How I Recognized & Survived an Emotionally Abusive Relationship


“Is this normal?” was a question I caught myself asking one too many times this year. Emotionally abusive relationships can leave you questioning your reality, wondering what was real and what wasn’t.

We all know breakups are hard.

Whether you have been together for five months or five years, it will be difficult to recover and move on either way. The same can be said about whether or not kids were involved. Whether it ended in a divorce. Whether you lived together or apart. Whether you got dumped, did the dumping, or had a mutual breakup.

Typically, the rule of thumb for healing after a breakup is the longer you were dating, the longer the healing time.

It is never easy to have a significant other who you once held near & dear suddenly eclipsed from your life. You feel as though you poured time and energy into this person. You were vulnerable together. You gave parts of yourself to them, and likely they did the same for you.

It’s no wonder the end of a relationship can feel like such a major loss. People compare the pain of a breakup to mourning the passing of a loved one. However, not all breakup experiences are cut from the same cloth.

Certain types of relationships require much more time and energy to heal before you feel like yourself again. I’m referring to abusive relationships.

Enduring abuse for even a short time can have lasting repercussions on physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being.

Why the End of an Emotionally Abusive Relationship Feels Unlike Your Average Breakup

What is Emotional Abuse?

In a recent blog post, I put together a thorough description of what constitutes emotional abuse in a relationship.

The Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness Education & Action defines relationship abuse as a pattern of abusive and coercive behaviors used to maintain power and control over an intimate partner.

How Emotional Abuse Worsens Breakups

Abuse tends to escalate over time. When somebody abuses a partner, it is always part of a larger pattern of control. The effects can be long-lasting and downright soul-destroying. Survivors frequently suffer from anxiety, depression, and PTSD, even years after they have left their abuser.

Adjusting to losing someone you loved is difficult and requires substantial self-love, support, emotional awareness, and time. Surviving an abusive relationship certainly requires all of that but also entails a host of other factors that someone going through a typical breakup may not experience.

WHAT IS SAID HURTS SO BADLY

A major reason ending an abusive relationship feels unparalleled with a “normal” relationship is that abusive relationships typically end on awful terms. The lows to which an abuser will stoop to hurt you can be mind-blowing and leave you wondering if the person ever really loved you at all.

Because abusers take no accountability, you will never get the answers to any questions you will undoubtedly have. You will need to learn how to process the hurt and anger with zero closure from them.

LOWERED SELF-ESTEEM

Where you chose to leave or were abandoned matters very little when you are leaving a relationship with little more than the clothes on your back and what remains of your self-worth. That’s if you are lucky.

It is possible you may have had to plan out your escape for fear of what might happen if you were caught leaving. It’s not unusual to hear stories of victims getting locked out of their homes, having money withheld from them, having family members turned against them, and having the things most precious, such as children or pets, taken away.

The abuser will try to take away the very things a victim treasures most in the world.

FEAR OF RETALIATION

Since the ego fuels abusers every move, they almost never take accountability for any faults in their toxic relationships.

A smear campaign is a hallmark sign of an abusive relationship. This involves the abuser making false statements as a form of damage control after being exposed for wrongdoings.

You may even find the abuser retaliates by calling you abusive.

PEOPLE MAY NOT UNDERSTAND

What goes on “behind closed doors” is oftentimes rarely discussed in what most consider a “normal” relationship. However, oftentimes the extent of confusion and shock associated with the end of an emotionally abusive relationship can be bewildering to others when you try to explain what went wrong.

To family and friends, it is possible that they may have thought everything was peachy keen. It depends on how much time went by after the relationship became abusive.

If you never talked about the abuse, people may be shocked to hear this about the abusive partner.

Tip: Remind yourself as often as possible that you are not crazy, you are not abusive, you are not the problem, and you know the truth of the situation. Where possible, try to get support from your inner circle during this time of healing. Your recovery is paramount.
THE KISS-UP AND KICK-DOWN EFFECT

Your partner may have had Jekyll and Hyde-like qualities, in that they were charming and charismatic in public but cruel and demeaning at home. This is known as the kiss-up kick-down effect.

