There are plenty of people in my past that I wish I had never met. Or that I had stood up to. Or that I didn’t keep in my life for as long as I did. But the aliens/government/my future self aren’t sharing their time machines, so I’ve just gotta keep going with those black marks in my past.
The biggest stain on my people report card was my relationship. The relationship, singular, one, uno, can’t be confused with the other one because the other one doesn’t exist. That’s a tangled web of psychology and chaos to unwind at a later time, although it does likely have something to do with what that relationship was: toxic.
What is a Toxic Relationship?
As a kid, I heard all about abusive relationships that involved one partner hitting and beating and threatening the other. It wasn’t until I was describing my situation to my college roommate that things started to connect. Here’s the truth: an abusive relationship can exist without any physical harm. It’s called emotional abuse.
In some cases, emotional abuse is more obvious: “you’re stupid”, “you’re worthless”, “you’re ugly and lucky I love you because no one else would”. In others, its less: “I don’t want you to go out”, “you make me sad”, “you don’t do enough for me”. If your partner–or your friend or a family member–makes you feel worthless, that’s the toxin in your blood that they put there. If your partner makes you feel guilty about going out with friends, or wants to know every detail of the plan, s/he is trying to control you.
It can be subtle. It can develop slowly. Have you heard the story about the frog and boiling water? If you put a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will immediately jump out. If you put a frog in water and slowly raise the temperature to boiling, the frog will stay and die. No one is hit on the first date and thinks “s/he might be the one!” In the same case, no one is made to feel worthless and unloveable on the first date and instantly falls in love. In the beginning, everyone is happy. Everyone is falling in love. Then, a year later, you wonder why you’re so miserable. But the darkness of emotional abuse is that it’s so subversive that it often draws the victim closer to the abuser.
How it Happened to Me
Disclaimer: Every story is different. This is mine. Whatever comments I make about myself, my decisions, my mentality, the things I perpetrated, do not apply to anyone else that may or may not have been, are in, or will be in an abusive relationship.
I was not popular in high school. My dates to dances were groups of friends and my run-ins with admirers were guys I had zero interest in (and were also at the bottom of the food chain. It was high school. Stop judging). As a result, once I got to college I got a bit…desperate. Not desperate for a date or willing to take just anyone, but I was all about finally being in a relationship and not being the ugly duckling any more. I dated. I hooked up. I had a good time. But no one was willing to commit.
He had admired me from afar when we lived in brother and sister halls in the dorms (unbeknownst to me. I had never seen him). Then it turned out we were living in the same apartment complex. A passing hello and a few group events later, we started dating. He made me happy: he spent time with me, was interested in me and everything that made me me (even the dark parts. In retrospect, especially the dark parts). He fixed my flat tire, taught me how to drive stick, cooked me food, and invited me over every day after class. We’d talk for hours. We talked about a future.
Jon turned 21 before me. He went to the bars every now and then. About every Thursday. This will be important later.
We moved into different apartments when the leases ended, but I spent the majority of my time at his place. We’d talk: about our dreams, about how he wasn’t happy in the ROTC program he was in, about what it was like having divorced parents, about his fears of being cheated on, about how hard and confusing life was. About how he was scared I would cheat on him. About my rising depression. About feeling like we wouldn’t be loved by anyone else. Around the seventh-month mark, the conversations were mostly somber, dark, usually involving one or both of us crying. We talked about wanting to be honest with each other and doing everything we could to make the relationship work. That turned into criticizing each other over the tiniest things: “you don’t say thank you enough”, “you don’t listen to me”, “I love you more than you love me”.
I turned 21 and was excited to finally graduate from house parties to bar crawls. Suddenly, Jon was “over” the bars and didn’t want to go out. Since he and his friends were pretty much my only friends by this point, it meant that I didn’t go out. And it was okay, because I was spending time with him.
Related Reading: The Things He Said
I was formally diagnosed with depression. He started looking through my phone in the middle of the night, waking me up to ask who Eric (a project partner) was or why I was having coffee with Jeff (an old friend, whom he had met on several occurrences). We started fighting. I was always made out to be the bad guy. I stayed because I was determined to do everything I could to make things work, both of us insisting that I could do more, should be doing more.
Finally, I was reaching the end of my rope. No matter what, I wasn’t good enough. Things weren’t getting better. He left work in the middle of the day to come talk to me about it. We both knew what was coming. While I waited, I talked with my roommate, who was busy painting the kitchen. I told her about the things that annoyed me and why I was unhappy: he didn’t like me going out, he constantly put me down, I felt like I wasn’t allowed to be me and life my life. That’s when she said it:
“That sounds like abuse.”
Cue the sound of shattering glass. Everything clicked into place. Everything made sense. Holy shit, I had fallen into a trap and been too blind to see it.
We broke up. He made me be the one to say it, insisting that I be the bad guy.
My only regret is telling him that he was still a good person.
*Names may or may not have been changed to protect identities.
How to Recognize Abuse and Toxicity. And What to Do About It
Maybe it’s happening to you. Maybe it’s happening to your best friend or your sister or your brother-in-law. Look out for yourself; look out for the people you care about.
Notice the signs: unhappiness, pulling away from other people, feeling guilty about little things, second-guessing things.
It is okay to want to spend time with your friends without your significant other. It is okay to dance the two-step at a country bar with someone that’s not your partner. It is okay to have drinks with a friend of the opposite gender (or same gender or non gender or anyone that is not your partner).
Talk about it: with your partner, with your BFF, with your sibling, with your parents, with your hair dresser, with a therapist. Speak as honestly as you can. Listen to what they have to say. If you think you’re seeing signs of abuse towards someone you love, bring it up with them.
Don’t accuse or pick a fight: abusers are skilled in turning everything onto you. If you attack, they’ll attack back. Things might escalate, get ugly, get worse. Victims, likewise, often don’t view themselves as victims. They’ll have something of a Stockholm syndrome: they’ll defend their attacker, insist you don’t know what you’re talking about. I found that phrases like “I’ve noticed x and y, can you tell me your take on it?” are much more effective and help people come to their own conclusions.
Be present and active: the worst thing to do, as a victim, is to fall deeper into it. Keep your friends and family that are outside of the situation, whether you talk to them or not about it. Make a point to have some control over your own life. If your talks with your partner isn’t doing enough, get outside help. If you think someone you love is being abused or is in a toxic relationship, don’t let them pull away: invite them out for drinks or activities, text them, call them, let them know you’re there for them. You don’t have to talk about the abuse all the time (or at all), but make sure that they feel safe with you. Because if they get out of the relationship, they’re going to need someone around to help them rebuild.