Red Flags: A Short Personal History of Domestic Abuse

Author Lynette Lamb (left) at her first wedding in 1979 alongside a friend

The first time G hurt me, he was demonstrating  a physical therapy technique he was learning in school. The technique involved me lying on the floor and him manipulating my body in some way that managed to pull on my jaw — a fragile area for me, since I had TMJ problems.

When I yelled “Ow!” and tried to scoot away, he grabbed me harder and, keeping the pressure on my jaw, yanked me into the desired position.

At 21, I didn’t know enough to realize G’s behavior was out of line, and indeed represented far more than just frustration over a difficult class assignment. He was hurting me, he was ignoring my protests, and he kept right on hurting me. And what did I do? I repressed my feelings and my legitimate reaction and pretended, along with him, that it had never happened.

Like most abusers, G came on very strong when we first met. We had been asked by mutual friends to join them on a spring break driving trip. From the moment we got in the car, G avidly pursued me, pouting when I didn’t immediately reciprocate. He proclaimed his love for me within weeks of meeting. First red flag.

He became angry when, just two months after we met, I left our college town for a magazine internship in Chicago. He huffed that he had turned down a lucrative job in his hometown to stay with me in Madison over the summer — something I had never asked him to do. Second red flag.

Before long G was trying to separate me from my longtime roommates and other friends. Third red flag.

But G didn’t start hurting me regularly until we were engaged, which happened nine months after we met. Like most abusers, he was smart enough not to show his violent side until he had me firmly under his control. Fourth red flag.

Of course, I didn’t recognize these actions as red flags or the warning signs of an abusive partner. When we met, I was 20 years old, I’d had only one previous [gentle] boyfriend, and I’d grown up with happily married parents. The universe of what I didn’t know about men and what to beware of was infinite.

Also, it was 1978 and intimate partner abuse (then known as wife beating) was barely in the public consciousness.  

G and I married shortly after our college graduation, just two weeks after my 22nd birthday. A few months later, we were at a friend’s house when I said something sassy. G grabbed my arm and yanked it hard. He did this in front of half a dozen people, including my friend and her husband. No one said a word. I was embarrassed. (I was embarrassed?)

A few months later, as we were arguing (our fights having already become more frequent), he launched his foot into the coffee table, smashing a hand-me-down from my grandparents into pieces. I ran into the bedroom. G never apologized. We went on.

During another argument, he grabbed a metal bowl of candy and threw at me. I ducked, and the candy scattered across our shag carpet. I picked it up. Silence.

Three years after our wedding, we bought a small, dark townhouse — a depressing space that perfectly reflected my mood. This was the final year of our marriage, and the worst year of G’s abuse. He regularly shouted at me and called me terrible names. He yanked my arm in the privacy of our home and in public on dance floors. He pushed me into walls and onto beds. He started dating women from work, justifying it by explaining that since his only co-workers were women, they were also his only friends — so of course he needed to take them out to dinner.

In other words, he was gaslighting me. By now I had lost count of the red flags raised during our relationship.

Lynette Lamb (left) and a friend during her time with an abusive husband

That final summer — despite my utter lack of athleticism — I signed up for tennis lessons because G wanted us to play together. During our first attempt at a game, I failed to return a ball and G blew up, hurling his tennis racket at me from across the court.

A week later, at a party of my co-workers, G said something nasty to me in front of a dozen people. The next Monday at work, my friend Paul asked me if my husband always talked to me like that. Once again, I was embarrassed, but this time I felt something more: I felt seen. Someone had finally acknowledged my truth, confirmed my awful reality, and told me in no uncertain terms that it was wrong.

That conversation marked the beginning of the end. Three months later, following still more fights and some failed counseling, I moved out. I was living alone for the first time in my life, in an echoing apartment furnished with only a bed, a chair, and a stereo. I was broke. And I was so relieved.

Months later, while cooking dinner with a new boyfriend, he asked me why I flinched whenever he moved too fast in the kitchen. I laughed it off, but of course, I knew why. I’d been flinching for years, waiting for the next shove or yanked arm. I no longer needed to flinch, but my body didn’t know it yet.

It took me many years to begin telling friends the real story of my first marriage. Because G had never hit me with his fist, threatened me with a gun, or sent me to the emergency room, it took me a long time to recognize his actions as domestic violence. When I finally admitted to myself that yes, I had been abused as surely as if G had strangled me, I knew I needed to share my story. Because if a confident, intelligent, forthright woman like me — the product of a peaceful home — could be abused, any woman could be.

Today I have two young adult daughters whom I have taught to beware of relationship red flags. And when any woman mentions one of the telltale signs of an abusive relationship, I send her a behavior warning list — the very list I wish I had seen 40 years ago.

Lynette Lamb is a Minneapolis writer and the author of Strokeland: My Husband’s Midlife Brainstorm and Its Ambivalent Aftermath (