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I recently extricated myself from a psychologically and emotionally abusive relationship. I had never been in any kind of abusive relationship before. I didn’t think that I ever could be. “I would never allow myself to be treated that way,” I had said to myself. I had a happy childhood with loving parents who helped me establish healthy boundaries. If you’ve been in an emotionally abusive relationship, or you are currently in one, you know how tricky and subtle the emotional abuser can be. Even strong, healthy people can find themselves manipulated and subdued.
He and I met through a dating app. I’ll refer to him as “Z.” We established easy conversation immediately, and it wasn’t long after meeting for the first time that we started spending a lot of time together. He lived outside of town, and it was a thirty-minute drive to where he was staying, so I stayed the night a lot. In the beginning stage of an abusive relationship, whether it’s verbal, physical, psychological, or emotional, the victim frequently experiences what is called “love bombing” at the hands of their abuser before the abuse starts. I was no exception.
He swept me off my feet. I entered into the relationship with physical and mental health problems, such that I was disabled and unable to make a decent living. I was on what I’d hoped would be a cure for the physical illness and I was in denial about the severity of my mental illnesses, but he was accepting and supportive of what I was going through. He had his own physical and mental ailments, and it seemed we would be able to support each other. He wasn’t fully open with me about his traumas, but I told him everything. I have cutting scars all over my body that are impossible to hide.
“I guess I love them too, because I love all of you,” he said. That touched me deeply. We told each other we loved each other quickly, and he said he’d never felt that way about anyone else. We pinky swore with each other that we wouldn’t destroy each other’s worlds. He was attentive, loving, and affectionate. He was working full-time and going to school full time, but he still made time for me. He would drive all the way across town to bring me flowers and chocolate when I was sick. He made me feel better about myself than anyone ever had, like I was the most important thing in his world.
He took me on a romantic trip to Hawaii, home of my alma mater. He met some of my friends from school and we bonded over a place that is very special to me. He said he expected we’d be married in a couple years. When we returned home, we continued our search for a home to buy. He wanted me to live with him. He knew I couldn’t work, but he wanted to support me and was opposed to me getting a job. I would take care of our home and our dogs, work on completing my first novel, and continue my treatments.
There were red flags during that time that I can see clearly with 20/20 hindsight. His ex wasn’t out of his life, and he made me feel insecure about her. He was judgmental and confrontational. I caught him in lies but didn’t call him out on them. He was abusive to his dog, for which I feel great shame about not being more vocally opposed. He would get so angry and defensive and emotional whenever I tried to talk to him about it. He was frequently angry and defensive and emotional, but I wanted to help him. It seemed like I could help him, as I talked him through many emotional outbursts. I seemed to be his emotional salve, which also made me feel important.
I thought I could fix him. I thought he could fix me.
Things started to change as soon as we moved in together.
In a journal entry from the day we moved into our new house I said, “I get grouchy, sullen Z, but everyone else gets joking, happy Z.” I received his irritability consistently throughout the relationship.
It was summer time. We had a huge, major fight less than a month after we moved in. I wasn’t feeling well, which was a common occurrence, so I went to bed while he went to the bar with a friend. They came back drunk and noisy. I couldn’t sleep. I got upset at his inconsiderate behavior, having asked him to keep it down. I decided to go to my mom’s house for the night, but he had the key to his car that was parked behind me. Although I journaled this incident, it’s still a blur.
I remember him on his knees in front of me in the garage, crying and yelling at me about leaving him, but in a sarcastic, angry way. He said he’d held his gun to his head and he wanted to kill himself. I went and took his gun, and he blocked me from leaving the room, his face twisted in rage. I was terrified, but resolute. I told him I would call the police, and he accused me of wanting to ruin him. I had wanted to call my mom, who worked as a police officer for twenty-eight years, but he called his best friend who lived in the neighborhood. His best friend helped to mediate. I laid awake in bed next to him all night.
The next day I told him I felt like an emotional hostage. I was an emotional hostage. He apologized and said he would cut back on his drinking. His best friend’s wife, a psychologist, recommended an app for managing stress, and going to the university for counseling. He didn’t do either of those things, although he did eventually cut back on his drinking. Until now, I didn’t talk about this incident with anyone. I should have, despite the shame I felt. My mom recognized it as domestic violence right away. I was extremely defensive and protective of him after this incident. Secretive. It’s ironic that he and I visited Stockholm while we were together.
