When Leah got the text from Jeff that night, she was out with a big group of girlfriends. It was karaoke night at a local bar, and she assumed when she opened the message it was going to go something like, "Hey, miss u."
Instead, it read: "Why r u texting Jen if she's with you?"
At first, Leah was confused. She had just texted Jen because Jen was sitting outside; it was her turn to sing and Leah texted to let her know to come inside. Then it clicked: Jeff was monitoring her cell phone.
"When I got home, I found out he had logged in to my Verizon account and was refreshing the page all night so he could see who I was calling and texting," says Leah. "When I called him out on it, he was apologetic, saying he did it because he was so scared of losing meÃ¢â‚¬”he loved me that much. It did make me feel loved. And a little nervous."
This is how it often starts, experts say: The slow build of doubts and the nudging little voice that says something is offÃ¢â‚¬”a voice that's heard and then ignored, pushed back during moments of fun and connection. Those moments are important to keep in mind when trying to understand how abusive relationships develop, says Janine D'Anniballe, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist specializing in sexual assault and trauma who trains law enforcement to recognize the signs of domestic abuse. "In the beginning of most relationships, it's all love and good timesÃ¢â‚¬”and that's especially true when it comes to relationships where there's abuse," says D'Anniballe. "Abusers are often incredibly loving and attentive at first, and they say all the right things. It makes their partner feel safe. And when she feels safe, she sees controlling and overbearing behavior as protective and loving."
Despite that initial red flag, Leah was happy to be with Jeff. Smart and ambitious, she was working in public relations when she first met him at a bar one night after work. Her impressive rÃƒÂ©sumÃƒÂ¨ and outgoing natureÃ¢â‚¬”not to mention her classically elegant, blonde and blue-eyed beautyÃ¢â‚¬”should have made her feel like Jeff was lucky to snag her. But she had a vein of insecurity that stemmed from the end of her first marriage. She had married Chris right after she turned 20 and had planned to grow old with him. "My parents have been married for more than 30 years," she says," so Chris cheating on me really shook my world."
Leah was still going through the divorce process when she met Jeff. He acted so smitten that she didn't really care that he had a tendency to stretch the truth. (Early on, Jeff told her he was a chef, when he was actually a waiter.) Leah also looked the other way when he flirted right in front of her. After all, she couldn't believe the quintessential tall, dark, handsome guy chose to be with her.
But as time went on, Jeff started taking every opportunity to cut her down, to reinforce her doubt. This was especially true when it came to her sons, Russell and Kyle. "At first, Jeff would tell me that I could never break up with him because he loved my boys so much," says Leah. "Then he started telling me that because I was divorced with two kids, I came with a lot of baggage and nobody else would want me. And I believed him."
So when Jeff proposed marriage a year and a half after they started dating, Leah was ecstatic. Sure, there were some warning bells. But they were trumped by the fun she and Jeff had together and the love he showed her kids. Plus, Jeff's voice, telling her no other guy would want her, was playing on repeat in her mind, and it drowned out all the things that felt off. Things like how Jeff continued to hack into her cell-phone account to monitor her calls and texts, and how his white lies continued. Leah also told herself that all men flirted and liedÃ¢â‚¬”that was certainly how she saw her first marriage.
"It sounds so clichÃƒÂ©, but I thought I could change Jeff," says Leah. "And what I couldn't change, I thought I'd just have to deal with because here was a great-looking guy who everyone loved and who really seemed to love me."
Leah got used to the various ways Jeff exerted controlÃ¢â‚¬”she knew he spent a lot of time on her Facebook page, and he'd often text her incessantly while she was at work with accusatory questions, like whether she was having lunch with a male coworker who had a crush on her. She'd almost always call him out on this, which would inevitably lead to a fight, and at the end of those arguments Jeff would always apologize. "Sometimes I would end up apologizing as well, even though I'd done nothing wrong," she says. "He had this way of manipulating me into thinking I caused the fight, and then he'd lure me back with a smile and a hug."
While the verbal arguments were frequent, Jeff never got violentÃ¢â‚¬”until five days after they were married, during their honeymoon cruise in the Mediterranean.
