Jill Knapp, a native New Yorker, is an American author of New Adult/Women's Fiction novels with HarperImpulse, a United Kingdom division of HarperCollins Publishers. She has currently written three novels in her series about New York City: "What Happens To Men When They Move To Manhattan?", "We've Always Got New York," and "You'll Find Me In Manhattan." Before publishing her first novel, she received a Masters in Psychology from the New School For Social Research in Manhattan. You can order her books online here. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
Emotional abuse is a tricky topic.
I hated even writing that sentence.
The sad truth about the way our society works is that if you don’t have physical bruises on you, you weren’t abused. Well, I have had both physical and emotional bruising done and, for me, the emotional scarring seems like it will never heal.
Because of this I am jumpy, anxious, and hate to be touched by others. Even those closest to me know not to surprise me with a hug.
I don’t speak openly about my abuse. In fact, this is the first time I have ever put pen to paper (so to speak) and really written about what has happened to me. The truth is that over ten years later I can count on one hand how many people I have told about my abusive relationship with a man I was with for a little over three years.
You may ask, is that because it’s so personal that you don’t want people to know about it? And the answer would absolutely be yes. But the truth is, that’s not the only reason why I haven’t divulged what I have been through. The hard pill to swallow is how quickly people will belittle what you went through. You will hear a chorus of, “It must not have been that bad, or surely you wouldn’t have stayed,” “I knew you while this was going on and you seemed fine,” “He seems like a jerk,” and finally the blank or pursed-lipped stare of someone who either doesn’t believe you, or flat-out just doesn’t care.
Unfortunately, I have gotten all of these responses and they are the reason why so many women and men feel like they can’t share their abuse stories. Responses like these often humiliate and confuse the abused individual. Saying something like, “It couldn’t have been that bad” makes us think back to our experience. During that time, most of us are trying to re-assure ourselves that it’s not that bad. That all women must go through this. That if I just was more quiet, less needy, less annoying, less likely to cause any type of stir, then this wouldn’t keep happening to me. And here lies the problem of why so many of us stay in these dangerous positions.
Simply calling an abuser a “jerk” also belittles our experiences. It takes a lot of the responsibility off of the abuser and just implies that he is simply a jerk.
Here is the situation for many women who have been through something similar. This guy did not start abusing us on our first date, or the second, or even the fifth. He waited, with sly calculation, until we were hooked, to show his true colors. There is an expression that comes to mind called love bombing. Love bombing is something that someone does in the beginning of the relationship to hook you in. They shower you with compliments, praise, possibly even gifts. They talk about wanting a future with you, how they’ve never met anyone like you before, how you are the one. You become so flattered and cared for by this person that you trick yourself into believing that this person who you just met is absolutely perfect. You are so high up on that pedestal! For us girls with low self-eteem, it can feel really good to be adored that much. It can make you feel relaxed. It can make you feel safe.
But how quickly it all changes! It seems completely out of nowhere. And it is. This person who once admired you so deeply suddenly is making you feel terrible about yourself. It starts with small, seemingly benign comments about your clothes or the way you wear your hair. Small things. Things you think you can fix. But there is no “fixing it” in an abusive relationship. Once you’ve fallen off that pedestal, you are never getting back up there. No matter what you take, no matter what you do.
This is how it started for me. Subtle comments my ex would make about preferring brunettes over blondes. (Spoiler alert, I ended up coloring my hair and he still wasn’t happy with me.) I was often criticized for my weight, my clothes, my friends. Then it was comments about my career path, my intelligence, my culture. Anytime I did something he didn’t like, I would be bombarded with harsh words and threats. He threatened to ruin my life time and time again. He would constantly take pictures of me in private situations and threaten to send them to people if I didn’t do what he wanted.
The insults began to pile up so high, I completely lost any faith in myself. I wondered how someone who loved me so much at the beginning of our relationship could now hate me so much. I hated everything about myself. This constant beratement made me start to hate myself.
