CN: emotional abuse, abusive relationships
Most abusive relationship stories lie in the story of how you left: How did you get out? What was the final straw? How awful did things have to get before you finally had enough?
By the time a survivor leaves an abusive relationship, the abuse has evolved significantly. There is very little good left in the relationship—just enough to keep the victim hopeful for a better future someday—and the tiny bit of good is surrounded by degradation, control, and danger. This is the stage of the relationship that most stories focus on.
When it comes to abusive relationships, why does nobody ask, How did you meet your partner? How did you two get together?
We associate these questions with happy relationships. When we ask these questions, couples can wallow in the cute, light-hearted beginning of their connection, and we get to enjoy some of that energy secondhand.
But when you ask a survivor of abuse the same question, it uncovers an uncomfortable truth. At one point, the abuser and the survivor were a happy couple. They had a cute, light-hearted beginning too. While there are usually warning signs, abuse is rarely overt or constant right at the start. It takes time for it to transform into the nightmare that comes later.
We don’t want to partake in the secondhand energy of this story, because it implies that any coupled person (ourselves included) could be in an abusive relationship right now and not know it yet. It reminds us that abuse is not straightforward, or always easy to identify. As much as we might like to believe that we’d leave an abusive relationship if we found ourselves in one, it is much harder to do so when that abusive relationship is with someone you love.
Understanding these factors is crucial to answering the question, Why don’t they just leave?
I met my abuser, Julian, in high school, when I was dating my first boyfriend. Julian and I had instant chemistry and spent a lot of time together, while my boyfriend was busy going on trips and doing homework. I was obviously neglected, and Julian offered attention that I so desperately needed.
Despite his efforts, I didn’t leave my boyfriend for Julian. That time.
Julian and I remained friends. Over the years, I interpreted his tumultuous moods and intense displays of emotion as the typical workings of an angsty teenage boy, despite the fact that many of these moods continued into young adulthood.
Five years after our original connection, I was dating another neglectful boyfriend who had picked up a habit of canceling plans with me in order to play World of Warcraft. Julian and I found ourselves in a play together, cast as husband and wife. We were a great match for the roles due to our natural chemistry, and the rehearsal schedule meant that we began spending a great deal of time together again.
Julian and I had so much in common. We loved theater, music, and singing. Julian was incredibly intelligent, and his witty sense of humor was engaging and drew me out of my shell.
He listened to me and reflected back the darker pieces of my life in a way that most people hadn’t cared to. He slowly unraveled my sources of emotional pain, showed them to me, gave me the space to own them. He told me it was okay that I had been hurt, and that I didn’t deserve that kind of treatment.
He was charming and good-looking, and while his confidence was sometimes overbearing, which could turn people off of him, he was generally well-liked in my community and considered a smart, talented young man. Over the course of the play, I found myself slowly falling in love with him.
Not surprisingly, once the play’s performances ended, I broke up with my boyfriend and ran straight to Julian.
The first weeks were amazing. Julian wanted to hang out with me a lot. We had long, deep conversations about our inner struggles and goals for personal growth. Finally indulging in our chemistry made for amazing sex and moments of physical connection that I’ll never forget. The night we watched Moulin Rouge together, he drove me home and sang “Come What May” to me. As he sang, I heard him promise to love me in a way he had never loved someone before. Julian made me happy, and I had very little happiness in my life.
Even after the initial warning signs began to pile up —jealousy, controlling demands, anger over little things, double standards, interfering in my relationships with friends and family—I still trusted Julian and saw him as ultimately a wonderful partner for me.
Julian pressured me into making several life-altering decisions that were painful and terrifying. I never would have made them without him compelling me to. I trusted him so much that I believed that making him angry and disappointed with me was a worse outcome than making difficult changes that would turn my life upside down. I believed that he was giving me the hard love I needed to help me do what was best for me.
Why else would it be so important to him that I make the choices he was pushing me towards? Why else would someone who showed me so much love, closeness, and understanding want to influence my actions?
My life changed drastically. I changed my diet. I cut people out of my life. I quit music school and switched to general education. I faced my inner demons and processed years of trauma I had spent my life running from.
And yet, despite the upheaval and the repeated times Julian and I would fight, break up, and get back together again, the quality of my life improved significantly from these changes. They gave me the jump-start I needed to figure out who I was, heal from my past, and make a better life going forward.
The choices Julian pressured me into paid off, and my trust in his judgment, as well as his respect for me and my well-being, only intensified. I learned that when Julian tried to make me do something that was painful and hard, it was for my own good and would result in a better life for me. As his abuse became more severe, my mental health deteriorated and I began to trust myself less. It became more and more important to lean on Julian’s opinions on what I should and shouldn’t be doing.
I had no idea that he had written himself a golden ticket to tell me to do whatever he wanted, no matter how unethical, humiliating, or painful it was, and I’d still believe it was in my best interest to go through with it. Because someone who loved me would never do something so horrifying and manipulative, right?
Plenty of people tried to explain to me that Julian’s behavior was abusive, but I wouldn’t listen to them. It was incredibly painful to hear them say terrible things about the person I loved, to characterize him as heartless and controlling when he was offering me a type of connection I had never experienced before and worried I would never find again.