If those who you surround yourself with only ever saw the good side of your ex, it could be very difficult for them to grasp that your ex was a completely different person when no one was looking/listening.

THEY KEEP YOU ON YOUR TOES

It may have felt like your partner had an on/off switch that they’d constantly toggle back and forth to always keep you on your toes! Maybe they were sometimes pretty nice or even VERY nice, but with little warning became accusatory, degrading, or hateful.

Then, after a few days, they would become nice again and say all of the lovely things you want to hear, keeping you guessing as to when the next incident would occur. This is called intermittent reinforcement.

THE CYCLE OF ABUSE

Rats in cages continue to press a lever if occasionally a pellet of food is dropped into their cage. The rat never knows exactly when the pellet will come out, so the rat will keep pressing the lever awaiting when its behavior will be rewarded with a treat.

So long as a reward is given on occasion, the cycle continues. This is the same pattern that occurs in abusive relationships.

The abuser may occasionally toss you crumbs of affection, shower you suddenly with compliments, grant you attention, show you their approval, and thus, they reinforce the bond and the cycle continues.

Gaslighting and questioning yourself

Explaining to family and friends that your beloved ex was “usually pretty nice, but sometimes kind of mean too” can be confusing not only to them but to you as well.

You may catch yourself wondering questions like:

  • “Was the relationship really as bad as I thought?”
  • “Was leaving the relationship a mistake?”
  • “Did I mess up and make the wrong choice?”
  • “Could I have done more?”
  • “How could this happen? Am I the problem?”

No, you couldn’t have and yes, you were right to leave.

The cycle of abuse would have continued forever. You would have continued to sink further into despair, be subjected to more abuse, more manipulation, more disrespect, and this never would have ended on its own.

RESPECT ONLY WENT ONE WAY

Other reasons you may never have spoken about your partner’s abuse could be to protect your partner’s image.

Along those same lines, you may have felt a need to protect yourself, your family, and your abuser’s family by not speaking up and disrupting the status quo.

There’s also a possibility you may have been in denial or uneducated about the signs of emotional abuse!

UNFAMILIAR WITH Signs of abuse

This isn’t to say that survivors of emotional abuse are uneducated. Oftentimes victims are extremely intelligent, creative, and empathetic people. It is this empathy that is the main reason victims are taken advantage of by the wrong people.

Sometimes it takes months or even years to realize the experiences you had were abusive. This does not make your experience any less legitimate.

This deception speaks to the highly creative abuse tactics honed by these master manipulators.

Tip: Educating yourself on abusive relationship dynamics will help you be more aware when you see patterns occurring in your own life. Read books, read blogs, read articles, watch videos, find support groups, and seek professional help. Connecting with others will remind you that your experience is not an isolated one.
UNSURE OF WHO TO GO TO FOR HELP

After leaving an abusive relationship, telling your story can be very cathartic. When others don’t believe you or don’t understand, this can feel very frustrating and invalidating.

This can lead to isolation and put you at risk of experiencing suicidal thoughts or actions.

Tip: You have to find your tribe. It can be family, friends, a support group online, an organization, etc. They may not have always known what was taking place, but having people listen without judgment or questioning is so very important.

The last section of my post about emotional abuse contains resources you can turn to for support.

FEAR OF LETTING GO

Letting go of a relationship and a person you loved can be difficult, so it makes sense that keeping firm in your decision to end things can be difficult.

The on-again & off-again in an abusive relationship is not the same as what may occur in a normal relationship. Specifically, a common form of back-and-forth maneuvering used by abusers is known as hoovering.

This dynamic gets its name from the Hoover vacuum because the abuser knows exactly how to “suck you back in.”

Tip: If the abuser asks to get back together, you may be tempted to give them another shot. An abuser never changes unless they get serious professional help. This means YOU have to be the one to put an end to the cycle and save yourself from a lifetime of misery.
THE TRAUMA BOND

Because of the trauma bond that has been formed in an abusive relationship, the psychological distress you experience can be similar to drug addiction or withdrawal.

