At some point last year, I found myself staring at a number of articles that read something along the lines of “signs you’re in an abusive relationship.” I scrolled down the lists of common signals, and started to cry. My boyfriend, who I loved completely, ticked every single box on the list.
Part of me was shocked. And yet, it made sense. I ran over some of the harshest moments of our relationship so far, only a few months in. I felt deflated. I couldn’t believe that I was in an abusive relationship. I had always had myself down as a strong woman. I never took shit from anybody anymore after experiencing some pretty crappy one-sided friendships. How had I let myself get into this situation?
The day that I Googled “how to tell if you’re in an abusive relationship” was the second bravest day of my life. The bravest day was the day that I told him I didn’t want to be in a relationship with him anymore.
Being in an abusive relationship isn’t always black and white. It doesn’t mean that you don’t love the person that you’re with, or that they don’t love you. It doesn’t mean that all of their traits are harmful, or that you’re always unhappy. In fact, a lot of the time my ex was absolutely lovely, and he doted on me. But that’s the messy part, and we’ll get to that later.
So, let’s start from the beginning.
I’m taking today’s list of abusive traits from Bustle. This was the first article I ever read about emotionally abusive relationships, and it’s also the article I had taken screenshots of to show my partner that his behaviour wasn’t acceptable. That, of course, went down horribly. But let’s get on with it.
1. The need to be right
This was the first item on the Bustle list. “If your partner absolutely refuses to take accountability for their mistakes and prefers to place the blame on others (including you), that’s a big red flag.” I had noticed that I was always the one apologising for things, even when I was the one in the right, and the one taking the fire. His anger was justified because I was always wrong and always messing up. He threw a toothbrush on the floor out of anger. It hit a glass. The contents of the glass spilled all over the floor. This, of course, was my fault, because I had been the one that had handed him the toothbrush and asked him to brush his teeth (he hadn’t brushed them for two days. I know, I know.) It’s never “I’m sorry that I threw the toothbrush on the floor,” it’s always “you made me throw this toothbrush on the floor,” and that’s the difference.
2. Putting you down
“Yeah you got a first at uni but you don’t actually work hard” or “your previous relationship wasn’t an actual adult relationship, you don’t know anything about real relationships” or “you’re a lazy piece of shit” or “you’re a fucking idiot”. I have thousands to pick from. Just ask.
3. Your opinion is invalid
My taste in music? Wrong. Pop punk or die, apparently. My political views which actually mostly lined up with his? Still wrong! Somehow, even when I was agreeing with him about something, he was arguing with me about it. Now that takes skill. But if you’re constantly being told that what you say or think is wrong, that’s exhausting and it makes you feel terrible. It’s also incredibly patronising.
4. Yelling and berating
I’m sure almost everyone has been in a shouting match with someone at some point in their lives. But yelling specifically to belittle and intimidate you is scary and, frankly, unacceptable. This is a common tactic in abusive relationships. It instills fear and creates a power dynamic.
5. Being compared to others
“Well at least she could please me.” I’ll say no more.
6. They withhold affection
After being signed off work for several weeks due to illness, he said, and I quote, “no cuddles no affection no help till you get a job” and “no money no meals.” That’s really something, isn’t it? Affection isn’t a prize and you don’t have to win it. If your partner is treating their love (or basic necessities such as food) as a prize to be won, that’s a big red flag.
For those of you who don’t know, gaslighting is manipulating someone until they’re doubting their own sanity, and gaslighters will label you as crazy for remembering things a certain way. “You’re twisting my words,” he would say after I directly quoted something he said mere minutes earlier. He once put my problems with him down to “womanly bullshit.” Remarkably, I’ve got that one on video from a time that I secretly filmed him yelling at me. Incredible scenes here from a self-proclaimed feminist.
8. They place the burden of “changing them” on you
It’s not your responsibility to “change” an abusive partner. Even when me and my ex were splitting, he was still asking for my help and I was still offering it. I promised I would help him to get therapy and anger management – until I realised that he wasn’t my responsibility. “I can’t do it without you” and “I want to change for you, to make you happy” are old news now. Yes, you need help, but that burden is not the responsibility of your partner. Your problems are not my fault.
9. They isolate you
Cutting off your friendships is one thing, but imagine my horror when my ex tried to tell me that my own mum wasn’t good for me, that she was being selfish and possessive over me, and that she was making my mental health worse. He even sent her a big text in response to her lovely “let me know if you need any help with anything” message, saying she was a bad mother and that she should leave me alone. It was actually this incident that snapped me out of all the lovey-dovey stuff and made me break up with him. Imagine trying to end my relationship with my mum (AKA my bestie) and thinking you would win. Nice try.
