*tw: emotional abuse*
EDIT: The image for this post features a man of color and a white woman. This image in no way indicates a correlation between abuse and race. The featured image was chosen for other reasons by the author and should not be taken to imply that men of color are more likely to abuse their partners.
Several years ago, a popular hashtag cropped up that provided a space for people who had endured abusive relationships to share about their experiences. Survivors of emotional and verbal abuse, primarily women, took to Twitter to increase visibility for the types of abuse they had endured. “#HeDoesntHitYouBut his words create bruises just as punches would.” “#HeDoesntHitYouBut treats you like property.” “#HeDoesntHitYouBut he uses breaking up with you as a constant threat.”
At the time, I didn’t say much about it, but I sat back and watched friends and strangers validate my own experiences. It was through this hashtag that I realized the truth of things I had experienced.
In the beginning, he was charming. I was young and still figuring out who I was. I was blown away by the fact that a boy I had just met was interested in me. I was pretty dorky in high school and was still growing accustomed to the fact that men might pay attention to me. I was naive and had unrealistic expectations of what romance should look like. We fell in love over a summer, and it wasn’t until we entered our first few months of long distance that things started to shift.
I would call him and he wouldn’t answer. While I knew I couldn’t expect him to be available every time I called, I would sometimes go three or four days without a call or text from him. I would start to get worried and would contact one of his friends or roommates in a desperate attempt to make sure he was okay. They were never very helpful, and eventually he would reach back out to me. He would give some sort of flimsy excuse about why he had been off the grid, and I would blindly accept his explanation. I wanted him to think I was “chill” and not clingy, and grilling him on where he had been seemed like a definitive way to drive him away. He would disappear like this intermittently during our first year of long distance. Eventually, it stopped. Even after years of being with him, though, I never got a clear answer on his disappearances.
His flightiness was only the beginning. Eventually, he tried to control what I wore and who I spent time with. I wasn’t allowed to wear leggings or yoga pants outside my house because other men might look at me. If he saw a picture of me in work out pants on Facebook, he would call me and question me about whether I had worn them outside the house and why. I wasn’t allowed to wear too much make up. Sometimes, I wasn’t allowed to wear any make up. I initially thought this was romantic. I thought it was evidence that he thought I was naturally beautiful, and maybe that was true, but controlling what I put on my body was not the proper way to show me.
Arguing with him was impossible. Sometimes I would bring up things that were bothering me about him or about our relationship. He would always claim I was making it up or exaggerating. He would say I was attacking him and turn my concern back onto me, claiming I was the one who was flawed. We would never resolve the initial things I brought up and I would leave the conversation feeling like a terrible girlfriend. There were times when these arguments would get heated. I’m not an aggressive or angry person. I very rarely yell or snap at people, but with him, I did. Often over the phone, we would yell and I would hang up with him and throw my phone across the room in exasperation.
Things continued to worsen when I moved to a different city. I made new friends that he had never met and that concerned him. Any time I claimed to be alone studying with a male friend, he would be noticeably suspicious or even blatantly angry. I wanted to spend time with the new friends I was making, but if I told him I wanted to get together with friends instead of visiting him, he would always get angry or at least annoyed.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of this relationship was that he cut me off from my family. My parents never liked him, which, obviously, as an 18 year old, made me even more defiant. However, he gradually convinced me that my parents weren’t the people I thought they were. By the end of the relationship there was a noticeable distance between my parents and myself. He had convinced me, over a period of years, to be completely on his side, mistrusting my family. He manipulated me into believing that he knew what was best for me better than my parents did, so I trusted the things that he told me about them. It was a vicious cycle.
He was never physically violent with me, and I’m grateful for that. There were times when I worried about it, especially when he got angry. Still, I know that plenty of people experience violence and abuse in relationships much more severe that what I catalog here. But if you’ve experienced this sort of gaslighting and manipulation, I want you to know that you’re not alone. If you are reading this and wondering about the state of your own relationship, don’t hesitate to reach out to me or someone you trust. Because this isn’t just about me. It’s about equipping others to leave unhealthy relationships, and healing in the aftermath. It’s about recognizing the signs before it’s too late. It’s about teaching (not exclusively but especially) our men deeper empathy and compassion. Even the strongest among us can be emotionally abused, and the first step toward stopping it is realizing that it’s happening.