Friday, October 16, 2009

Emotional Abuse

I'm taking a little break from the Q&A to talk about something very important to me. Something I've been afraid to talk about for a long time because it's in no way fun or even nice. It's also very personal, but I've decided that I should put myself out there if it helps raise awareness about this issue. If you want definitions, I found this page helpful.

I've been in exactly 2 serious relationships. One turned out amazingly well—Nick, my husband, is the most wonderful man on the planet. He is good and caring and so supportive of me and my crazy dreams. I love him forever for letting me be myself.

The other relationship wasn't so great. Even now, I feel shame over saying it out loud, even though I know it's wrong to feel that way. I was in an emotionally abusive relationship. Me—yes, me. I pride myself on being strong and independent, but somehow that guy tore me to pieces.

People often overlook emotional abuse—no one is getting hit or raped. But I can assure you that emotional abuse is just as damaging. I still haven't fully recovered, though it's been 6 years. It took me almost a year to realize that it wasn't my fault, that leaving him wasn't my own weakness or me abandoning him, but the right thing to do. And there are still things I can't do without getting serious panic attacks, like learning to drive a manual car.

Below is a short story I wrote about that experience. I hope it gives you a feel for what emotional abuse is, because it is a subtle, clever thing. My abuser would have never hit me—he knew I'd leave if he did that. So he used my own caring nature against me, hinting just enough at bad things to keep me afraid and trapped. Thankfully, a few good friends convinced me to get out before I married him. I hate thinking how it would have degenerated if I did.

Driving Lessons
by Natalie Whipple

He’s glaring. His glare is never a good thing, but today it’s laced with something new. Something scarier. I look down, my stomach twists so tight it’s a miracle I don’t throw up. I used to think that was butterflies, but now I know it’s terror.

“You’re going to learn. Right. Now.” His voice is as commanding as his gaze.

I bite my lip, praying he can’t see how much I’m shaking. It’ll hurt his feelings if notices how much he terrifies me, and I have no idea what he’ll do then. He’s told me stories—punching his hand through a wall, throwing someone into a window, an attempted suicide—and I don’t want to be added to the list.

“Natalie, switch seats with me. Now.”

“I-I don’t want to.” I sound so small, helpless. I vaguely remember a time when people said I was the most independent, fiery girl they knew. She’s gone. I don’t know if she was ever there to begin with.

“I don’t care. We’re not leaving until you learn. You don’t have a choice.”

My hand clenches the car door handle. No choice? That can’t be. I muster all my courage—how dare he say I can’t choose. “I’ll just walk home.”

I start to pull the handle, and he grabs my arm. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s tight enough to tell me that he’s angry now. I stare at him. My heart beats up my throat. I can’t form words. He hasn’t let go.

“You are not walking home. I would never let you walk that far alone—it’s not safe.” The glare is now a scowl, the commanding voice now saturated with possession. My eyes water. “You are driving this car. Do you understand?”

I gulp down my protests. Why, oh why, did I have to tell him I didn’t know how to drive stick? I look out at the abandoned parking lot, the abandoned fields around it, the abandoned road. We’re alone. Not too far from home, but utterly alone. No one would hear me scream. Cell phones don’t seem so evil anymore; too bad I don’t have one.

“Fine.” I whisper, forcing the tears to stay put.

He releases my arm. “Don’t you dare think about running.”

I nod because I can’t outrun him. Why in the world did I think he’d let me walk home in the first place? He’s right; it’s not exactly safe. But neither is this.

We switch seats. This is my first time behind the wheel of a manual car, and suddenly I pray it’ll be my last. His tone is patronizing as he explains how everything works. It bothers me, but I don’t dare point it out. “Okay, turn on the car.”

I sit there, frozen. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to. Idon’twantto. Am I crying? Crap. I can’t be crying over this stupid car. But suddenly it feels like a battle of wills, and I’ve never been on the losing end before. “I don’t want to.”

He bangs the dashboard; I jump. “Stop being such a baby. It’s just driving. Don’t make such a big deal out of it.”

But it's not just driving, not anymore. It’s everything about our relationship stuffed into one little micromoment. As stuck as I am in that parking lot, I’m even more trapped by him. I don’t know how this happened. All I know is that I’m terrified and I can’t get out.

