I’ve always thought of myself as a quietly strong person. I’ve worked hard throughout my life and accomplished many of my goals – buying my first house in my 20’s, becoming a Vice President at a Advertising/Branding Agency in my 30’s, moving to another state where I knew virtually no-one and making it my home, and then following my passion and starting my own successful Pilates business. I have sometimes faltered like many, but I’ve always picked myself up and landed on my feet. I’ve been happy in my life and fortunate to have great friendships.
This blog today is really intended to be a PSA – because I never thought I’d be the one in an emotionally abusive relationship. I did not always have to have a boyfriend and had enough confidence to be single, and to walk away from the wrong guys in the past. I did not need to get married, but I loved the idea of it with Mr. Right. I was cautious and did not rush into relationships. I certainly did not rush into marriage. I heeded the input of friends and family regarding my significant other. I looked for the red flags. I insisted we do pre-marital counseling and answered all the uncomfortable pre-marital questions so we could address any potential issues before marriage. I felt truly confident in my choice and my relationship. I could not imagine a person more perfectly suited for me or me for him. I was truly in love with a man who I believed would never to lie to me and loved me unconditionally.
Sadly, sometimes you can’t know what is in store for you. You can’t predict. Sometimes, everyone loves the charming or shy guy and tells you how lucky you are! There are people out there, unfortunately, who are chameleons. Another name for it is a psychopath or sociopath. Contrary to what Lifetime movies tell us, psychopaths and sociopaths are generally successful and are rarely serial killers. To those with limited contact, they can be quite charming and appear ‘normal’ and even upstanding. It’s the person or persons who get the closest that get to endure the abuse and see the reality. These are individuals who lack the capacity to truly care, to attach, to have empathy, to have a conscience, and who are destructive to their ‘loved’ ones out of extreme insecurity or in the pursuit of money, attention, fame or even out of boredom. It’s just not rational. These are people who are always reinventing, and often are engaged in multiple relationships at one time.
I am sharing this information today, not so you can feel sorry for me. I’m ok. I’ve moved on and I am rebuilding my life. I am a survivor 😉 I am sharing this for those who may be in a similar situation or know someone in a similar situation. In the midst of my situation, I serendipitously stumbled across an article that opened my eyes. When you are in the middle of it, it can be hard to understand and you may very well blame yourself. There is a lot of shame that comes from emotional abuse – shame your abuser inflicts on you and shame you feel for allowing yourself to be in this situation. Emotional abuse is tricky because there are no visible bruises. Often times the abuser does just enough to make you feel unhinged and then may pull back and even do something generous. As a rational person you want to justify their behavior but sadly it will only get worse and more destructive to you. You are skillfully being manipulated by a master with no conscience. The rules are always changing but one thing remains constant – the abuser is never to blame and is always the victim. You are the root of his problems and nothing you do will change that. The harder you try the worse it will get, unfortunately.
Here are some signs you may be in an emotionally abusive relationship based on my personal experience:
- Without cause, your loved one is no longer interested in what you have to say, your work, your friends, your life and so on. For me it happened overnight on our honeymoon. The person I shared everything with no longer listened, would not respond to my talking, and could never remember anything I said or who my friends were. My abuser could not remember our neighbor’s names and had no interest in knowing them. It’s a way to show you that you are not important and what you want to share is not important. It’s a way to belittle you. Your best friend and confidante no longer seems to even like you.
- Items you tell your abuser that are hurtful become his favorite things to say or do. I thought I was being proactive and telling my abuser, “These are things that hurt my feelings, you can tease me about other items but please steer clear of these.” What I was doing was giving him a playbook of just how to hurt me. I was often told it was “fun for him” to tease me about the things that made me cry. My abuser even taught the children how to unknowingly hurt me for his pleasure.
- Your abuser is never to blame and takes no responsibility. Arguments are never resolved because only you are willing to accept responsibility. The logic won’t make sense and the argument will veer off in a different direction but one thing remains constant, your abuser will not offer to change or even know why he should be apologizing. You will find yourself apologizing for the wrong-doings of your abuser. You will walk away from arguments confused and perplexed by how things flipped and you ended up defending yourself for your abuser’s indiscretions.
- You will be the problem. You may start to wonder if maybe you really are? You will be labeled too emotional, too sensitive, too needy, too selfish, etc. Anything to shift the blame on to you will be used. When I caught my abuser lying to me for the umpteenth time I was told it was my fault. He was lying to me to protect me and I was responsible for checking his phone if I wanted to know what was going on! It won’t make sense! You may have concrete evidence of the lies and they will be plentiful – but your abuser will still deny them. It was not until after I separated from my abuser that I discovered he had even lied on our first date claiming to be divorced when he was not. It will not be rational.
