Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones But Words Are Full of Poison
Have you ever found yourself home alone on a Saturday night, watching a rom-com in your pyjamas whilst eating an entire block of Cadbury Blackforest chocolate and screaming “leave him!” at the TV? I am an avid watcher of rom-coms and I find myself in this situation a lot. I watch these beautiful, successful women fall for men who treat them like shit. They sacrifice themselves again and again, and I always wondered why they didn’t just break up with them. These men weren’t violent or obviously controlling, so what was actually making these women stick around? I had that mentality until I found myself in an emotionally abusive relationship, and then everything started to make sense.
My ex and I went to a gig with some of our mutual friends and then I was going to drive us back to his place. After the gig, his friends decided to go to a bar. For whatever reason, I wasn’t feeling up to being a beautiful social butterfly so I sat quietly with a lemonade and reacted to the fun around me. He sat next to me, sinking beer after beer and didn’t look at me once. When we were alone, he turned to me and said, “None of my friends like you, you know”.
I was stunned.
“You just sat there all night silently. They think you’re really rude.”
I managed to stammer that I had social anxiety and I was doing the best I could but he just scoffed and kept walking.
Eventually, he told me that his friend who was on life support wasn’t doing so great. I tried to be supportive but he decided that he wanted to be alone. I got in my car and cried the whole way home.
I didn’t tell anyone about this at the time because I thought they would say, “His friend was sick, cut him some slack”. They almost would’ve been right. Taking out your anger and frustration on someone close to you happens and doing it once or twice doesn’t make you abusive. But then many more stories, some much worse than this one, started to pile up and that’s when he turned from being a dickhead to being an abuser.
Over the course of our relationship he took his anger out on me constantly, as if his misfortunes were my fault. He would humiliate me in public by leaving events without telling me. He would walk away when I was talking to him or he would completely ignore me altogether. Worst of all, he would offer insight into my personality as if he knew me better than I knew myself. He made me doubt all the great things about me and I beat myself up for the parts of myself that I couldn’t control.
Yet through all of this, I didn’t leave him.
I saw how badly he was hurting me, but I stuck around. It took me a really long time to realise I had been a victim of emotional abuse because, in my case, it was subtle. I thought emotional abuse meant that you were being manipulated into staying by melodramatic men. I thought they would cry and cling to you whenever you tried to walk away.
It wasn’t until I started telling my friends these stories and they would look at me with wide eyes and say, “That’s really fucked up.” that I realised there was a reason why I was so traumatised.
The signs of emotional abuse differ in each person’s situation but the most common signs are yelling, insulting, or ignoring someone’s presence, conversation or value. They include public embarrassment, blaming them for everything, intimidation, threats, isolation, controlling someone’s finances or bullying.
Most of the time, these behaviours won’t be a constant in the relationship. They can be balanced with kindness, support or gifts to make the victim forgive the bad stuff. Your partner might blow up at small stuff but then show empathy at bigger things. It’s all about them maintaining the power and making you lose sight of your boundaries and deal-breakers.
So how do victims of emotional abuse find themselves in these relationships to begin with?
The best analogy that I read was that if you put a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out straight away. But if you put a frog into a pot of cold water and gradually turn up the heat, the frog will stay in the pot.
Being a victim can be extremely isolating, mostly due to the victim blaming attitude our society has. It’s a real mind-fuck coming to terms with what happened to you. It doesn’t help if people minimise your experience or don’t believe you at all. I was incredibly lucky to have a progressive circle of friends, but others aren’t so lucky.
If your friend tells you that they think they’re being abused, the most important thing you can do is listen, be supportive and refer them to someone qualified to help.
If you find yourself thinking that you’re being or have been abused, then just know that there is support available and you don’t have to go through it alone.
While someone is processing their experience, they might come up with a million and one excuses about why they were the one to blame. I know that I went through that and it almost drove me insane. But just know that it’s never your fault, even if you had moments where you fought fire with fire. People choose how they react to other people’s behaviour, and you can’t be perfect. You deserve compassion, love and support.
I was so scared of speaking out in case I got it wrong and ruined his reputation. I bottled it up for a long time but finally decided I wanted to share my experience when more and more friends were sharing similar experiences with me.
When we dismiss abusive behaviour we’re telling potential abusers that it’s okay to treat people like shit. I for one want to help stop that cycle.
Now when I watch rom-coms where abusive behaviour is present, I no longer think, “Why won’t they leave?” Instead I feel compassion, empathy and I hope that one day the mainstream media will properly call out all types of abuse when they happen.
For more information on emotional abuse or domestic abuse in general, check out http://au.reachout.com/tough-times/bullying-abuse-and-violence
This article was originally published in Farrago Magazine