Just a few months into her new life in a new state with her boyfriend of three years, Lauren was nearing the breaking point. “I go back and forth between thinking I have to break up with him,” she told a friend, “and thinking that I don't want to be without him.”
She Gchatted a different friend to say her boyfriend had called her at work to complain that a box of her crafting supplies had fallen off the kitchen table and dented the floor. Lauren began to see the way he treated her wasn’t okay. She devised a move-out plan: She would return to her hometown for a while and find a new job.
Ultimately, “... I couldn’t do it,” she wrote to another friend. She had invested so much time. Being single again would leave her adrift. So, she stayed.
She now says the relationship made her doubt her worth as a person and scarred her emotionally for years. To Lauren, her years with her ex now reverberate with the telltale notes of emotional abuse.
Lauren might seem an unlikely target of emotional manipulation. She grew up with happily married, supportive parents. She has an Ivy-League education, a black belt in tae kwon do, and experience working with domestic-violence survivors. She was financially independent. Lauren believes she fell prey to a common cycle: Abuse shatters self-esteem, and poor self-esteem keeps people in toxic relationships. “I would never have wished for violence,” she told me, “but it would have been easier to recognize if he had hit me.”
She didn’t recognize it at the time, and today her ex emphatically denies that he abused her in any way—two things that underscore the difficulty of noticing, from the inside, when a relationship becomes traumatic for one of the people in it.
To try to understand this phenomenon, I interviewed Lauren, her ex, and several of their friends, and I reviewed extensive transcripts of Google chats between Lauren and her friends at the time she and her ex were dating. Lauren hopes her story can help others avoid similar pain. For privacy, she asked The Atlantic not to use her full name, and her ex asked not to be named at all.
* * *
They met when Lauren, her middle name, was in her mid-20s and her ex was nearly 30. He was her first serious boyfriend. They had run in the same circles for years, but when he moved to New York for work, they reconnected. He was of medium height, and balding, but cute. With degrees from prestigious universities, he looked great on paper. Lauren was fresh off a string of disastrous dates. He made a move; she went with it.
At first, he made Lauren laugh and impressed her friends. He even planned a romantic weekend at the beach and took Lauren to Costa Rica.
But before long, Lauren said, he began making obnoxious comments, boasting about his ex-girlfriends and saying things like, “I could walk down Central Park West and get any girl I wanted,” Lauren said. (Her ex denied this.)
“I sort of let it slide because I was so happy to be in a relationship with someone who I thought was otherwise right for me,” Lauren told me. “In retrospect, they were harbingers of worse to come.”
What was to come, according to Lauren, was a gauntlet of near-daily put-downs about everything from her appearance to the way she poured water into the sink. As her self-confidence evaporated, she found herself wondering if she could do any better.
Lauren thought if she just worked harder, she could fix the relationship. Relatively early on, the couple was clashing over trivial things, like gifts. When he won an award, Lauren coordinated a surprise party for him. To her ex, it was thoughtless, she said. She should have realized that his friends, who didn’t win the award, would feel bad attending such a party. Indeed, he told me, he wasn’t thrilled about it, although he did appreciate other gifts she gave him, and he told her so.
Another time, Lauren signed up for dance lessons to surprise him. Her ex had told her, “I’m bad at following,” she wrote to one friend over Gchat. “I keep trying to lead, or at least do my own thing. Damn independent streak of mine.” When she told him about the lessons, she claims he said she should have been at work instead.
For their second anniversary, Lauren devised a game in which they would each say what they loved about the other person. Her ex said he loved that Lauren was always trying to improve herself.
Still, he was nice enough to keep Lauren’s hope alive. “[He] called to apologize,” she wrote to another friend. “He seriously NEVER apologizes. Maybe he realizes he’s been treating me like crap all month.”
Her ex had a controlling streak, according to Lauren. She remembers him as highly critical even of her efforts to better herself. Over the years, she gained about 25 pounds that she pins on the stress of the relationship. Her ex would pester her to eat healthier. They were both trying to lose weight, he says. But he loved ordering take-out, she said, and he would sulk if Lauren microwaved a low-calorie frozen dinner for herself instead.
