What it’s like to be in an abusive relationship

It seems that so often, people in abusive relationships have no idea they’re in one. This is what happened to Lauren. The relationship with her ex-boyfriend started out great — he supported her and made her happy. The haze of her love prevented her from realizing they had gone down a dangerous path. Until things were too serious to brush off. Lauren’s is a story of discovering what love, for your partner and for yourself, really looks like.

Disclaimer: This post includes descriptions of domestic abuse.

How did your relationship begin?

I was introduced to him by a mutual friend of ours. At the time, I’d been single for about three years, and prior to that, I’d been in a serious seven-year relationship. I was finally, after three years of soul searching and healing, getting to a place where I felt like I could open myself up to love again. I think all the time about what horrible timing it was. That I met this person right when I was ready to make myself vulnerable again.

In the beginning, he was incredibly charming, exciting, and fun. He took an interest in all of my interests almost immediately — we did a lot of hiking and exploring, we spent Sunday mornings making delicious homemade brunches, we were constantly listening to all my favorite bands and watching all my favorite TV shows. We had incredible sexual chemistry. But the honeymoon phase barely lasted a couple months before things began to turn.

Sometimes I thought I was imagining things, honestly, especially in the beginning.

When did things start changing?

I don’t think I could ever pinpoint an exact moment when I knew things were changing. The changes came on so slowly and in very subtle ways. Sometimes I thought I was imagining things, honestly, especially in the beginning. I chalked it up to me needing to learn how to trust people, and not to him being untrustworthy.

What were some of the red or yellow flags in the beginning?

There were a lot of yellow flags in the beginning, and I guess none of them would have been too big of a deal if they’d have been the only one. But together, they painted a pretty bleak picture of who this guy was and what I was in for — at least I can see that clearly looking back.

He couldn’t seem to keep a steady living situation. People came and went from his life as if through a revolving door — he seemed to have a new best friend every few weeks. I gathered from stories he told me that he had pretty tumultuous relationships with lots of his family members. He was always nearly broke or completely broke and was constantly asking to borrow money from me even though he had a steady job. He put a lot of effort into ensuring I never saw any communication that came across his phone screen. He littered. And he drank. A lot. That last one was probably the most glaring flag in the beginning, but I just told myself he liked to have a good time and needed to learn his limits.

The biggest red flag came when we went back to our hometown together for the first time. While we were there, he met a lot of my lifelong childhood friends, and none of them were impressed. In fact, they really didn’t like him. That should have been the only flag I needed. I mean, I loved and admired these people and had trusted them completely for years. I cared what they thought. But for some reason, I made excuses for him and decided he just wasn’t good at first impressions.

I just told myself he liked to have a good time and needed to learn his limits.

When did you realize that this was an abusive situation?

Honestly, I didn’t fully realize that until I was out of it and looking back. But over the course of the entire relationship, I definitely had some moments of clarity. There were times when I knew I was being manipulated, controlled, lied to, gaslighted, physically and sexually abused, and cheated on. But other times, I completely forgot I knew that or even HOW to know that. It’s so hard to explain unless you’ve experienced it.

But here’s a short list of telling moments. Trigger warning for anyone who’s been in a situation like mine.

  • He openly hit on my friends and coworkers in front of me — I mean put his hands on these women — and then told me I’d imagined it when I confronted him.
  • He took my credit card, charged nearly $500 to it in gas, alcohol, and meals out, and then claimed they were fraudulent charges.
  • He disappeared for days at a time with no explanation of where he’d been when he finally reappeared.
  • He spent nearly all his evenings at a neighborhood bar getting drunk and came home either belligerent or … aggressively horny is the only way I can describe it.
  • He sometimes became physically violent when he’d been drinking and then claimed not to remember the next morning. He’d tell me I was making it up.
  • He’d pay me back money he owed me and then come up with some urgent reason to need it back the following day, or sometimes even the very same day. He’d become angry if I refused. I always gave in.
  • He threatened to kill my dog.
  • When I was trying to escape the relationship, he lied and told me he’d been raped in an attempt to control me sexually. He knew I’d feel like I needed to wait three months and get tested before I slept with a new partner. And I did.
  • He drove to my apartment drunk, ran his truck up onto the curb and over sidewalks, and on multiple occasions tried to tell me he hadn’t driven, but that the police or a friend had dropped him off.
  • He constantly threatened to commit suicide to get me to do what he wanted me to.
  • After I’d called it off but hadn’t completely severed communication channels, he’d show up at my apartment in the middle of the night completely plastered banging down my door until I let him in.

