There’s nothing like a romantic relationship to make a person fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy — a concept more commonly expressed as “in for a penny, in for a pound.” Another person’s love will often allow you to see your possession of it as a zero sum game: either it’s entirely there or it’s completely gone. A decent partner will ameliorate this feeling in the other. A manipulator will use it to their advantage.
Here’s the good news: you’re not the type of person who falls prey to head games. Now for the bad: that doesn’t matter. Despots and con artists learned a long time ago that it isn’t necessary to manipulate someone if you can get them to start playing tricks on themselves. It doesn’t matter what you would do or what you would think if “you” turn into someone else. And that’s the ultimate goal of emotional abuse: to transform your values and desires into those of a person that you no longer recognize.
Things aren’t supposed to go this well this quickly. That’s the first of your instincts that you ignore for their sake, and you’re happy to do so. Things can’t get serious quickly enough, as far as you’re concerned. You hadn’t gone on that first date with any expectations of rapture, and even at the end of your first wonderful night together you told yourself that if it all stopped there and you never heard from them again you still would have been satisfied. But you two coalesced so swiftly and so naturally. When you show them love, they pay you back in kind. When you call them something silly and affectionate, they adore it and adopt it as their nickname. They regularly tell you they can’t get over how hot you are and you say the same thing back to them and mean it.
Being with another person has never been this joyful or unforced for you. In most of your past relationships you had the feeling that your partners were tolerating you more than anything; it’s a novelty as well as an inexpressible relief to now feel desired. This is the kind of love you’ve waited for your whole life, the kind you’d do anything to keep.
That’s what they’re counting on.
If you don’t text them more often, they will leave you.
This is what your first fight is about, and it knocks you for a loop. Firstly, because you already text them quite a bit — at least a few times a day, which seems like an appropriate amount considering you’ve only been dating for a couple of weeks. Secondly, because they’ve brought the problem to you with such incredible gravity, and over something that would be so easy to fix or at least discuss. Is it necessary to bring out the nuclear option of a breakup so soon into the dispute? Over texting, of all things?
But, again, this is only your first fight, and not only are you happy to move past it, you’re happy to acquiesce. You like texting them, after all. In a very concrete sense, you’re now just doing more of something that already makes you happy. Besides, isn’t this what you wanted in the first place? Commitment! Devotion! Now you know for sure that they’re just as invested in those ideas as you are. You can’t really call that losing a fight. Can you?
Maybe not. But as you’ll soon find out there are elements of the self that matter beyond a concrete sense of things. As you’ll soon find out, a concrete sense of things is only strong enough to withstand so much.
I’m going to ruminate on something important before I take you any further.
Emotional abuse are two words that seem like they shouldn’t really go together. Physical abuse, sure; in fact, if you’ve been conditioned the same way I have that’s probably what comes into your head as soon as you hear the word abuse. It’s like when an American hears South Korea: the prefix seems redundant, because after all if you meant that other Korea you would have added the qualifier. And physical abuse doesn’t seem to need the qualifier, ever. Your friend will likely be just as horrified if you tell them your partner slapped you as they would be if you said they’d jammed a pair of scissors into your arm. The gradation of harm doesn’t effect the meaning of the act, that meaning most commonly being this person is violent and you need to get away from them.
But if one is to take the position that they have been emotionally abused then the prefix will always be required, and this position will always be expected to have a defense readily articulated. Those bright red lines that come with physical abuse, like a slap or a hurled object, are trickier to spot with emotional abuse and even harder to convincingly describe. Everyone quarrels and everyone has conflicts with each other, after all. People will get angry, people will hurt each other and say things to get what they want (“what’s my motivation?” is a frequently parodied acting cliche for a reason). These things are normal and quite literally everyone has done them at some point, which is why maybe we are so hesitant to use the term emotional abuse on others, lest we enter the dangerous terrain of honesty and find ourselves becoming judge, jury and executioner of our own behavioral crimes.
