What It Meant to Accept I was Emotionally Abused
Contending with my trauma meant accepting that it happened in the first place.
“Uh oh,” I said. “I think I left the router at my parents’ house.”
“Really?” he asked, his voice suggesting that he didn’t quite believe me.
“Yeah,” I frowned, distressed. “I’m really sorry.”
“Well, you’re just worthless.” It was clear from his tone that he wasn’t joking.
At the moment, I was too stunned to say anything. In all the time we’d been together, I’d never heard him say such a hateful and hurtful thing to me. However, I brushed it off, because it wasn’t worth fighting over and besides, he’d calm down later. He might even offer an apology (though that wasn’t a guarantee by any means).
As it turns out, he didn’t.
Some time later, we’d bought some Swiss cheese from the Amish, and I hadn’t wrapped it properly, so a bit of it got dried out.
“How can you be so stupid?” he snapped at me. Once again, it was abundantly clear that he wasn’t joking, not even a little. And, once again, there was that insult, cutting me in exactly my most vulnerable place. Had I made a mistake? Sure, but I didn’t (and don’t) think that it was so egregious that it warranted that kind of contempt.
I waited for an apology and, once again, none was forthcoming.
It was my 29th birthday party and, as was always the case, my graduate school friends were going to be throwing a huge bash for me. It was, as one of my friends put it, “the social event of the season.” It was a chance for all of us to simply relax and forget about the stresses of coursework and teaching and writing for a while. It was also a reminder of the vital importance of friendship during this most stressful time of an academic career.
“Are you coming?” I asked him.
“Oh yeah. Hanging out with a bunch of 20-somethings sounds like my idea of fun,” he said, so clearly that was a no . I was rather surprised that he’d be so dismissive of spending time with my friends, considering the fact that he’d already spent quite a lot of time with them, often at other birthday parties! He even seemed to like them (which, considering the fact that he didn’t like anyone, was itself something of a miracle). Still, I have to admit that I felt a little relieved, too. He was inevitably a drag, and I knew that if he came along he’d want to leave early, forcing me to do so early.
So, sans partner, I was ready to have a good time: to get drunk, sing Disney songs, and flirt with my straight male colleagues. All of that happened (as it usually did) and, when the night was nearing its end, I was quite thoroughly drunk. I was chatting with my friend before she went to bed, trying (unsuccessfully) to sober up enough to drive when the phone rang.
It was him, of course. As soon as I picked up the phone he shouted “Where are you?!” The answer, I would have thought, was obvious, but clearly he thought it was a good idea to call and shout at me. I rushed to assure him that I’d be home soon, that I had simply lost track of time. Despite the fact that it was my celebration with my friends, and despite the fact that I was very, very drunk, he thought it was acceptable to call and yell at me. He would later claim that he was just “worried,” but at the time the only thing I could think was, “I have to get home so that he doesn’t get any angrier at me.” And so, despite my friend’s protests that I probably wasn’t sober enough to drive, I did it anyway.
It was the first and only time that I drove while drunk. I’m ashamed of that moment, not just because I put myself and others needlessly at risk, but also because I let myself be bullied by my partner into doing something that I knew wasn’t safe. My relentless desire to avoid conflict ended up making me take chances that I never should have.
Those are all incidents that occurred between myself and my then-partner, a man I was with for over four years. To an outsider, it probably seems obvious that I was in an emotionally abusive relationship. From inside, though, it didn’t always felt that way. I managed to convince myself that things were okay enough that it wasn’t worth rocking the boat. He wasn’t always so ragey, and in fact he could be quite funny. We did have a lot of good times together, enough so that I could rationalize staying, even when there was always a part of me that said I should leave (and even though several of my friends told me I should).
What’s more, I needed the financial security that a two-income house provided, and that alone was probably the most decisive factor that kept me in a relationship that I, and pretty much everyone in my intimate circle, knew was deeply pathological. I know it sounds mercenary to some, but the financial realities of graduate school are such that sometimes you do things that, in hindsight, seem very ill-advised.
It’s taken me a long time to write this story. Not because, as you might be thinking, I’m ashamed of what I’m about to say, and not because I am ashamed of being a survivor of emotional abuse. Nor is it because I struggled with whether or not he happened to see it because of some our mutual acquaintances. I kind of hope he does, because frankly he should know what his behaviour caused, and I don’t really have the emotional reserves to confront him about this stuff. We haven’t been together in over seven years, and I just…don’t want to get into it with him again. It was exhausting enough to be in a relationship with him in the first place, and I certainly don’t want to invest any more emotional energy in him than I already have.
I guess the reason that I was reluctant to share this story with the world is because doing so would require actually coming to terms with what happened to me and with the effects that it still has on me. In fact, it’s taken me several years to come to terms with the fact that I was, for four years, subjected to emotional abuse by my ex-partner. It’s not an easy thing, to acknowledge that you were traumatized by someone, particularly when you were never really able to confront that person about what they did to you. Often, a refusal to admit that kind of abuse comes from some sort of investment in masculinity, or in an investment in some phantasmic idea of “strength.” I like to think that that isn’t the case with me but, who knows, maybe it is.