And if the person I loved really was as awful as they said he was, what did that say about me? What was wrong with me, that I fell in love with someone who did awful, manipulative things? How could he be abusive when he loved me so much?
Once I was at Planned Parenthood for birth control, and on the back of the door was a poster describing abuse warning signs. I’m positive I identified with several of them, but I dismissed the concern anyway. The list I read was similar to the one below:
Does your boyfriend/girlfriend:
- Look at you or act in ways that scare you?
- Act jealous or possessive?
- Put you down or criticize you?
- Try to control where you go, what you wear, or what you do?
- Text or IM you excessively?
- Blame you for the hurtful things they say and do?
- Threaten to kill or hurt you or themselves if you leave them?
- Try to stop you from seeing or talking to friends and family?
- Try to force you to have sex before you’re ready?
- Do they hit, slap, push, or kick you?
If you answered yes to even one of these, you may be in an abusive relationship.
Julian texted me a lot, but what defines excessively? I trusted him to text me as much as he needed to and to have a good reason for texting me frequently. Julian would criticize me regularly, but always for things that I was trying to work on and wanted to improve. He did try to influence the people I had contact with, but pushing me to distance myself from toxic people had vastly improved my life.
In order to see most of the behaviors listed as possible traits of abuse, I had to believe they were bad behaviors in the first place. If I had understood that they were a problem, it’s possible I wouldn’t have been in an abusive relationship. Seeing those actions as normal or justified was why I thought it was okay to stay.
I didn’t comprehend that Julian was abusive until after the relationship was over. No amount of characterizing his actions as abusive was enough to get me to leave. In order to get to a place where I no longer wanted to be with him, I had to come to the conclusion that I wasn’t the right person for him. I decided that I wasn’t capable of offering what he was asking for, and that I should stop putting him through a messy relationship where I couldn’t deliver.
I did not understand that what he was asking for was impossible to give. His expectations were intentionally designed to be unattainable. He held me to a different standard than himself, on purpose, and even the standards for me were often contradictory. He invented a system in which I would be guaranteed to fail so that he could punish me when I did—a system where he would always benefit, and I would always be miserable and easy to control.
But how could I understand? A person who loved me would never do something so horrible. Why would someone who wanted what was best for me want to hurt me? Why would someone I trusted intentionally make me miserable?
About a month after I ended the relationship, I woke up one morning from a disturbing dream. I wrote in my diary, “What if the person you trusted more than anyone was the person hurting you all along?”
It took me years to understand the full extent of the damage he did to me.
Any time I encounter someone I think may be in an abusive relationship, I struggle again with how to get through to them, knowing what I know. It’s so easy to say what everyone says: “You don’t deserve that kind of treatment,” “You just need to leave him,” or “He’s abusing you.” But as tempting as it is, that tactic doesn’t work.
When you talk to someone who you think is being abused, there will always be a barrier between your understanding and theirs. Highlighting the behavior that they see as neutral or helpful as abusive will sound like a foreign language. Talking about their worth and what love looks like and why certain behaviors are red flags in order to explain why they should leave is meaningless if they don’t share that same set of ideas. They will hear any criticism of their partner as a criticism of their own judgement and their tendency to love the wrong person, rather than a defense of their right to happiness. The more frustrated you are with the barrier between you, the more you’ll be inclined to push them to leave, and the more your behavior will resemble that of their abuser.
As I wrote in a poem about a year after I left Julian,
to her the world is a snow globe she cannot see out of it
I don’t know what the best way is to get through to someone you think is being abused. What I do know is that there are many things I wish I could go back in time and tell myself:
- This is not the only person who will love you and see you for who you are. This is the first of many.
- Your ability to please and accommodate other people isn’t what makes you valuable.
- Ending a relationship is not a sign of weakness or failure. It doesn’t mean you don’t really love your partner. You don’t have to keep trying to force life into a relationship that isn’t working.
- Relationships are important, but so are you. If your partner thinks that you are important, they will understand if you cannot drop everything to tend to their needs.
- Your partner should lift you up. They should care about your well-being and your happiness, and neither should be pursued in such a way that excludes the other.
- Jealousy is a feeling, and just like any other feeling, it belongs to the person who feels it. It is their responsibility to work through it, and their responsibility to choose their responsive actions carefully. Changing your actions will not fix their feeling.
- When someone tries to control or heavily influence your behavior, that is disrespectful of your right to make your own choices, even if they are doing it for good reasons.
Whatever happens, never stop trusting yourself. Even if everyone disagrees with you and wants a say in what you choose. Listen closely and trust yourself. Trusting yourself is your path out of the snow globe.
About the writer: Kella Hanna-Wayne is the creator, editor, and main writer for Yopp. In addition to creating a collection of educational resources for social justice, she works as a freelance writer specializing in content about her experience with disability, chronic illness, mental health, and trauma. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine blog, The BeZine, Betty’s Battleground, and Splain You a Thing. You can find her @KellaHannaWayne on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and Instagram.