Emotional abuse is dark, dangerous and alienating, and we need to talk about it

When you love someone, you make up countless excuses for bad things they do, because you really want them to be a good person. You want them to be a good person, because you fell for them and to admit anything else makes you ask yourself some pretty hard questions. Actually, it makes you feel like you’ve failed a little bit, too. It casts doubt on your own judgement, your own choices and everything you thought you knew about your relationship.

We’re getting better at talking about physical abuse. There are more ways to ask for help, more places to go, more understanding about it than ever before. But it can be all too easy to write something off as a series of trivial, separate events when there aren’t bruises to show. And because when the abuse is emotional, it’s even less obvious – the only tell tale signs are the doubts in your own mind. Which is why I wish I’d read something like this when I needed it. Because maybe, if in the hours I spent taking relationship quizzes, checking our star signs in last-ditch attempts to assuage nagging doubts, and writing pros and cons lists for staying with him;  if I’d googled and found something like this, perhaps it would have given me the kick in the arse I  needed to get out sooner. Because I sure as hell wasn’t talking about it to anyone.

I had a lucky escape and, thankfully for me, the people in my life who genuinely care about me had the courage to talk to me before it was too late. But, in the years since the relationship ended, I’ve heard countless whispered admissions from friends-of-friends, seen snapshots of other people’s doubts and talked at length with people who I can tell, instantly, are going through the same thing. And actually, there are loads of them. I’m writing this because some of you might read this and know that I’m talking about you. And because maybe someone else who I don’t know about will also read this, and find the courage to get out of a toxic relationship. Or maybe no-one at all will read this but, actually, never mind, because it’s incredibly cathartic just to write this down.

You’ve probably made excuses for a lot of the things I’m about to mention. Stop doing it. Honestly, just stop.

If your friends and family don’t like them, and you’ve lost count of the times you’ve had to apologise for their bad behaviour, it isn’t love. It’s possession, and they don’t make the effort because they’re trying to alienate your from a support network so they don’t have to share you with anyone else. They aren’t some precious gem, whose glowing personality is so special it only comes out for you. They’re a total arsehole who needs to learn that you aren’t something to own. They could really do with listening to some fucking Spice Girls songs every once in a while, because everyone knows there is one simple rule if you wanna be anyone’s lover…

Likewise, if they always try to make you feel stupid in front of their own friends or family, that isn’t banter. That’s emotional bullying. And you don’t have to laugh along with it while your self esteem slowly slides under the table, where you also wish you could go and hide for the rest of the evening.

If they consistently put you in situations which make you feel anxious and worried about having to change plans/mess other people around/ go miles out of your way to please them, that’s not love. That’s a total inability to compromise and, moreover, empathise. Above all, it shows they don’t give a shit about you, or how their actions make you feel. If someone’s too wrapped up in their own sob story to see something from someone else’s point of view, that’s not a commendable attribute. They need to grow up and learn that things don’t always have to go their way and that, sometimes, their opinions can be totally wrong.

If they make threats or blackmail you whenever you’re at risk of winning an argument or getting a result they don’t want, that’s a dangerous character flaw. Normal people get in a huff, they sleep on it, they grumble a bit. But they get over it. They don’t tell you they’ll leak your private photos or fuck all your friends or jump off a bridge.

If every compliment is somehow insidiously prefaced by a negative jibe, that isn’t a compliment. I was once told: “You’d be absolutely stunning… if you lost some weight.” Really lovely stuff, thanks for that, really appreci8 it. You’d be really great if your soul wasn’t a vacuum and you weren’t an egotistical psycho who tears other people down to hide your own staggeringly unstable sense of self-worth.

It should be a real red flag if they try to control what you eat. Couples supporting each other in dieting is great, but the point of a joint diet is to pep each other up, encourage each other and stick motivational photos on the fridge, right? Because that’s supportive and encouraging and a nice environment to try and lose those pounds together. If they tut when you order dessert, never pay you a compliment naked and physically stop you from getting a snack when you’re hungry, that isn’t tough love, helping you eat and exercise your way to fitter and happier you. That’s another way for them to exercise control, and they’re pretty good at finding new ways to do that.

If the sex is amazing, but you can’t talk to them about anything, it’s not love, and it’s not worth putting up with all the other shit. For a nation so uptight about sex, it’s actually pretty astounding how much importance we place on it. How often you’re doing it, whether you’re doing it right, who’s probably not doing it at all, who’s doing it lots with weird kinky stuff bought online, who hasn’t done it in nearly a year. Ultimately, who cares? A sex-life filled with multiple orgasms is not a trade off for a joyless existence.

If the relationship only works when the two of you extricate yourselves from other people and real-life situations around you, that’s not love, and it’s not something special only the two of you get to see and touch. It’s a dangerous secret world that will suck you in and cut you off from everyone else around you. That cold sense of loneliness you can’t shake? You wouldn’t feel it so much if you were actually on your own.

If you dread coming home to them because you never know what mood they’ll be in when you open the door, that’s not a happy home. That’s a prison, and you need to get out.

If they’re lazy, or bolshy and they drain all your energy, they aren’t a project for you to fix. They’re damaged goods and, if they want you enough, they can fix themselves up in their own time and come back when they actually have something to offer.

And, most of all, this.

If you lose sight of who you are and what you want, because they don’t care about your ambitions or belittle your ideas and talents, then that isn’t love. That’s someone trying to make you feel so small that you think you can’t live without them. And you can never, ever let them succeed.

Because if someone really loves you, they’ll do anything to help you succeed in life. They won’t put all their energy into trying to stop you, so that they can feel better about themselves.

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5 thoughts on “Emotional abuse is dark, dangerous and alienating, and we need to talk about it

  1. This is a staggeringly important, powerful post. And so beautifully written. I kind of forgot that I left a past life behind before I read this. And now I remember what a big deal that was. Thanks for sharing. X

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  2. This was an absolute stunning read. Or at least I think it was as at times I had to scan over or found it hard to see through tears. What an important article this is. I didn’t realise how relevant this was to me, but everything you flagged up has happened. I’ve told my friends a thousand times I am well over the woman in my past relationship – but I am not over the relationship itself and what it did to me. It was toxic, horrible. Even when it was over, I kept coming back because I’d been convinced I could not live without her. I was not allowed friends. Was not allowed time to myself unless she had plans to be away without me. I was told I needed to choose between writing and her. Talking to ANY woman was met with accusations,horrific arguments, insults, and every single time in any disagreement- I was wrong, I had to apologise. Anything that could have gotten her in trouble with others (she was a pathological liar) was blamed on me – particularly in regards to her family. She had cheated on me dozens of times. I’ll never forget the day I walked out with just my guitar and some notebooks and took a 5hr train home. I cried all the way but in between the sobs was relief. A few years on and I feel like me. I write this comment in Bangkok after moving to Thailand for a year all by myself. I still feel less alone, in a country were most don’t even share a language with me – I am less alone.

    Thank you so much for this. Beautifully and passionately written and it shows how strong you are. Keep up the writing, it is excellent.

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    1. Thanks for reading, Ed. The exact reason I wrote it from a largely genderless perspective was because I didn’t want this to be distilled down to something that only affects women, as I think to look at the abuser as purely male is another part of the problem society has with knowing how to tackle it. Unfortunately, because men are meant to be macho and strong in society’s narrow view, situations like yours are allowed to go silently on for years because so many people still hold incredibly blinkered views of gender roles in a relationship. It’s very early and I probably haven’t put any of this very eloquently!

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