Self-love in and After an Emotionally Abusive Relationship
Unraveling Everything to Move Forward
Well Hello! Welcome to the metaphorical psychological frogging (unraveling a project in fiber art lingo) of my long term relationship that, turns out, was emotionally abusive.
I'm almost two months out of a 6+ year abusive relationship. The abuse was emotional. It wasn't physical, it wasn't verbal assaults or insults, it wasn't consistent, it wasn't even always out loud. It was a lot of 'reading the room' and learning unspoken rules of engagement. It was a lot of early intervention to 'bad days' to recalibrate him so I wouldn't have to be so anxious that he might just get mad at me for no reason or get disproportionally mad about a small thing he never articulated to me. It was a lot of non verbal dismissals of my invites to engage him in my interests.
Most confusingly, it wasn't always like that. By the end, actually, I'd gotten so good at the unspoken rules we had way more good days than bad. I didn't even leave the relationship because it was abusive, it was so subtle I didn't realize it had been abusive until two weeks after it ended.
He supported my career wholeheartedly, did sweet and loving caring gestures for me in social situations, helped provide care after bad days at work, he was still romantic often with dates and notes. He helped me love myself fully and also taught me that I shouldn't trust myself in relationships and inflicted some pretty damaging hit points to the same self-esteem he helped build.
It has been extremely confusing to process that. How both things were true. How both things are true.
I'm not really angry anymore. Sometimes I'm anxious he or his family will reach out suddenly, somehow, in some form I haven't blocked. Mostly I'm just healing now. It's actually been a lovely process so far. Having more time for my hobbies, more time with my cats, more time to be in very quiet environments (he liked background noise, I didn't) and I'm taking an inventory. What changed, what needs healing.
I was shocked to find my self-esteem on that list. During my relationship with him I learned to love myself, radically and fully. Flaws and all. He supported that. He often had very loving things to say about me as well (provided I was not challenging any of the unspoken rules that included conflict between him and I). He celebrated me and my success often. He also made me doubt my perception of our relationship nonstop. We were only 'officially' together the last year because for the first 5 years he insisted we were just friends. Curious though, since it was the exact same relationship in the first 5 years as it was in the last year. I'd observe when he was mad and he'd insist he wasn't and over time he taught me to believe it was my baggage that was making me believe he was mad when he wasn't. Or that he was dismissing me when he wasn't -- when he was just busy or distracted. He really did care about what I had to say, he'd assure me, but he just had important things to take care of right at that moment.
Subtle right, it never occurred to me that I was not an important thing or person in those moments and there were a lot of those moments. He made it seem so reasonable that I shouldn't count unless it was convenient for him. Or that my feelings were always big responses to small events when it was the same thing every time -- I needed him to care about the fact that I felt things. I had and have no problem agreeing to disagree. I do however need the person I'm with to care if I'm upset or care about my spirituality or let me have opinions different then there own without mocking me for them.
It got to a point where I'd be so self aware I would articulate to him exactly how I was feeling, what I needed for self-care, what role he could have in that if he felt up to it and if not, well that's okay but then I need to go to my place and take care of myself. Then, he'd almost always invite me over, not do the self-care things I had articulated and then get mad at me for responding in the exact way I told him I would if I didn't do some self-care.
That taught me that people won't love me if I take care of myself first and that I should feel guilty and ashamed for needing that. That any mistake on my part, and by mistake I mean humanity, any normal need or boundary set for me, any expression of likes or opinions that he deemed unworthy were taught to me through withholding affection, withholding love paired with the bizarre requirement that I stay at his place with him (So I couldn't get away from the emotional punishment?) and then if I named what was happening in any way, including lovingly, gently, respectfully he would gaslight the hell out of me and tell me I was wrong. It was my baggage making me think that and then suggest something for me to go do that I enjoyed. How fucking demeaning.
Instead I took care of him first and last, and kept what few leftovers there were for myself, often at the expense of friends and family. I no longer know how to not default into attuning to everyone else in the room and agreeing to things regardless of how I feel or what I need. I get intense anxiety when I talk about myself face to face, ready for the emotional punishment that may happen because what if I say the wrong thing? It literally doesn't occur to me to recognize my emotional needs anymore. I only realize I haven't been when I get really tired and sleep all day. Then I realize somewhere in the last 2-3 days I had needs I didn't recognize or attend to.
I'm working on that. Those are my big three right now:
1. Learn to trust myself and my instincts.
2. Re-learn boundaries for myself (no problem honoring others, just no damn sense of my own), so I can stay more balanced and experience less burn out.
3. Face my now deeply rooted fear that if I take care of myself first the people in my life won't stick around and will stop loving me.
Rebuilding those will take time. I'm already committing those as my goals for the rest of 2021 and all of 2022. I know I'll accomplish it. I know I'll grow. I know I'll be okay because I already am, and as I continue to trust the process that'll be more and more true. It's just sometimes a very confusing process to unravel the knots he made and rework myself into something unbelievable beautiful. Sometimes unraveling is the path forward. <3