Tip: Therapy can be helpful in working through trauma. Having someone to discuss the cognitive dissonance you are experiencing can help you parse the fact from the fiction.
FEELING FOOLED

The awful way in which you are manipulated and controlled by an abuser during your relationship can leave you feeling blindsided in such a way that you will question who this person even is.

Surely they are not the same person you have spent weeks, months, years, or even decades loving.

They now treat you with such contempt that you are left wondering if you have been imagining the entire course of your relationship and living in a dreamland that never existed in the first place.

Tip: Hold yourself accountable for healing. Journal. Talk to others about what happened. Sometimes when we say hurtful things out loud, we force ourselves to take inventory of a situation and get some perspective, which can force us to make certain changes.
WHO WAS I ACTUALLY DATING?

The questions that linger after breaking up with an abusive partner can cause extreme psychological distress.

Comparing the person you knew, who maybe was not always a monster, with the person you are now dealing with, who either wants to ruin you or wants absolutely nothing to do with you, will leave your head spinning.

You may wonder, “Surely he must have loved me. He said he wanted to marry me. He said he wanted to have kids with me. But then why did he say those awful things at the end?”

Surely the most amazing man who always told you that you were the most wonderful person in his whole world couldn’t then tell you how stupid you are and how you can’t do anything good enough/to his liking.

The very things used to hold you in such high esteem at the beginning of the relationship will become the very things used to punish you in the end.

MISMATCHED EXPECTATIONS

Because you entered into this relationship for genuine reasons – to love someone and share a life together – you are going to be hit that much harder by the reality that the other person did not.

Abusers are not looking for real love or to share their life with someone that a non-abuser is.

Abusers and other toxic lovers aren’t looking for WHO, they are looking for WHAT. That is, what they can get out of you and what you can do for them.

This can vary from attention, adoration, affection, ego-boosting, and most importantly, power and control over a significant other.

UNRAVELING THE WEB OF LIES

The gaslighting and manipulation you experienced, which the abuser designed specifically to keep you off balance, are now settling in and you are wondering what was real and what was imagined.

Like a bad movie, you begin replaying the entirety of your relationship over and over again trying to figure out what went wrong, when it went wrong, and whether they were lying to you all along.

By looking back, you may even find you can identify instances where you were in denial about the abuse. This can trigger a psychological state known as cognitive dissonance, in which you hold two conflicting beliefs about this person simultaneously.

Tip: The process of unraveling the web of lies and finding your truth can take a very long time, but with professional help and a lot of support, you can come out better and stronger.
REBUILDING YOUR LIFE

Once you have ended/exited an abusive relationship, you may feel as though a tornado has ripped through your life and thrown each part of it around like a rag doll, leaving you all alone to pick up the pieces.

  • You may have had to leave your home and are now experiencing different living circumstances even though the relationship has ended- perhaps living alone or back with family again.
  • You may be spending time trying to salvage what is left of your reputation after all the smear campaigns from your ex.
  • You may be facing financial difficulties because the abuser borrowed, stole, or withheld your money.
  • You may find you now need to support a household on a single income. You may also be paying legal fees to get a divorce.

The list goes on and on.

DISAPPOINTMENT & LOSS OF HOPE

While the adjustments needed to rebuild your life can rattle you, many survivors find the most heartbreaking aspect of an emotionally abusive relationship to be the emotional toll it takes, including the loss of hope.

At some point, you had hopes and dreams for the relationship to last a lifetime. You dreamed of a future with this person. Because of the lies that you were told, you were led to believe the abuser wanted the same things out of life as you.

Some examples of this could include:

  • Marriage
  • Raising a happy family
  • Traveling
  • Monogamy
  • Love
  • Respect

You are now realizing that it was all a story concocted to trick you so you would be an eternal source of attention and adoration for them.

You have awoken to the fact that the string of broken promises would never end and you were being manipulated the entire time.