Yet while conflict is indeed not abuse, the fact that this must be pointed out shows that there is a line between them, however mercurial and thin it may be. Like with physical abuse, the perceived intensity of the act is not what gives it its classification. To abuse something is to exert power over that which one has no right to. This can be done in large ways or in small ones, but it is still abuse.
I wander because I am looking for something; I break my essay’s precocious second-person format only to illustrate a point. When I feel as though I am no longer obligated to build a case for my experience, that’s the day when I will finally be unburdened from it. But for now I’m still studying, still analyzing, still trying to make it real for myself and for others who may not have the words for what’s happening to them and may find the insight useful.
Thank you for indulging me. Let’s continue.
It isn’t that you’re not happy with them anymore; there is still lots of love, still lots of bliss and passion and comfort in each other’s arms. It’s just that now your happiness needs to make room for something else, as well. It is a sinister and nameless presence that joins your happiness, the color of dried blood and the texture of a crosscut saw. If it could speak, it would bark. You don’t like it and you don’t think your partner likes it either, yet still you ask yourself if they hate this thing so much then why do they keep inviting it over?
At first there are only disturbances every couple of weeks. Another harried phone call, another ultimatum that seems to come out of nowhere. You fight, and these fights are frequently wretched, draining occasions. But you tell yourself that neither of you are attacking or insulting one another; you’re just having miscommunications, misreading or misunderstanding each other. This thing of prefixes again: mis is coming before every word now, offering excuses for every transgression. That isn’t ideal, but you think you can live with it. Every couple goes through rough patches, after all.
What you’re not sure you can live with are the ambushes, the emotional bear traps they seem to be leaving under the foliage of your life together. They tell you that to be together it’s mandatory for you to accept that the relationship be polyamorous — something you had no trouble with agreeing to — yet you wake up to a battery of frantically jealous texts and voice mails the morning after you offhandedly mention an OKCupid date that cancelled on you. During an uncomfortable conversation, they tell you it’s okay to say what you’re thinking, and when you do so as tactfully as possible they lock themselves in the bathroom and wail in confused dismay about why you’re trying to hurt them so bad. At one point you let the bubbles in a bath dissolve too quickly, and while this is far from the worst fight it is easily the most absurd and the most symbolic. You start to feel like your shields can never come down.
Stranger still, they never seem to want distance or silence. When you suggest that maybe you refrain from talking to each other over the weekend to cool off they tell you you’re “being dramatic.” The two of you agree that you’ll only discuss your issues in person so that there’s no chance of misinterpretation over the phone, but they end up calling you no matter what. “What good would that rule do anyway?” they ask you, at 4 in the morning, as a neighbor looks out their window and wonders if the loud young shadow pacing back and forth by the gate is real or an unpleasant dream.
It gets to be so you never know when the next fight is coming, what it’s going to be about or how bad it’s going to be. You start going out of your way to avoid conflict at any cost. Your teeth melt together and weld your jaw shut at the first sign of distress. Every conversation is now like a scene in a shitty action movie where you’re a bomb technician with sweat pouring down his forehead, desperately trying to not cut the wrong wire. You’re not supposed to be this nervous all the time. It shouldn’t be this hard just to talk to someone you love.
Have you made mistakes? Of course. Sometimes you have been callous and insensitive or even cruel. You try to catch yourself every time you hurt their feelings and apologize as quickly as you can but you know you can’t account for everything. The only thing keeping you even moderately sane is your assurance that both of your hearts are in the right place. I don’t think we’re trying to hurt each other, they say, and you agree with them.
Until they try to hurt you.
Bad, bad, bad goes the last fight. No blows, no insults as such, but if you stay together it will never be the same. You have dragged yourselves past the breaking point like a pair of drunks being tumbled out of a Lyft. When you come home from their apartment you learn that some of your relatives have been involved in a violent altercation and that their well-being is presently unclear. Your nerves are shot; it is impossible for you to form a coherent thought or do anything but keep your eyes locked to the wall and your feet to the floor so you don’t run out and flush your year of sobriety down the toilet.
Then they text you: we seriously need to talk.