I walked on eggshells after that. He was frequently irritable and would snap at me and glare at me for reasons I never knew. I thought a hundred times of saying, “please don’t take your irritability out on me, I didn’t do anything to you,” but I didn’t want to start a fight. He started picking little fights with me over nothing. He would physically push me away when I craved affection.
In a journal entry from two months after we moved in together: “I feel like my world is crumbling—like all that intimacy was a lie. Either his mask is coming off or he already doesn’t feel the way he felt about me in January... I haven’t been doing too well health-wise. This change in him has me depressed and anxious.”
We continued to try to talk things out, even though our fights were terrible. He would tell me to leave my key if I wanted to go to my mom’s for the night. My anxiety was so bad whenever we got into a fight after the incident with the gun that I would have panic attacks and my rational mind would check out. All I could think to do was run away. I explained this to him and he seemed to understand, saying he’d experienced a panic attack. But every time I got upset, he would leave me to cry and have panic attacks on the couch all night.
Not long after the incident with the gun, he broke a promise. Instead of apologizing right away, he turned it around on me and made it my fault, saying I was embarrassed by him. He manipulated me and put me on the defense. Again, I spent the night crying on the couch. I tried reaching out to him in a text, but he ignored me. He eventually apologized and brought me flowers, and he said he’d never do it again. He agreed to reading Dr. Gottman’s book The Seven Principles for Marriages That Work with me, but it was like reading to a wall. I would stop after reading and talk about how I felt and how that passage related to us, but I got nothing back from him. I read other books and articles with the same outcome. I suggested going to counseling on a couple occasions, but that never happened.
The fights became less frequent, but they were still terrible. He would say or do something to devalue me or hurt me, and I would be up all night crying on the couch and having panic attacks. He would go to bed like I was nothing. Although I was doing treatment after treatment, my health continued to decline. At Christmas time, he left me at home all day to go bake cookies with family and get drunk. I had been sick all week and alone in that house that I had worked so hard to turn into our home. I spent so much time alone in that house. I texted him three times, asking when he would be home. He kept saying, “soon,” but the hours ticked by.
Mental collapse. I knew it might be the end of our relationship, but I couldn’t help it. I ran away to my mom’s house for the night. On the phone he said he was going to get a ride to come pick up his dog. He said he couldn’t be with me anymore. He called me an asshole and hung up on me. I was up all night, taking sedative after sedative. I wanted to die. He couldn’t get a DD, so he came over the next day. I pushed for reconciliation, as if that was even possible after the way he treated me, and then I went home. I stayed another three years.
If you’ve never been in abusive relationship, you’re probably reading this and wondering why I stayed in a relationship for so long that was so clearly toxic. The neurochemical swing between the extreme distress of our fights and the relief and calm afterward is addictive. Up all night crying and having panic attacks, then reconciliation, love, and affection. Distress and relief. Distress and relief. This is called trauma bonding.
There are a lot of other reasons people stay in abusive relationships. I have to give him credit—in some ways his behavior did improve. He cut back on his drinking and his moods became less turbulent. He went easier on his dog, although mostly because I took over his care. There were times when he would cancel plans to stay in with me when I was sick, and he tried not to stay out too late if I didn’t accompany him. For a time he tried to be more affectionate. If he said he wouldn’t do something again, he generally kept his promise. He seemed to be loyal to me and I’m fairly certain he never cheated on me. He was dependable and I could generally rely on him. I focused on these things. Unless we were fighting, the good things were all I could see, like there were two of him. I was delusional.
Abusers are manipulative. I remember him standing over me once, face twisted in anger, demanding, “what as wrong with you?” as I sat sobbing on the stairs. He had blown up at me for how I’d decorated the house and shamed me for receiving support from my mom when I was sick. That’s what he did—he turned it around on me, indicating that there was something wrong with me for having an emotional response to him yelling at me and shaming me. I thought I was overreacting. I talked to therapists on a couple occasions to get help with my anxiety, but I knew it was futile. I knew I needed his help, but I didn’t fully recognize that he was the source of my anxiety.
