I can still see my former best friend. She’s wearing An Outfit, probably a dress with leggings, and she’s beat her face to some degree — Elyse doesn’t do casual. There are at least three rings on her small hands, and she tends to wear two necklaces. The silver chains are probably looped around each other, needing to be straightened. I used to bend down and fix them for her — she’s five feet and three-quarters of an inch tall to my five-nine. When we’d hug, I often put my chin on top of her head. She’s curled her hair. It’s blonde, but I know the color comes from a bottle. It’s been black and red before, but naturally it’s a light-brown. Not many people know that, but it’s something that comes from 15 years of friendship.
This fall would mark 16 — more than half our lives. The shortest way I can tell it is this: Last summer, I stopped speaking to Elyse because she didn’t believe that I had been emotionally and verbally abused.
But that’s not the truest explanation, nor is it the fairest. Sometimes I want to say I lost her to abuse, but I didn’t misplace her, nor do I feel deprived of what we once had. I did — and do — grieve the death of our friendship, something that bordered more on sisterhood than anything, but it’s the sort of sorrow that comes from having invested years of my life in something that turned toxic.
I don’t miss her, cruel as that may sound.
What happened was reminiscent of the end of a romance, but saying “I broke up with my best friend” sounds more mundane than what transpired. “Why did you break up?” people ask, and the answers vary: “The sex got stale,” “I met someone else,” “He didn’t want to have kids,” “She wasn’t emotionally available.” This was not like that. It was violent, cruel, painful, and protracted by confusion.
To return to the language of break-ups, “It’s complicated.”
Last summer, I realized Christopher, my committed partner of two years, was abusive. When I told Elyse what was happening, she didn’t say or do the right things. She argued that I should stay with Chris. She simply didn’t believe me. So, in spite of her willingness to talk, to reach a compromise of ideas, to keep our relationship going, I quit our friendship, forever and for good.
I decided that, when it came to abuse, I deserved a no-tolerance policy, and I walked away. But all I’ve done since is look back.
Elyse and I had been friends ever since we were high school freshman, immediately bonding during tryouts for Footloose. But when my father started dating her mother the following year, we became best friends, sleepover buddies, and partners in crime. We went to separate colleges but called each other so often that, without ever meeting her friends, they knew who I was and vice versa. After graduation, we calculated our career paths. We analyzed everything from potential dates to long-term relationships. We even vowed we’d wind down our lives in the same retirement home. That was our friendship, multifaceted and all-enduring.
Until, that is, I told her about how my partner, Christopher, had become abusive.
I thought at first we were having a “rough patch” until I had dinner with my friend Alyssa. We were playing catch-up while her fiancé cooked dinner, and I laid out my relationship troubles like I’d talk about a difficult project at work: “This sucks, and it’s exhausting, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel somewhere.” The furrow between her brows said differently. She never said the words, but her thoughts were transparent: Liz, this time I’m not so sure it’s going to be okay. That scared me enough to consider the impossible: Christopher might be abusive.
Sometimes I want to say I lost her to abuse, but I didn’t misplace her, nor do I feel deprived of what we once had. I did — and do — grieve the death of our friendship, something that bordered more on sisterhood than anything, but it’s the sort of sorrow that comes from having invested years of my life in something that turned toxic.
That possibility needled at me until I googled “relationship violence help” in the backseat of my Lyft home. I pulled my phone close to me as if otherwise the driver could see this act of potential betrayal, and, with trepidation, chose the first result: The National Domestic Violence Hotline. Immediately, a window popped up, warning me that browser histories can be monitored, and it is impossible to completely clear your computer. If I was afraid of being monitored, they offered a 1-800 number to call. My feelings of guilt intensified, but I exited the warning and clicked the button to start an online chat instead. I had hoped that the counselor would give me a simple answer: Am I being abused? YES or NO (circle one). Instead, I got a list of relationship abuse signs, and the space to answer the question for myself. Out of 61 signs of emotional abuse, I identified with 22, more than enough for me to say, "This is abuse. Christopher is abusing me."
Then, like a child reaching for her baby blanket, I texted my best friend.
"Elyse, my relationship is abusive."
I had no doubt she would comfort me, fight for me, do whatever she could to help me. I knew for a fact, out of all the people in my life, I could trust her with this.
Yet, her first reaction was to text me back with a series of question marks. To this day, I wonder why she didn’t call. It was late enough at night that she wasn’t working. Maybe she’s out, I thought, or studying for a gig, or with a guy? Still, every explanation I tried to give her seemed “not enough.” When someone you consider family sends you information like that, you step out of the bar. You put down your work. You ask the guy to give you a moment alone.