- You’ll find yourself on the defensive for things your abuser is actually doing to you. Emotional abusers are skilled at shifting the focus. You will begin a conversation about how he is not contributing and by the end of it you are defending your contributions. I was constantly accused of turning my love ‘on and off’ all the while my abuser was doing this to me. I was told I was selfish all the while my abuser guarded ‘his money’ and did not want to contribute to our wedding or our family or even his kid’s education or clothing. Sociopaths will attempt to deplete your finances – they are notoriously bad with money but also very greedy.
- Your abuser may claim to hate drama and yet always seems to be in the middle of it. Sociopaths crave drama and dysfunction; they thrive on it. They will go to great lengths to stir things up. My abuser set up a new email account so he could secretly communicate with this first ex-wife and blame me for all of his decisions and actions. I could not understand why I was being viciously attacked by this woman for things I had no part in. My abuser would never defend me. Later as I cried, he would laugh about it and his explanation was always, “She’s crazy”. He had orchestrated the whole exchange by lying to both of us and was enjoying every minute of it.
- Overtime you’ll notice things you believed you and the abuser had in common no longer exist. His personality will change and the things you loved together he no longer likes. You’ll find friends change, activities changes, foods change, even ideals about life will change. The guy you thought was not materialistic will need expensive status symbol items and clothing.
- This person that you believed to be so kind, won’t have anything nice to say about anyone including you. He will criticize friends, family and complete strangers – even 7 year olds on his child’s basketball team are not immune. Your abuser will attempt to turn you against his co-workers or inner circle. He does not want you jeopardizing those relationships. He will build walls to keep you away from others. My abuser told me his co-workers were lazy, had no work ethic, had emotional issues, and did nothing to contribute to the growth of the business. These were people we had hung out with socially before our marriage!
- Your abuser may be good for the big gift. He will push you to edge of your limit and then surprise you with an expensive, unexpected gift. I received a diamond anniversary band on our one year wedding anniversary. It came with a note of recognition – I know you are miserable and this year has not been good. I now refer to it as the apology ring – not the anniversary ring. It was enough to make me think, things may change. They did not. Sadly, the note never even promised they would!
- Passive aggressive comments become the norm for conversation. When you call him out on this, you’ll be told you don’t have a sense of humor. It’s a way to criticize you in front of others and appear to be the funny guy! You and your abuser, however, will know the true hurtful intent of what is being said.
- Your relationship will suffer a death by a thousand cuts. Your abuser will find small ways to get under your skin, to try to get a reaction from you. Individually, these will seem like minor incidents but it is the frequency and the reality your abuser is well aware of what he is doing – it is not laziness or carelessness but intentional, hurtful actions. Things like taking your belongings without asking, only washing his dishes and leaving yours in the sink, only buying groceries for himself, treating you like an assistant, not communicating when he will be home, making plans with others after promising to spend the day with you, ‘forgetting’ to turn the alarm off repeatedly, refusing to wear a wedding ring, bragging about being hit on, wanting to keep your marriage a secret, choosing to eat leftovers instead of the special dinner you’ve prepared just for him, and the list goes on. These are the types of small items that when you share them with a friend, you may be told you are being too hard on him. What others won’t see is the frequency and the intent behind what is being done purposefully and methodically on a daily basis to hurt you.
- You’ll hold on to hope that if the relationship was so good before, it must be salvageable! The harsh reality is the person you fell in love with does not exist. That person was created for your benefit and can only last so long. The real person is the abuser and is a person incapable of actually caring about you. It is hard to accept and devastating to realize you’ve been duped but the sooner you do the better off you will be.
- You will find yourself explaining empathy to your abuser. I tried repeatedly to get my abuser to understand how he hurt me. He never could. I watched him yell at the children when they cried or hurt themselves. When I had a fever and walking pneumonia, he was angry and said I was being lazy by laying around on the sofa all day. He did not have the capacity to feel badly for me or the children and our genuine feelings annoyed and angered him.
- Sociopaths can’t allow themselves to believe there is anything wrong with themselves so they generally do not want to participate in counseling. My abuser lied to the counselor right in front of me and then lied to me for months claiming to be in counseling when he was not. They can be very convincing – my abuser would disappear for a few hours and return saying he had a ‘good session’ – despite not actually being in counseling. He went through three counselors and I presume it is because he did not like what they saw in him.