The abuse was subtle. He shamed, guilted, and belittled me for being sick, but I’d internalized enough guilt and shame because of my illness that I felt like I deserved it. He withdrew from me and avoided me when I was sick, but I started wanting to be alone anyway. I felt he did things to spite me, but I couldn’t be sure. It seemed like he was trying to isolate me from my friends and family, but I couldn’t be sure of that either. He would bottle things and blow up at me, but I could be a bottler, too. He was mean when he was angry, but he apologized so sincerely and promised to do better. I was under-appreciated for how hard I worked taking care of the house and the dogs while trying to manage my health and build a business, but he paid most of the bills and bought the groceries throughout much of our time together. He said he couldn’t feel empathy for me, but I could usually get him to understand me, eventually, it seemed. Our fights were traumatic, but we had good times in between, even if those good times became less and less good.
People become comfortable with the familiar, even if the familiar is crappy. This is called learned helplessness. I knew how hard it would be to leave, physically and emotionally. Every time we fought, I thought about how hard it would be to leave. I had poured my whole life into that man. I thought he was the love of my life, and I had a great amount of empathy for the pain I knew he was feeling. I thought he was my soulmate. If I hadn’t journaled, I wouldn’t even remember all these fights because I forgave him and moved on. He held on to them. He collected grudges and resentment and would bring up past fights in current fights. He frequently brought up his two divorces when we fought, as if they had a direct influence on our relationship. I guess they did, but only because he made it that way. There are things he never forgave me for. There are things I didn’t do that he didn’t forgive me for.
He and I are different creatures. My traumas made me empathetic. His traumas made him cruel.
The difference between psychological abuse and emotional abuse is intent. The psychological abuser intends to hurt you, but the emotional abuser isn’t aware of the harm they’re causing.
“I felt like you loved me less whenever I was sick,” I told him in our last conversation, as I was packing up and moving out of the home I’d put so much of myself into.
“I know, I’m sorry,” he said.
Because he knew what he was doing, I consider this psychological abuse. I don’t know what his motives were. I will probably never know, but he knew he was hurting me and he did it anyway. This was probably the most damaging thing he did to me—avoiding me, withdrawing from me, and isolating me when I was sick. Isolation for long periods like that makes the mind unstable.
He cried and apologized for not understanding my illness. A hollow apology. He still wanted me to be his friend and take care of his dog and the gardens I’d built. I refused. He was there every step of the way as I went to doctors’ appointments, had painful procedures and tests done, and even more painful treatments. He wasn’t ever actually there with me, but I told him everything I was going through and why. He never asked questions or made any attempt to learn about my illness, but I was always transparent with him. My health took up the majority of my focus.
He denied the severity of my illness and got angry at me for being sick throughout our relationship. I stopped asking him for any help a long time ago. He did the opposite of help me—he pushed me to stay out too late, encouraged me to stray from treatments, and enabled behaviors he knew were damaging, like eating foods I shouldn’t have. I kept getting worse and worse, and I attributed it to my internal illnesses and failed treatments. I gained twenty pounds and had terrible, untreatable stress acne.
I felt he stopped loving me about a year and a half ago, about the time I started gaining weight and my skin broke out. I kept trying to rekindle our romance, but he didn’t respond. About a year ago I sent him a long message, again pleading with him to understand how sick I was. I told him I didn’t think he was in love with me anymore. He’d gone on a trip without me, one he’d been excited to have me accompany him on when our relationship was newer. But it was clear I wasn’t as important to him anymore. He brought back all kinds of gifts for me, insisted he still loved me and promised we would go on those kinds of trips together in the future.
So I stayed almost another full year. Another year of walking on eggshells, struggling through illness without the love and support I needed, being shamed and guilted and belittled and invalidated, weathering anger and mistreatment I didn’t deserve, trying to hide how sick I was so he would love me, being isolated from friends and family.
We were supposed to go to the midnight fireworks together with his friends and family for July 4th this summer. We parked and walked several blocks to the park. When we got there I realized I’d left my ID in the car, so I couldn’t get into the Biergarten. He gave me a look of pure hatred and anger. It resembled the look he made when he was about to hit his dog, except it was a look he reserved just for me.
“I’ll go back and get it and meet you in there,” I said quickly, appeasingly.
I had been so depressed earlier in the week that I could barely get out of bed, feeling him withdraw from me even further. I knew I couldn’t make the walk back. I started to panic. I texted him and told him I was on the verge of a meltdown, and I needed to go home, but I would come pick him up when the fireworks were over. I’d hoped he would offer to help me. Just the previous night he had held me as I cried and told me we would get through this together. But he didn’t say anything—a punishing silence.