I typed out the long explanation. I told her Chris fought ugly. That he whipped the bed with an undershirt. That I told him this triggered my complex/cumulative PTSD and he replied with, “You can’t blame everything on your mental illnesses.” That he bought booze when there were bills to pay, justifying the decision with lame cop-outs, like “It was only $3,” or “It’s just a six-pack.” That he accused me of courting attention from my best guy friend, interpreting all conversations as flirtations and my fault. That he’d made out with a stranger from a bar. That I’d used all the skills learned in therapy not to engage, to ask for respect and kindness, and to transform this stranger back into my partner. The man who wore my ring on his finger. The future father of my children. I told Elyse that none of it worked.
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Reading her response still makes my eyes water and my lip tremble: “Yes, but he is the one that saves your butt when you need it every time, and you’re not fully able to be on your own financially or emotionally?”
Dude, I know he’s been my emotional rock for a long time, and my bank account is bullshit, but what does that have to do with anything?
“I say that with love OBVIOUSLY. I’m not trying to hurt you. Does he need to change those things? Absolutely. Have you been treated like shit most of your life and want to run from everything? Yes.”
What does my history have to do with this?
“It’s not all false, but the facts are more complicated than simply 'he is abusive.' The two of your need to go into therapy NOW. I don’t care who starts it — it just needs to happen. All the ingredients of a good relationship are there, but it’s not fully functional — but it can be with work. His reaction to fight of course isn’t good. And he needs to figure out where the fuck that comes from and stop.”
Now, I can see some of the nuance in her words. Yes, Chris was being abusive, but saying that he is an abusive person is a different matter. He wasn’t and isn’t an abusive man — not fully. My father is such a man; I know the difference. But there was abuse in my relationship, and I will not take that back.
Perhaps therapy could have helped us. Perhaps we could have become a functional couple again with work. However, I felt like I was coming undone. If he kissed me, I thought of his tongue in another woman’s mouth. We tried to have sex once, and I had to stop before I was even topless — the revulsion in me was that strong. We spent our nights in separate rooms, and we tried to connect during the days. Some of them were close to perfect on the surface. He was calm, reassuring, gentle, proactive. We sat together and looked through profiles of relationship counselors, and I went with him to confession, knowing he needed to get right with his God. I confessed as well — my anger, my bitterness, the horrible things I’d said in anger.
I wanted to try. Yet, every day, he’d look at me with a certain expectation, and I had no idea how to tell him it wasn’t retribution I sought but trust, and I couldn’t find it.
All I could say to Elyse was, “Just because he hasn’t hit me doesn’t mean it isn’t abuse.” All she said in return was, “Food for thought: if you’re going to call Christopher abusive, then really every man you’ve ever dated in one way or another is. More food for thought: they say we attract men that are reflections of what WE are on the inside. They say that we don’t attract all the positive things we want until we resolve them within ourselves.”
I knew then that something was deeply wrong. It wasn’t true that every man I had dated was abusive, not even close. But what rocked me into disbelief was the insinuation that I attracted Christopher’s abuse because it was a reflection of what I was inside. That’s victim blaming, and it’s never okay. How could she question me on this?
I left my apartment with Christopher to stay with a friend, hoping to gain back some of the sanity I’d lost. In that time, every conversation I had with Elyse about my relationship went the same way. I tried to make her see the reality of what had happened with Christopher, and she found some way to argue against it. I tried one last time to reach Elyse a month after I left, sending her an email that said I knew she didn’t believe Christopher was abusive (even though he had told her he was), that I was done trying to convince her otherwise, and that I could only be her friend if she believed and supported me. Without that, it hurt too much.
She said she supported me but was allowed to have her own opinions; that she was “just not playing a big part in this chapter” of my life. She closed her email by asking, “Is this capable of still being a mutually beneficial friendship for both of us?”
At that point, I knew the answer. I never replied.
There’s a horrible kind of pain that comes when you realize someone you considered to be your strongest ally has turned against you. It resonates in every molecule of your marrow. This was the woman who had gotten heat stroke during my wedding, with whom I’d lain on the floor in my white dress, with whom I’d ridden in the ambulance, leaving my new husband behind. That was our friendship — until my partner hurt me in a way I could never fathom. Then Elyse either couldn’t or wouldn’t accept the truth, and in a matter of weeks, I’d lost my family.