You’ve been officially “an adult” for a few years now. Your friends are starting to settle down in serious relationships and some are even having babies. You have this ideal picture that you’ll be a mum well before 30.
So when he comes along and asks you out, of course you agree. He’s so masculine and so into you! Something about him makes you feel like he will protect you and you find him kind of exciting.
He’s so into you that he shares some of his vulnerability with you. His troubled childhood, his damaged heart. By this stage you’re pretty into him too, and your own heart aches for his painful history. You silently vow to protect him from ever feeling that pain again. You will love him and make sure you don’t hurt him.
So when he starts getting jealous about the time you spend with your family and your friends, initially you stand up to him and tell him he’s being unreasonable. He loses his temper and things get pretty scary. He points out how you’re just like all the others who have let him down. For a brief moment you’re stunned by how crazy he’s being. But eventually he turns on the tears or the remorse, and you realise that he’s not crazy, he’s just damaged. You decide you’ll be more sensitive in the future. So you limit the time you spend with your family or friends. Or you at least limit how much you tell him.
Some of your loved ones start expressing their concern. They’ve seen some behaviour or had some conversations that have raised alarm bells. They warn you gently and you brush it off. They don’t understand the complexity. And then they warn you more vocally and it actually kind of pisses you off. Things are good right now. Sure, it got terrifying a few days ago, but he’s sorry and now things are good, so don’t mess with it! You’re sure they’re totally overreacting – you are not one of those poor suckers in an abusive relationship. Are you…? Don’t be ridiculous.
And then it starts again. He’s angry at you. He needs to make you understand that it’s you who has the problem. Just like all the others! “You think you’re something special!” he belittles you. Despite his otherwise quiet nature, he’s really a very competent communicator when he needs to overpower you.
In a struggle to retain some of your self-worth, you might tell him what other people say about him. After all, in this moment, you entirely agree with them. You tell him that you should have listened to your mother. She was right – he is an abusive no-hoper who isn’t worth a minute more of your time.
And then he really loses it. Because not only have you enraged him with someone else’s criticism, you’ve proven his point. All those other people you love cannot be trusted. They’re all trying to turn you against him. And not only that, you’ve now hinted at the possibility that you may not stick around. So now, out come the big guns. Maybe literally.
Things calm down again, either because he’s sorry or because you’re afraid. Now that you’ve shared that other person’s judgment, you really need to be careful. His hatred for them has escalated and you don’t want him to be reminded of what they said, so you might distance yourself a little bit further.
Maybe you try leaving. But his anger or his sadness makes you return. He’s really very good at making you believe that it’s all in your head and you’re overreacting. He’s good at making you think it’s going to be different in the future.
And the cycle continues…
At some point you come to believe that it’s too late to leave. Maybe it’s because you think you’ve committed too much time to this relationship and you’ll have to settle for it to fulfil your “kids by 30” plan. Maybe it’s because you have no one left to go to for support because you’ve cut everyone off. Or maybe it’s because you’ve realised that he will not allow you to leave.
It’s not too late
By the time I was around 26 I had decided that having children was no longer an option. But neither was leaving. After 8 years of trying to learn how to make this the relationship I wanted, I realised it was never going to be that. But I also believed (after having a loaded gun aimed at me) that he wasn’t going to let me leave alive. So I grimly accepted that this was my life now and I just had to learn how to manage it in a way that would keep me safe.
From then on, I tried to stay out of his way and kept my head down when things got nasty.
I decided that if I was going to live this very lonely life, I was going to have to learn to love myself. Which was pretty hard, considering by this stage I believed I was worthless. I was lucky that there were quite a few people still in my life who believed in me and never wavered in their support of me (spoiler alert: I actually ended up marrying one of them). So I studied, and I did a lot of self-reflection, and I tried to improve myself – not for anyone else but for me.
Eventually, three years after my decision to accept that I was going to stay forever, I did make the decision to leave. Partly out of courage and conviction that there was a better life out there for me; and partly because I didn’t care anymore if I didn’t make it out alive – all I knew was that I couldn’t keep living this way.
I’m not going to lie. It was terrifying. For a long time. Still is, sometimes. But so was staying.
A plea to the woman who is back in the early stages of my story
If you have the personal alarm bells… if your family is expressing concern… if you are starting to change your behaviour and your other relationships to keep him calm… if you are trying to keep some innocent details a secret because you know it will upset him…
Please, please, please, seek help.
Your life plans may look a little different, but they’re different now anyway, right? This was not the life you planned, and deep down you know it.
Reach out to your family or friends. Reach out to local support services. Visit 1800RESPECT.org.au or phone 1800 737 732 for 24-hour confidential information, counselling, and support. Call 000 if you are in danger.
My life now
I am now happily married in a respectful and loving relationship. We disagree sometimes. We irritate each other plenty. Sometimes we fight. But it’s never nasty, it’s never disrespectful, and it’s never about power. We have a beautiful little boy and good jobs. I offer personal development coaching because I have seen how learning to love and respect myself could lead to such massive change. I want to help other people live the life they want.
Sometimes I still wonder if it was all in my head like he said… but some of those memories I couldn’t make up if I tried. You know as well as I do that it’s not you. Please seek help.