This essay was inspired by the hashtag campaign #MaybeHeDoesntHitYou, started by Zahira Kelly (@bad_dominicana) to share experiences of emotional abuse. If you are worried you are in an abusive relationship and are in the UK, help is available here
‘Maybe he doesn’t hit you but he warns you that he has a dark side he will make every effort to prevent you from seeing.’
This blog post blazed its way into my mind, triggering reactions on the way, hitching my breath pulling it up high into my throat, my solar plexus trembling with nervous energy, poised to run but frozen to the spot, the sensation of stones in my gut, leaving me struggling for agency, for control, for a sense of myself I could hold on to.
It was always about control I now understand and the irony of that is that it took my entering into a D/s relationship outside my marriage to come to that place of knowing. Before that a misguided attempt to do the same within marriage had meant I came perilously close to actual physical abuse. It took a counsellor to help me unpack what was happening as I attempted to make sense of it all and to actually warn me that he was concerned for my safety.
My mind was colonised, I was totally, absolutely in his thrall. He was my life, I built all around him and I got satisfaction from that fact and was rewarded for it. More than that I thought that was what unconditional love was, that I was practicing it and that it made me a good person. There was some sort of grandiose fantasy and an unhelpful morality about my ability to take his behaviour and not respond to it from my true feelings, hurt, anger, shame, pain, betrayal, upset.
The problems occured when I stepped outside of what he wanted, when I showed that I was a separate human being. It remains hard to put my finger on it, to point to this and to that as evidence, such is the nature of emotional abuse but I have snapshots and the triggers that still leave me gasping at times.
Days of the silent treatment because I had hurt his feelings. The feelings of anxiety during those periods that I thought at the time were because I was in the wrong, there was something I had done that I needed not to do next time and so the hypervigilence and extreme sensitivity to other’s emotional status began to take over my life. The need to check every movement with him so that he could agree to my actions. The turning down of invitations from people I liked but he didn’t so that my circle of friends dwindled and withered from lack of attention. That made me more dependent on him and he liked that. So did I, I thought that was what marriage looked like. For my fiftieth birthday I proclaimed that I wanted no one other than him and then cried into my pillow that evening because I felt so alone and there was obviously something wrong me because I had asked for this. The demand for the focus to be on him at every occasion. My need to please, to fawn, and my inability to argue my case when I knew he wasn’t right, the freezing at his anger, the desire to keep him sweet at all times.
Through all of this was the sense that he did this because he loved me and that surely it was just up to me to manage my responses? I was clearly loved, he told me so, everyone thought so, why did it feel like a painful prison?
Looking back, the signs were there all along. He told me of his dark ‘other’, I proclaimed that I loved him too. I was convinced I could love him through the drinking bouts that meant he called me at 3 in the morning to go and find him, because he was drunk and had lost his glasses. I noticed he had a certain look, at certain times, he would cross his legs and swing the top one, whilst pursing his lips and hitting the top lip with his index finger and I would know it was time to manage him, to soften, soothe and placate, often with my body, like a mother breastfeeding a fractious child. This particularly happened when he clashed with my elder daughter, and I am ashamed to say that my relationship with her has also been a casualty of my involvement with him.
Luckily for me there was an outburst of actual violence and my kitchen caught the full force of his catastrophic rage as he threw saucepans of food around and wrestled tables and chairs to the floor. What caused this tantrum of epic proportions was drinking and my inability to say convincingly that my feelings hadn’t changed. I say lucky because it brought to the surface what I knew/felt was underneath all along and has given me a touchpoint and anchor to hold on to when I think back and remember good times and wonder again was it me?
Any contact with him still triggers responses in me that make me feel unsafe and so I stay away. It means my contact with my youngest son is limited and I am certain that he doesn’t/can’t understand what has happened. I struggle to explain it myself, it was a form of madness created by both of us. I am grateful to those who helped me to get clear about what a healthy relationship that involves control (which I crave) looks like and how it differs from abuse.
Emotional destabilisation is a tool of the emotional abuser. It is used consciously and instinctively even when it looks like it comes from vulnerability, a hard childhood or or a difficult personality. Its aim to insert his/her will in place of your own, but without your consent since it aims to disable that part of your psyche which recognises and responds to danger and might enable you to leave or fight back. It is a calculated attempt to undermine you. This is hard to realise and acknowledge but this is the love of which they speak.
Talking to others helps, you are not being disloyal if you express your true feelings. Don’t suffer in silence, if it doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t right.