It seems crazy to me, reading over this list, that I never truly understood in my heart and my head how much danger I was in. But most of the time, I really didn’t. I knew it was a toxic relationship, but I let him throw all the blame on me. I believed him when he told me what a horrible, unreasonable person I was being. Because that’s how he’d conditioned me to see myself.

He sometimes became physically violent when he’d been drinking and then claimed not to remember the next morning. He’d tell me I was making it up.

What was the final straw?

After an argument over the phone, he forced his way into my apartment and tried to steal my laptop. The altercation became a physical assault during which he took my phone and prevented me from calling 911 for help.

How did it feel to report him to the authorities?

In the moment, it felt like an absolute necessity. Like I was going to go completely insane if I had to spend one more day terrified of my own home, of my own phone ringing, of every little noise outside my door. It felt like the only tool I hadn’t yet used to try and keep this person away from me and out of my life, and I had to finally use it.

In the days that followed, I was sick with guilt. He lost his job as a result of the arrest, and I blamed myself. Even though he wasn’t supposed to communicate with me at all, he borrowed friends’ cell phones and called me, begging me to meet up with him, to talk to him, to explain why I felt like I needed the police to solve our problems. He called me crazy. And I wondered if maybe I was.

But in the months that followed, it felt like the one thing that finally put me on a path toward healing. I’d finally taken matters into my own hands and refused to be controlled by him for one more day. Throughout the legal process, I spoke with so many professionals who are familiar with situations like mine. I lost count of all the times these people were able to finish my sentences. They knew what I’d been through because they’d seen it a thousand times before. They showed me love and support, they provided me with resources, and ultimately, they helped me see that I was in no way crazy. I was a victim of abuse.

What was the hardest part of the whole situation?

The complete, total, all-encompassing feeling of worthlessness. It’s true what they say — we accept the love we think we deserve. And I thought so little of myself that I decided I deserved what he was putting me through. I know now that’s exactly how he wanted me to feel.

But equally as difficult was feeling so alienated from family and friends, from all my strongest support systems. I couldn’t be honest with people about the nature of my relationship, but of course, everyone could see what was happening to me. I’ve never felt so alone in my life. Some friends stayed by my side through the entire year of struggle in whatever ways they could — others couldn’t do it, and I don’t blame them. Luckily, they’re all incredibly forgiving and wonderful, and I’ve been able to repair any and all damage he caused to my friendships.

Healing is a process that can’t be rushed. You have to forgive yourself and love yourself through it.

What has helped you heal?

So many things. Advice from professionals and counselors. Support from women who’ve been in my shoes. The love and acceptance of family and friends. The kindness of strangers. An alarm on my phone that reminded me daily “he ain’t shit.” New sheets. Warm cups of tea and beautiful sunsets. High School Musical dance parties. Making time for reading, writing, singing, long bubble baths, and early morning hikes — all the things I love but had neglected for months and months. Moving to a new apartment. Therapy. Exercise. Choosing not to become cynical. Road trips. Art projects. Cry sessions with close friends. Talking about it. Openly. Choosing not to be ashamed. Admitting to myself that I am lucky to be alive. Savoring every happy moment, every burst of laughter, and every breath of fresh, free air. And being kind to myself in the moments when I did start to blame myself again. Healing is a process that can’t be rushed. You have to forgive yourself and love yourself through it.

What would you say to someone who feels stuck in an abusive relationship?

Trust your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, 9.7 times out of 10, it’s not right.

It’s not your fault. It’s never your fault. And no matter how bleak, it’s never too late to escape and have the beautiful life you deserve.

No person, no matter who they are, is ever worth sacrificing your happiness, your sanity, and your identity.

And most importantly of all, you are not alone.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, in any form, please get help.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline
1-800-799-7233 (SAFE)

National Dating Abuse Helpline

National Sexual Assault Hotline
1-800-656-4673 (HOPE)

If these resources don’t seem to fit your situation, visit http://ncadv.org/learn-more/resources for more ways to get help and information.

Are you a survivor of abuse? Has a loved on been through this experience? Let’s have a conversation in the comments.

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