So I start the car, and he smiles that smile I first fell for.

To my utter disappointment, I easily shift the gear to first. Maybe under other circumstances I’d be proud, but now I’ve only proved his point. His smile turns smug, and he kisses my cheek. “Now was that so hard?”

I shake my head, even though it was the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life.


  1. I have that sick feeling in my stomach just reading this. I was in an emotionally abusive relationship in college for 3 years... nearly 20 years ago. And it still come at me every now and then, the memories of the butterflies and the fear. My sister's mother-in-law, when I mentioned recently--as an aside, not a discussion point--that I'd been in an unhealthy relationship, she said, "I'd never have put up with that."

    What people don't understand is that the 'you' that enters relationships like this would never put up with that either. But the abuse comes at you gradually, until it defines the relationship and you. And you don't know how to get out--you're afraid to get out. Because if he can say he loves you, in spite of your obvious weaknesses and flaws (that he points out daily), then you better stick with him. Who else would want you? He told me once that although he loved me, he didn't think I would make a good wife b/c I was too weak.

    I'm a wife now--a strong one--and the mother of 4 kids. But becoming strong after 3 years of virtually hating myself was the hardest task of my life.

    Thanks for sharing this story and your story. There are too many kinds of abuse and too many varieties of violence for us to ignore any of them.

  2. My best friend was in an emotionally abusive relationship for about a year, three years ago. He drove her to pushing her friends away, hurting herself...she had a complete breakdown. If her parents hadn't moved her away, I shudder to think what might have happened. It pisses me off that even afterwards, he tried to contact her.

    Thankfully, she's now in a really good relationship, and she's taking back and fixing what her ex tried to break.

    Emotional abuse is not something to take lightly, and I'm glad to see that there are people who are bringing awareness to it.

    This was a wonderful post, Natalie. Great job, and thank you for sharing. =)

  3. Thanks for sharing, Bobbie! I was the same way—how could anyone get caught up in that? But it's true—you just don't see it coming. Especially when you're young and inexperienced.

    By the time I realized it was a bad situation, I was almost defeated. And crawling out of the pit felt impossible.

    The mind games are the worst part. It took a long time to figure out who I was again.

  4. Mireyah, I'm glad your friend is in a better place! It's so scary that we all know someone who's been in this. It so prevalent, so hard to escape. But I hope we can all be more aware.

  5. Wow, Natalie. I don't have anything to add, just *hugs*. You are strong!

    I'm so happy for you that you had the courage and the strength to get OUT, and find someone who really loves you.

  6. I know that was hard to write so I just wanted to acknowledge it. *hugs*

  7. I've been thinking about doing another post on this for awhile...I will now. It's something that I think about nearly every day, and it's something a lot of people don't think about enough.

    You're amazing, love. You and Nick give me hope that someday I'll find my own happy ending too :)

  8. One of the few things that really makes me feel rage is thinking about you being treated like that. Anyone really.

  9. What a wonderful post Natalie. A real gift to your readers. I certainly had a relationship that had control issues and left me doubting myself. The person in question used, what are my best qualities, against me - not always - but from time to time. I came to a slow realization that I felt empty inside all the time and that I constantly felt disappointed. I also occasionally felt fear because he was once violent. It only needed to be once because I modified my behaviour from then out so as not to make him angry. By the time I left I felt nothing but resentment toward him.

    There is an upside though. I learnt a lot about myself. I learnt what I wanted from a relationship and not to accept anything else. I think those two years helped to crystalize my own strengths and gave me a total jerk radar that can pick them out in a crowd.

    The problem is that a lot of women are left feeling undermined and without any confidence. I think that posts like yours will help to show them that it's not their fault. Maybe one of your readers will recognize themselves and get out.

    When you leave it's easy to feel like a failure. I decided to take the attitude that being single again meant I was available for the real move of my life. Within two months of breaking up I met my husband, who is the love of my life. We've been together now for 17 years.

  10. Natalie,

    Thank you so much for sharing this honest and personal story. I cringe at the decisions I made in my early 20s about relationships, where lots of self-loathing resulting from emotional abuse occurred. I'm so glad you had the courage to speak out about something that happens far too often as just as often we feel we have to keep it hidden.

