There are always little things your significant other does, which elicit an uncontrollable response in your body.
They are tiny things, things that no other person outside your bubble would ever understand, or react to. Things that are yours alone…
Like the way you can tell which footsteps are his in a crowded room.
The way you can sense that he’s coming up behind you to rest one hand on your shoulder as the other stretches out to shake that of the person who has just introduced himself to you at the party.
Or sometimes it’s the sight of his keys in the change bowl when you come home which causes your heart to flutter and skip a couple of beats.
What about the way that you know exactly how he is going to react to something based solely on the manner in which he has removed his shoes for the afternoon?
For some of us, these things bring warmth and love and gentle sunshine smiles that fill up all our corners.
For some of us, these things are catalysts that elicit the fight or flight response. They fill you with fear - Fear of the known, but unpredictable. The fear of his raised voice, or that quiet, cold one he gets when he pierces you with his eyes. The dread that fills you when he places his hand on your shoulder while he shakes the hand of that man who introduced himself to you at the party.
… the fear of a man introducing himself to you at a party.
You ignore them, at first. If you do mention them, you are embarrassed to be informed that you merely overreacted. Sometimes this news is given to you with an indulgent smile and a little pat on the head as your significant other walks out of the room, silently letting you know that the conversation is over.
So you shrink away from the world. Away from the people asking the odd question here and there – Are you okay? You’re very quiet tonight. Is Significant Other okay? He seems a little cranky. You run out of excuses and cover stories quicker than you’d suspect.
So you shrink into your bubble with him, where you can somewhat control the environment to limit the things that cause his hand to ball into a fist and find that soft spot just to the left of your spine.
Your voice becomes small and your vocabulary shrinks to “please”, “thank you” and “I’m sorry”. You ask for permission to read your book, to shower, to go to your family’s house or a friend’s birthday. Your every move and every thought, handed to him in the hope that by asking for his permission, you will not only be allowed to apply for a new job but will be rewarded for your obesiance.
You think about leaving. You do. It crosses your mind a lot, but then you hear his gentle arguments, explaining why you deserved it. You feel his fingers brushing your hair back from your face, the tendrils stuck to your wet cheeks, cold ropes of hair being tucked behind your ears as he whispers all the ways in which you wronged him, and do you understand now? Do you understand what your actions did to his feelings? The way you confuse him? You can be so loving sometimes, and then you disrespect him like that. Or sometimes you just imagined it, you must have been having a different conversation with a different person because that’s not what was said in the one you had with him.
You stop listening to any voices who try to convince you to end it. You don’t have the energy to listen to them, your energy is all gone now, it is constantly being used to predict his next outburst, to tiptoe through your own life and make as few ripples as possible to mark your passage.
Eventually you can’t even hear your own voice, begging. You hear it through his ears where it has become an ugly whine, a pathetic whimper from a useless, weak, ugly woman who will never amount to anything.
It is by this point that nothing in his behaviour shocks you anymore. You are used to the fear that fills you when he does something nice for you. You know that you will have to pay for it one way or another. You are used to him dangling carrots of hope before your eyes and the enjoyment he gets when he takes them away from you. You are used to your place in the world, now, curled at his feet, covered in dirt, ready for the kicking.
You are used to feeling like a spider, stuck to a tiny strand of web, floating on the whim of a breeze with no idea where you are going to land or what you are going to be faced with when you get there.
And you don’t deserve anything better.
You don’t even remember the girl who once knew she deserved better. You don’t think of her because, like everyone, she is judging you and finding you wanting.
And still, you can pick the sound of his footsteps in a crowd. Your heart still skips a beat when you return home to see his keys in the bowl or his shoes lined against the wall. Only now, your heart is always hammering, your breath always catching in your throat, and the only reason you now use the word “please” is to place it before the words “I’m sorry, don’t hurt me”.
The world outside knows there are troubles. They know he can be a little bit cranky. That he is a little stingy with money, or that he doesn’t like you to go out without him, but the world doesn’t know that every time you feel him lift the covers to climb in beside you, your entire body goes rigid, tense and fills with a blind, raging hatred that finds you clenching your fists and digging your fingernails into your palms to give some kind of voice to the invisible, voiceless pain you feel at not just losing your soul to the whims of another, but handing it over, willingly, to gutlessly save yourself from whatever may happen next.
It wasn’t always like that, you know? That’s what we always say when asked why we stayed.
Because it didn’t start that way.
It started with The Little Things.