“Mom, you know you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship, right?”
This is not what I was expecting to hear from my teenage daughter. It pained me that I knew, the second that the words escaped her lips, that there was no turning back — and that she was right.
My wheel of emotions spun and spun, and kept landing on shame. It’s my job to help my daughter through the valleys of life, and yet I was being schooled by this beautiful, wise, old soul. It’s not that I’m uneducated. In fact, quite the contrary. I achieved a doctoral degree, but, clearly, I was not a PhD of relationships.
I knew my relationship was a roller coaster, but I just hadn’t labelled it. My daughter continued to do it for me: “You’re in the explosion phase right now, but in a day you’ll be back at the honeymoon phase. He’ll give you compliments, or will have bought you something you want, or he’ll do something you’ve wanted him to do around the house. Then, before long, we’ll be back to walking on eggshells, in the tension-building phase, waiting for the next explosion.”
I couldn’t help flinching internally when she used the word “abuse.” Abuse seemed like such a harsh word, and it made me uncomfortable. Sexual abuse or physical abuse — now that is abuse, or at least that is what I felt society had taught me.
No matter how bad things got for me, and they were very bad at times, I would walk away and make excuses for my partner’s behaviour, blame myself for the explosion and promise I’d do better. Only one person ever told me to leave the relationship because it was toxic, and they had only heard the tip of the iceberg.
“It was all conditional love, and was indeed abuse.”
I wanted to tell my daughter that my partner doesn’t hit me, but I knew that that was the cliché of all clichés. I knew then that these patterns, these scars ran deep, so deep, that I didn’t know any other way to behave.
I would have to learn a new way, for her.
I’d been in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship at the beginning of my dating career, which was easier to decry. When you tell someone that you are being shoved, grabbed, thrown and/or hit, people support you in ending that relationship. Even if they don’t see the physical scars, because many physical abusers are smart enough to not bruise visible areas like the face, most people understand what physical abuse is, and that it is wrong.
You don’t get the same support from society when it comes to emotional abuse, a label that I’m trying to get more used to. It’s hard because there hasn’t been enough public awareness about emotional abuse, and no #MeToo movement around it. So I downplayed what was happening and withdrew into my head and a sea of excuses.
‘My daughter saw all of this’
The gaslighting, the lies, the yelling, the insults, the silent treatment and the withholding of physical touch — the times he left the house in the middle of a discussion or just after — were all punishment and control behaviours. They happened if we didn’t agree. If I agreed with him, we were fine, even great. It was all conditional love, and was indeed abuse.
People who spent time with us mainly saw the honeymoon phase, where he was attentive, caring and supportive. People thought we were a good couple. My daughter saw this, too.
When his mood would shift during the tension-building phase, he’d try to align himself with my daughter and would all but ignore me. He would make fault-finding jabs at me, but overall, it was quiet. He used the silent treatment to punish me, and I didn’t want to say anything that would make the situation worse. I withdrew from friends and family. My daughter saw all of this, too.
Friends didn’t see the explosive side of him, which was very loud sometimes and completely silent at others. They thought he was a saint, as any problems we had he would blame on me, using just enough truth to make me the villain. I tried to make sure that my daughter didn’t see much of this phase, but it seems that she did.
“Perhaps the hardest part of my rehabilitation was regaining trust in my own instincts.”
I constantly felt like I was going crazy, because he’d say he hadn’t said or done certain things, or he’d twist things to be all my fault. If it hadn’t been for a family member of his, and later a former girlfriend of his who knew his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde sides, I might never have known that it wasn’t just me; that it was a pattern. When pushed by friends asking how I was, I’d just say he’s a bit controlling, but it was so much worse than that.
Hearing my daughter telling me that I was in an emotionally abusive relationship, I knew that I had to be a better role model for her. I promised that to her, through blubbering sobs, and decided that if the bad behaviour didn’t end, the relationship would have to.
I did a lot of reading on emotional abuse and gaslighting. I began setting my boundaries during the tension-building and explosive stages. Things got worse. We tried couple’s counselling. I asked for us to agree to fair fighting rules, but he even pushed back on those. The writing was on the wall. The relationship was over.
Any time I began to waver, I thought of my daughter who had said to me she’d go live with her biological dad if I went back to my emotionally abusive relationship.
I spent the next year trying to put myself back together, to remember who I was and what I enjoyed doing. I spoke with a counsellor, sometimes weekly, to work on my abandonment issues and self-confidence. I challenged my negative thoughts and even starting giving keynote speeches on the power of positive self-talk. Perhaps the hardest part of my rehabilitation was regaining trust in my own instincts, because I had shut off that little voice for far too many years.
Most importantly, though, in that next year, I hugged my daughter, a lot.
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