  11. Yikes. Just makes me want to cry. Thank heavens you were able to get out of it.

  12. Janey, you're right about the learning thing. Though I wouldn't recommend learning to spot a d-bag this way—it IS quite effective;) I never got close to a guy like that again. I could just FEEL it in the air when they were close.

    But I also missed out on a lot of dating opportunities because I felt undeserving of the nice guys...or completely missed the fact that they were interested because I thought I was a complete loser.

    It was so obvious how great Nick was when I met him though. I knew not to let him go:)

  13. I think it's happening younger and younger. My niece who is only 16 was in one. When her mom told me they were in counseling, I was floored, she was too young to be in a relationship where they need to be counseled.

    Luckily she found a way out.

    Your story really drove home just how damaging and crippling emotional abuse can be.

  14. Thank you for sharing your experience; It's hard to come back from something like that. You're a strong woman and I feel privileged to know you.

  15. Natalie,
    you are so brave for sharing this!
    I believe our relationships should make us better. I'm sorry you had to be a victim of this.

  16. That sounds horrible. I had a friend who was in an emotionally abusive relationship in college. She had a very hard time getting through it. I'm glad you found a man who treats you right.

  17. Thanks for sharing. This just goes to show that if it can happen to a strong, independent person like you, it can happen to anyone. I've had quite a few friends and family members have this sort of thing (to different extents) happen to them. Thanks for giving girls in those kinds of relationships a glimpse of what you went through. Hopefully those who are still in them will be able to get out.

    I'm so glad you found Nick! Cheers for Nick! and all guys like him.

  18. Wonderfully-written story, Natalie. I have a friend who went through a similar experience, a boyfriend who hinted about suicide etc, but like you she was strong and got away.

    One thing though - I don't think it's quite fair to say emotional abuse is as damaging as physical or sexual abuse. Not least because physical and sexual abuse is often accompanied by emotional abuse.

    1. @whereimbloggingfrom: How is emotional abuse not as damaging as physical or sexual abuse? Is it because emotional abuse doesn't have visible scars, so is difficult to prove? The assumption that emotional abuse isn't as harmful as physical or sexual abuse is a common misconception. Emotional abuse doesn't always accompany physical or sexual abuse, although you are right that it happens side by side very often.

  19. It's really scary how common emotionally abusive relationships are. But it's not something that a lot of teenage girls are aware of.

    And it really can happen to anyone. Like you, I considered (and consider) myself to be a very strong woman. Not the doormat type at all. But I got involved in an emotionally abusive relationship in high school. He was my first "love" and it was very hard to realize what was going. And very, very hard to get out of.

  20. Natalie, Thank you SO much for this beautiful post. So many young girls and women have low self esteem and put up with behavior they shouldn't. Any time a female puts themselves down or allows themselves to be put down for their "guy" it is a form of emotional abuse.

    Joining together and speaking our truths is freeing and empowering. Thank you, Natalie, for speaking yours.

  21. Whereimbloggingfrom, I know that's a strong way to put it, but I deliberately said that because of what you just mentioned.

    Physical and sexual abuse often STARTS with emotional abuse. And it's very unfair that we as a society ignore the problem until it's that bad. It's the difference between preventative care and triage.

    Looking at my relationship now, I have no doubt that he would have hit me at some point. And I'm so grateful that I found a way out before then. Because when the hitting starts, it's even HARDER to leave.

    It might sound weird to you, but the mental bruises last far long than the physical ones. Those are the ones that take years to sort out. Emotional Abuse is part of every abusive relationship, and we need to be more aware of its impact.

    1. Thank you Natalie Whipple, I just said something similar in my own post a minute ago.

  22. I don't really have words for this one. All I can say is that those micromoments seem to last forever and their memory feels like forever. Even when I'm now safely in the shade of another love, those creeping terrors seem to lurk just out of sight. I still wake from dreams of that old life--even ten years later--and I wonder how I ever summoned enough strength to get out.
    All I know is that I did and I bless the Hand of God daily.

    Thank you for your bravery.