Lauren has a history with bulimia, and one night she relapsed, purging after they ate at a tempura restaurant. She didn’t tell her boyfriend about the episode for several months. When he did find out, Lauren says he reacted coldly, chiding her for not telling him sooner.
“My being upset would have been more that I could have helped her earlier and prevented more problems,” he explained to me.
Once, Lauren referred to herself as “hot”—mostly as a joke, but also to pump herself up a little. She said her ex responded, “Yeah, in your own world.”
Lauren got a call from her boss one evening asking her to come back to the office to finish a project. Her ex grabbed the phone, she wrote in the chats, and said Lauren wouldn’t be coming back in. Then he hung up.
Lauren’s ex told me he doesn’t recall this moment, or many other episodes like it—the wanton insults, the dance lessons, the sulking over separate meals, or saying that he loved her self-improvement. He felt Lauren looked to him primarily for praise, but to him, there was a philosophical difference: Romantic partners should also offer honest, frank commentary. He said he delivered his comments“with kid gloves” and in private. “If I wasn’t being honest with her about the fact that an outfit she had on didn’t flatter her or that the choices she was making were not the best choices for her,” he told me, “if I didn't say something to her, that was a fundamental flaw in my being part of the relationship.”
He describes Lauren as oversensitive—“completely averse to hearing anything that would be feedback or constructive criticism or anything”—opinionated, and set in her ways. (She denied this characterization, saying she’s fine with criticism if it’s handled respectfully.)
He said he loved Lauren, physically and intellectually, and he thought they had a good relationship. But as it wore on, he said, they encountered a major challenge: Lauren was certain they should marry, but he wasn’t. The certainty gap only worsened their dynamic. When Lauren asked him about their future, her ex responded by “pushing me away a little bit ... ie to make fun of me,” she wrote in the chats.
After they had been together about two and a half years, her ex was weighing moving to another city, but he wasn’t sure whether to invite Lauren along.
“Huge fight,” Lauren wrote to one friend that February, after she pressed him on the relocation issue. “He freaked out and told me I was rushing him and pressuring him and making him feel guilty,” she said, “and that if I rush him, he’ll just tell me he doesn’t want me to come with him.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that I know I want to marry him,” Lauren told her friend.
“He’s trying to put you in a situation where you feel like a bad person for inquiring about your own future,’” her friend said.
“I don't disagree with any of that,” Lauren admitted.
Lauren set about trying to improve the relationship, starting with asking her boyfriend to give her more compliments. It didn’t work. “You look like ass,” he told Lauren one day that spring, according to her chats.
When she finished sobbing, she told him she loved him.
According to Lauren, he leaned over and whispered in her ear a response he doesn’t remember and she won’t forget: “I know.”
* * *
The following week, a friend chatted Lauren to share her own dating woes, saying she wanted to be in a relationship “a year in.”
“The beginning sucks,” she said.
“The middle sucks too sometimes,” Lauren responded. “Or whatever I’m in right now definitely sucks.”
Lauren and her boyfriend saw a couples’ therapist. According to Lauren, her ex told the therapist Lauren should lose weight, and the therapist appeared to side with him. “It was totally unproductive,” Lauren told me.
To her ex, a different incident stands out from the counseling. During one session, Lauren blurted “we’re supposed to be together!” he said. It showed there was “a disconnect between where she was and where I was,” he told me, regarding their marriage prospects.
For her ex’s birthday, Lauren tried to hearken back to better times by re-creating one of their first dates, a picnic. It was cold out, so she packed the meal in a basket and laid out a blanket on the floor of the apartment. She thought it would be cute.
Her ex, though, was tired from a long, bad day at work.
“He didn’t like it,” Lauren told a friend the next day. “He just wanted to relax and was unhappy that I had made a whole production out of the night.”
Somehow, Lauren ended up apologizing. “He’s still wrestling with whether he can live with certain things about me,” she explained to a friend.
Lauren suggested they take a two-week break to think things over. He blew up. “Make it three weeks!” he said, according to Lauren, hurling her belongings on the floor. (Her ex remembers little about this conversation but said it was probably a bad time of day for a serious talk.) As Lauren marched out the door, her ex said, “I wish you knew how much I love you.”
