I was in an emotionally abusive relationship – I just didn’t know it at the time. I believed that if I wasn’t being hit, then I wasn’t being abused. However, I now know that’s not the case.
Those who perpetuate emotional abuse often suffer from either a fear of failure or a fear of being hurt. They can be manipulative, controlling and apathetic.
When I met my ex in first year, he struck me as being quite reserved. However, it soon became apparent that he was not only charismatic, smart and funny, but egotistical and cocky. He was my boyfriend within three weeks. Over the course of our relationship, which lasted 18 months, I barely made any friends in college. He consumed my social life.
I ignored the warning signs: like my best friend hating him, or his short temper. When my grandmother passed away, he called me “selfish” for telling him before he played 18 holes. A panic attack outside a bar made him unsure he wanted to “put up with” me. Once, he jokingly quipped that if he was still a virgin when he turned 19, he’d break up with me. I wasn’t ready, and although deep down I knew he was “teasing” me, I lost my virginity within two weeks.
After six months, it was like a switch went off in his head. I was constantly walking on eggshells around him: afraid of saying the wrong thing and instigating a flow of verbal abuse, I said nothing at all. He’d snap if I disagreed or argued with him, so I became a sycophant. He’d lose his temper if my teasing went “too far”, so I became a doormat. I was a scapegoat for anything that went wrong in his life. But staying silent meant I’d be okay. I dreaded the pit in my stomach or the lump in my throat that I’d feel when his temper blew. I began to see less of my friends and the excessive time he spent at my house soon became a source of tension within the family. I grew distant from my brother, the person I’m closest with, because they couldn’t stand each other.
When my grandmother passed away, he called me “selfish” for telling him before he played 18 holes
Dating someone who is emotionally abusive is like dating two completely different people at the same time, and never knowing which person is going to react to what you say or do. It’s constantly being afraid of dropping a lit match into a pit of gasoline and never knowing whether it’s going to explode in your face or just fizzle out.
For example, my ex hated texting while he was playing golf. But one day, when I hadn’t texted him, he sent me an angry text, telling me I should be thankful someone like him was going out with someone like me, because “you’re just not worth it”. In a twisted sort of way, his words became a mantra for me, a reminder that the boy I loved was better than me. Like his nickname for me, “fuck up”, I had fucked up yet again.
Because of my naivety regarding relationships, I’d defend him whenever my friends told me he was abusive. Sure, he had a temper. But he was fixing me – he was making me less frazzled and inconsiderate.
A friend messaged me about eight months into the relationship because he felt my ex had come between us. My ex told me to block him on everything. When I didn’t think that was necessary, I was aggressively accused of infidelity, and spent the next two hours hysterically protesting my innocence. But eventually, I caved. His anger seemed to dissipate instantly. I felt weak, alone and afraid. My family were downstairs and I felt like a little girl, wanting nothing more than to cry to her dad and ask him to make it all better. But I couldn’t.
After we broke up, I told my friend the truth. He forgave me instantly.
While I was out for coffee with my best friend, my ex called me and demanded I see him because he’d just fought with his mom. At first, I insisted on staying a little longer, but after he angrily hung up on me, I hopped on the next bus – despite the fact that I hadn’t seen my best friend in months.
My phone began vibrating aggressively in my hand. He was calling me. I had taken too long to reply. Unable to watch me unravel at his words, my friend grabbed the phone and screamed into it, calling him a “fucking MONSTER”. People on the bus began to stare and I felt so ashamed. My throat closed up from panic, and so my friend took me home.
Dating someone who is emotionally abusive is like dating two completely different people at the same time, and never knowing which person is going to react to what you say or do
I woke up the next morning to a series of aggressive texts that portrayed me as the villain. This is called gaslighting: it’s a process by which a person is manipulated into believing that what they see as the truth is in fact their imagination.
I tried to break up with him but instead he told me that he forgave me and that we weren’t breaking up. I accepted this because I wasn’t ready to leave. Somehow, I still loved him.
When we went away for our anniversary, a conversation we had somehow led to him confessing that a few months into our relationship, he’d considered breaking up with me because my body didn’t look like what he’d seen in porn. Of course, he made sure to clarify that this was all said jokingly.
I don’t remember what I wore that night or what I had ordered for dinner but I remember crying in the bathroom for what felt like an eternity, while he slept peacefully in the other room.
When we did break up, a task that involved having a friend nearby, ready to intervene, he told me that he had been deliberately diminishing my “value” so it wouldn’t hurt when I left. My ex’s difficult childhood may have explained his behaviour but it never excused it. He was completely devoid of empathy: he told me once that “I know you’re crying and that it’s my fault but I honestly don’t care about you at all right now”. In my eyes, I had been reduced to nothing.
My friends had felt utterly helpless, watching on as I was spat on or called cruel names. They had been forced to watch as I lost myself in the toxic whirlpool of our relationship. Instead of the strong, confident woman I had been before, I was a cowering, anxious mess who was too afraid to speak up for herself.
My dog had even come between us during arguments, on one occasion once grazing my ex’s skin. My ex threatened to have him put down as a result. My dog passed away from cancer two months after we broke up but he no longer had to put up with my ex. Like me, he deserved better.
Before meeting him, I was wide-eyed about love. Now I’m terrified of trusting someone with my heart and hoping they don’t hurt me. I’m working on that.
And yet despite this, I’ve come out stronger – in the words of Elton John, I’m still standing better than I ever did.
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