arms’ embrace.
When I left home at 17 and moved in with my then-boyfriend, I attempted to live out those promises. I committed myself to communicating openly and honestly with him about any problems that arose so that we could overcome them. But no matter how often I found myself telling him that certain things he did bothered me, and no matter how gently I felt that I attempted to tell him, we ended up arguing. Constantly. I will never forget the last argument that we had. I was yelling at him and asking why he always had to be so inconsiderate. He looked down at his hands and looked up at me and said, “can the answer just be that I fuck up sometimes?”
Those words still echo in my mind.
In my next relationship, with my daughter’s father, I vowed to be different. I realized that I had been hypercritical of my first partner, berating him, breaking him down, trying to change everything about him that bothered or inconvenienced me, rather than simply deciding that I wanted a relationship with him enough to live with his flaws or leaving if I didn’t. At the time, I didn’t think of any of this as abuse, but I did think that I had been mean and told myself that I would be different. To be better.
But I wasn’t.
For 4 years, as we navigated financial problems and stress, job loss, pregnancy and parenting, and a million and one other individual and collective transitions and stresses, I found myself slipping into the emotionally abusive habits I had learned in my childhood. They were all I knew. And that’s not to say that he was perfect or even a good partner. I would define our relationship as mutually abusive or mutually toxic. But in this moment, I take ownership of my toxicity as I reflect on how I learned that I had the ability to destroy a spirit without ever raising my voice.
There are a million and one reasons and excuses I could give to contextualize and defend my abusive behavior. I was stressed. I was unhappy. I was unfulfilled in my life and my relationship and wasn’t get what I wanted from my partner. I was raising a child seemingly by myself. I was the sole financial provider for a family of three and resented him for not being who I thought he should be as a man. And while all of my feelings were and still are valid, they do not excuse or justify the damage I did to the person with whom I shared a life and a home.
I was mean. Real mean. Although I didn’t realize it at the time.
Everything he did was wrong and nothing was ever good enough. And while it’s fine and even essential that as women – as BLACK women – we set standards for ourselves and what we want, those standards do not give us the right to diminish the humanity of people who don’t meet them. For so much of our lives, we’ve been told that we need to settle and that our value lies in a man wanting us, and neither is the case. We all deserve a love we choose. But I chose this love. And when it wasn’t what I expected, or wanted, or needed I could have and should have left. I could have put myself first without destroying another person in the process. Instead, I was cruel when I didn’t need to be.
When he didn’t partner with me in the ways I wanted, when he failed to meet my expectations on what I wanted done and how I wanted it done, I criticized him relentlessly. When I got tired of him failing to change, to be who I wanted him to be, I shutdown and shut him out. I refused to speak to him. I withheld affection. I threw my contributions and his shortcomings in his face. I told him that I didn’t want to be with him constantly while simultaneously refusing to leave.
But I never raised my voice.
And I told myself that meant something. That I was being fair by communicating my frustrations with him and giving him opportunities to “change” , to be the man that I wanted him to be. I was being the bigger person. What I didn’t understand was the entitlement in expecting a person to change and concede their entire existence to be my idealized version of a person and partner. What I didn’t understand was that I was a bully and this was abuse.
I not only told him that he was a bad partner, but a bad person. He told me that I was against him and that I took every mistake he made as a personal attack. I told him that he didn’t care about me because he would not just do what I wanted, be who I wanted. He begged me to understand him and I told him he was trying to manipulate me. I shamed him. I told him he brought nothing good into my life. But I wouldn’t leave and neither would he. We had a daughter. She needed us. He asked why I couldn’t just be on his side and I asked why he couldn’t be on mine. He told me he thought I hated him and I didn’t deny it. I asked why he couldn’t do anything right. I asked why he couldn’t be and do more.
Eventually, it imploded, as toxic and volatile dynamics do, and in the aftermath of everything, I was certain I had been right. Or more correctly, I had been wronged. I had told him what I wanted and he had refused to give it. He had done this. All he ever had to be was everything I wanted and there was nothing wrong with my constantly reminding him of that. Despite my own experience with emotional abuse, I did not yet understand the full potential of words to be violent.
Abuse had always been this ugly violent monster. Yelling was bad, name-calling was bad, hitting was bad, but words themselves were harmless. Sticks and stones, right? Unfortunately, it wasn’t until many months later that I would understand how I had made a person feel like they were nothing every chance that I got and how that in itself was a heinous act.
Even though I never raised my voice.