10. They ignore your boundaries
Cancelling our Valentine’s Day plans last minute when I was already ready and waiting for him to come and meet me? Chucking me out of his house when I was staying over? Refusing to move the marijuana he was growing in his bedroom out of sight when my parents came to visit, and then calling me boring, a nark, and saying that he didn’t like me because of that? Deliberately ignoring my requests that he didn’t do cocaine when he was going to be around me because it made me uncomfortable? Screaming in my face when he had always promised he would never raise his voice at me? Boundaries crossed. And obviously I was the crazy one.
12. They have “good days” that are tactfully slipped in between the abuse
This is where things start to get really complicated. Most often, abusive relationships aren’t actually abusive all the time. Otherwise, it would be easier to leave. Abusive partners can be just as loving as any regular partner. They can give you everything that you want, buy you things, take you out, dedicate time to you, tell you that they love you. That’s when you start excusing their behaviour, thinking that they’re not really that bad, and that it doesn’t matter that they called you names or hurt you yesterday because today they made you a nice dinner and 90% of the time they’re perfect anyway. It starts to look like the abuse is just a one-off thing, rather than a pattern of events, and it confuses you.
Nobody’s perfect, we all know that. But there’s a difference between disagreeing with somebody, and shouting at them to make them feel small. There’s a difference between asking someone to do the dishes, and calling them a lazy piece of shit. There’s a difference between not understanding someone’s line of work, and belittling their achievements.
The first time I wanted to end the relationship (and did actually end it, though of course the split didn’t last) was around two months in. That was the first time that he really flipped at me and started the name calling. My best friend had come to visit, and me and my ex had been arguing over something that I can’t remember. I sat with my friend, trying not to cry as he repeatedly texted me purposefully hurtful and damaging words. But I had seen how loving he could be, and the way he looked at me, and how he would show me affection at all hours of the day. And I let it slide. And I carried on letting it slide for over a year, until he texted my mum that nasty message and refused to apologise. Sometimes it takes you seeing the abuse targeted at someone else before you really clock what’s happening. He walked in from work, said nothing but “fucking idiot” to me, and I tried to hold back the smile of freedom as I said, “we’re over, I don’t want to be with you anymore.” The thought of breaking up with someone that I loved so much and had made life plans with had seemed so hard until that moment.
Basically, no one is allowed to fuck with my mum. And now no one is allowed to fuck with me either.
My family never knew until it was all over. Of course, some of my friends knew. And some of his friends knew, too. And they would tell me to leave, and I would tell them it’s probably going to be fine and that I was used to it anyway, so what’s one more heartbreaking argument when you’ve already had 100? What’s one more nasty insult when you’ve already taken 10 more? At least he loved me. At least he didn’t hit me.
You won’t leave until it’s time for you. You can be told over and over again by people who love and care for you that you don’t have to face the abuse and that you can and should leave, but you won’t do it until the right time hits you. You come to that decision on your own, even if it’s later than it should have been. If you’re reading this and you’re in an abusive relationship, I can’t convince you to leave. But I can at least open your eyes to the fact that your relationship isn’t healthy, and that thought won’t ever go away, believe me.
I wasn’t the first person to be abused by this guy. I reached out to his ex the day that he threatened me with physical violence. I needed to know if he had hit her. We recounted our experiences to each other, and found that some of the situations we had found ourselves in were near-identical. This was a repeated pattern of behaviour from him, and that was even more terrifying. With her help, advice, and encouragement, I put my foot down and escaped. Thank you, A. You were the only person that ever fully understood what I was going through, and your support was unrivalled.
An open letter to my ex
If you’re reading this, then hey man what’s up. No you can’t sue me for publicly announcing I was in an abusive relationship. By the way, while you’re here, thanks for that message you sent to my sister to pass onto me after we broke up – your master manipulation tactics don’t touch me anymore unfortunately, and the message has been discarded. You urged me to remember the good times. Sadly those don’t stick out in my memory as much as you calling me a spineless weasel (or a crazy bitch, or a stupid shit, or a boring human), saying you don’t like me, abandoning me in the middle of town after shouting at me in a busy street, all the hundreds of times you told me to fuck off, saying there was no point in being with me, and threatening me with physical violence through an open window before just stopping yourself from hitting me when you grabbed the duvet from me and threw it at the wall. Maybe you should have thought about that when you were actually abusing me, but whatever. And no I really, really didn’t cheat on you, but nice try at making me look like the bad guy instead. Gentle reminder here that you did actually cheat on A. Get help. Stop smoking so much weed. Open up to your friends. Have an honest conversation with your mum. Start brushing your teeth every day. Also, post my degree certificate to me already.
You once said to me, “try and find a boy who treats you better I fucking dare you.”
I will. Thanks for the advice.
If you’re in an abusive relationship and you need help, please click here.