I'm regularly reminded that I talk too loud and interrupt. That I need to defend myself, but that I have no clue what I'm talking about. That I never inquire about other people, I just talk solely about myself, which is why I don't have friends. That I'm most attractive when I talk about my passions, but that I don't have the capacity for stimulating discussions. That I should keep my clothes on, though I rarely take them off. That I need to initiate intellectual conversations, but "not right now. You always want my attention when I'm clearly in the middle of something." That I should consider becoming a waiter, I'm too sensitive for entertainment. That my eating habits impact our growth as a couple. That I need to stop spending time with my mom. That I'm too codependent, that I don't have to sleep at the same time as you. And on and on and on.
My therapist described it as boiling a frog: if you stick a frog in water and slowly turn the heat up to a boil, the frog doesn't realize it's burning to death until it's too late. Constant criticism. Part of me started hating myself as much as he did. Essentially, I had no other choice but to respect myself enough to walk away from a 7year relationship. I remember the breakup vividly: sitting in his car, bawling my eyes out, asking if he saw some sort of future with me. Not forever, just tomorrow. I knew he didn't. He'd made that clear to me for years. Even with ample preparation and emotional support, I still surprised myself with how despondent I felt in the aftermath. I spent years trying to water a dead plant. My friends rallied around me in the days and weeks following my breakup, and I felt overwhelming love and support. Then life set back in, and all I had was me. What to do now?
Weeks prior, while we were still together, my ex had moved out of our shared living space. He hadn't told me the address, and I knew, from practice, not to ask him. He had mentioned needing his own space years prior, occasionally reminded me of this via poorly timed and weirdly communicated Facebook messages, and finally gave me no other choice but to give him an exit date. "How can I accommodate your needs while you're still here?" I'd ask. He'd give me no answer. I felt uncomfortable in my own space, so I started running away. Still, when people asked, I masterfully played the role we had cultivated: "My boyfriend and I are moving out together," I'd say nonchalantly, followed by uncomfortable, confused reactions. "So you're breaking up?" They'd ask. Rationally, I knew they were right... but I was in denial. It wasn't until a month or so after he moved out that we broke up. That's the day I finally got the address of his new apartment. That's the day he finally let me see his new place for the first and last time.
I went back to my home that evening, the same place I'd shared with my ex for four years, and felt overwhelming sadness, hatred, and exhaustion. Every piece of furniture had an association, and even with all his stuff gone, it looked the exact same. I'd paid for the furniture, it was all still here, and I felt like my body might sink into the couch forever. How did I get here?
Let's unpack this: 1. Growing up, healthy relationships were not modeled to me. 2. My introduction to sex was less than positive. 3. I had a low self-image. - So when we met, I was charmed. He delighted me with deeply fascinating conversations, entertained me with an array of talents, and cherished his time with me, or so it seemed. He struggled financially, but I didn't mind picking up the slack. When he sublet his room to live in mine rent-free, pocketing the cash from the sublet, I was happy to have him in my space and cover the utilities. I didn't see finances as a major red flag until it was too late to re-establish our financial relationship.
He'd cry over loans, I'd cover our dates. Then I'd cover trips to San Diego... and Las Vegas.. and Portland.. and nice meals, drinks and gym memberships, and then, we were living together in a townhouse owned by my parents. They generously and regularly provided us with free groceries and took us for meals as we gained our footing in Los Angeles, unaware of my financial contributions to his lifestyle. Rent was a fraction of typical rentals, and he struggled to pay. Perhaps I should have left when my dad sat him down and exclaimed, "it feels as though I'm paying you to date my daughter," but I couldn't see beyond my blinders.
I could write a trilogy on all the times I should've left. I should've left when he got too drunk at a Halloween party and threatened me while insisting on driving us home, or when he refused, the next day, to have a discussion about his dangerous behavior. Or when he walked out on me without an explanation, then said he'd let me know in a month how he's feeling. Or when he flew into a rage when I watched the Tony Awards without his pre-approval. Or when he'd denigrate me in private car rides, then expect me to wipe the tears and feign composure in front of his friends. Or when he'd yell at me for not praising his work, or accuse me of misplacing his things and venmo request me the cost... but when the person you love and live with regularly belittles you, you start to believe that maybe you are as vapid as they seem to think you are. As verbal and emotional abuse presented itself, the charming public facade remained. It was difficult for me to label it while i was experiencing it.
I was hopeful, when I saw his adoration for his friends, that he might find that adoration for me again some day. False hope breeds false hope. He was dissatisfied with me before entering the house. He wanted to move out and stay together, and asked that I keep that information to myself "or he'd break up with me"... so I did. My parents owned the place, I had a great deal on rent, I couldn't as easily up-and-leave, and I forced myself to respect his decision and whatever timeline he had in mind to make it. And thus, the topic went away, and things seemed to improve. Then six months later, i got a string of Facebook messages.
