The quiet, unbearable loneliness of victimhood in an emotionally abusive relationship
You know, it’s funny; when you look at someone through rose-colored glasses, all the red flags just look like flags.Wanda, from BoJack Horseman S02E10.
One who grows up with the objective knowledge of what different forms of abuse entail least expects to ever be trapped in such a situation. I think textbook definitions can only achieve so much in educating people on these issues. We become so reliant upon objective knowledge — often to a fault. In doing so, when it comes to the issue of abuse, those of us who have thus far been spared from it are so dependent upon objective (or widely agreed upon) knowledge that we fail to recognise the layers of which such an issue is comprised, and the nuance which shapes it. Emotional abuse is a form of abuse which so often goes unnoticed because we become so convinced that it’s usually one set of behaviours which characterises it. Hindsight is 20/20 and I can acknowledge and verbalise now what I could not then: I was a victim of emotional abuse.
CW: emotional abuse, of course, as well as toxic relationships.
I was so effectively conditioned to recognise the screechingly obvious indicators of toxicity in a relationship between romantic partners that I was oblivious to the sinister, soundless one seeping into my life under the influence of my then-partner. Ghosting, gaslighting, emotional withholding, blaming, avoiding accountability: these were his weapons of psychological battery.
By the time our on-and-off relationship had decisively ended in late 2019, we had run the full gamut of dysfunctional situations which constitute a relationship that’s neither physically nor verbally abusive — yet nevertheless is teeming with toxicity and tumult.
I know that I’ll gradually mend the broken pieces of myself. I know that I’ll make peace with my own actions during the time that I was still in love with him. I know that I’ll eventually forgive him (not because he deserves it — he doesn’t — he knew exactly what he was doing). Yet, the one thing I don’t see myself overcoming for a very long time is the omnipresent, unsettling loneliness and dread which I couldn’t escape during our heavily flawed courtship and romantic relationship, and the tense months following our stunningly explosive breakup. It’s a sensation that won’t disappear easily — not even when I find an intimate partner who possesses everything his predecessor lacks. It’s a void that can’t be filled with other people. I don’t have to go out seeking another intimate partner to know that the damage my ex has inflicted upon the deepest, innermost parts of my being endures and will follow me into every romantic relationship I embark upon as my life progresses (regardless of how healthy and functional those future relationships will be).
My ex-partner once said to me, “When we break up, I want you to still think of me. And when you’re with your next boyfriend, I want you to still think of me.” Whether intentional or not, he achieved that aim by emotionally battering me to the point where I have nightmares about what he did to me, and I get triggered by things which seem absolutely trivial to the people around me. I rarely find myself thinking of the good times or his good qualities. There are good times, and he does have good qualities but they’re largely overshadowed by the bad. That shadow of dark memory grows every time I recount an incident to my psychiatrist, who describes my ex’s actions therein as toxic, or when some new infidelity of his is uncovered (evidently, there are more than I thought).
I’m much happier alone than I had been with my ex and I told him that repeatedly in our more intimate conversations following the breakup — not because I was pettily trying to isolate myself from him but because it was the truth, and I needed him to know that. Regardless of whether he meant everything he said to me, I meant everything I said to him. Therein lies the problem, a recurring one at that: I was never fully convinced that he was being honest with me. It’s not that I suspected him of actively lying to me — rather, my gut feeling was that he was withholding information. In my opinion, any intentional omission is tantamount to a lie. His narcissistic behaviour and lack of emotional availability didn’t do much to reassure me of his commitment to our relationship either. Insecurity crept around the edges of my mind like a determined stalker, and I tried to communicate that to him repeatedly. Yet, without fail, he either dismissed those fears as irrational or attributed them to my mental illness (I’ve been diagnosed with clinical depression and an anxiety disorder).
We don’t speak enough about the harm it does to a person to have their emotions invalidated: it leads to repression. You should be able to speak to your partner about anything. It is a frighteningly lonely place to be trapped in when they not only refuse to validate your feelings but make you feel as if you’re in the wrong to have those feelings in the first place. That is gaslighting, and it becomes blatant abuse when they try to punish you afterwards for calling them out on their harmful behaviour towards you: which is usually what happens.
The consequences of starting fights about issues in our relationship were severe. Often he would hang up on me during our phone calls or leave me with curt, vague messages on Whatsapp before switching off his wifi or mobile data and sauntering off to do God knows what. Once, after a particularly vicious argument — in the midst of which, he left me alone and distraught on the street outside my residence after midnight — he returned to his residence and deleted his Whatsapp without notifying me beforehand. Bear in mind, he knew that this was my most accessible means of communicating with him. In the throes of anxiety and desperation 3 days later, I was told by a mutual friend in his residence that Microsoft Outlook was the only medium of communication through which I would be able to reach him. Need I say more to emphasise how this kind of behaviour could propel someone (already on the edge due to pre-existing anxiety and ptsd) into the dark depths of a volatile psychological state? But if he was so toxic, why were you with him for so long? That’s a question which leads only to more questions.
