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Denial of the Fittest

Intimate Partner Violence, Survival Mechanisms, and Quiet Reinforcements

By Veronica WrenPublished about a month ago 14 min read
Photo by author: Veronica Wren

Even in my periods of deepest denial during my abusive relationship, when I was doing my absolute best to placate him, it was hard to disguise how much I despised spending time with his toxic family.

In their eyes, I could do no right. From the moment I met them, it felt like I'd been failing some test for which I had no way of studying. Their critical and abrasive natures kept me off-balanced, stressed, and exhausted from the effort of our interactions.

One expectation was that they could say whatever they wanted to or about me, under the guise of it being a "joke". If I didn't take it well, I was acting stuck up. If I tried to fight back, I was belittled and ganged up on. Nothing I said or did was ever forgotten, stored as ammunition to be twisted and used against me.

Gee, I wonder where he learned it…

Meanwhile, their openly violent and mentally ill son was without flaw, and thus without accountability.

As you can imagine, his family's excuse-making and denial of his behaviors only served to encourage their escalation and prolong my imprisonment. In failing to help me, they abetted him.

Years after my escape, an insidious and traitorous voice in my mind still whispers: Did my own denial regarding the severity of my situation not do the same thing?

The Self-Blame Game: Why Do Victims Feel At Fault for Surviving?

Let me be clear right off the bat: victims of intimate partner violence are not at fault for their abuse.

Annoyingly, being aware of that does little to change the fact that it's a common feeling among survivors, especially those taught to feel complicit in their own harm.

Since leaving my abuser, I've grappled with feelings of self-blame and guilt over having stayed in the relationship for as long as I did. These self-flagellating seeds were intentionally planted by my abuser, carefully tended over the years as he benefitted from my continued misery.

Even after digging up the weeds, gnarled roots still remain twisted around my self-perception.

After years of emotional turmoil, I'm finally beginning to tease apart the dichotomous roles denial can take in abusive situations, forms that could be either protective or enabling.

While these differences can feel amorphous or blurry, what it boils down to is: what was the motivation behind the denial?

Was it an excuse not to act, or a method of survival?

In exploring this uncomfortable topic, my hope is to finally put accountability for my trauma where it belongs: in the hands of the perpetrator and the people who were actually in a position to stop him but chose not to.

Mommy's Perfect Boy: Denial As a Lack of Accountability

My abuser was highly codependent on his family, especially his mother. Their relationship was disconcertingly enmeshed** and boundary-deficient.

He told her absolutely everything, which, of course, included my every mistake and perceived flaw. When he'd mistreat me, he'd run to her with his wildly inaccurate story about what happened and she'd eat it up, fully believing every word.

He'd fed her the one-sided version of all his past relationships in the same manner; painting women (who I'm now quite certain were his former victims) as unhinged, promiscuous, even dangerous.

The same way I'm sure he paints me now.

As a result, no matter how hard I worked to get his family to like me, it always felt like they were just waiting for me to be out of the room so they could mock me as they did all of my abuser's "crazy" exes.

**Adjacently related: In addition to their emotional dependence on one another, they were open about their sex lives to a degree that was just off. He also quite regularly brought up how hot his mom was when she was young.

Sooo… yeah. The picture of their relationship you're imagining? You're probably close.

Toxic Loved Ones Enable Further Abuse: Denial by Third Parties

In the eyes of both my abuser and his family, he didn't have a "drinking problem". He drank to relax, he could stop anytime he wanted, I was a nag to suggest otherwise, yadda yadda.

His family was fully aware of his out-of-control alcohol abuse; yet they treated it as a joke even as he stumbled around, fully armed, belligerent and out of control. Meanwhile, any consequences for his drunken actions (of which there were many) were solely my responsibility.

This wasn't because they'd never witnessed his problematic drunken behaviors. There'd been multiple car crashes, job loss, arrests, plenty of holes punched in walls, even more drunken screaming matches. Still they enabled him, minimizing and ignoring each incident.