  23. Thank you for sharing this, Natalie. I mean it.

  24. I thank God every day that you have Nick!

  25. Whoa...this totally reminds me of the book I just finished.
    The Chosen One.

  26. What a brave and honest story. Thank you so much for sharing.

  27. Wow, thank you for sharing this. I admire your bravery for putting yourself out there and bring awareness to the situation.

  28. Natalie that story was amazingly told, full of raw emotion that I felt so powerfully. Thank you for sharing. I'm sure you are helping someone by speaking up.

    You are a strong girl.

  29. Thanks for this story.

    A twitterpal sent this last night, an article on emotional abuse by Andrew Vachss. Fifteen years old, and it grips me ferociously, still:

  30. Thanks for sharing that. I am sure your post will help many women in emotionally abusive relationships.

    I am glad you had the strength to get out of it.

  31. This might be the first time I've commented on your blog, but I wanted to thank you for sharing this. My sister is sorting out being married to a man like this. And it gets exponentially more complicated when there are kids involved. She didn't work, so he had financial control as well. She tried to leave a few times, but he'd always come back with roses and apologies and promises. But she finally left for good. She and her two children are living with my parents. I think she had to wait for them to be old enough so she could safely look for a job.

  32. Natalie, your story was very touching. I'm sorry you had to go through that. I think a lot of young women do. I know I was lucky. I was heading down that same road once in my life as well. Many of the things you wrote about I remember being part of my relationship so many years ago. I remember seeing the hole in the wall, and his treatment of his pet, and wondering how far it would go. It got ugly, and creepy, before it was all over.
    But it is over, and it has been for years. I don't even think about him anymore. Someday, maybe you can say the same.

  33. I grew up with an emotionally abusive father. I saw the scars that inflicts, I've lived with them, too. You got yourself out of it and it sounds like you understand that the problem isn't with the abused, but with the abuser.

    What I feel really bad about are women/men/whomever who dont see that if they know they are in a bad situation and stay they are lying down to take it like a doormat. They are afraid, and they are letting fear keep them frozen in place like a deer in the headlights. I really hope such people read posts and articles like yours and find the wherewithall to call a women's shelter, the police, a good friend or relative and Get Out of that situation.

    Thanks for sharing.

  34. Thanks for the story and for sharing this part of your life.

    I've known too many friends that were in an emotionally abusive relationship.

    And I've even known a few men who were in these relationships, with their overly controlling, threatening girlfriends. I know it's not as common, but it certainly does exist. And the men are often afraid they'll look like they are wimps if they tell anyone.

  35. Yikes. That is some heavy stuff.

    I find it interesting that most people are commenting on this topic only in a boyfriend/girlfriend type relationship. I just want to mention that it is also a serious problem in other relationships as well. (Like father to daughter, aunt to niece, in-law to in-law etc).

    Emotional abuse is emotional abuse and is just as damaging no matter if it is a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship or some other relationship like mother to son, cousin to cousin, etc.

    I just want to mention this because when I found myself in an emotionally abusive situation it wasn't with a boyfriend or with my spouse. And it seems that because it was some other type of relationship and not a boyfriend/girlfriend or a spouse, family members and friends didn't stick up for me or help to get me out.

    A number of my in-laws are emotionally abusive and they and other family members and friends have told me to stick with if for the sake of family. Please, do not stay in an emotionally abusive situation for the sake of family! Don't believe that. It is a lie. Family does not treat you that way. Please, don't put up with emotional abuse!. It took me a while to figure it out.

    It has been four years and, but I still struggle. I finally got to the point where I don't shake uncontrollably the few random times they call or email. So, Please, if you have friends in an emotionally abusive situation NO MATTER THE RELATIONSHIP boyfriend/girlfriend, in-law to in-law, father to son, etc help them get out and support them.

    1. Thanks for pointing this out, H-Duck. So many people think either emotional abuse isn't as bad as physical and sexual abuse, or that emotional abuse only happens between people in a romantic relationship. I appreciate your willingness and courage to speak out on a little known topic in an already little talked about problem in today's society.

  36. It's my first time visiting this blog. I just want to say I'm sorry that that happened to you. it must have been hard to write that down (although I know very little about emotional abuse).

