First, most people don’t start out being emotionally abusive in a relationship, and it is hard to pinpoint the exact moment when the relationship started to become unhealthy. Unfortunately after awhile it all becomes a big blur of fighting, screaming, name calling, sometimes even suicidal threats that then lead to a pattern of apologies and make up sex.
Usually when I hear about these type of relationships the abuse starts out very subtle. Over the first few weeks your new boyfriend or girlfriend may appear charming, laid back and fun to be around. You start to develop feelings for them. Then one night they surprise you when they raise their voice over some small issue about not texting them back right away. At this point you write it off as them having a bad day or being stressed over other things. Soon you realize they are irritable more often than not. They yell over little things and start to call you names in angry moments. A warning bell goes off in your head, but they always seem so apologetic afterwards. Plus, you realize you’ve already developed feelings so it seems easier to forgive and forget in those first few months. Another excuse I hear a lot in the beginning of a relationship is that it only happens when they are drinking. You tend to let it go because the next morning they are back to their normal self and don’t even remember they said something rude.
However, in time each fight makes the emotional abuse become worse and worse. With each honeymoon period that follows, they tell you things will be different this time around. You believe them because you think your love can conquer anything. What is hard for people from the outside to understand is after being told you are stupid, ugly, and any other disrespectful word you can think of, instead of sticking up for yourself you start to doubt your own judgment. The abuser has started to convince you that no one else would ever want to be with you. They can even convince you that you’re lucky to just be in their presence. Many people who have been emotionally beaten down will do anything they possibly can to prove to their partner they are worthy of their love. I know this sounds crazy, but emotional abuse does a number on a person’s self-esteem. This is why some people use it because then it is easier to control the other person.
Some people have given their last dime to their abusive partner to make them happy. They stop talking to people because their partner tells them to. They will skip class to run an errand for them. However, no matter what they do, it never seems to be enough. They usually still make you feel like you are always too fat, too stupid, too needy, too slutty, too something.
Friends and family who are legitimately concerned about the person being emotionally abused may start to apply pressure to break up with the abuser. This may sound logical and smart to someone who hasn’t been in an abusive relationship, but to those who are in it, the abuser still seems 50 feet tall and they still feel like they’re 6 inches. They may logically agree with their friends and family, however they have become used to this dynamic and again don’t trust their own judgment. The thought of breaking up can seem overwhelming like they are trying to conquer a giant. They may not be ready to leave even though that solution seems obvious to others.
Being ready to leave is different than knowing you need to leave. Leaving a relationship is a process. If you’ve been controlled by someone for a long time it can seem impossible to actually think for yourself and even believe in yourself. You may consider leaving for a long time before actually being able to go through with it. Eventually, the relationship becomes so painful that you may finally have the guts to let go. Most people have to leave a relationship on their own terms and in their own time. It can be hard for friends and family to realize this. I also want people to realize this type of abuse has long term affects. Even after this person leaves the relationship, they still have a long way to go to recover their self-confidence.
After finally leaving an emotionally abusive relationship it can take months, sometimes years to feel yourself again. An abusive person will strip away a lot of your strength and confidence. Because you loved the person so much you do start to believe the way they do. If you have actually adopted the belief that you are worthless piece of crap, realize that belief won’t change overnight. Your relationship lasted months or years. That is about how long you’ve been hearing these horrible things about yourself. To turn that around is going to take about the same amount of time. You may feel better sooner than later, but to fully recover your self-esteem will take some time.
I encourage students not to give up. If you’ve been through this type of situation hopefully it has made you smarter and stronger. You aren’t doomed to repeat the pattern. Learn from the mistakes and next time you will recognize the red flags. Talk about it with others. The quickest way to reduce shame is to accept what happened and use it to help others. It will help you to heal which keeps your abuser from stealing happiness from your future. They took enough from your past, don’t let them take any more from you now. So many people have been where you’ve been and are in healthy relationships today. You’ll get there too, just give yourself some time.