That night the couple went to a show after dinner. Afterward, Jeff wanted to hang out and talk to the performers. "He told me that it was all about business, because he was interested in getting into performing," says Leah. "But what he saw as innocent conversation, I saw as blatant flirting." When he started swapping phone numbers with a few of them, Leah lost it.
By the time they got back to their room, Leah was teary and frustrated. When she asked Jeff why he was flirting on their honeymoon, Jeff got defensive. He started yelling at Leah, saying that she needed to mind her own business. "When he began shouting, the room started feeling so small and hot," remembers Leah. "I knew I needed to get out of there. But when I went to walk to the door, he grabbed my wrists and pushed me onto the bed."
With her wrists pinned, he sat on top of her and hunched over her, his face within inches of hers. Leah started crying. Jeff continued yelling. "What's wrong? Are you scared of me? Are you scared I'm going to do something to you?" he shouted. Then, he swung his arm back as if he was going to hit her. "He kept making that motion," says Leah. "And he kept yelling, 'Are you scared of me?'"
Leah was scared. But like so many victims of abuse, she was also deeply entangled in a web of control and manipulation. Ironically, that's in part because of the love she also felt for him, says Jacquelyn Campbell, Ph.D., R.N., a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Nursing and a national leader in domestic violence research and advocacy. "The bonds of attachment that come with love will inspire you to think about all of the good things instead of the bad," she says. Jeff's persistent comments about how lucky Leah was that he wanted to be with her had also highlighted one of her biggest fears: that she wasn't loved back. "Over time, a victim's self-esteem erodes and she starts to feel worse," says D'Anniballe. "That's the perfect scenario for the abuser: The worse she feels, the less equipped she'll be to leave."
Leah never left their room that night. Still pinned to the bed, she apologized for saying something to Jeff. "I wasn't really sorry, but I knew I needed to calm him down. When I apologized, he did tooÃ¢â‚¬”like he'd done so many times beforeÃ¢â‚¬”and I forgave him again."
Any time there is an act of physical violenceÃ¢â‚¬”whether it's shoving, slapping, pinning someone down, or blocking their entry or exitÃ¢â‚¬”it's abuse, says D'Anniballe. "Violence, whether it's slight or severe, is an effort to control."
A few weeks after they got home, Jeff's physical aggression came out again.
They were sitting on the couch watching TV after Leah had put her sons to bed. Jeff had his computer open and was chatting on Facebook messenger. When he got up to go to the bathroom, Leah took a peek. "He was messaging someone who I knew had a crush on him, saying how he wanted to have a bath with her and give her a massage," she says. "It wasn't some ambiguous flirty conversation. It was really direct."
When Jeff got back from the bathroom and realized his computer had been moved, he looked annoyed. "I admitted looking at his computer and asked him who he was talking to," says Leah. "He told me it was 'nobody' and that it was none of my business."
Knowing he was lying, Leah walked upstairs to go to the bathroom. "I just wanted to be alone in there and cry," she says. But as she neared the top of the stairs, Jeff ran after her. She sped up. When she made it to the bathroom and tried to shut the door, Jeff grabbed her arm and threw her up against the wall. "He had me by the wrists and pinned me to the wall hard," says Leah. She started crying and telling him that he was hurting her. After a few minutes, he let go. Leah's wrists were so swollen she couldn't bend them.
Leah was sore and scared, but she didn't leave. She slept on the couch. Why didn't she run? Because, she says, she felt trapped. She'd made her choice to be with Jeff, and leaving him would add up to another failed relationship.
"Even in this day and age, most women feel a deep responsibility for making a relationship work," says Campbell. "There's a tendency for a lot of us to hear about a domestic violence situation and say, 'I would've gotten out.' But think about a time when you were in a bad relationship. How long did it take you to finally figure out that it wasn't good for you? Just because there's violence doesn't always make that realization process quicker."
The verbal and physical abuse continued to escalate during that first year of marriage. Jeff showed up at Leah's office a few times when she was working late to make sure she was really there, and then he'd yell at herÃ¢â‚¬”in front of her coworkers. He pushed her up against a car door in her office parking lot. He often made a lunging motion when they fought, as if he was going to hit or slap her. And through all of it, Leah hid what was happening and glommed on to the hope that she would fix him and that things would get better. In fact, after Jeff repeatedly suggested they have a baby during that first year, Leah finally agreed, and she got pregnant.