Communication is key to relationships. Most discussions turned into fights and most fights turned into character assassinations on how insufficient I was and resulted in me delicately defending myself, then taking responsibility for the list of things I'd done to wrong him. Receiving Facebook messages from your boyfriend regarding his move-out date is not the most effective form of communication. Masking it in "we should go on an international trip" does not soften the blow. I politely explained why reigniting this topic over Facebook messenger, after not mentioning it for six months, was an inappropriate way of having a mature discussion. I was on his life journey, at his disposal, ready to be disposed of at any time. Rather than face that reality, I got international work. I ran away. And whenever I went away, he became the loving attentive boyfriend I fantasized him out to be.
So I spent most of our last year either running away or trying to salvage our fragmented future. Lavish gifts, surprise parties, meals, and trips... If I felt his resentment, I escaped. I put myself in a practice of not speaking unless spoken to, and I could feel him beginning to reach out again. I left town for two and a half weeks, and treaded lightly upon my return. When he initiated the move-out conversation for a third time, again via a Facebook message, I'd had enough. I gave him an out date: end of the month. "It's been a year and a half since you initially brought up moving out!" I proclaimed. "I have not pushed you or forced you to expedite this process, but you've refused to give me any actionable steps to make you more comfortable and make us more functional during this transition. I feel scared in my own house, like I'm treading on your toes, you tell me I'm co-dependent if I try to go to bed at the same time as you, and I have no idea where you are half the time late at night or on the weekends... and you've closed the door for me to even ask you!" Step one in leaving a toxic relationship: reclaim control.
Behind closed doors, a switch turned on, and my ex's distaste for me became abundantly clear. A simple dinner discussion would snowball into a tirade on how my "eating habits negatively impact the romance," how my "relationship with my mom is too intense," and how I "need to work on being x y and z if I want to be attractive". While I oftentimes overlooked his shaming, the disgust he expressed when I touched him made it abundantly clear that there was no relationship left to salvage. After years of being demeaned, of never being good enough, smart enough, interesting enough... I faced the facts and walked away. Step two: stop romanticizing the fantasy.
It’s difficult to identify relationship abuse when the inflicted wounds are primarily invisible and the perpetrator isn't self-aware. Even more challenging is when the abuser usually has redeeming qualities, which they use to build their partner's trust to then prey upon emotional insecurities to then rebuild trust and so on and so forth. In my experience, years of conditioning had taught me to question my own reality, withdraw from friends and family, and devalue my self-worth. The daily emotional, verbal, and financial abuse I experienced in this relationship were incredibly damaging, and I refuse to minimize my experience any longer.
My journey of regaining sanity and power is continuous. I'm slowly realizing that I was not fully to blame for all possible inconveniences, conflicts, and problems, and I'm forgiving myself for not recognizing the abuse sooner. It took me a year of therapy to prep for the breakup itself, but my recovery process is just that: a process. It takes time. So what now? Well, I can't go back. But perhaps I can offer you some advice that I wish I had:
1. Your emotions and experiences are valid and real. I found it difficult to relate my experiences to my peers, many of whom had their own, relative experiences with my ex. How could they possibly understand what I was going through when all they knew about my partner was based on their personal interactions with him in an entirely different setting? They couldn't! And it wasn't my job to make them understand. What was my job? Validating my own emotions and experiences, and not judging myself for feeling one way or another.
2. Listen to your body. The trauma from an abusive relationship will sometimes manifest itself via weight loss or gain, insomnia, depression, or anxiety before the victim even recognizes the abuse they're enduring. If your body or mind starts functioning differently, take note of that. By the end of my relationship, I was twenty pounds less than I weigh today.
3. Speak up! Confide in a friend, family, therapist, anybody who is willing to listen and take you seriously. Your concerns are valid, and you are not to blame.
4. Know your worth! You are a f*cking star, and if your partner can't see your worth, or feels intimidated by your shine, then they don't deserve you!
5. And speaking of worth, it's okay to dive into your insecurities. Do it! Before your partner attempts to use those insecurities against you! Recognize what your insecurities are and strive to accept those flaws. Nobody. Is. Perfect. Not even the dumpster fire human who is making you feel shitty about those beautiful, unseen battle wounds you have from life. Those are what make you unique!
6. Don't blame yourself. You had no idea you were getting yourself into an unhealthy relationship or you wouldn't have actively chosen to be there. Forgive yourself. Normal relationship tactics don't apply to abusive situations, and whether it took you days, months, or years to recognize that your relationship wasn't normal, the point is: you did. And you walked away. Or you're currently garnering the strength to walk away. And that's what matters.
Okay, I could go on forever here.... But I'm gonna stop now, because I need to. And I have a therapy appointment. I don't want to be late! Final thought: I hope my experience helps someone. It's cliche, but it gets better, you'll get stronger, and you will be okay.
Here are some resources I've found useful in my healing process:
What It Means When A Narcissist Says I Love You
A Diary Of Toxic Love
Verbal Abuse Is Just As Bad
Types of emotional abuse
Jennifer Levinson is an LA based actress, pizza connoisseur, and fashion addict.
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