Recently I came across a Facebook post in which someone told a bride-to-be, “I am happy you are marrying a kind man.” That one phrase in the sea of the other congratulatory messages resonated with me because I lived with a man for six years who was emotionally distant and unkind. And the warning signs were there; I just thought that things would get better.
By “warning signs,” I mean when he used my money to buy one of his emotional ho’s* groceries. When he barely got on his knee to ask me to marry him. I knew on our wedding night when he didn’t want to consummate our union but instead chose to count and deposit the monetary gifts we’d received. I justified his behavior. “This is just him. This is normal.” I wanted the dream that seems elusive for so many professional black women—I just wanted a husband.
So I would pray and silently plead with him; to be clear, I groveled.
“Love me; I’m enough” is all I wanted.
And when that didn’t work, I learned how to be happy with scraps. Scraps of his time, love and affection are what he convinced me I deserved. And on some level, it’s what I thought I deserved, too.
When he withheld intimacy, I would kill myself in the gym trying to change my outward appearance to appease his ideals of beauty. I suffered through the indignities of him looking at porn and masturbating, all the while refusing to have sex with me. I, in turn, found refuge in my work. My justification of the pain and harm I was experiencing was, “This is what marriage is.”
I swallowed my pride and soldiered on, all the while covering for him and losing myself. I lived in a silent hell. I told my best friend of my pain, but she didn’t realize the depth of it until I left him. I stopped being kind to me. When he would curse me out over a simple mistake, I would try harder, and I became an exhausted perfectionist. Everyone thought we were the epitome of “black love.” I had it all: a career, financial stability and a husband—the trinity, to many black women. But kindness, respect and love were absent.
The truth is, I knew he didn’t love me from his soul; he didn’t love me the way I needed and deserved to be loved. We just looked good on paper; I was accomplished and attractive and he could say, “I made it.”
But over time he became increasingly abusive. His tantrums became more frequent, and his behavior more controlling. He made outlandish accusations regarding my family. Then he finally he told me, with seething venom, “You are fucking ugly and make me sick in the ass to look at.” By this time, I was tired. The me I knew and used to love was gone. I stopped believing that I was enough. This culminated in him threatening physical harm.
While his actions and his treatment of me are reprehensible, I was complicit as well. I allowed him to steal my power. I believed in love and I believed him. I thought my love was enough to change him. I am constantly meeting black women who have lived or are living what I experienced. And they stayed longer than they should have, or have made the decision to stay.
Although I knew that black women experienced partner abuse at a higher rate, I never thought that I would be a victim. I believed that I was too educated and accomplished for that. Black women are less likely to report abuse, whether it be verbal, emotional, financial or, especially, physical. I’m an attorney, and I considered not reporting my ex-husband after he attempted to beat me:
“How can I expose another normally law-abiding black man to law enforcement?” I said.
“He was just mad; let this pass over.”
“What will people think?”
But at this point, I could no longer make excuses or deny that my husband was not only unkind but also abusive. Even now, though, it’s hard to admit.
I never knew the power and importance of kindness until this relationship. When kindness is not present, I contend, neither is love. At that point, you’re done before you even began. Abuse, in any form, will never be the go-to when kindness is at the center.
I believe that kindness can heal but can also give a person the courage to live authentically and practice self-love. Cruelty and harshness will cause someone to shrivel and to die. To many, marriage is the most sacred and intimate of relationships. It’s the place where vulnerability lives. It’s the place where the heart and the soul meet.
Kindness is paramount. So I am glad that my Facebook friend is marrying someone kind. I believe that kindness and love will find me one day, too. And to believe that after what I’ve experienced is a testament to the power of faith and love.
*emotional ho - a term meaning someone he wasn’t physical with but had a strong emotional connection.
Michele Rayner is a criminal defense and civil rights attorney based in Florida. Outside of the courtroom she works as an advocate to end the criminalization of black women and girls and writes on race, politics, culture and trap music.