Disclaimer: This article references domestic violence and forms of abuse that can be triggering. If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline for 24/7 support at 1.800.799.7233 or visit thehotline.org.
I dedicate my story to my parents, and myself.
I know that I gave it my all and am grateful I could recognize that I deserved better. But I don’t think I would’ve been able to do that If I didn’t have parents with an open door. To my parents: Knowing I could come back — knowing that I wasn’t going to be shamed or judged — was really helpful. And I’m grateful for it because, if I didn’t have that, I’m not sure how much of myself I could have relied on. You built this platform for my success and growth.
As a teenager, I used to work at the local mosque. I volunteered, ran the youth group, and helped out with other events within the community. Omar* was a member of that community too, but we didn’t connect until a few years later, after I had graduated college in my early 20s. He started showing up at the same social events my friends and I were at, and we got to know each other. But then after our first date, he disappeared for a couple months.
When I saw him again, I remember asking him what happened, and he gave me that movie-line speech: I just feel like you deserve better, I’m not good enough for you. I felt like you wouldn’t have gone for someone like me. But I was young and inexperienced, so I decided to give him another shot.
The early days felt like a fairytale. He put so much effort into thinking of creative, romantic dates. He said all of the right things — complimenting my writing, telling me he loved my mind, my passions, my activism and involvement in the community — and I believed him. We quickly started seeing each other and became serious. Soon our families were involved, and we knew we were working toward the idea of marriage. That engagement period caused our first major disagreement. I wanted to take things slowly; he wanted to get married two months after we had started officially dating. My parents raised my brothers and me to be fiercely independent, educated, and free to follow our passions. They supported me in starting a career, because they wanted me to have that independence: We want you to have your own thing, your own money, your own space, before you go into this man’s life. Before the wedding, Omar played the role of “future supportive husband of a working woman’’ well. He’d send me applications and help with my resume, but I knew he would’ve preferred someone who stayed at home.
Even in abusive situations, there are good moments that you want to hold onto really tightly to survive. As the wedding got closer, I kept justifying his behavior and looking at the good things. Leading up to the wedding, my intuition was telling me something was wrong. I remember asking a lot of people, Is it supposed to be this hard? And everyone told me yes. Yes, definitely, they said. You’re two different people, you’re merging your lives together, that’s how relationships are. I wanted to work through things with Omar, so I tried to bring up how I was feeling, and he would shut me down.
Gaslighting is his forte. I would tell him I felt suffocated, that I felt I was being controlled somehow, and he would tell me I was wrong. And money was a huge issue. As the wedding got closer, and we prepared to move in together, he asked me to calculate how much electricity and water I needed so that he’d know what it would cost him to have me in our house. So, I started monitoring my water and electricity usage. I even got laser eye surgery after he complained about how much my contacts and glasses would cost us in the future. I felt like he was changing me. When I’d start conversations with the hope of improving things, I’d end up feeling worse than before. He made me second guess myself, which I had never done in my life.
Two weeks before the wedding, we had a fight, and I told him I wanted to call it off. He threw his ring at me and threatened me. If you dare try to call off this wedding, I’ll tell your family that you seduced me, and they’ll force you to marry me because they’ll want to get rid of a daughter like you. The “seduction” he mentioned was actually him sexually assaulting me.
The scenario he threatened, my family wanting to “get rid of” me, would have never happened. But, when you’re in an abusive relationship, you can believe anything.
A year after our engagement, we got married. From the outside, our wedding looked like magic. But behind the scenes, things were tense. I never wanted a big wedding — a small backyard or courthouse wedding was ideal — but he and his family pressured us into going big. Culturally, the cost of the wedding is the responsibility of the groom and his family, but he offered zero financial support. The burden was left on my dad, and I was infuriated.
Leaving for our honeymoon, the tensions only grew. I was excited for the road trip we planned, but he wasn’t happy. He complained about driving, he didn’t want to spend any money and insisted I pay for everything with my money or a credit card my dad had given me, as a gift, to cover one of our stops. I felt like I couldn’t even eat without being concerned about who was going to cover it or how he would calculate the expense. He needed total control.
One evening, while waiting for a table at a restaurant, he got a message from a friend congratulating us and asking where to send a gift. When I told him that we should send our address, it set him off. How dare you say something like that, he told me. You know I’m a private person, and I don’t give anyone my address. Omar began yelling, and I told him I didn’t want to be in public anymore, so he sped us back to the hotel. He immediately went up to the room, but I just wanted to go home, so I stopped by the front desk and cut our reservation down from two nights to one. When I got back to the room, he was asleep on the couch. I was hungry, but ordering room service, or even opening a bag of chips I found, felt impossible. I was afraid to do anything that could wake him up or make him question my spending. A little while later, Omar was woken up by the doorbell. The hotel staff had delivered a honeymoon treat of sparkling cider and chocolate-covered strawberries. It was then that he learned I had cut the reservation short. I had planned to tell him when he woke up, but the delivery person beat me to it, and Omar became furious. Once the staff left, he began yelling and frantically throwing our belongings around. I didn’t sleep that night.
Early the next morning, he checked us out and told me to drive us home. I refused to stay with him that night and said I was going back to my parents’ house. You’re my wife now and you’re coming home with me, he retorted. Now that we were married, I was supposed to move into his home, but I couldn’t do it. I drove straight to my parent’s house instead. When we arrived, he let me get out of the car, but wouldn’t let me get my suitcase. He thought keeping it, and demanding I come home that night, would be enough to keep me. When my mom opened the front door, I burst into tears. I finally felt I was somewhere safe.
After the honeymoon, we tried couples counseling and the therapist wanted to mediate things, but you can’t mediate abuse. The moment I knew it was beyond repair was during a conversation at his house, about his mother. I wanted to discuss some hurtful things she had said to me while he was out of town, so he invited her into the discussion — she was there because she lived with him. He made us face each other to discuss things in front of him. It escalated, and really quickly. They pinned me against the wall and took turns being physically and emotionally abusive. They trapped me. They just laughed while they yelled horrible things at me. The moment they let go, I ran outside, jumped in my car, and drove home.
The second I got home, I felt the sense of a weight being lifted because that time, I knew I wasn’t going back. The next day, I went to the courthouse and picked up the divorce paperwork. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t have the anxiety and dread I had gotten so used to carrying. I felt liberated. I filed for divorce two months after our wedding.
Readjusting to life without my ex-husband took time, but I was lucky to have my family. I had to rebuild a relationship with money, too. I had to unlearn the shame and guilt he made me feel for my lifestyle, for spending or saving my money the way I wanted to, even on basic things. My younger brother was the first person to ever label my ex’s behavior as abuse. And I almost jumped to the defense, but he was right. In the relationship, I was constantly justifying Omar’s behaviors because I was stuck in that stereotype of If it’s not primarily physical abuse, it’s not domestic violence, right? But it was.
People ask me for red flags, and every abuser has a different approach, but they all desire control. Trusting your intuition is the most valuable thing you can do. When something feels off or you feel uncomfortable, you should listen to that intuition. I kept waiting for some sort of physical evidence to tell me to leave, but you don’t need that.
People, community members, and supporters also need to understand that someone experiencing abuse has their own timeline, their own moment of awakening. In my work as an activist and educator now, the first thing I always try to do is create a space of validation. I never want anyone, anywhere, to feel the doubt that I felt.
To read more survivor stories, find resources for those impacted by financial abuse, and get tips for supporting a loved one, visit this financial abuse support guide.
*All names and locations have been changed.