Even when his parents saw his violence toward me and my two dogs for themselves, as in the example below, they'd exchange looks but turn away. As if it weren't happening right in front of them.

Implausible Deniability: Ignoring Violence Protects Abusers

I fucking hated when his family would visit, leaving me unable to escape them for days at a time. It only added stress to what had already become a full-time, unpaid job of staying on my abuser's good side.

Unfortunately, they lived just a few hours away, so we saw them at least once every couple of months.

On this particular weekend visit, he'd spent the entire morning preparing for his parents' arrival by getting absolutely blackout drunk while I cleaned the house. I'm talking wasted to the point that by the time they got there, he could hardly form a sentence.

This state of drunkenness almost always ended in an explosion of some sort, so I was already on edge. We were about four years into our relationship, so by this point I'd had plenty of experience walking on eggshells and smoothing over his problematic drinking in an attempt to keep myself safe from later punishment.

This involved pretending it was "goofy" and "charming" (instead of "completely problematic" and "worrisome") to be hammered by 3 p.m. on the day you know your parents will be visiting.

As usual, his parents pretended everything was hunky-dory, even making off-handed jokes about their son's hilarious drinking habits.

The next section contains a brief description of animal harm in which a pet was non-seriously injured.

If you'd like to skip ahead, scroll to the section titled Yes, Your Circus. Yes, Your Monkeys.

Trigger Warning: Animal Abuse (Non-Serious Injury, Thank Goodness)

I consider the incident outlined below to be one of the most openly violent and cruel things I ever witnessed my abuser do while we were in front of others.

Unfortunately, the only witnesses were his toxically enmeshed, garbage parents who believed he could do no wrong despite mountains of evidence.

It happened so fast.

We'd just sat down to talk in the living room, my abuser guzzling from his freshly topped-off, umpteenth mixed drink of the day. He was telling some rambling story, surely catching his family up on his unnecessarily chaotic and violent adventures in law enforcement.

It was then that my sweet little 13-pound shih tzu jumped up onto the chair in which my abuser was sitting. She landed adorably in his lap, looking for affection.

Instead of petting her like a normal fucking person, he went from 0 to enraged at what he perceived to be an interruption. Exploding out of his chair in anger, he grabbed her and threw her hard against the wall.

The air was sucked out of the entire house.

Even now, it makes me dizzy to think about the helpless, confused yelp she made as her tiny body slammed into the wall. She fell several feet to the floor, unmoving.

In the next instant, I was across the room and on my knees, checking for breathing and yelling her name.

To my relief, she came to after a few seconds and wasn't seriously injured, although she was so shaken up that she leapt from my arms and peed on the floor in panic.

Honestly girl, I get it.

In my rage, before I could think to be afraid, I turned and screamed, "WHAT THE FUCK?" at my abuser.

His dumb fucking face, which had before been staring down over his beer gut in apparent surprise at the results of his own actions, turned to stone. His pistol, which he carried on him at all times, bulged from his ill-fitting pants.

There were 20+ other loaded firearms in the house, hidden throughout every room, so many that I didn't know where they were all hidden.

Gaslighting and Denial of Consequences for Actions

His eyes glinted dangerously, temporarily sobered in a cold rage.

He knew what I knew: I would pay for humiliating him like this. This was my fault, I was making him look bad in front of his parents. I could almost see him getting excited about the thought of it.

Still slurring, but far too calm, he ordered me to calm down and said it was an accident.

An accident made him pick up one of my most beloved things in life, a tiny and fragile living being, and throw her against the wall?

His tone should have scared me, but it only enraged me further.

Still on my knees in front of him, a stance which suddenly felt vulnerable with his hulking form towering over me, I looked up at his parents for help. Tears bloomed in my eyes.

They looked shocked at the scene. I'll never forget how noticeably, almost comically, they'd both leaned backward, almost taking an actual step back. It was as though they could physically distance themselves from their responsibility to act.

Their faces both screamed the same expression at me: what are you going to do about this?

That told me all I needed to know: they'd decided immediately that it was not their problem, nor their place to step in. This was private relationship business.

In other words, they were protecting him.