  37. Oh, Natalie. Your posts are always so BRAVE. I really admire that. I'm happy that you got out of this relationship when you did, and I'm SO happy that you found Nick. Thanks for sharing your story. I can tell by the number of comments that it's already made a difference :)

  38. Aye yie yie. This is frighteningly familiar. This piece says it all: oh, he loves you so much, would NEVER hurt you, but gives you a psychological beat down every day. The manipulation. Yuck. Thinking back on it makes me sick. And yet, the GUILT you feel years later for ending it. And the shame of letting it happen to you.

    I feel ya. My college boyfriend--emotional abuser extraordinaire--reportedly stayed in bed for two days after I left him for the man who is now my husband. My amazing, kind, wonderfully uncomplicated husband. He used to say that there was a string tied around both our hearts. I KNOW!

    I think the greatest tragedy of emotional abuse for young women is that the cycle rarely ends. The first one either never ends or it sets her up for a long future of one abusive relationship after another. You and I managed to course correct. I think we're the lucky ones.

    I can't imagine how dark, sad, and lonely my life would be now if I hadn't ended it. I almost married the guy. Yikes.

  39. I was raised by an emotionally abusive father who was occasionally physically abusive as well. His emotional abuse stung much worse, however, and I still hear his voice in my head ALL the time. I've been through loads of counseling. It is JUST as damaging as physical/sexual abuse. Abuse is abuse.

    I find it an interesting coincidence that one of my worst memories of my father is being in a truck with him while he attempted to teach me to drive a stick. It was utterly traumatic and to this day (18 years later...) I still refuse to drive stickshift!

    You're brave to share, thanks.

    1. We have something in common Heather, I too was raised by an emotionally abusive father who occasionally physically abused me as well. I agree, emotional abuse hurt far more than the physical abuse. In fact, I preferred the physical abuse to the emotional abuse, because it didn't hurt as much. I've been through very little counseling, how do I get started?

      One of my worst memories was also learning how to drive a stick shift with my dad. I can do it if I have to, but I've avoided driving stick shift ever since I refused to let him teach me how to drive a car.

  40. Thank you for being brave and sharing this. I don't really want to say anything else, for a lot of reasons, but I thought it important to say that.


  41. I was in an emotional abuse for about a month, but that month felt like a whole year to me.

    He was so nice to me. He was sweet and sensitive. I completely fell for him. But slowly, slowly, the nice and sweet him started to fade and the one that tried to control my every move took his place.

    He slowly made me change the way I acted, to fit his needs. He made me hang out with my friends less, and push them away. I told him I wanted to take things slow, and he tried to rush me.

    He made fun of my insecurities, and let his friends insult me behind my back and to my face. Yet every day he tried to convince me that he liked me.

    I kept putting up with everything that he's done to me. I convinced myself it was my fault, and that I deserved this. He made my self esteem drop, after I worked so hard to make it better, he ruined it.

    He tried to scare me so that he would be the one there to comfort me. He tried to break me down so that I would never leave him.

    But one day, He decided that he would try to convince me that he loved me. He tried to convince me for hours that he loved me, after I only knew him for a month.

    The next day when I saw him, I told him that we were done, and I didn't want to see him again.

    He insulted me and spread rumors about me and told all of his friends to be mean to me as well.

    Even months after we broke up, he made my self esteem drop, made me think that I deserved all of this, and I had trouble trusting anyone.

    Because of my newfound trust issues, I started to keep everything bottled up, contemplated suicide, and tried to cut once.

    Luckily I only scratched myself, and the only scars I have now you can't see. I am still not completely over what he did for me, and just as soon as I think I'm doing better, I go back to square one.

    After he abused me, I started to realize that my parents were also emotionally abusing me as well, and I only realized that it wasn't normal after I went out with him. Being surrounded by all this abuse drove me crazy for a little while.

    I am really proud of you for sharing your story. Your strength and courage gives me hope.

  42. My twin actually physically abuses me. She will hit me, or kick me, or push me against a window or a wall and just hold me there, waiting to see if I will try to push her away so that she can say I hurt her first.

    She has made the whole school mark me as the violent one, and she is the sweet one. I just wait until the day that everyone sees her for what she really is.

    I am truly proud of you for sharing your story *hug*