I was actually happy after I got home. I watered the gardens and comforted our dogs through the fireworks. I felt content and hoped we would have a nice holiday weekend. No text from him to pick him up. He walked home and stormed in, enraged. His unpredictability and inconsistency was shocking. I never got used to it. He said I ditched him and that we couldn’t do anything as a couple. He walked away from me as I was on the verge of a panic attack, as I pleaded with him for the last time to understand how much I was struggling.
Mental collapse. Again. I took a large handful of Benadryl, trying to do something about the anxiety, but it wasn’t just anxiety. It was a nervous breakdown. I called my mom for help before I did anything else to hurt myself.
She took me to the emergency room, a place where I’ve experienced many past traumas. They admitted me into the hospital, where I spent the 4th of July. A psychiatrist came and spoke to me and immediately recognized that Z was my trigger. She wanted him to come in to do a joint session with her, but he refused. I had to spend another night in the hospital. She said he should have been there. He said we could schedule something later, reigniting the flame of hope.
I went to stay at my mom’s house when I got out of the hospital. He broke up with me over the phone a few days later when I asked him to schedule with a couples’ counselor. It was somewhat of a relief. My request was an ultimatum, which I knew he would refuse, although I still grasped onto that little flame of hope. I had the monumental task of moving out and breaking the trauma bond.
With my mom’s help, we packed up and moved out in a day and a half. He took time off work to loom over my mom and me as we packed, giving me a hard time and shaming me up until the very end. He changed the locks on me before I could get my stuff, so he had to be there to let me in, even though it was technically still my home.
“I’ve been screwed before,” he said, projecting his exes onto me up until the very end. I never gave him any indication that I was a thief or that I was vindictive.
Trauma bonds are so incredibly hard to break because they never end when you’re in the calm state. You don’t make up with your abuser and then go to them when you’re flooded with oxytocin and dopamine and say, “I don’t think this is working.” Trauma bonds always break at the low point, and typically it needs to be a traumatic low point in order to break the spell. If he hadn’t driven me to a nervous breakdown and abandoned me in the hospital, making my worst fear come true, I would probably still be there. Trapped, lonely, depressed. Years of denial came crumbling down, and repressed memories came crashing in.
He apologized for breaking up with me so suddenly, but he denied his responsibility in putting me in the hospital up until the very end.
“You’re responsible for how you feel,” he said over the phone, after I told him even the psychiatrist recognized that he was my trigger. He said it was unfair to blame him.
During our last talk, as I was packing, I recounted how I’d stayed with him and helped him through it after he held a gun to his head.
“Yeah, but I didn’t blame you,” he said. He consistently blamed me for his unhappiness throughout the relationship, not just in that instance.
I didn’t respond. I just finished packing and then exited his life forever.
You learn more about someone at the end of a relationship than you do in the beginning.
My degree is in psychology, but I’m not a psychologist. I don’t have the authority to diagnose, but I do know the pattern of abuse that I experienced looks very much like narcissistic abuse: love bombing, devaluing, then discarding. I still mourn a man who never really existed and the relationship I thought I’d be getting. I’ve found great solace in support groups for women who have had similar experiences, and I hope my story will provide comfort and strength for those who have experienced similar situations.
I entered into the relationship with unresolved trauma, and now I have more to deal with, but I’m committed to getting better. If I’d been mentally and physically healthier, I’m certain I wouldn’t have stayed as long as I did. I wrote to a friend after I moved in with him saying I saw a lot of red flags, and I thought I’d made a mistake. I just wasn’t strong enough to leave then, but I found that strength eventually.
What’s ironic is that I cured my internal illness about a month before we broke up. I’m still healing, but I should be able to make a near full recovery. I’ll always require more maintenance than other people, but I should be able to feel 100% as long as I take care of myself. I’m still dealing with some stress-related ailments, but I’ve lost all the weight I gained and my skin is clearing up. I no longer look like a zombie.
Each day brings new blessings and I feel freer. I’m getting the treatment I need now for my mental illnesses. I’ll always be more sensitive than other people, as I always have been, but I’m establishing better boundaries for myself. I’ve cut all the toxic people from my life, and I know the warning signs to look out for in the future. I will never be abused again. Life is too short to spend it with people who make you feel crappy.