They'd raised him, knew of his traumatized childhood, watched him become this angry, addled, explosive monster, yet felt no responsibility to step in. They'd treated his alcoholism as my load to bear; something that didn't change when they saw for themselves how violently he behaved in even the calmest of settings, in reaction to the smallest of upsets.

Why am I even surprised? Those enabling-ass fucks.

Repression, Dissociation, and Avoidance of Further Harm

I stormed upstairs with both dogs. After about 10 minutes locked in the bedroom, quietly sobbing and holding my girls, feeling hopeless, he came upstairs to tell me it was time for us to leave for dinner.

He'd put on almost a chipper mask, obviously intending to act like nothing had happened.

Oh that tiny thing? I didn't even kill her! Besides, that was 10 whole minutes ago, who could remember that far back?

This was meant to twist me into looking dramatic or crazy if I reacted strongly, an oft-cited chapter in his narcissistic playbook.

When I reacted incredulously, unwilling to let it go this time, we whisper-argued for a few minutes.

One of his favorite phrases during conflict was, "You've been mad at me before", implying I would eventually forgive him so he didn't need to bother making amends for his actions.

He didn't want me ruining the visit with his parents by throwing a fit. He kept insisting he hadn't thrown her that hard, and that it just looked like it.

When I refused to comply with this downplaying, he showed his own anger. He began mocking how angry I was, making me out to be emotional and laughing at how weak he perceived me to be.

I tried to hold my ground, but honestly? The longer the fight went on the more I wavered, the more afraid I became. His narcissistic programming at work.

We'd been through this dance many times before, and somehow the argument always managed to come back around to being my fault. Every time the result of me being subjected to further punishment.

He'd taught me to repress my situation with every clenched fist, every twist of reality, every honeymoon period, every hand wrapped too tightly around my wrist, every jab at my self-worth.

Eventually, his parents were going to leave me alone with him, at which point I'd incur whatever wrath he stored up throughout the weekend. If this is what he looked like when he was in front of witnesses, supposedly controlling his anger, what would it look like next time we were in private?

I am so harsh on myself for this, but eventually the fight started to seep out of me. I begrudgingly told him we'd talk about it when his parents left.

I went with them to dinner. I was still obviously fuming, although I knew if I showed it too openly I'd be punished for that as well. I allowed myself to check out instead, turning inward and dissociating to get through.

Neither of his parents brought it up. They acted like everything was completely normal, even though I barely spoke or looked at either of them.

We ate greasy pub food at his favorite dive bar, where he continued drinking himself into oblivion without comment from anyone.

Anytime I did catch his parents' eyes, they gave me a judgmental look.

Yes, Your Circus. Yes, Your Monkeys.

I can't say for sure that my abuser would have actually listened to his parents had they stepped in, but I do believe that if they'd have called him on his frightening actions it could have made a difference. At the very least, I may have felt more supported in the moment, which may have eventually helped me find strength to leave sooner.

I guess now we'll never know, because they saw what their child was doing to me and chose to do absolutely nothing. Never once did they step in or offer help, not even after I told his mother I was genuinely afraid he'd kill me if I stayed.

On the day I finally picked up my things, I called the police to stand by down the street in case he retaliated. My family and I met up in a nearby parking lot so we could all show up at once to avoid anyone being alone with him. We went as early in the morning as possible, in the hopes it would lessen the risk of him already being drunk.

His mom drove up to support him and sat by his side the entire time my loved ones helped me load the trailer. She wouldn't look me in the face.

Dysregulation and Distortion of Reality Benefit Abusers

By utilizing threats and manipulation in various, abusers force victims to take part in covering up their own abuse. Victims are often compelled to placate, fawn over, and otherwise cover for their abuser's toxic behaviors in the desperate hope of staying in their good graces.

These control tactics are intended to make victims internalize the belief that they're complicit with, even at fault for, their own ongoing harm.

Gaslighting, threats, violence, and manipulation contribute to a victim's state of denial about the severity of their circumstances. As the emotional torture continues with no escape, victims may exhibit signs of dissociation and learned helplessness, making it even more difficult to see a pathway out.