- They are cruel to animals. My abuser was cruel to a little 4 pound kitten, back-handing him and knocking him across the room. I went out of town and left my abuser to care for the kitten and came home to find his water and food bowl empty and kitten terrified of him. People who can abuse animals do not have souls.
- You may get to the point of being able to handle one form of abuse, but something new is thrown at you. For me it was sexually degrading behavior for months and then on to not wanting to even touch me or sleep in the same bed unless there was a guarantee of sex. All of it – will mess with your mind. Why is he now keeping his distance? Am I unattractive or undesirable? The answer is no – your abuser is messing with you and trying to destroy you.
So what do you do if you think you may be in a similar situation or believe someone you care about is? One of the best things I did was take a girls weekend away. Those three days of space, allowed me to breath, clear my head and realize I could be happy, my friends thought I was great – a contradiction to all I was hearing at home. I realized I was dreading going back home. It is hard to assess your situation when you are in the middle of it. Space helps. While my abuser was texting that he missed me – I was relieved to be away from him. I was relieved to be able to sleep at night and not worry about how he would act next. I needed that space to see how much he was manipulating me on a daily basis.
Talk to people you trust. Tell them you believe you are in a relationship with an emotional abuser. Ask for their support. It can be hard to ask for help when you have put your needs aside to try to keep the peace with your abuser. Ask anyway. They are your friends for a reason and don’t want you to be hurting. I was so ashamed to admit I was in this situation that I said nothing to my friends or family for more than a year. My confidence was shot after being beaten down so much by my abuser. I did not think anyone would believe me. I was also afraid of him and what he might do if he was not able to control me. When I finally spoke up and reached out to friends and family, I was amazed by the support I received. And surprised to find out what people really thought of him!
Find a therapist and get a professional’s support. Your friends want to help but they may not know how to protect you and help you move forward and away from the abuse. They are more than likely seeing the chameleon just like you once did. After I shared bits and pieces of my experience, my therapist was able to point out, “This person is breaking every boundary you set and destroying every aspect that makes you you.” I could not fully see this until that moment. I knew things didn’t feel right, but I needed her perspective to see just how wrong they were. I needed her professional validation. I loved this man and was willing to do a just about anything to get back to the perfect fairy tale relationship we had had while dating – but the therapist helped me see it was not real. Realizing the fairy tale was just an illusion and the reality – our marriage – was actually a nightmare gave me the conviction to get out and not look back.
When you decide to walk away know you will be the bad guy in your abuser’s eyes. Your abuser can not accept responsibility – to do so would be to admit something is wrong with him. He has made a life out of hiding his feelings of inferiority by only allowing positive messages to stick and playing the victim when the bad happens.
Don’t expect a grand sweeping show of love or an attempt to save your relationship. You will most likely be vilified like I was. I overheard my abuser telling one of the children that I know longer wanted him. That broke my heart, but abusers will say horrible, dishonest things to promote their role as victim. I told my abuser if he truly wanted to be with me this was the time to step up and show me. Instead, he gave me a passive aggressive birthday card and requested to come by the house to pick up his date clothes. Make sure you have friends to lean on and don’t interact with this person alone ever again. Even non-violent people can become violent when their worlds are turned upside down. You may begin to notice even more so than before this person is a contradiction to the person you fell in love with. I watched my abuser change personalities right before my eyes mid-conversation! It was one of the scariest experiences of my life realizing this man I married was a complete stranger capable of horrible things. After that I told him, we could talk but only with someone else present. This did not work for him – he could not manipulate, control, and abuse me with someone else around. Instead, my abuser repeatedly showed up at my house uninvited and unexpected, banging on the door, calling repeatedly from outside, texting, and glaring through the window – eyes filled with rage like he wanted to kill me. I finally had to get a restraining order to feel safe again.
Remember – someone who loves you does not want to hurt you. A loved one may occasionally hurt you but they will feel remorse and will work to correct that behavior. Someone who cares about you will feel bad when you cry – they will not become angry or lash out at you because you are hurting. They will not laugh at your pain and they will not intentionally cause it. It will not be an easy journey back but it is a worthwhile one. Day by day you will begin to find yourself and your confidence again. With some distance, you’ll have more clarity on all the wrong-doings, lies and in my case betrayals. You’ll wonder how you endured for as long as you did – and that will show you just how strong you are! Your life will be different but it will be better. You will discover just how great your friends and family can be. You will start to feel a little pride in yourself for standing up for yourself!
note: I have intentionally not named my abuser or his occupation. He does not deserve the attention. Being able to share my truth with you is about me taking back my courage and my strength and just maybe helping someone else realize they can, too!