Before I met my current partner, I had been in a relationship with a boy in high school and stayed with until college. It was, like many romances were, full of highs and lows. There were elements of laughter. At times, I genuinely felt affection and love for the man I called my boyfriend. The reader, at this point in the introduction can hear a ‘but’ just right around the corner. They know that I am about to reveal that my relationship was not all roses. The reader, as they astutely determined from the predictable intro, is correct.
I wish I had known what was going on much earlier. I wish I had listened to myself when I knew something was wrong. I wish I’d gotten out sooner. To this day, my ex-partner still terrifies and enrages me. He left me with trauma that carried over into my current relationship. ‘I love you,’ spilled from my current partner’s lips one night as we basked in the afterglow. An accidental confession that should’ve been heartwarming instead made me ready to run. I turned my face away, trying to quiet the dread that worked its way through my veins. It is an awful thing that; that the very words ‘I love you’ had been tainted, colored nastily by the trauma of a relationship from before. While I now have a wonderful relationship, it took me a while to take back the phrase ‘I love you.’
I’m by no means an expert on what constitutes a toxic or abusive relationship. Abusers use a manifold of tactics to keep their victims in a relationship. But I can tell you what I noticed in my relationship and hopefully give you something to look for.
Lampshading bad behavior
My ex-partner was not interested in my daily life. When I talked about the things I cared about, my classes or anything at all, he seemed only dully interested at best. And so most of our conversations were dominated by his interests and feelings. He would go on long rants about the things that he cared about and the things that bothered him, and I would do my level best to be a good partner by asking questions and staying active in the conversation. Being at least marginally self aware, he would later notice that we only talked about things he cared about and fall into a guilty spiral, saying he was a bad person for never talking about topics that interested me, a behavior I now know is called ‘lampshading’. This put me on my back foot, and I was falling all over myself to justify why he was actually a good person despite the fact that he didn’t seem to care about my life in any meaningful capacity. He often pointed to his less than supportive behavior and constantly bemoaned the fact that he added nothing good to the relationship. While this demonstrated some self awareness, I know now that it was a tactic to get me to convince myself that it was a good relationship. In this way, he kept me trapped in the nightmare by forcing me to convince myself that I should stay. I was often forced into doing the emotional labor of pretending we were a good couple and coming up with reasons for us staying together.
Hostage holding behaviors
I want to preface this section by saying that I don’t believe mentally ill people are inherently abusive. But that the mere fact of mental illness does not preclude a person’s ability to abuse and manipulate others. The man who I used to call my partner was deeply mentally ill, and that in itself is not a knock against him. However, when he frankly told me that I was all that was keeping him alive and then he tried to break up with me, I couldn’t let it happen. Because previously he had told me he’d kill himself if I weren’t with him, I was now trapped. If I left, I felt like I would be responsible for his death. In a very nasty way, he used my protective nature against me. Claiming that I shouldn’t care what happened to him and breakup whenever I wanted always felt like a hammer blow against my heart because I felt like I wouldn’t live with myself if I did something that would kill him.
That man, my ex-partner, also kept me in the relationship by constantly putting me on a pedestal. I was the best, he told me. You’re the only thing that makes me enjoy life, he told me. I love you, he told me. Fed a double dose of validating compliments and his personal narrative of self loathing and suicidal tendencies, he set up a perfect carrot and stick system that kept me in the relationship for a long time. The drug-like compliments kept me complacent and the suicidal ideation made me feel like I had a purpose as well as frightened me with the possibility of being responsible for his suicide if I left. But as we continued in our relationship, I started feeling…claustrophobic. In my mind, if I didn’t keep being perfect, I would be responsible for him when he took his own life after he became disillusioned with me. So in order to keep being this perfect angel of light as he saw me, I stopped arguing with him. Any discomfort, fear or anxiety I felt was put on the backburner in order to preserve the illusion of a wonderful relationship. But I didn’t want to be an angel. I so deeply longed to feel like just an equal.
Dismissal of your own mental health
My ex was and is mentally ill. He was, at the very least, deeply depressed and likely his depression was co-morbid with other, nastier disorders. He hinted as much when he talked to me about going to a mental hospital. This, you might think, would make him uniquely sympathetic of my own depressive tendencies and would give him insight with regards how to comfort me when I went non-verbal or had suicidal ideations. But no. When I confessed that I wanted to die, he yelled at me and told me I would never be forgiven for feeling like that. So I shut up for a long time. When I hit another low point in our relationship and said I was considering suicide once again, he told me that it was likely I wasn’t serious in my desire. Otherwise, he said, you would go out into the woods and cut your own throat. It’s not exaggerating to say that at that point I stopped wanting to die and started wanting to get out and started planning to make my escape from the nightmare my relationship had become.
While this isn’t an exhaustive list of toxic behaviors, these were the most obvious signs that there was something wrong with my relationship. If you notice any parallels between what I’ve described here and with a relationship you’re in, I urge you to confide in someone who cares about you. You might be tempted to rationalize away your partner’s behavior, so frankly confessing it to a third party will make it easier to identify this kind of toxicity.
Listen, you are not a bad person or an idiot if you find yourself in a relationship where you are abused. People are clever and they are tricking you. Your only problem is that no one told you what abuse looked like or how to get out of a toxic relationship. My hope is that people reading this get an idea that abuse can happen without ever coming to blows. I want everyone out there to stay safe. And if they end up with someone as toxic as all this? That they know that their feelings are valid and that getting out is the right choice.