Was It Abuse or Just Cultural Differences?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That question haunted this reader:

When I read Olga Khazan’s “A Diary of Toxic Love,” it was as if I was reading about my own marriage. I am a young American, and I got married to a Central African man a couple of years after moving to West Africa after college. The emotional abuse was rampant, but I continuously told myself that these were just cultural differences that I needed to deal with through open communication.

The problem was, it was totally impossible for me to communicate with him. Any mention of feeling bad meant that I was hysterical or overthinking things. If he stayed out all night drinking instead of helping me take care of our newborn, I couldn’t bring it up in the morning without being told that I was ruining his day and having a door slammed in my face.

I was told routinely that I had no right to feel the way that I did, and that if I ever told anyone about how much I was struggling, it was a direct betrayal of my husband and his family. I was not allowed to “talk badly about them.”

He convinced me to quit my job when he got a well-paying one, then refused to give me access to his bank account and only let me use the money that he gave me, shaming me if I ever asked for more than I was given.

I lived in absolute terror of the consequences of my actions; I would talk myself up for hours before attempting to talk to him about any problem, then enter the conversation practically shaking with fear. When I witnessed him beat his 5-year-old nephew to the ground and aggressively called him out on it, he told me that I had no right to say a word about it, that he knew what he was doing, and that I should have known what I was getting into when I married an African.

At the time, I thought to myself, “right—cultural differences about child rearing.” Now I think to myself, “I should have taken my son and walked out the door on the spot.”

But I was too afraid to do that. Because he told me daily that I was crazy for feeling the way that I felt, I no longer trusted my own instincts of emotions.  I thought that I was wrong for feeling or reacting the way that I did. I struggle with that lack of self trust to this day.

Without ever hitting me, he rendered me totally powerless. I believed that I had no option but to stay with him, and that by marrying a man from a different culture, I had chosen to put up with certain differences.

It was only when my son and I left the country where we had all lived together, with the intention of bringing him to the United States, that I began to rediscover myself. Away from him, I noticed that people liked me—and this absolutely shocked me. Away from him, I realized how little he valued Skype calls with me and our son. Away from him, I noticed how happy I was, how capable I was, what a good job I was doing at work. With him, I routinely had emotional breakdowns at work and openly wept when anything went wrong in my job.

Now I’m going through an ugly international divorce and desperately trying to gain sole custody of my son. Even as I pour emotional, mental, and financial resources into this process, I am grateful every day for the insight I had that allowed me to get out. The cultural differences may have been real, but I was under no obligation to live in fear, no matter what the reason for his behavior.