M never thought it would happen to her, being someone rather firm, independent, who has read quite a bit of psychology. But real life is so different from theory, especially when you are emotionally involved – or somewhat insecure. Emotional abuse is all about gaining control over a situation or a person. It leaves mental scars, not physical, so it is harder to spot. So how did M fall for it?
Her partner B was very charismatic, charming and sweet. He had a way with words, very polite and knew how to get people to do what he wanted. They had a lot of things in common and good chemistry. He was very thoughtful and catered to her needs, quick to hold out a helping hand or surprise her with something she hadn’t even asked for. He showed her what a homely life of sharing could look like, indulging in the small pleasures and rituals of daily life, which she somehow was oblivious of since she was always on the move. Before she knew it, she was hooked. And so was he. This proved to be a bad thing, because his demands increased and things got worse.
At the beginning B had some light jealous remarks, but M was flattered and didn’t think much of it. We need to stop being attracted to jealousy as a sign of love. Love is not possession and seeks what’s good for you regardless of your company. B was also passive aggressive, making rather hurtful remarks but in a joking, sarcastic way, so M didn’t take them to heart. Sometimes his reactions were weird, like giving her the silent treatment: removing his presence to punish her, to make her wonder and doubt herself. B would block her on social media rather than be open to talk about it if M did something that upset him or if she reproached him something. M was too happy about regaining contact to reflect that this behaviour was not ok. Other flirty behaviours with other women jumped at her as inappropriate, but each time she was gaslighted: making her doubt reality and subscribe to his.
M had not realised that actually she was spending all her time with him and this was why things were good. The first serious scene he made was when she went for a walk with her girl friends and two boyfriends happened to be there. Suddenly she was a woman who needed male attention all the time – in his eyes. According to him, M should not be in the presence of other men if he was not around. What??? This would have been a good time to set a boundary, but M was already attached and didn’t want to lose him. Instead, M started justifying herself and the situation. There was absolutely nothing to justify in this case. A man who is not happy where he is in life and doesn’t have enough confidence will feel like an impostor in his relationship, like he doesn’t deserve what he has. He will be so scared of being disclosed and paranoid, that he will isolate his partner from family and friends so that she doesn’t realise that her partner is an impostor.
Yet, a long chain of justifications followed and inevitably, lies and omissions, to prove that she was a good girl and to maintain peace in their relationship. B seemed determined to prove her the contrary, as he did not trust women in general. Making the other person feel guilty or ashamed is a very smooth controlling and manipulation technique. Someone who loves you will trust you and think you are a good person by default, you will not have to prove it. They will empathise with your hardships, accept your choices and your past and forgive your mistakes. No one is entitled to judge you and your past because they weren’t there to see your struggles. M had none of this, no empathy, accusations got worse and worse, as her lies multiplied.
Her rich past, full of travel and adventure, was a threat and surely a collection of wordly pleasures to him. He devalued her achievements and soon the insults followed. Since M also had not abided by some ideals of purity she herself had when she was younger, and since there were things she also regretted about her past, M easily gave in to his interpretations and ideas about her life. When you have a strong sense of self and values, you can easily see when these are not respected and you can find the strength to stand up for them.
All this diminished her confidence and self-esteem to the point that she no longer knew who she was and forgot that she did not want to live her life by B’s rules. He made her feel like a bad person if she did not do what he wanted or if she did not conform to his ideal of purity, while he himself wasn’t pure at all. Her lies made him constantly doubt her and occasionally push her boundaries: M would get questioned about her past that was none of his business to catch her off guard and he demanded answers when she was not ready.
He subtly tried to isolate her from her friends and passions and all men, why do you need them when you have me? They met at a social event but suddenly attending these events was dirty and shameful. A relationship is never about possessing someone fully, capturing their whole time and interests. It’s about sharing what we have in common, moments, and supporting each other’s growth, wherever that takes place.
It became more and more obvious that B did not take any responsibility for his experience or his actions. All women had lied to him and he was a victim. M sympathised and wanted to show him that there was hope – and ironically, she ended up lying too. The smallest reproach would cause an angry reaction. If he was hurt due to his interpretation of things, he would hurt back on purpose, immaturely. Emotional abusers twist things around and blame you for it. Slowly, you start caring for their needs and ignoring yours. You should not be in a relationship with someone who has a bad perception over the opposite sex: sooner or later they will include you in this category and treat you accordingly. Any baggage should be fixed before entering a new relationship. We should stop romanticising men who pose as victims of other women. We should stop blaming the other woman, but rather empathise with her: what could he have done that she behaved like that? Is this the truth or his interpretation?
Just as he wasn’t owning his experience, he couldn’t handle his own feelings, with bursts of rage. What M did not know is that she shouldn’t have engaged emotionally when someone is wound up, and communicate this clearly as a sign of self-respect. Instead, M lost control over her anger as well.
Why was she still there then? Couldn’t she see what was happening? It’s called trauma bonding. You get hooked on a chemical rollercoaster of dopamine and serotonin between a moment of love bonding and abuse. Your brain is so wired to this cocktail of chemicals that this is the only way it can imagine love, often due to some kind of emotional abuse in childhood.
M was also overwhelmed by guilt and shame for lying and omitting things, things she would have never even had to talk about in the first place. M thought B was the most honest person ever who had been wronged by all women, her included, so she was trying to save him and prove him otherwise. He blamed her for his abusive behaviour, so M got to think that if only she behaved well, he would be back to his sweet self. Supposedly M was the liar, but later found out a bunch of things B lied about or twisted. Someone who is pathologically jealous will always find a reason to doubt his partner and cause a scandal, sooner or later. His partner cannot cure him by behaving well. He needs specialised help.
B was so sweet and attentive to her needs most of the times, that she couldn’t see that he was disregarding and not validating her other needs and feelings – and her identity altogether. In a healthy relationship, your partner should hold space and validate your feelings whether they agree with them or not. Emotional abusers were probably never validated growing up and they learned this behaviour. Most likely they have abused their previous partners as well and they need specialised help to stop.
What have you done in the name of love to preserve it? M lied and gave up herself. Got so dragged in an identity that she didn’t want and wasn’t hers due to the demands that were made to her. The question should really be what should you not be willing to do for love? To forget about yourself and your needs.
This experience taught her to return to the I, to the awareness that she deserves to be respected and enjoyed fully, to her values like fairness, equality and freedom, to setting boundaries.
We teach people how to treat us. By tolerating a certain inappropriate behaviour, the abuse will just get worse and worse: from here to physical violence it’s just a step. It is not our job to change, fix or save anyone. They are fully responsible for their experience and have to manage their emotions.
If you know someone who is going through emotional abuse, help them see the signs by telling them what a healthy relationship looks like, as described in this article. Help them stop blaming themselves but instead build self-love and self-worth. Tell them to time take and focus on who they are outside the relationship and what they need from the other person. Encourage them to write a third person narrative about their situation so that they realise how unfair what is happening to them is. Be gentle: what seems so obvious from the outside is not so visible to the one emotionally involved. The only way to escape emotional abuse fully is to break all contact.