"I thought having our own child would make Jeff calm down a little," says Leah. It didn't. "I knew his behavior was affecting me, and I worried it would affect the kids, but I couldn't bring myself to leave," she says. "I realize how crazy this sounds, but I actually didn't think what he was saying or doingÃ¢â‚¬”even the times he got physically aggressive with meÃ¢â‚¬”was all that awful. I thought it probably happened in a lot of relationships, and that I would be perceived as the crazy one if I said anything."
This is one of the insidious aspects of abuse, says Campbell. "Women often aren't certain that their partner's behavior is over the line and convince themselves it's not." Leah knew Jeff was overly critical and controlling, but she didn't categorize what he was doing as abuse.
"I always heard the words domestic violence and pictured a woman with a black eye who looks beaten up; I never thought of it as your partner being too manipulative or a little rough," says Leah. "I think I stayed with Jeff so long because of that image of the battered woman. I didn't look like her; therefore, it wasn't time to get out."
And then there were a couple of incidents that led Leah to believe it was time to get out.
A few weeks before their baby Ethan's first birthday, Leah went on an overnight business trip to attend an industry dinner, and just as she was about to dig in to her rubbery chicken, her phone rang. It was Jeff, who was convinced that she was cheating on him. He was on her Facebook page and saw pictures her coworkers had tagged her in from the event. She left the ballroom to talk to him and tried to assure him that nothing was going on.
When Leah hung up and returned to the table, Jeff called againÃ¢â‚¬”and continued to call incessantly that night and throughout the next day. She ignored the calls, knowing she couldn't convince him.
When she got home, Jeff was fuming. His mother was there, helping him with the kidsÃ¢â‚¬”and when he screamed "You're a whore!" as Leah walked in, his mom tried to calm him down. "He pushed her in an attempt to get to me, and when she said she'd call the police if he didn't stop yelling, he started shoving her even harder," says Leah.
Seeing him do that to his own mother so disconcerted Leah that she was convinced he'd be even more violent with her. So she left the house and plotted an exit strategy: She would pick up Ethan the next day and move in with her parents for a while, and bring Russell and Kyle to their dad's house.
While staying at her parents', Leah treated the time away from Jeff like an unofficial separation, still hopeful that they might work things out. Every few days, Jeff came over to pick up Ethan to spend time with him. But when Leah wasn't ready to go home after two weeks, Jeff got increasingly impatient.
One night when he was dropping Ethan off, her parents weren't home. He stood at the front door, holding the baby in his infant carrier car seat. "Why aren't you coming home? Is there someone else? Is he here?" Jeff yelled.
Leah took the carrier from him and picked up Ethan. Jeff grabbed the baby from her arms. "You're not taking him," Leah said.
"Fine, take him," Jeff said, and threw the baby on the floor.
In that moment, Leah knew she needed to call 911. When she reached for her phone, Jeff pinned her against the wall. "I remember thinking that if I couldn't make that call, it was going to get even worse," says Leah. So she apologized, telling him that she was acting crazy. "I got him to walk out the front door long enough so I could shut and lock it," says Leah. "As I called 911, Ethan was still on the floor screaming and Jeff kept ramming his body against the door, trying to break it down." Still, it wasn't until Leah heard the 911 dispatcher say to the police, "There's a domestic," that it hit her: She was a victim. She had to get out.
When the police arrived, they told Leah that what she'd experienced was domestic violence. For the first time, she was starting to get a clear sense that Jeff was out of controlÃ¢â‚¬”and that she wasn't just overreacting.
Leah officially moved in with her parents. A month later, she was at her son Russell's hockey game. With Kyle and Ethan in tow, she stopped to chat with Chris, her ex. That's when Kyle excitedly yelled, "Jeff!"
Leah's stomach clenched. She asked her ex to take their sons and carried Ethan to her car. Jeff followed, pressing her for details about the necklace she was wearing and who gave it to her. She told him it was old, but he didn't believe her.
