Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer "radical empathy" and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.
Today, the Sugars are taking on the sensitive issue of domestic abuse, and specifically, psychological abuse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost half of all women and men in the U.S. have "experienced at least one psychologically aggressive behavior by an intimate partner during their lifetime." The Sugars hear from a woman who wants to leave an abusive relationship but feels stuck. Then, they ponder what is enough of a reason to leave someone.
My husband is emotionally abusive. We have a 2-year-old daughter. I know I need to leave, but I am so completely stuck. I look at apartments I could rent every day. I know how much better my life will be away from him. I know I will be fine — better than fine, in fact — once I go.
But I still can't seem to get the ball rolling. It's not money that keeps me here, or security (although both of those things will be challenges). I think it is shame. I'm ashamed that I picked such a bad father for my daughter. I'm ashamed that I knew he was a bad choice but I still had a baby with him. I'm ashamed that I have put up with this for 10 years. I'm ashamed of how I have let him treat me.
I don't know how to take the first step, to start the momentum that I need to see it through. I have tried to tell him I am leaving, but he threatens me until I back down. I know I need to go in secret but it feels very underhand. Please help me find the first step. I know I can do this but I don't know how.
Steve Almond: Get off the island. There are millions of women and men who have to get out of relationships like this. It's the toughest thing you'll have to do, but you're not alone in having to do it; there's a vast network of people and books and narratives and professionals who will help you. As frightening and destabilizing as it feels, there are many paths, and you have to start walking down one of them.
Cheryl Strayed: Shame is the number one thing that people feel who are in abusive relationships. Part of that is steeped in this idea that people who find themselves victims in a relationship — it disrupts our self-concept. We think: Well, I would never be that person. It brings shame when we find ourselves in that situation. But you need help, and you don't have to do this alone.
Ultimately it will be you who scoops up your daughter and walks out that door, and as the child of a woman who did that herself when I was 6, I'll tell you, it's powerfully important that you make that choice for yourself, and for her.
What we have now that my mother didn't have 40 years ago are all of these resources that are available to you locally and nationally. Those domestic violence resources are not just about physical violence. Emotional abuse can be as painful or more painful than physical abuse, so you get to tap into those resources, too. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) can connect you to resources to help you take those first steps. The minute you make that move that you know you need to make, life becomes easier. It doesn't become harder. The hardest part, Stuck Feet, is right now. You must go. And I really just beg you to reach out to every resource that will help you do that.
Is "wanting to leave" [as Cheryl wrote in her "The Truth That Lives There" column] enough, even when you have a sweet and precious 1-year-old?
Mama Wanting to Leave
Cheryl: Yes, it is enough. Obviously, the stakes are higher when you have a child with the partner you want to leave — the consequences are also felt by the child. I think many of us have this idea that the ideal scenario for our children is — if you had that child with a partner — that you and that partner will stay together and thrive. But what happens when you aren't thriving — and it sounds to me, MWTL, like you aren't — if you have that persistent feeling that you need to leave, you probably need to listen to yourself.
What that's going to lead to is probably some pretty great things for your child, too. Because your child will have a parent — two parents, maybe — who get to have more fulfilled lives. You are never doing a partner a favor by staying with them out of pity or guilt. So I think that leaving doesn't mean you don't continue to co-parent with somebody. And I think that listening to that true voice is also a great way of setting an example for your child about how we find fulfillment in our lives.
Steve: We don't have a lot of information here. So it's a "go," but with the proviso that your partner is also a parent, which means your job now is to leave the romantic relationship in a way that recognizes that even though the partnership didn't work, the parenting relationship in the ideal does. Is there a way for the parenting relationship to work out better than the partnership did?
You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the whole episode to hear from one woman finding new challenges as a relationship changes from long-distance to domestic, and the Sugars ponder what crosses the line in a friendship.
Have a question for the Sugars? Email email@example.com and it may be answered on a future episode.