In hindsight, I suppose I should have known that it was going to end up like this. One of the first fights we had occurred when he was being an absolute asshole to my mom. Normally I’m the kind of person who bristles when someone even remotely insults either of my parents, but in this case I simply decided it was easier to go with the flow, to paper over the conflict and hope that it would resolve itself.
As the years progressed got worse. He made several deliberate efforts to separate me from my parents, including: making me feel guilty about seeing them (he once told me that he thought I’d rather live with him than them, that “home” should be where he was not where they were), saying that he didn’t think that my grandma didn’t like him (and that he didn’t like her), trying to rush me out of the house on Thanksgiving (I ended up not going with him, much to his rage), and forcing me to not go home for Christmas (which he ended up ruining anyway, by picking a fight with me and then storming out of the house for almost the entirety of Christmas Eve). Again and again, I made excuses for him, constantly running interference so that the obvious animosity between him and my family didn’t break out into a full-on breach. The fact that it never really did is a testament to how invested I was in a relationship that was clearly damaging my family dynamic.
And, of course, he was incredibly hostile to the idea of my spending time with anyone that wasn’t him. Graduate school, as anyone who’s gone through will tell you, is a stressful time, and you’re lucky to be surrounded by your friends and colleagues who will help support you through the good times and the bad. Unfortunately, being with an partner who is incredibly jealous of your time — and makes no secret of telling you that — adds to an already extraordinary burden. For this reason, I ended up not bonding with my PhD cohort in those first months of our time together, precisely because I didn’t want to make him angry with me. To my mind, it was easier to take the path of least resistance, even though it was making me unhappy and denying me what could have been a tremendous source of strength.
Though I was eventually able to break the stranglehold he had on my time, it was only with an effort. I started going out to trivia on Thursday nights, despite the fact that I knew it would make him angry. I started going to my family’s without him. I started making plans that didn’t include him.
And, finally, I broke up with him.
Don’t get the wrong idea. It wasn’t one of those moments where I just told him off for all of his abuse. How could I, when I hadn’t even accepted or admitted that that was what was going on? No, instead it was the result of a small event that ended up having far greater consequences.
I’d managed to convince him to adopt another cat, one who belonged to an ex of mine who was moving somewhere that couldn’t accommodate another pet. Well, it so happened that she managed to get up on the table and scratch a plastic tablecloth (cost: approximately $5 at Walmart). When he got home and saw that, he flew into a rage. When I tried to calm him down, he shouted that if the cat was going to cause this type of “damage,” then I was going to have to deal with his anger on a regular basis. At that, something inside of me broke, and I ended it right there and then.
In the weeks that followed, he continued to try his abusive tactics on me. He broke into my computer and looked through my messages. He learned about a fling that I was having and called me to yell at me and, once again, I couldn’t seem to resist the effort to try to talk him down, even though it clearly wasn’t my responsibility anymore. Like so many abusers, however, he just couldn’t stand to have his victim show any autonomy, even when we weren’t together anymore. So, I spent almost an hour on the phone with him, even though it would probably have been better to simply hang up on him and be done with it.
Nor did it stop there. One night, he sent me links to several songs that he thought would express his sadness including, I kid you not, “Turn Around, Look At Me” (in which one stanza goes, “There is someone walking behind you / Turn around, look at me /There is someone watching your footsteps /
Turn around, look at me). Creepy and disconcerting, no? To this day I can’t listen to that song without being reminded me of that dreadful night.
And, when I finally decided to move out (having stayed far longer than I should have), he said he wasn’t comfortable with me moving somewhere close by because, as he put it, he’d want to drive by to see if I was there.
When I at last moved out, I tried to make a friendship work (because…well, I don’t know why, really), until he finally broke off all contact. And that was that.
I still have the cat.
I still bear the scars of that emotional abuse. I still struggle being in large crowds, because he didn’t like them and would get furious any time a place we were got “overcrowded.” He’d then force me to leave, or else be stranded there without him. This happened almost every year at the New York State Fair, to such an extent that I just accepted that we’d end up leaving early once he decided he was done.
I still get jumpy any time that I’m at someone’s apartment and I hear the sounds of people walking above. He almost got us thrown out of several apartments by yelling at the people above us for walking too loudly (they weren’t). When we moved into an apartment above a young woman with a learning disability — who would, occasionally, make noise downstairs her friends — he’d refer to them as “r-word parties.” When I heard loud noises around my own house, I still get jumpy, so firmly ingrained was my fear of him and his anger.
Most perniciously, I still find myself feeling nervous any time that I spend any significant amount of time away from my current partner. I’ll text him, asking him if it’s okay that I spend more time with my family or friends, even though he’s assured me, time and time again, that we’re both adults and quite capable of making our own decisions. I’ve tried to explain why I have this compulsion, but it’s truly hard to make it clear just how deeply my ex managed to sink his claws, how deeply he managed to, if you’ll excuse the expression, fuck me up.
I’m getting better, but it’s a struggle sometimes. In fact, just this past week I ended up staying an extra day with my parents, and I had to fight against that impulse to continue pestering my partner asking him if it was okay if I stayed that extra day. I have to make sure they know that my current partner is as different from my ex as it’s possible to be, and I know they like him much more.
I’m not sure that I’ll ever be fully recovered from those four years, but my current partner is very patient with me. Without him, and without my friends and family, I’d definitely be lost.
I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know one thing for sure.
I will never, ever put up with emotional abuse again.