He would take food away from me if we were in a fight during a meal time and throw it in the garbage. He even made comments like, “you don’t deserve to eat.”
The threats would keep me up at night. He would threaten to hurt me, hurt my friends, and even hurt my family.
More than once, he even threatened to kill me.
Having reached a breaking point about six months in, I broke up with him. We stayed broken up for about two weeks until he bombarded me with emails and phone calls begging to get me back. He said everything right - everything I needed to hear. He said he was sick, diagnosed with a Cluster B Personality Disorder, and promised he would begin going to therapy and start taking medication. Anything I wanted, he would do. He apologized for everything and seemed to genuinely take responsibility for the things he was doing to me. He said he would do “anything” to get me back.
Foolishly, I took him back. I thought, maybe he really has changed. Maybe he finally sees what he’s been doing to me, to us, and will go back to being the person I first met. About two weeks in, he cancelled his therapy appointments. He told me he had a change of heart about taking the medication. And then a few days after that, the emotional rollercoaster started all over again.
A few more months had passed of us being together and by this point in my life he had me convinced these things he was saying about me were true. That I was a “waste of life,” “filth,” a “stupid bitch,” a “person who should have been aborted.” I was forced to do things sexually that I wasn’t comfortable with all under the constant threat of either being hurt or discarded.
Words like, “No one else would ever want you. You have the body of a twelve-year-old boy,” still stick with me to this day. Emotional scars that still haven’t healed.
In some cases, abuse doesn’t stop at solely emotional. It escalates into physical and sexual abuse.
A few memories stand out in my mind.
I would cry and beg for him to stop, hoping this would reach out to some shred of humanity in him that would make him feel guilty. But for people like this, those words are a catalyst. It makes them feel powerful and makes them see you as weak.
Once I was driving with him in the passenger seat. He was seething with rage over something I cannot remember. I think it had to do with us going to a restaurant that he didn’t enjoy. I kept trying to calm him down, even while he was screaming at me. He told me to leave him alone as he continued to say horrible things to me. I don’t know why, but I continued to try to soothe him.
But again I tried to comfort him when we reached a red light. Mostly, I just wanted the yelling to stop. I gently put my hand on top of his and he suddenly grabbed it. I tried to pull back but this made him angrier so he clamped his teeth down on my hand. Hard. Hard enough to draw blood. I yelled for him to stop, but he didn’t. I was crying at this point, my hand throbbing with pain. After what seemed like forever the light finally turned green and he let my hand go.
I drove as fast as I could to his home and told him to get out of my car. Thankfully, without putting up a fight, he did. I drew a breath of relief and then noticed my hand was still bleeding. I can still remember the throbbing pain to this day.
Later on, locked in my bedroom so my parents wouldn’t catch wind of what was going on, I called my then-boyfriend to demand an apology (this was a time before texting was common). While on the phone he denied having hurt me. That there was no way he could have made me bleed and that I would “most likely be up in my room all night, self-inflicting pain, to make it seem worse than it actually was.” This is just one example of the physical abuse and emotional manipulation I went through for years.
Another term abusers live by is gaslighting. This occurs when an abuser will do something and then swear it never happened. The goal is to confuse and devalue your train of thought. For example, my ex spit in my face more than once. When I brought this up in an argument, pleading with him to stop doing these things to me, he would say they never happened. This went on time and time again; his selective memory would always work in his favor to erase any of the terrible things he did. It wasn’t until I was finally free of him that I was able to see this tactic for what it truly was. Manipulation.
Many more violent things happened to me, but the rest are too painful to talk about.
I decided to write this article because this happens to too many women. We want to take care of people, make them better, soothe their pain. But all too often this comes at the cost of our own happiness and, in some cases, our safety.
Essentially, love is not abuse. You shouldn’t have to prove your love to someone by constantly putting up with their manipulation tactics. All too often I heard, “If you really loved me, you would put up with this.” Don’t get pulled into this trap. If someone really loved you, they wouldn’t be able to hurt, manipulate, and degrade you. It just wouldn’t be in their nature.