America Has Been in an Abusive Relationship. Here’s How We Get Out

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Tanya Selvaratnam
·6 min read
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As soon as I woke up on January 20, 2021, I turned on the television to watch the inauguration coverage and burst into tears. I cried all day. I was relieved and overjoyed, but I was surprised by the shaking and heart palpitations that accompanied my tears. I recognized them as symptoms of PTSD, triggered by memories of where I was on this day four years ago—in the darkest period of an abusive relationship with one of the most powerful politicians in New York State, the former attorney general Eric Schneiderman.

He was considered Donald Trump’s number one opponent. Numerous times, when we were together in public, people approached Eric as if he were the Second Coming. They would say, “Save us.” Occasionally, people in government or with close ties to government officials would call him or meet with him, offering what they claimed was inside intelligence on the current administration. They thought he was their best shot at delivering the United States from the clutches of a nefarious president.

I began to think, If only they knew what a mess Eric is at home. If only they knew what he does to me.

I would speak in hushed tones with a few trusted friends about his drinking and controlling behavior, about his criticizing my hair, the way I dressed, and his not letting me eat chicken (he was a pescatarian) or sweets. But I was frightened to tell anyone about his physical abuse in the sexual context—slapping, spitting, and choking. On the one hand, I felt embarrassed and ashamed. On the other hand, I felt protective of him. If I told anyone details about the abuse, I wouldn’t be able to take it back. And what if he did change for the better? Couldn’t he change if he wanted to?

My heart and mind were not working with clarity. But after I spoke out about the abuse in 2018, so many friends confided in me about their own experiences. It was comforting to feel that I wasn’t alone, but it was also heartbreaking to realize how widespread our suffering was. Our collective sharing felt like a bloodletting. I understand now how capable, independent women become ensnared. Even fierce women get abused.

Looking back, I see how I too got sucked in. Eric’s outward-facing spirituality was a mask for the torment beneath the surface. His outward-facing feminism was a mask for his misogyny. He perpetuated a narrative of himself as an agent of change and transformation. Many people I trusted depicted him as a hero, and he positioned himself as standing up for causes I believed in. I bought it. If only I could have seen how horribly wrong everything would go, both politically and personally—how the negativity and chaos in one sphere influenced the other.

Politicians have to be charismatic so that when they say, “Jump,” people ask, “How high?” Abusers are often charismatic too. I work hard every day to make sense of how I got into and stayed in a relationship that was so damaging to my soul. I know, for example, that when I heard the applause that followed after Eric spoke, I got swept up in it. Applause can be blinding.

So many of us have been blinded. While Trump was in office, I saw a young performance artist do a show about male fragility. She talked about living in an era when “the biggest gaslighting, abusive boyfriend you’ve ever had is president.” It clarified her activism, which hadn’t let up since his election. She said, “We can take a break when we don’t live in a misogynist dystopia.”

Before Trump, we might have wanted to believe that our democratic institutions could survive a threat like him, that our Constitution and elected officials would provide checks and balances. Instead, his administration unleashed misogyny and racism across the country, even in pockets of it that we might have considered “safe.” We learned that everything can fall apart; I learned that too.

On the night of the election in 2016, I paid to have my hair done because Eric always wanted me to wear my hair up or blown straight. Otherwise, he often said my hair looked too wild. Perhaps he meant it looked too ethnic. My hair is wavy, bordering on frizzy when it’s humid. The bigger it gets, the more I like it. I thought, What is wrong with my natural hair? But Eric made me feel insecure about it. If I didn’t conform, I wouldn’t be pretty in his eyes. After attending a few election parties, including one hosted by Harvey Weinstein, Eric and I went to the Javits Center, where it felt as though everyone was on a sinking ship.

The past four years have sunk many of us. And not all of us have emerged unscathed. Now, as a survivor of an abusive relationship, I can offer advice that I hope helps our country. A victim-centered approach allows us to turn away from the former president. It allows us to focus on our needs, our healing, our future. I tell other survivors of abuse the following, which can apply to the American people as the victim and the former president as the partner:

Know that you are not alone and you are not crazy.

It’s okay to feel traumatized, but please don’t feel ashamed.

If your partner is not willing to acknowledge the problem and get professional help, get away. Your partner is probably not going to change.

Don’t worry about your abuser. Focus on yourself.

You are the most important part of this equation.

Jennifer Friedman, the director of Bronx and Manhattan Legal Project and Policy of Sanctuary for Families, has spoken with me about the mix of emotions—trauma and relief—that victims feel when an emotionally gaslighting abuser is removed from the picture. She also said, “The abuser has sought to silence your voice and diminish your self-worth, preventing you from feeling your own power. But you do have power, and seeking help—including speaking with an expert—may bring you more power. Taking back your power is an important step toward healing and reclaiming your life.”

My hope for 2021 is that we will say the name of the former president, our abuser, less, and say the names of those who suffered because of him more. We have the chance to chip away at the cycle of violence that we are conditioned to normalize from the time we are born and that was encouraged from the highest office in the land. We don’t have to think the same way; we just have to open our hearts and minds and listen to each other. Love, compassion, and our shared humanity will guide us, as inaugural poet Amanda Gorman said, up that hill we climb.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has spoken powerfully about her experience with sexual assault and the trauma triggered by the Capitol siege. She was disturbed by the congressmen who told her to “move on”—a tactic of abusers so that they can abuse again.

Collectively, we’re getting out of an abusive relationship. Our recovery, like my personal recovery from abuse, won’t be overnight. We have a long road ahead, but on January 20, 2021, and during the subsequent weeks, the stage was set.

Tanya Selvaratnam is the author of Assume Nothing: A Story of Intimate Violence.

If you or someone you know is a victim of intimate partner violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline toll-free at 800-799-SAFE or connect online at thehotline.org.

Originally Appeared on Glamour