Why did I become the villain every time I called him out for behaving in ways which hurt me (or just generally failing to do the bare minimum in our relationship)? Why did I always have to be made to feel as if I was starting fights for the fun of it? Why did I have to be left in silence punishment for daring to verbalise my dissatisfaction? Why did I always have to be the one to reach out to him after an argument? Because I had been conditioned to do so — like Pavlov’s dogs.
There was a particular cycle which characterised our dysfunctional dynamic. Things would be fine between us for a time, then one of us would do or say something — which pushed an underlying issue to the forefront of our interactions thereafter — he would want to repress and ignore it while I would want to confront it and progress beyond it. And so, the conflict begins.
In any dynamic wherein there is no consensus and both sides seek to impress the superiority of their position upon the opposition, the little boxer in my head enters the ring and squares up. My ex-partner didn’t have a little boxer — he had an aggressive and territorial ostrich. If he didn’t stick his head in the sand and ignore my challenge, he would kick me for daring to disturb his enclosure of comfort in the first place. More often than not, it was the latter. Subconsciously, I internalised the lesson that if I spoke out against him, I would be punished for it – although, I couldn’t articulate this until much later.
It was one of my best friends who noticed this recurring pattern in which my ex would hurt me and I would call him out on it: to which he would respond with blatant gaslighting and evasion.
I’ll refer to an example from the early stages of our relationship to better illustrate this: his female friend posted what I perceived as an intimate video on social media which he publicly replied to with a suggestive comment. This action got me riled up and I was unflinchingly direct in letting him know that I was uncomfortable with it and insecure about it because we weren’t officially dating at the time (and he was reputedly promiscuous). I couldn’t have played it nonchalant even if I had wanted to; I’m a woman who wants good, old-fashioned courtship and true love in the era of Tinder and sliding into one’s DMs. Ergo, I was bound to get upset. Yet, instead of having a healthy, constructive discussion about what this signified in our dynamic, he essentially said that I had no right to hold him accountable for his behaviour because I wasn’t his girlfriend. Subsequently, he ended the conversation with a terse ‘Goodnight’ message and switched his phone off. He had completely flipped the situation and made me believe that I was in the wrong.
I went into panic mode because we were in different countries at the time and I had no other way of reaching him. I thought it was a fine idea to pour my heart out to him and apologise in paragraphs; of course, I was met with radio silence the next day. I knew that he was online and that he had seen what I had written. It wounded me so profoundly at the time that he would actually ignore me. I was completely in love with him and he was deliberately withholding the acknowledgement which he knew I needed to have peace of mind. It was only after I had sent him a pathetic, pleading voice note that he replied — even then, it was not a reply to what I had written — he was telling me to leave him alone and give him time to process his feelings. Like a lovesick Beagle whose owner had kicked it for the first time, I limped away dejectedly; only to return a short while later to wait patiently and lovingly at his feet for some measly scrap of approval that would make me instantly forget his earlier cruelty. That was exactly what happened: he messaged me the day after — not to apologise for anything he had done but that didn’t matter to me — it was a shot of dopamine straight to the brain. He did tell me that I had made him upset the night before last and apparently that anger wasn’t good for his wellbeing.
When you love someone, knowing that you’ve hurt them makes your heart writhe and burn. I hated knowing that I had done something to turn him away from me, even for a little bit. His refusal to acknowledge me made me feel so small and unworthy. I was so desperate to not feel like that again; I had completely forgotten my anger and the fact that I wasn’t the one in the wrong at any point during those 3 days. I This was a giant, crimson flag being frantically waved in front of my face but the rose-tinted glasses through which I saw him were still wholly intact and that flag meant nothing to me. From then onwards, I found ways to rationalise his frequent displays of malice and thus, the cycle of emotional abuse began.
I don’t harbour any resentment towards my ex-partner. In fact: I love him very much and I always will despite what he’s done to me. At one point, he was my best friend and my favourite person — I can’t take that away from him. I just hope that he’s well and succeeding in whichever endeavours lie ahead of him. However, I am so relieved that I never have to see him again because many of the realisations I had about our relationship were ones I had after we had parted for the final time. The emotional abuse he subjected me to created years worth of damage for me to undo, and even then I doubt that I’ll completely escape the consequences of his actions.
This is where the loneliness of emotional abuse truly manifests: the one who abused me will never listen to me and be accountable, and the ones who do listen to me will never be able to understand me. It’s an immensely difficult stage in your healing to work through; to know that the only closure you’ll receive is the one you create for yourself. No one can help you with this: it’s just you piecing the fragments of yourself back together with bloody, aching hands, sealing the cracks in between them with pastes extracted from your heart, mind and soul and believing that it’s all powerful enough to keep you intact forevermore.