THE UNSEEN SCARS

Realizing the relationship you poured your heart and soul into was a hoax is emotional rock bottom.

Your dignity, self-esteem, self-worth, self-respect, and possibly reputation, are essentially in the gutter.

You may question your value. Ask if you are worth being in a relationship at all. If your ex consistently accused you of specific behaviors, you may develop insecurities surrounding those things. The damage to a survivor’s self-esteem can be far-reaching.

Many survivors of emotional abuse AND physical abuse will attest that their psychological scars lasted longer after the bruises healed. It takes a lot of persistent work to repair wounds that have been left by the abuser. It’s not an easy journey, but it can be done!

Tip: Support, support, support! You have to surround yourself with your support network. This may include some of the very same people your abuser tried to isolate you from. It can also be other survivors of abuse. Own your experience and connect with others. Radical self-acceptance is key to coming out alive. Be your own best friend. You are not alone.

My Experience (Highlighting Abuse)

While my relationship with my partner only lasted four months, it honestly felt like four years. Things happened so quickly. In hindsight, the speed at which the relationship moved was a red flag in itself.

  • We entered into a relationship 1 week after our first date
  • We moved in together almost 2 months later

The relationship began in July with VERY intense love-bombing.

The truth is, I didn’t know any of the warning signs of emotional abuse. None of them. In October, I started looking them up and learning. I was reading articles on the internet and watching YouTube videos daily trying to make sense of my experience.

I thought I was so happy, dating the person I was surely going to marry. After looking high and low, I was convinced I finally met my perfect match. Yet at the same time, my anxiety was at one of the worst points it has ever been in my life and I was made to feel like I was messing up constantly left and right.

I was being accused of cheating in situations where I did not feel I was doing anything of the sort. I was watching smear campaigns take place daily where my reputation was tarnished in front of family and friends.

My rights to privacy were nullified as I was forced to give access to my phone. My personal belongings were searched and monitored. Everything from my closets and drawers to my virtual messages and digital files. Digital spying was the norm.

I was misled to believe sharing my phone’s GPS location with my partner was for my own safety while driving. In reality, I quickly realized my GPS location was constantly being checked and monitored for other purposes.

Through character assassination, I was made to feel I “always” or “never” behaved in a certain type of way. These types of absolute statements were used to make unfair assertions about me.

I experienced public embarrassment when texts to my partner were shown to others without my knowledge. I started to feel like he was almost trying to turn others against me.

My concerns about feeling emotionally abused (which I oftentimes understated as a feeling of being treated “unfairly”) were constantly dismissed.

I can identify at least 3 instances of times where the relationship was held hostage with threats of breaking up if I didn’t do what was being asked of me to comply.

Somehow I was accused of gaslighting, but I think that was in and of itself, me being gaslit.

It was not unusual to end the night with me being lectured about the ‘problems’ in our relationship and how I should be doing more to resolve the problems, build trust, and eliminate “the noise.”

Money was borrowed and most of it was never repaid. I lent the money knowing I may never get it back, but in my heart, I believed he would stick to his word. He reassured me he would. The relationship was more solid at the time so I had little reason to doubt him.

I paid for him to travel overseas with me because I thought it would be a romantic trip together. I didn’t understand back then that it was in part to monitor and control what I was doing and who I was with when I would have otherwise been too far away from him.

He would have frequent outbursts perfectly timed to result in me needing to cancel plans involving friends and family to resolve sudden major conflicts. It was like he purposefully wanted to keep me from socializing with others.

Unpredictability was the behavioral norm. I never knew which version of him I was going to get. We could end one night on a high note and somehow we would still start the next day feeling like we took one step forward and ten steps back.

I justified the unsteady relationship to myself by saying, “When things are good, they’re great. But when they’re not, they’re real bad.”

By far, some of the most painful behaviors were the constant threats of walking out. (This is actually how the final breakup ended – he simply vanished without saying a word while I was at work the day before my father was having heart surgery.)