There’s nothing you want less than to talk. You have been talking for hours and all your words, dessicated things that they now are, have gone to waste. You tell them about your present mental state and that you might have to stop talking if you feel yourself getting emotional or uncomfortable. It doesn’t work. You fight again, and when you’re done they text you this:
I want a long, detailed, well-written apology letter about why you’re a bad person. If you can’t or won’t do this I am never speaking to you again.
You get right to work. You don’t think you’re a bad person but it doesn’t even occur to you not to write the letter. Because while you may not be a bad person in the commonly understood sense, i.e. one of low moral character, you are a desperate, craven, broken one and this new nature you’ve adapted to commands that you obey. You might not be a bad person, but this, whatever this is, is unquestionably who you are now.
I accept your apology, they text you later. This proves to be the worst part of all, when you read it and you feel the relief of absolution. You’ve proven to yourself that you know the difference between a healthy relationship and a toxic one and that this distinction doesn’t matter to you anymore. Nothing is good enough to make up for how miserable they make you feel, and nothing is bad enough to make you leave. You don’t like any of it, but you will accept all of it.
To say it breaks would be to imply that it had once been whole. But it does end. Contemptibly (and predictably) you are not the one who ends it. Even after your coerced reconciliation things don’t get back on track; you reach an agreement to scale the relationship back to “casual dating” and after one week of that vague armistice they decide it isn’t working at all. You tell them that since you don’t want to talk to them in anger it might take some time for you to collect your thoughts and bring what you had together to closure. You haven’t talked to them since. You probably never will again.
Until you realized that you were being manipulated you had no idea why you couldn’t seem to make yourself less angry at them, why the knife wouldn’t seem to stop twisting whenever you thought about both the good times and the bad ones. You didn’t realize the degree to which the emotional wounds and the constant worry that you were being monstrous towards your partner had started to define your life. You wondered why it seemed like you couldn’t be “fair” and admit to your role in things not working out, why the fact that they didn’t seem to be intentionally violating your emotions didn’t make it easier for you to forgive them.
But all the instincts you buried while you were with them never went away; you muffled them, but they never stopped shouting at you. You can’t now imagine how you were ever able to ignore such deafening cries. You marvel sadly at your own ability to turn things off.
This is how the subconscious works, in my experience: as you live your life, the parts of yourself that you repress or ignore locate a quiet, dark corner of your mind. Then they build a nest and they watch and take notes. Then, one day, they show you their findings. When you see what they’ve discovered you’re not sure whether you should be angry at them for violating your sense of trust and identity, or for not showing you their work much sooner. But either way, for a little while, anger is all you can feel. Knowledge has its own stages of grief but it’s less of a cycle and more of a line and sometimes the only two points on it are rage and acceptance.
I’ve read that a person can survive or tolerate any experience as long as they know two things about what’s happening: that it will end at some point and that it will not fundamentally change who they are. Emotional abuse is so insidious because it changes who you think you are. It changes you into someone who thinks they are wicked and cowardly even when you know these things not to be the case. You wouldn’t fall for this stuff, but after enough time with this person who “you” are starts to change. “You” will tolerate and accept things that you would never be caught within a thousand miles of. You will still be inside yourself somewhere, bearing witness as “you” are broken down at the molecular level, and you will be screaming yourself hoarse to ears that will not hear.
I realize this has all been portrayed as being very dramatic, perhaps theatrically so. That’s because to a certain degree one must resist the temptation to balance the scales when it comes to telling this story. One will feel as though they must be “fair” and talk about the ways in which their partner was sometimes nurturing and supportive as well as manipulative and cruel. It’s a painful thing to realize your partner’s positive qualities are irrelevant when discussing their abuse. You feel ever more like the embodiment of the villain they’ve painted you to be.
But the biggest step in recovering from emotional abuse is to realize that you have the right to stop telling the other person’s story and start telling your own. Because your experience and your truth are all you’ve got when the judgements subside and the wounds heal. And if there’s something you should learn from what you’ve been through it’s that you, that real you, can survive anything.