When I think back to my relationship, it’s hard to grasp why I stayed so long. To those on the periphery of the situation, it must have been obvious that the relationship was becoming increasingly damaging to my self esteem and mental health.
Prior to this particular situation, I’d not been particularly successful in navigating relationships. My relationship history consisted of partners who refused to commit and I kept finding myself being strung along, dumped for someone better or cheated on. I’d always struggled with healthy boundaries. This led to me being taken advantage of on numerous occasions and my confidence was extremely low.
My ex seemed mature and confident. He was different to other relationships I’d had- he offered me stability, was clear about what he wanted and didn’t play games. The first few months were great. He took me on expensive dates and bought me designer clothes. I’d never had that kind of attention before, and I couldn’t believe I’d found someone who was just so nice to me.
A few weeks into the relationship, he began to become more assertive. He insisted I take an STD test to prove I was ‘clean’ and that I provided him with the proof. Yet he refused to take one himself, telling me he didn’t need to. He was also critical of the fact that my best friends were all male. He told me it made him uncomfortable and that if I wanted our relationship to progress, I couldn’t continue to have close male friendships.
Having forbidden contact with my male friends meant that I had to put a passcode on my phone. I’d previously had no security settings in place, as my partner told me if I wanted him to trust me, I should allow him to access my messages. When he found out, he was furious. In the end, I gave him the code and told my friends not to contact me. He mocked me for having social media- he went on about it so much that I deleted all of my accounts. I also quickly learned that he couldn’t laugh at himself. During a phone call, I made a joke about him being boring. He became enraged and hung up on me. I realised that jokes were only acceptable when they were aimed at me, not him.
Although the red flags were there, I continued with the relationship. My inexperience made me an ideal target as I had no positive relationships to compare it to in order to realise something wasn’t right. It never occurred to me that the fact he had no friends, was estranged from most of his family and his refusal to discuss any aspect of his past could be warning signs. I felt sorry for him and dismissed his short temper and impatience with me as being down to the fact I wasn’t used to being in a ‘proper’ relationship. I moved in with him after a couple of months when my rental contract ran out on my flat.
Initially, he refused to give me a house key. This allowed him to keep track of where I was at all times as I had to tell him where I was so he could escort me home. As it was his house, I had to follow his rules, which were ever-changing. He disapproved of me wearing skirts and tight clothes, so my style became much more conservative.
He stopped taking me out and told me dates were a waste of money. If I was invited somewhere without him, he would allow me to get ready then stand in front of the front door and relentlessly interrogate me or taunt me about my looks until I cried, so that I was too upset to go out.
If I bought him presents, he told me he hated them. Milestones such as my birthday and Christmas were completely ignored without any acknowledgement. I started to feel depressed and wondered
what I was doing wrong for him to not want to be around me. He told me that after I’d had so many bad relationships, I should be grateful that he was even willing to be with me.
Not long after we moved in together, my partner was made redundant from his well-paid financial services job. I had to take on the household finances but he made me pay everything to him in cash and my name wasn’t put on any bills, ensuring that there was no traceability on the money and therefore that I had no claim to the house. I had earned much less than him and he refused to review our outgoings, so I was left with no money by the end of the month and saving was impossible.
On the rare occasions I did manage to go out, he would interrogate me about my plans, trying to make me ‘slip up’. When I returned home, he would relay my route and whereabouts back to me so I knew he was ‘keeping an eye’ on me. He would also turn up at my workplace. Every move I made felt like it was under a microscope and it made living a normal life difficult.
Knowing that my financial situation now made it impossible for me to leave, this gave him carte blanche to pick on me constantly. I was sworn and shouted at every day and it became a regular happening for me to go to bed, only for him to wake me up ranting about something I either had or had not done. Most nights he would keep me awake shouting at me, or refusing to let me sleep so he could rehash some minor detail in my story to ‘prove’ I had lied, or bringing up an incident from months ago to ‘discuss’ yet again, so I was exhausted at work the next day. I’d been working towards changing career into teaching by attending an evening class, which he hated me doing. He told me if I left, he would report me for domestic violence so I couldn’t work as a teacher.
My mental health became another weapon to use against me, as I had been having regular contact with mental health services due to suicidal ideation. Once, during a particularly bad patch, the crisis team were called to the house after I excessively self-harmed. I was desperate to get help, but he was listening behind the door and I knew I couldn’t tell them anything. He’d tell me I was a psycho or crazy and deny my version of events. Once he asked me why I didn’t just do him a favour and kill myself. Early on in the relationship I’d confided in him about past traumatic experiences. He would laugh and ask me what I’d done to deserve it and ask if I was sure I wasn’t making it all up.
By this time, I was so desperately unhappy and couldn’t see a way out. I found out he had been cheating on me with multiple women throughout our relationship, despite him constantly accusing me of cheating on him. I’d buy a bottle of wine every day after work and drink it on the way home to help me cope, as I never knew what mood he would be in when I got in.
With the support of family and friends, I set the wheels in motion to leave and moved out one day while he was away. It was a gargantuan task because he checked my phone regularly, so getting things in order took a long time. I also began secretly logging every abusive incident in a diary, at my family’s insistence. Although the relationship took place many years ago at a time when emotional abuse and coercive control weren’t recognized as abusive behaviours, I am so glad they told me to do this. I never even considered going to the police because I didn’t regard his behaviour as being an offense, although now I am strong enough to re-read through those records, I realize it was textbook abuse. Many years later I discovered he had done the same to previous partners and one had taken out a non-molestation order against him after he physically attacked her.
Since that relationship ended, it’s taken time for me to piece myself back together and achieve all of things that seemed impossible when we were together. That relationship taught me a huge lesson in the importance of sticking to my boundaries and valuing myself. I’m no longer afraid of speaking up, defending myself and others and saying no, and I no longer place importance on pleasing others.
I still have problems with my mental health, and while my ex isn’t the sole cause of that, he certainly contributed. I would love to say I have had only completely healthy relationships since, but this wouldn’t be true. It’s been a process and a learning curve, and over time I have become so much better at spotting the warning signs and knowing when to leave.
It’s only in recent times that the enormity of what I went through has become apparent- the fact it was my daily reality meant it became normalised. What has surprised me is, when sharing my story, how many other people have confessed to also being victims of emotional abuse and coercive control. Whilst the progress made in addressing this form of domestic abuse has been welcomed, it’s evident that it still goes on behind closed doors. It’s our collective responsibility to open those doors.
I refused to allow my ex to ruin my dreams and after a long time spent on addressing my mental health after the relationship ended, I did go into teaching, and later, youth work. It’s just a huge shame that I won’t ever get back the four years which I invested in a relationship that nearly destroyed me.