Selfish. Needy. Too distant. "Too much." Being yelled at for minor things, but never knowing what those minor things might be. Being shamed for spending time with other people. Goals and ambitions scoffed at or denigrated. Accusations of cheating, seemingly from nowhere. Insecurities exploited and used to make malicious attacks. And worst of all, not feeling safe.
While I was in it, I didn't recognize any of this as emotional abuse. I thought it was normal, that I was doing something wrong. Not only did I feel unappreciated, but I felt as if I couldn't be anything he wanted or needed. I thought the problem was always me, making me terrified to leave and terrified to stay. The unhealthy dynamic continued until I could no longer ignore the futility of trying to fix him, myself, or us. After one awful, argumentative night, I wrote in my journal, "He is not weak, because you are strong. Your light has nothing to do with his darkness." If only I had taken my own advice. What made matters worse is that from the outside, we seemed okay. A lot of the time, he was attentive and sweet. Nobody aside from my closest friend knew of the times when he wasn't. Nobody, aside from her, could encourage me to leave even though leaving was exactly what I needed.
Like many women, I considered abuse physical. Through my work at a non-profit for the homeless, I witnessed first-hand women who were physically abused. I saw how broken and scared they had become. What I didn't realize in talking to these women is that the physical abuse they suffered often began with emotional abuse. Someone who manipulates the insecurities, desires, or goodwill of their partner for personal gain is abusive, and they will not stop until they realize the toxicity of their behavior. They will not realize the toxicity of their behavior unless they choose to see how it hurts others. And they rarely change, because change is difficult and requires honesty, humility, and a desire to be different.
I will not deny the part I played in the emotional abuse I experienced. For a long time, I was trapped in a cycle of codependency that I fully and willingly participated in. I neglected friendships for him, and he expected me to do so. We each neglected our own needs for the sake of the other. Despite our own unhappiness, we were at least together in our unhappiness. I was deeply afraid to be alone, and that fear did not disappear overnight. I've spoken at length about this with my therapist; where the fear to be alone stems from, the childhood dynamics that contributed to my need to feel constantly validated, my fear of being seen and the simultaneous desire to be fully accepted and loved. I struggled with the belief that I am inherently unlovable, although I logically knew that this isn't true. There are so many people in my life who love and care about me. Illogically, however, I believed I deserved nothing better than to be in relationship with someone who treated me poorly. I am just as responsible for this hurt as he is.
Below are some signs of an emotionally abusive relationship. If these signs feel familiar, know that you deserve so. much. better.
- Name Calling. At worst, I was called a "cunt" and a "bitch," but any name calling is not normal or acceptable, especially in the heat of an argument.
-Character assassination. This can look a lot of ways, but it usually involves the word “always.” (You're "always" late, wrong, screwing up, disagreeable, et cetera). This can lead to one or both partners walking on eggshells.
-Yelling. Often, yelling is unpredictable or accompanied by swearing and outbursts of physical anger. This is intimidating and can make you feel small, scared, and inconsequential.
- Speaking in a patronizing tone or manner. The underlying message being sent is that you are not smart, strong, or capable.
-Public embarrassment. Yelling, swearing, gaslighting, or creating drama in public is a tool to make you look bad and succumb to his wants or needs.
- Dismissive attitudes about things I was excited about. Again, ""He is not weak, because you are strong. Your light has nothing to do with his darkness."
-Sarcasm. Often, sarcasm is a tool to put you down. If your sense of humor is blamed ("it was just a joke, don't take it so personally"), you're being abused.
-Put-downs of your interests. When someone puts down a hobby or interest of yours, they probably feel threatened because you have interests outside of them. This is abusive and manipulative.
-Pushing your buttons. If someone purposely irritates you or gets under your skin, they are looking for a specific reaction. Again, this is highly manipulative behavior.
Control & Shame
-Threats. A common one is threatening to leave, threatening to tell someone your "secrets," et cetera.
-Monitoring your whereabouts. They may want to know where you are all the time and insist that you respond to calls or texts immediately.
- Digital spying. Checking your internet history, emails, texts, and call log. Wanting you to share your passwords and overall not trusting you for seemingly no reason.
- Outbursts. Outbursts can be extremely unpredictable, ignited from something so benign as taking a strand of Christmas lights to checking text messages.
- Treating you like a child. Talking down to you, see above.
- Feigned helplessness. Not knowing how to do something so you do it. They exploit this and take advantage of you.
- Unpredictability. They’ll explode with rage out of nowhere, shower you with affection, or demand attention, all at the drop of a hat.
- They walk out. This often happens in the midst of a fight or disagreement and resolves nothing.
- Using others to make their point. Abusers may tell you that “everybody” thinks you’re crazy or “they all say” you’re wrong to feel a certain way.
- Jealousy. You may be routinely accused of flirting with others, cheating, et cetera even if none of it is remotely true.
- Turning the tables. This can be painful and pervasive. I was often blamed for causing his rage, placing the responsibility of his own emotions and actions on me.
- Denying something you know is true. This is known as gaslighting, and it's meant to make you question your own memory, sanity, or beliefs.
- Denying their abuse. Pointing out their behavior as abusive will be met with passionate denial and often leads back to gaslighting or blame (saying you caused them to react in such a way).
- Trivializing. When I tried to talk about how I felt hurt, I was accused of overreacting or being "too much."
- Blaming. Similar to gaslighting, blame places responsibility on you for their emotions. Again, "He is not weak, because you are strong. Your light has nothing to do with his darkness."
- Demanding respect. No perceived slight will go unpunished, and you’re expected to defer to them. However, respect is often not reciprocated.
- Keeping you from socializing. I felt little freedom to go places or do things without keeping him constantly informed of my whereabouts. Many arguments originated from this.
- Isolating Friends or Family. He openly didn't like my best friend, often making fun of her or complaining that she didn't like him. When I defended her, he accused me of taking sides.
- Tuning you out. Especially if you want to talk about problems in the relationship.
- Calling you needy. If your feelings, emotions, desires, or needs are called "too much" or "irrational," it isn't you, its them.
What To Do
I had a deep, primal instinct that how I was being treated wasn't right but I didn't act on my intuition for a very long time. Don't be like me. If you fear immediate physical violence, call 911 or local emergency services. If you aren't in immediate danger but need somewhere to go, call the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 800-799-7233. This 24/7 hotline can put you in touch with service providers and shelters across the United States. Otherwise, accept that the abuse isn't your fault or responsibility. Exit the relationship or circumstance and give yourself time to heal. Reach out to friends and family for support. I've found therapy invaluable, but if your insurance doesn't cover therapy, you can find free support groups for victims of abuse HERE. Read more from the Office of Women's Health HERE.
P.S. I only realized that the relationship was toxic through therapy, distance, and reflection. This is common, and I've met SO many women with similar stories. If you're in a similar situation, you absolutely deserve better.