Not many people are aware of this, but last year I found myself in a mentally abusive relationship. Healthy Place defines mental abuse as “any act including confinement, isolation, verbal assault, humiliation, intimidation, infantilization, or any other treatment which may diminish the sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth.” This can occur in so many different ways; and my relationship wasn’t anywhere near as bad as what most have experienced, will experience, or are experiencing. I know I certainly didn’t treat the other person properly either, nor do I believe that he had realised that what he was doing was abusive, but there were things that should’ve been glaringly obvious to him to just not do. That relationship taught me so much about abuse, myself, relationships, and others.
Perhaps the most important things I learned were how anxiety disorders can make it difficult to see the signs of abuse and how they can be used by abusers. I’ve been battling in my mind as to whether I wanted to write this post for nearly a year, and now I finally feel ready.
How anxiety can blind you to abuse:
Most people with anxiety are already aware that they tend to imagine the worst meanings and intentions behind people’s words and actions.
This can make incredibly difficult to sort through the imagined red flags and real red flags. I was fully aware of some things that made me uncomfortable during that relationship. Sometimes though, I thought back on some things and realised that what was said or done was different than the negative thing I had heard in the first place. But there were also times I couldn’t tell if what was said or done was negative or not.
Anxiety can tell you that you’re overreacting.
This was a huge issue for me. Not everyone’s red flags are the same, and I thought that because something wasn’t an issue to a friend of mine, it shouldn’t be an issue to me. Obviously, that conclusion was the exact opposite from the truth.
One of the things that I thought I was overreacting about was that this person had said that he would support me in my creative endeavours and he wanted to read my work. He said this time and time again. So when he was over for the evening one day, I asked him to read a scene that I had written earlier that day and was incredible proud of but very nervous about. Without pause, he looked at me and said, “I don’t want to.” Not “In a little bit,” “Maybe later,” or any sort of explanation. And it was pretty clear to me that he meant what he said. He just didn’t want to read my work.
This tore me apart. But I convinced myself (against the advice of others) that I was making a big deal out of it, and that he didn’t mean it how it sounded. But in that moment and reflecting on those things after the relationship ended, I knew he did.
There were many other things that happened that I told myself weren’t big deals, that really are, but I’ll actually mention one of those things in the section about abusers.
The irrational fear of never finding anyone else who could ever be interested in you can make you feel trapped in the relationship.
He never said anything like, “Without me, you’ll be alone forever,” or anything with a connotation anywhere close to that. But I told myself that that would be the case. I was still recovering from a really bad mental breakdown that had occurred the previous fall and was still recovering from my first failed relationship that had dwindled away just a couple months prior. These two circumstances combined to make me feel as though I was a pretty worthless human being, and even after I started naming those red flags as what they were, I convinced myself that I would never find anyone else. Thankfully not too much longer, the relationship “ended” and I began the journey of regaining hope and recovery.
How abusers can use your anxiety against you:
Even without saying it, abusers can make you feel as though they are the only person that will ever “love” you.
This goes hand-in-hand with the last point I made. This guy never outright said this. But as time went on, I realised that I didn’t feel desirable unless he was there because he would talk about how much he liked to hold me and how pretty I was, and I noticed wasn’t really receiving any compliments on my appearance from anyone else at the time. I also realised that I would sometimes tell him stories from my past or from work in which a guy had flirted with me (or even asked me out), and he would usually suggest that the guy was intending everything to be platonic. Without actually saying it, he had insinuated that I wasn’t desirable to others.
They can gain your trust and then target your insecurities and triggers.
This was a really big thing for me, and is now something I am very aware of. This guy had charmed me and gained my trust very quickly, and early on, I realised that he liked to push limits on things. He even told me that he liked trying to “push people’s buttons.” We had a conversation about it, and I essentially said that there were certain things I did not want him trying to push limits on, and he agreed to that. However, we ended up having multiple conversations about those exact things and his pushing my limits.
Some of these things were my insecurities about my appearance and personality, but the thing that made me really start questioning the health of our relationship actually happened on our last date.
That day, we had actually had a conversation about my PTSD from car accidents and how, sometimes when he was driving, I felt like my PTSD was being triggered because of his driving. He changed how he was driving for most of that evening. However, after turning onto a street on the way to my apartment, he decided that he would continue speeding up and swerving slightly until I reacted. I thought that he was just being weird and speeding up quickly and that he would stop once he reached the speed limit. But he kept going and going.
I was on the verge of a panic attack when I finally half-yelled “What are you doing??”
His only response: “Seeing how long it would take you to say something.”
Even after that, a large part of me wanted to stay with him, and I tried to make it work. But that brings me to another point.
You might be the one always contacting them.
I didn’t realise this was a case until I saw a Tumblr post about a similar situation. I continually found myself clearing my schedule for him whenever he wanted to spend time with me, but he wouldn’t do the same for me. But the last few weeks of our relationship, he barely spoke to me. That last date seemed wonderful (aside from the attempt to trigger my PTSD), and he actually asked to meet up over the weekend so that we could define our relationship. I was torn between entering an “official” relationship with him, and ending it. He said he would make sure he was free at whatever time would work best for me, said goodbye, and left. But when I sent him the times I had available, he told me that none of those times would work. So I asked when he would be free and (as always) I would clear my schedule for him. But he never let me know. In fact, he slowly stopped talking to me in general over the next two weeks.
Then I was scrolling through Tumblr one day and saw a post about a woman whose boyfriend wasn’t really talking to her much and who never messaged her first. The woman had been advised to not call or message the guy for three days to see if he would respond. She asked what to do if he didn’t, if she was could contact him then. The girl she was talking to said no, that the guy was getting off on the woman’s need for him, and that if the he didn’t try to communicate, he didn’t really want her, let alone realise that he was losing her.
I took that piece of advice, and I didn’t message the guy I was dating for three days. Then three days turned into three weeks, three months. Now I haven’t spoken to him since April 23, 2016.
That relationship screwed me up, and I’m sad that I experienced it. But I’m so glad at the same time because I learned so much from it.
I really hope that none of you ever experience such a relationship, let alone one worse.
But there is always hope.
If you ever find yourself in an abusive relationship, know that it isn’t your fault and that you can get out, even if you need help doing so.
Here are some resources for abuse victims or friends of abuse victims who want to help:
The National Domestic Violence Hotline
5 Ways to Escape an Abusive Relationship
Help a Friend
5 Signs of Emotional Abuse