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America Has Been in an Abusive Relationship. Here’s How We Get Out

Before Trump, we might have wanted to believe that our democratic institutions could survive a threat like him, that our Constitution and elected officials would provide checks and balances. Instead, his administration unleashed misogyny and racism across the country, even in pockets of it that we might have considered “safe.” We learned that everything can fall apart; I learned that too.

On the night of the election in 2016, I paid to have my hair done because Eric always wanted me to wear my hair up or blown straight. Otherwise, he often said my hair looked too wild. Perhaps he meant it looked too ethnic. My hair is wavy, bordering on frizzy when it’s humid. The bigger it gets, the more I like it. I thought, “What is wrong with my natural hair?” But Eric made me feel insecure about it. If I didn’t conform, I wouldn’t be pretty in his eyes. After attending a few election parties, including one hosted by Harvey Weinstein, Eric and I went to the Javits Center, where it felt as though everyone was on a sinking ship.

The past four years have sunk many of us. And not all of us have emerged unscathed. Now, as a survivor of an abusive relationship, I can offer advice that I hope helps our country. A victim-centered approach allows us to turn away from the former president. It allows us to focus on our needs, our healing, our future. I tell other survivors of abuse the following, which can apply to the American people as the victim and the former president as the partner:

Know that you are not alone and you are not crazy.

It’s okay to feel traumatized, but please don’t feel ashamed.

If your partner is not willing to acknowledge the problem and get professional help, get away. Your partner is probably not going to change.

Don’t worry about your abuser. Focus on yourself.

You are the most important part of this equation.

Jennifer Friedman, the director of Bronx and Manhattan Legal Project and Policy of Sanctuary for Families, has spoken with me about the mix of emotions—trauma and relief—that victims feel when an emotionally gaslighting abuser is removed from the picture. She also said, “The abuser has sought to silence your voice and diminish your self-worth, preventing you from feeling your own power. But you do have power, and seeking help (including speaking with an expert) may bring you more power. Taking back your power is an important step toward healing and reclaiming your life.”

My hope for 2021 is that we will say the name of the former president, our abuser, less, and say the names of those who suffered because of him more. We have the chance to chip away at the cycle of violence that we are conditioned to normalize from the time we are born and that was encouraged from the highest office in the land. We don’t have to think the same way; we just have to open our hearts and minds and listen to each other. Love, compassion, and our shared humanity will guide us, as inaugural poet Amanda Gorman said, up that hill we climb.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has spoken powerfully about her experience with sexual assault and the trauma triggered by the Capitol siege. She was disturbed by the congressmen who told her to “move on”—a tactic of abusers so that they can abuse again.

Collectively, we’re getting out of an abusive relationship. Our recovery, like my personal recovery from abuse, won’t be overnight. We have a long road ahead, but on January 20, 2021, and during the subsequent weeks, the stage was set.

Tanya Selvaratnam is the author of Assume Nothing: A Story of Intimate Violence.

If you, or someone you know, is a victim of intimate partner violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline toll-free at 800-799-SAFE or connect online at thehotline.org.

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