I was forced to bury my anger deep down, where it stayed with the rest of my pain until I was finally in a safe enough place to express it.

Denial As a Coping Mechanism for Victims

When a person experiences a period of long-term trauma or adverse experiences, they're forced to stifle their feelings and memories of the trauma in order to survive the moment and avoid further harm.

Denial as a defense mechanism is the brain's natural response to feeling trapped in a dangerous situation, and can be helpful for victims in order for them to get through their period of abuse.

Unfortunately, while it can be protective, denial can also result in a victim who believes their situation isn't "bad enough" to motivate them to leave. This benefits the abuser, as they're able to continue isolating and exerting their control.

Even after the above incident occurred, I didn't feel like I could end the relationship safely for several more months. What choice did I have, when the only people who knew about the violence happening in my home refused to lift a finger to help me or hold my abuser accountable?

Why Now?

I wish I'd felt like it was possible for me to storm out of the house the moment this incident happened and never return. In staying, I feel I failed to protect not only myself, but my sweet, innocent, vulnerable dogs.

It's taken a lot of time and therapy to even admit that this happened, never mind grappling with feelings of guilt for staying. At the same time, I try to have grace for the fact that I'd been made to feel like staying was the only way to protect us.

My abuser had managed to systematically dismantle any resources or support I had in order to gain full control. Over time, I was compelled to cut ties with loved ones, relinquish control of my finances, and bend over backwards to keep my abuser happy. I was isolated, surveilled, and regularly subjected to physical and psychological punishment.

This had the intended effect of making me feel reliant on my abuser, and thus unable to leave or tell anyone what was happening. The dizzying cycle of abuse had reinforced that the only way to find any peace was in doing all I could to keep him calm and satisfied.

It was so ingrained in me that I was stuck in that situation. His violence and recklessness with firearms made it 5x more likely that I'd be hurt, even killed, if I left. It wouldn't be until later that I'd find actual support I desperately needed in order to get out of that situation safely.

The reality is that the most dangerous time for a survivor is when they leave the abusive partner; 75% of domestic violence related homicides occur upon separation and there is a 75% increase of violence upon separation for at least two years. - The Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness

I knew my abuser wasn't going to let me tear free of his hooks without putting up a fight, so denial was often one of the only tools I had available to me.

Transfer of Responsibility: Abuse Survivor's Guilt

It's taken months of this unfinished post languishing in my drafts folder for me to break through my anxiety enough to type the words. This is partly thanks to the intense denial that caused me to smother the memory for far too long.

I don't know if I'll ever fully stop blaming myself for the harm my dogs and I endured during that time. But I don't want to try to pretend that it didn't happen anymore.

One thing I do make sure my dogs know is how much I love and appreciate them every single day. They provided unconditional love and comfort during a time when I felt abandoned, a time when I couldn't give it to myself. I do everything I can now to surround them with that feeling of protection and support.

Sometimes tears well up in my eyes while I'm writing, and my sweet little shih tzu jumps into my lap to comfort me by licking my face.

It helps so much.

I'm Glad You're Here

Trauma sucks. Recovery shouldn't. Subscribe in one click to receive your FREE digital copy of my new guided journal, "Empower and Heal: 90 Days of Transformational Prompts for Trauma Recovery, Self-Discovery, and Growth", delivered straight to your inbox!

Veronica Wren Trauma Recovery Book Club

Lessons in Chemistry: A Novel - Bonnie Garmus

This post may contain affiliate links. This just means if you click a link and decide to make a purchase, I'll earn a few extra pennies to support my book-buying habit (and do an elaborate, celebratory dance around my apartment just for you). My promise to you is that I'll only ever recommend resources I truly believe in and have found beneficial in my healing journey. Happy reading!

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About the Creator

Veronica Wren

Trauma sucks. Recovery shouldn't. Subscribe here for your FREE exclusive guided journal

❤️‍🩹 ❤️‍🩹

Domestic Abuse & CPTSD Recovery Coach

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