Toxic Love

Working where I do, at a battered women’s shelter, can be really hard sometimes. The stories you hear are devastating and you really cannot imagine what some of these women have been through. But one of the hardest things for me has been finally admitting to myself that I was in an abusive relationship. I’ve posted the power and control wheel before, and what that diagram shows is all of the ways that someone can gain power and control over someone else. A relationship does not have to have physical abuse for it to be abusive. There are many other kinds of abuse, most of which are much more difficult to spot than physical abuse. This makes it easier to explain the abuse away or deny that it has happened. 

I run a domestic violence education group, and I realized that the only way for me to be completely invested in it was to admit to myself that I, too, have been a victim of abuse. I always empathized with these women a great deal, and I have never been one of those people that says, “Why didn’t she just leave?” I really understood the cycle of violence and the pull that an abusive and manipulative person can have over you. And it’s because I’ve been there. The group that I run consists of four sessions, and each session tackles a different aspect of DV (what DV is and what kinds of things constitute abuse, healthy versus unhealthy relationships, how DV affects children, and safety planning and community resources). In one of the sessions, we have a power and control wheel that is more detailed than the one that I linked to (I can’t find a picture of it) as well as a page that gives many different examples of emotional abuse. It was through reading these things that I was able to identify exactly the ways in which I had been abused and stop and say to myself, “You were in an abusive relationship.” 
  • Power: He would tell me what I could and couldn’t wear. This started subtly, with me asking what he thought of my outfit and him casually saying that he liked it but he liked X better, or that the outfit would look better if Y. It eventually progressed to the point that he would tell me that I looked “weird” and that he wouldn’t go out with me wearing what I was wearing.
  • Stalking: He exhibited extreme jealousy. He would drop by to check up on me and make sure that I was where I said I was. He would check my phone to see who I was calling and texting. He searched endlessly to find my blog. He eventually did and the entire thing had to be deleted. I lost four years of my writing in a split second, so that he couldn’t print out anything that was on it and use it against me.
  • Emotional abuse: He would accuse me of things I hadn’t done. He would make jokes about my clothes or call me stupid if I didn’t agree with him. He would lie consistently, about who he was with, where he was going, and who he was talking to. He would make fun of my beliefs, and tell me that I was full of shit when I would try to explain anything about the things I studied to him (for example, I was trying to explain how standards of beauty are societally conditioned. Like, if we were shown pictures of larger women and told that they were beautiful and ideal, that’s what we would see as beautiful. The only reason that he thinks thin/blonde/plastic girls are hot is because he is told by society that they are. See how standards of beauty have changed over the years? He said, “What the fuck are you talking about? You’re a moron. I think those girls are hot because they are). He would call me crazy if I accused him of cheating or if we got in a fight. He would lock me out of house. He wouldn’t allow me to be me and would mock me for trying to be different, or my own person.
  • Threats: He would threaten to end the relationship all the time, over every little thing.
  • Property violence: He would break my things. He broke my computer, my cell phone, he threw my purse out a fourth story window breaking everything inside it (my ipod, my digital camera, my perfume). He would punch holes in the walls of my apartment when he was angry and then refuse to fix them because it was my fault for making him angry enough to do it.
  • Isolation: He would limit who I could and couldn’t hang out with. I had an entire group of straight male friends that he would not let me hang out with once we started dating. He would make me feel guilty if I wanted to go out with my friends, but he would go out with his all the time.
  • Sexual abuse: He cheated on me for over a year and a half. He would call me crazy when I accused him of it, or would promise that it was over or that he would end it. He never did.
  • Use of male privilege: He believed in male supremacy and the stereotyped masculine role. He had rigid expectations of what a “wife” should be and how girls should act. He once reprimanded me in front of all his friends because I had tried to join a conversation with his guy friends about poker and baseball. He told me to “go talk to the girls about hair or something.” When we left, he berated me and said that I had embarrassed him, and that I should act like his girlfriend, not his best friend. He also said that he wanted a woman that would cook and clean and “take care of her man.”
I was not a victim of physical abuse, but I was a victim of verbal and emotional abuse. I hear so many women that come through the center tell me that the emotional abuse was actually worse than the physical abuse. The scars and bruises heal; sometimes those psychological wounds never do. So why did I stay? It’s simple. I believed he would change. I believed that I could change him or that I could change me to be good enough for him. And he wasn’t always bad. When he was good, he was unbelievably good. The good times were such highs that I put up with the bad times of such lows. He was charming, charismatic, and completely manipulative. And I loved him.
I have no doubt that this relationship is responsible for a lot of my self-esteem and relationship issues today. I know that it’s why I’m so desperate to please; I learned that if I did something wrong, there was punishment for it. I was always the one expected to fix things or if he was mad it was always my fault and so I am very quick to apologize and backpedal and placate. I get paranoid that someone is cheating on me because I’ve been cheated on before. I let people treat me like shit and talk down to me because I’ve normalized it in my mind and gotten used to being treated that way. I assume that the problem lies with me, that I’m not good enough, because that’s what I was told.
I didn’t write this post looking for comments telling me that I can do better or that people will treat me the way that I let them treat me. I’m not looking for advice on what to do or what not to do. I’m not looking for someone to say “Well, at least he didn’t hit you.” I don’t want someone asking why I put up with it or telling me I should have left him. This post is a way for me to work out issues that I’m still in the process of overcoming. It’s a way for me to understand why I behave the way I do, and to give you guys insight on why I think the way I do or do some of the things that I do in relationships. Overcoming the effects of emotional abuse isn’t easy and it’s something that I’m working on. But understanding the whys and admitting the truth is the first step in that process of moving on and rising above.
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  1. Paradox
    Posted April 29, 2009 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    I've been in one relationship that I know was abusive. Reading your post, I wonder if maybe another one, my longest term, closest relationship, was also well over the line between healthy and abusive. I've always known it was close to that line, that he put me down and often made me feel like shit about myself. I wonder also if my father is a bit over that line, which is just tragic and hard to think.