When addressing any sort of conflict, I was met with constant stonewalling. If he was unhappy with me, he would dehumanize me by refusing to make eye contact with me. When I asked him not to, he did it anyway.

If circumstances got frustrating, he would retreat to the basement and avoid opportunities to converse about our issues. It was the constant silent treatment. He never approached me first and when I finally approached him (each time), the main problem was always “how long it took me to go down to see him,” and that I didn’t make him feel like a priority because I didn’t go down to the basement fast enough. Never mind the detail that he locked himself away in the basement over and over to avoid me and shut down communication.

Jealously was real. He even owned up to it and admitted he was. I thought it was normal and healthy, but it was anything but that.

This turned into constant accusations of cheating. Even with random insignificant exchanges with strangers who I did not have even a basic connection with, yet I was supposedly having an affair with them.

The guilt-tripping was intense and led me to do a lot of things that I felt uncomfortable with but felt pressured to comply with in hopes of salvaging the relationship. I felt the expectations were unrealistic and some of the expectations were moving targets that I never could reach the standards of.

When I confronted him about the abuse, he denied the abuse and got quite angry with me.

I made a long 12-page PDF document with links to articles explaining why I felt the things he was telling me to do seemed unfair and beyond what I was comfortable doing. The response?

“Wow! If you put this much effort into actually doing the things I asked of you, we wouldn’t be having these problems!”

There was goading and blaming. Suddenly I was being told I have been the abusive one.

I tried explaining how upset I was feeling with everything that had been taking place and all of my emotions were trivialized. There was never validation.

In fact, the invalidation was extreme. My boundaries were not respected. Over time, I began to notice that my needs didn’t seem to matter very much.

Whenever things went wrong, I was to blame 100% for all of the bad.

Never once did I ever receive any type of apology. No accountability.

Unsure of what to do, I decided to contact the National Domestic Abuse Hotline. I was denied support and he told me that I shouldn’t be calling them and I shouldn’t even be feeling that way. He’d say, “If you would just do what I am asking, we would be okay!” I was told to, “stop bringing other people into the relationship.”

When I explained I needed the hotline’s help and that talking to them was beneficial for me, the response was that I wasn’t even calling the “right hotline” and that the Domestic Abuse Hotline was for “actual abuse” (invalidation) and I should be using another hotline like “the Crisis hotline.”

During our disagreements, he would talk over me and interrupt me constantly. I could never get a word in edgewise. Many times he would over-talk me to the point of confusion where I couldn’t even finish my thought because he derailed my train of thought.

I confirmed my relationship was abusive when my partner left me (moved out of my house) without saying goodbye to me or my family the night before my father was scheduled to have heart surgery. If my partner cared about my emotional well-being, he wouldn’t have left me when I was at my lowest point.

24 hours beforehand, we fought because I stuck firm to my assertions that I felt he was emotionally and verbally abusing me. As if he realized I was onto him to the point of no return, he mysteriously and quit suddenly exited my life the next day and deleted all proof of our relationship (interestingly enough, even our text conversations.)

I proposed doing couples counseling together and this request was dismissed.

I proposed calling the National Domestic Abuse Hotline together at the same time and this was not agreed to.


So that’s that.

In hindsight, I don’t know how I allowed so much to go wrong here. While this story clearly is highlighting all of the abuse that took place and probably makes the relationship sound awful, it wasn’t so. If that were the case, I would have ended it long ago. The problem was that this stuff was mixed in with a lot of great stuff. I thought I was in love, after all.

The abuse also escalated over time. In the beginning, I tried to dismiss the “small” things to focus on the good.

It breaks my heart that this happened. I went from believing I found my soulmate and the perfect match to wondering how someone could mistreat me so badly and why I tolerated it for as long as I had.

I hope I can repair the damage done between me and my parents.

I also want to thank my sister, my supportive family, and my awesome friends for their ongoing support and love throughout all of this. I would like to apologize for not being as present on my blog as I would have liked to have been. It was hard to give attention to my passions during such a troubling time.

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