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23 October 2018

Everyone asked why I left my “lovely” boyfriend. I didn’t have the words to explain

The emotional abuse and manipulation was so subtle and gradual that it wasn’t until much later that I realised what had happened to me.

By Anonymous

I met him at university, on a night out in fresher’s week for people on our course. I was feeling painfully introverted, wearing a hot pink dress that had felt fine in my room but now felt way too short and tight. He was friendly with a nice smile, but also seemed kind of nerdy and a bit awkward, which I liked. He put me at ease and he made me laugh. We stuck together on that night out, and on the long walk home to our student halls he let me wear his shoes and jacket.

I’m a slow mover, romantically speaking, so although I liked him nothing happened between us for a long time. We became friends, hanging out together after lectures and confiding in each other about our lives back home – and our exes. The day after Valentine’s Day he told me that he’d drunk a bottle of whisky and left an angry voicemail for his ex-girlfriend. I didn’t think too much of it at the time, because I remembered him saying she’d cheated on him. “Boys do these things when they’re heartbroken,” I thought to myself – not thinking too much about what it would have been like for her to listen to him screaming down the phone that she deserved to die alone. Already, I’d got into a place where his suffering and his struggle mattered more than my feelings or anyone else’s.

Eventually, in our second year, we got together. After maybe a month, I met all of his friends at a house party. I was so nervous about meeting them that I drank way too much. They were fun, interesting people – most of them were in the same student theatre society – and they were friendly and welcoming. I loved watching the way he was with them; the performer in him came out and he was the life of the party. I loved being the girlfriend of this charming, funny guy. I quickly became part of this new group, and I always sat in the front row at his shows. After a few months a close friend of his called Charlotte* said to me: “I’m so glad you’re in his life, he’s a much better person now he’s with you.” At the time I was so flattered, but now I realise that when your partner’s friend says that to you, it should be a red flag.

For most of my time at university, I felt happy. I loved my course, I had become active in politics, and I had a nice boyfriend. But over time things started to change – so gradually that I barely noticed. One time I got a first on an essay that I’d worked really hard on, and had been really worried about. When I told him, overjoyed, he scowled. I asked him what was wrong and he said that he’d got a 2:2 on the essay he’d just had back, and he couldn’t understand why. He started ranting about his tutor, and got so worked up about it that instead of celebrating my achievement I dropped everything to comfort him. Eventually I came to dread every essay mark in case mine was higher than his.

After graduation we moved in together. He joined a theatre troupe with some of his friends from university and started a masters course, and I got a job. As well as earning the money to support us (although his parents paid his rent) I did most of the cooking and looked after the house. By now I was spending most of my time and energy managing his moods. It was easier for me to handle things myself than to deal with the way he was when he was stressed or upset. And besides – I loved him and wanted to take care of him. I’m a nurturing person, and when I see someone hurting I want to soothe them. So I did everything I could do soothe him, even when it meant making myself smaller so that he felt bigger and more important.

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Having been the chair of my student political society at university, after we moved in together I pulled away from politics in the city. I didn’t have any friends who weren’t his friends, and I didn’t have any outside interests that didn’t involve him. If I tried to do things on my own he would get upset and ask why I didn’t want to spend time with him. Didn’t I love him? If I ever tried to raise an issue with him about the way he’d behaved, or told him he’d upset me, he would snap and start repeating things like: “I’m worthless, you shouldn’t be with me, I should just kill myself.” And then I would comfort him and reassure him that he was amazing, I loved him, I didn’t mean it.

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While we were together, I’d slowly been coming to realise that I’m bisexual. Coming from a small town I’d never really had a chance to question or explore my sexuality, and it wasn’t until he and I had been together for a couple of years that I felt comfortable admitting it to myself. The day I told him, we’d been at Pride together – with our friends, some of whom were openly bi. He was always a very vocal “ally”, always on the right side of the issues. He had rainbows painted on his face that day, so I thought he would be supportive. We’d been sitting on our bed having a cuddle, but when I said it, he stiffened, pushed me away, and looked at me with a coldness that completely shocked me. He said: “What are you trying to do by telling me that?” He got angry, said that now he was going to worry about me cheating on him with women as well as men. I tried to explain that it wasn’t like that, I wanted to be with him, I was just trying to be honest. After that day we never spoke about it again, and it was another part of myself that I had to cut off to keep him happy.

No one on the outside saw any of this. Everyone else saw him on stage, making people laugh, having amazing chemistry with his friends and fellow performers. He was known on the local theatre scene as a lovely, dependable guy. People said things to us like “you two make me believe in love”. They didn’t know that I couldn’t even stand to play board games with him anymore – as soon as I started to win it was like a cloud fell over the room, and it became unbearable. I would feel my whole body tense up while I watched his face, willing him to roll a high number or come up with a good move, and wondering whether he was going to snap before the end of the game. Afterwards, if I’d won he wouldn’t speak to me for a while, or if he did it would be to say how stupid he was, so that I would comfort him. It sounds like such a small thing, but even now I feel my chest tighten when I think about playing Scrabble.

When I left him, everyone was shocked. People would call me asking how I could have done this to him, didn’t I know he was devastated? I didn’t have the words to explain what had happened between us, even to myself. The emotional abuse and manipulation was so subtle and gradual that it wasn’t until much later that I started to process and realise what had happened to me.

After we broke up, he sent me some threatening messages, and would quite often text me in the middle of the night with “are you awake?” I believe he was trying to work out whether I was alone or seeing other people. On Valentine’s Day, almost a year after we’d broken up, he sent me a play that he’d written about our break up – in which he was a likeable, funny, sensitive guy and I was cold and humourless and had broken his heart. I’m sure he still sees himself as the victim. All the while he and his theatre troupe – some of whom I’d considered good friends and I now don’t see – continued to be successful. The arts scene in our city is vibrant but very inter-connected, so I don’t really go to the theatre much anymore.

A few weeks ago, Charlotte called me. He had been kicked out of their troupe and banned from all their events, because six women had come forward with testimony about his harassment and emotional abuse, including her. She said “it’s like you were Patient Zero, and since then he’s refined his pattern.”

For more information about how to spot emotional abuse, visit Chayn. To report domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence helpline on 0808 2000 247.