Trigger Warning: Emotional Abuse
“You can never guess how a woman is going to react if she faces physical or mental abuse. Even you may put up with it, not get out of it,” she told me. She was a social worker who worked with victims of domestic abuse, so her word was probably accurate. I nodded along, too awed by her to say otherwise. But I disagreed with her. How could I not leave an abusive relationship? I have fairly modern-thinking parents who love and support me. I have friends who would give me courage and tell me when I am not being treated with respect. Most importantly, I was a feminist. This would never happen to me.
Five years later, I still have all those things. Yet here I am, trying to figure out how I could have gotten into (and thankfully, out of) a mentally abusive relationship.
It started with a lot of chemistry and excitement, like most relationships do. We had a few similar and many dissimilar interests, we had the same kind of sense of humour, and gradually, we fell in love. Within a few months, I moved to another city for a job. Even though I did move back after almost two years, by then, he had decided to move to a place where my career had no prospects. Hence, we decided to end our relationship. That’s how the story goes, superficially.
I was a feminist. This would never happen to me.
Recently, while reading about depression, I realised I was exhibiting many, if not most of the signs of this mental illness for most part of the latter half of my relationship. And that I had been doing much better since I broke up. I had been dull, listless, showed sudden change in weight and appetite, and had lost all my creative instincts and pursuits. As I delved further into my memories of the relationship, read more about abuse/control, and analysed my situation, I found it harder and harder to believe the things I had put up with.
It’s not like there weren’t any early warning signs. With the weapon of emotional distance, I recalled him having a problem with me going for one of my closest friends’ bachelorette party. It had been my fault for wanting to go, because “I didn’t understand what happens at such parties and wouldn’t be willing to address something that bothered him because I was too selfish.” I ended up not going due to work, but I remember being relieved that I didn’t have to put up another fight.
This was not the only such instance. There would be many times that I went out with my friends and came back to a cold treatment that lasted for days. When I once wanted to visit my friend in another city, I was told off for not taking him along and being “ashamed of him”, all for wanting to spend alone time with a close friend. Whenever I tried discussing this cold and distant behaviour, it was followed by gaslighting, where I was told that I was being ridiculous and there was no change in his behaviour. I slowly started limiting my already limited social outings. This was the first time I was living independently, in charge of my own finances, home, and life. And I felt like a prisoner.
I found it harder and harder to believe the things I’d put up with.
The situation with my male friends and acquaintances was much worse. I was deemed untrustworthy due to having had relationships in the past. I was made to block my exes on Facebook even though I shared a cordial relationship with one of them and had no feelings left for any of them. I had my privacy violated. My Facebook and Whatsapp conversations were no longer my own. I was “good with men,” you see. I was not to be trusted with any male.
I had received many grand gifts as gestures of his affection in the beginning of the relationship. To some extent they held me hostage. Any romantic gesture would be followed by “I hope you are telling your friends about this.” I did, dutifully. I never told them about his vicious and toxic behaviour. They would never stand any guy treating me so. I was guilty myself that I let someone treat me so, and closed up to my loved ones. I had only one person close to me, and his toxicity was passing on to me. I was afraid my friends would tell me to break it off with him. I didn’t have the energy for a fight; it was all being drained by trying not to fight with him. My non-confrontational nature made things worse for me.
I was “good with men,” you see. I wasn’t to be trusted with any male.
“At least he is good with my family. At least he is supportive of my career.” I didn’t realise that ‘at least’ had become the basis of my relationship. He wanted us to be a ‘power couple’, and somehow I was holding us back even though he practiced the most common profession in urban India. His mother once told me that I’m ‘lucky’ because he will take me to the Western world with him. I don’t know if ‘lucky’ was the word for a future where I was taken away from every possible support system I could have. I knew all this was wrong. I said nothing. There was no scope for dissent.
The truth is, I did try to leave the relationship more than once. There was a tiny part of me that would be elated and relieved whenever that happened. But I got back into the relationship. It was a cycle. I also knew that me trying to leave the relationship would be used against me the next time we fought. He was the one ‘who fought for the relationship’ you see. He was getting tired of taking on all the responsibility of making it last. It never occurred to him to take the responsibility of making me want to stay. People put up with much worse in their lives, I told myself. They survive. So can I. I knew it was a lie, but I was too tired to argue even with myself.
There was no scope for dissent.
At the fag end of our relationship, I refused to speak to him unless he apologised for insulting me. It was a petty matter compared to the many, many, many times he had disrespected me in the past. The silence went on for two-three days, and I realised that they were the most peaceful days I had seen for a long period. I was eating better, sleeping better, feeling lighter and more capable.
When he asked to get back together, there was a voice in my head that told me this is never going to get better. I should give it up, let it go. This was the voice that had been telling me for almost two years that I’m not being treated with respect. I’m not being given the freedom, autonomy and joy that any individual in a relationship should feel entitled to. For once, I listened to this voice. I got out. I gave it up, I let it go.
I could blame him, I suppose. I could blame the popular culture that makes a woman believe abuse is love. I could blame the laws, morals and ethics of this society. I could even blame myself. But I choose not to. I choose to give myself some credit for getting out of this poisonous relationship. I choose to give myself some respect, and I choose to love myself as I am. I never got all this when I was with him. And I promise to listen to that little voice in my head who kept giving me warning signals, and who always looks out for me. The feminist voice.
Featured Image Credit: Emerge Center