As she opened the car door and put Ethan in his car seat, Jeff pulled on Leah's necklace with one hand and squeezed her neck with the other, pushing her by her neck down to the floor of the car. The baby started screaming. Somehow, she got her hand around the chain and pulled back, and Jeff let go. After another minute of yelling, he walked away.
Leah ran back into the hockey rink with Ethan. A manager asked if she was OK and urged her to drive straight to the police station around the corner. She did, shaking, and Jeff followed. As she pulled into the station, he repeatedly rammed his car into the back of her minivan. Then he pulled up next to her.
"Things are gonna get worse," he screamed. Then he made a throat-cutting motion across his neck. "Look at you," he yelled. "You're a psycho."
"I looked in the rearview mirror at my baby; Ethan was just staring at me. And that's when I called 911 and asked the police officers to come out and escort me inside."
Jeff peeled out of the parking lot. A female officer got her story and took pictures of her injuries. The outline of Leah's necklace was around her neck, and there was a massive bruise on her knee. The officer asked her if she wanted to file charges. "Do you think I should?" Leah asked.
"I strongly suggest you do," the officer told Leah. "Let me tell you something: I've seen so many women in your position and you know what? Some of them don't make it out."
The next day, Leah was granted an emergency restraining order, and a month later, it was extended to two years. Two years of zero contact: no calling or texting, no talking to each other even about their child. During that time she divorced him.
"When you get stripped of your safety, you realize nothing else matters," Leah says. "And finally, I took that back."
Some behaviors to watch forÃ¢â‚¬”warning signs that a man could be an abuser:
1 Constantly checking up on you
2 Isolating you by criticizing close friends
3 Driving a wedge between you and family
4 Acting overly charming
5 Monitoring your social media accounts and pushing for access
6 Moving too fast in a relationship
7 Wanting to control the finances
8 Putting down your appearance
9 Dismissing your opinions quickly--or worse, calling you stupid
Source: Debby Tucker, M.P.A., executive director of the National Center on Domestic Violence and Sexual Violence, and a cofounder of the National Network to End Domestic Violence
Armed And Angry
When there's a gun in the home, the risk of being killed by an intimate partner is eight times greater than in households without guns, according to a recent report from the Center for American Progress. It's surprising, then, that some abusers are allowed to keep theirs.
Even though federal law bans those who have been convicted of domestic violence from owning firearms, many perpetrators are still able to access firearms through lack of enforcement of state and federal laws. Some groups are working to prevent tougher laws, arguing that rights should not be taken away for anything less than a felonyÃ¢â‚¬”which, since domestic violence crimes are often charged as misdemeanors, would put guns back in the hands of many offenders, says Jennifer White, senior attorney for Futures Without Violence, a nonprofit focused on ending domestic and sexual violence. Offenders often try to find loopholes in state lawsÃ¢â‚¬”in fact, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case on this subject in January. If the respondent in that case wins the right to carry a gun, offenders in other states with similarly vague laws will too--"and the federal gun law could be largely impotent for victims of domestic abuse," says White. Ã¢â‚¬”Caitlin Carlson
Choking: A Dangerous Weapon
When Nigella Lawson's then husband, Charles Saatchi, was photographed with his hands around her neck earlier this year, it sparked conversations about choking in domestic violence cases. Experts say it's not only pervasiveÃ¢â‚¬”it's also one of the strongest predictors that a victim is at risk for more serious violence, including a major assault or even homicide.
"Choking is potentially lethal," says Jacquelyn Campbell, Ph.D., R.N., coauthor of multiple studies on the topic. Even one episode can lead to long-term neurological problems, such as difficulty concentrating, memory problems, even seizures.
Like most other types of domestic violence, choking is often prosecuted as a misdemeanor. Some 30 states are trying to make it a felony instead by classifying it as "second-degree strangulation," giving prosecutors another tool with which to charge abusers with a more serious crime. But experts say there's still a long way to go.
"After a choking incident, women often look fine, so ER doctors need to be educated on all of the signs to look for, such as broken blood vessels under the eyelid," says Campbell. "Good medical evidence can really help in court."