    I understand that it takes a long time to work out and then to work through these things. It think you're right, though, that identifying and admitting it is a first step. I hope it helps you.

  2. April
    Posted April 29, 2009 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    I hope it helps you too. I know first hand about feeling the way you do. After dealing with him for 7 years, I realized what a different person I had turned into. The first 4 years I spent doing what you did; always apologizing, trying to make things better, backpedaling, etc. After 4 years something clicked inside of me. I started to get defensive. When he would start his shit, I would see red and hit him. We started hitting each other. I would say so many mean things to him. I became a completely different person, who I didn't like.

    That's when I became determined to find a genuinely good guy. There is not one thing that he does that can be considered abuse. Yet I sometimes (not too often though) find myself being mean to him for no reason. Saying things that aren't nice. I always realize after the fact that he doesn't deserve it and that I was wrong and I apologize like crazy. I'm just fearful that one day he won't forgive me.

    Like you, I realize the problem is within myself. And I know what to do to fix it. It's just a matter of reconditioning ourselves.

  3. Ms. Eternal Optimist
    Posted April 29, 2009 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    I dealt with all of that, plus physical abuse as well. I figured it out, and I got out. It toolk a while, but once I realized that it wasn't going to change, I left for my own sanity. I'm glad you got out too.

    I commend you for helping others in that situation.

  4. breakingblues
    Posted April 30, 2009 at 12:23 am | Permalink

    You work in a women's shelter? That is so freakin' awesome. Sometimes I want to do stuff like that.

    My dad emotionally abused my mom. Sometimes that's hard for me to type, even though I was the one who encouraged her to get out for good 8 years ago (she did). Sometimes I want to try and rationalize it, like when my dad is nice to me, I'll think, "How could he have done all that shit to mom?" But he did. And if I ever do have any doubts, I think of the way he treated the dogs, and then I get kind of sad and angry. Or I think of how he tried to cut my mom off from her parents. Now I'm getting ragey again. Even back then, he would treat me and my brother decently but my mom like shit (although he and my brother also clashed).

    Like you, maybe I still have issues to work out. But thank you for posting this. Sometimes I feel like this is an ongoing conversation with myself that will never really end or be resolved.

  5. Eve
    Posted April 30, 2009 at 1:34 am | Permalink

    I hear you! Oh man, do I ever!

    I think what you wrote gave me a bit of perspective on the abusive relationship I used to have with my father. (I say "used to have" because I now have no contact with him at all) I've always felt that there was something that crossed the line with my dad's behavior, besides the sexual abuse, but I never had a clear idea of what that line was. This post has clarified some of that for me, so thank you.

    Best of luck in rising above! You're right that understanding and admitting is the first step…a HUGE step. I'm proud of you for making that step.

  6. April
    Posted April 30, 2009 at 3:42 am | Permalink

    My ex-husband was like that. I won't ever forget the moment about a month after the divorce that I realized that I was not fat or ugly and I'm not, but I really believed that for several years. After a relationship like that is over you have to step back into your own skin again. It made me see that there is nothing like the feeling of being me.

  7. Bass Man
    Posted April 30, 2009 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    How about a man's perspective here? First of all, my heart goes out to you, Britni, and all the others here who have suffered from abuse.

    But it's not always the man abusing the woman – I suffered emotional abuse from my ex-wife for 15 years of marriage and ten years of co-parenting since we split up. I'm still trying to undo the impact of the belittling and manipulation which I suffered through.

    Until a year or two ago, I wasn't ready to even think of actually dating again. Not that I was bitter, but rather feeling undeserving. But, now, my 15yo son has moved in with me and his social life is more active than mine. ;-) He and my daughter in college have made me realize that I need to be strong and compassionate to help them deal with the ex as well. She may be my ex, but she'll be their parent forever.

    Keep your head up, and know that they were the one with the problem. We just have wounds, which will heal. They will still have a problem.

  8. Nelfy
    Posted April 30, 2009 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    I'm trying to come to terms with what happened between my sister and myself when we were little. Was it abuse or just silly games gone too far? I haven't figured it out yet… And I haven't told anyone, apart from my therapist and my girlfriend, yet either. I wish more people were as open as you are. But then again, I'd have to start with myself…

  9. ~sublimealice~
    Posted May 1, 2009 at 2:50 am | Permalink

    i'm (i want to say glad but that doesn't seem appropriate, so enter your own adjective here) that you realized this about an ex…my brother was extremely abusive in every of those ways except sexual, and it's hard to admit that someone who you know loves you would do that. the only thing from here on out is that is makes you stronger and HOPEFULLY you won't tolerate it again…which is why i was worried about the bruiser, because it seemed like more of the same. but then again you don't know me, so i'll stop.

  10. Britni TheVadgeWig
    Posted May 1, 2009 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    Bass Man: I'm so sorry for everything that you had to go through. I actually do have male clients at work, too, that have suffered abuse. Most of them have suffered the same kind of abuse that you have. Emotional abuse can be so subtle and so hard to spot sometimes that we don't even realize that it is abuse. Building yourself back up after all of that can take time and a lot of work.

    I'm happy that you have supportive children and that you are healing, one day at a time. It's always helpful to do some research on emotional abuse and how to spot it/overcome it. If you ever want any resources, feel free to let me know.

    Everyone else: Thank you so much for sharing your stories. It really means a lot and takes a lot of courage and strength to talk about things like this, even to yourself. You are all amazing.

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