“I wish you would show me,” she said.
Their break was cut short. Her ex persuaded Lauren to come over, she said. There, “he did just enough to convince me that he would put effort into treating me better,” Lauren said.
Lauren realizes her choice to stick with him might seem incomprehensible. But was every altercation really that bad? “I wasn't looking at the big picture,” she told me. “I was looking at each fight.”
Gradually, Lauren found herself wondering what minute misstep would trigger the next clash. “You know how sometimes a dog will cower?” she told me. “I felt like that sometimes.”
He would eventually invite Lauren to move with him. But to Lauren, the offer was bittersweet: He had already put a deposit down on a condo without consulting her, she said. (Her ex remembers discussing it with her, and he claimed she did make him feel rushed.)
Complaining to a friend, Lauren wrote, “I’m getting left behind by my own life.”
* * *
A few months after the move, Lauren chatted a friend to ask whether, when she and her own boyfriend moved in together, “was the transition a bit bumpy?”
“... like how?” the friend asked.
There was already friction over the new apartment—specifically, the floor. It was made of a delicate material and dented “if you look at it cross-eyed,” Lauren said.
Some contractors dinged it while they were repairing the kitchen island. When he saw the damage, the ex yelled at Lauren for not supervising the workers properly, she said, telling her she could “just leave” and not come back. Lauren, who knew almost no one in the city, wandered around outside in the dark that evening.
To her ex, it was yet another example of Lauren’s inability to handle criticism. “They told me they were going to charge me $10,000 to $20,000 to replace it,” he said. “Was I upset about it? Sure. It would have been nice for her to be more cognizant of what was going on in the apartment.”
Things deteriorated further from there. Lauren’s mother called to say she had been injured and needed emergency surgery, and Lauren cried. Her ex called her “hysterical,” Lauren said, saying her show of emotions was a troubling sign “for her future abilities as a mother.” (Her ex denies this, saying at most he would have told her not to get “all worked up about it.”)
In a chat with a friend, Lauren confessed she was concerned her boyfriend was avoiding sex with her. When Lauren made him dinner, he complained that the kitchen smelled like an armpit, according to the chat logs. They fought about her new hobby, making crafts—her ex said it was expensive.
But whenever Lauren thought about leaving him, an ugly thought would cloud her mind: “Who else would want me?"
One day that December, Lauren’s office announced there would be layoffs, and Lauren went to a bar with co-workers to commiserate. After a few glasses of wine, she called her boyfriend to ask if she could bring the group back to their apartment. He “thought I was being inconsiderate” for asking, she told her friends later, adding, “admittedly, I was.”
Her ex said that while he might not have wanted people over that particular night, he did support Lauren emotionally later on, when her entire company went under and Lauren lost her job as well. And he was astonished that Lauren would, even with her own money, order expensive crafting supplies without talking with him first.
Lauren wrote him a letter explaining she didn’t feel safe talking with him because he would judge her—something he told me he doesn’t remember. Still, she couldn’t quite find the strength to end it. It had taken her so long to find a boyfriend. The fact that the relationship had lasted this long made it feel meant to be.
Shortly after the layoffs, Lauren and her ex were out with a friend who had recently broken up with her longtime partner. “I’m going to be alone for the rest of my life,” the friend groaned.
“Sometimes I feel that way, too,” her ex said, according to Lauren. She looked at him, dumbfounded.
* * *
Lauren thought a weekend away together might clarify things. “That will deepen our relationship,” she wrote to a friend, “or it will show us it's not right.”
As they sat on a sailboat, Lauren asked her ex to criticize her less. He agreed to criticize her more gently, she said. (Her ex said “I agreed to pay even more attention to the way in which I provided [my] advice,” but denied saying he would “criticize more gently.”)
At this point, other things were clicking into place. Lauren was in therapy—by herself this time—and the therapist asked her if she thought her boyfriend’s treatment of her sounded okay. No, she told him, it really didn’t.
A few days later, the couple had dinner with a friend who had three kids and was going through a difficult divorce. Click. Lauren realized she did not want this to be her future.
The next day was a Friday. Lauren went to work and shut her office door. She spent the day calling and Gchatting her friends and family. “I think I’m going to break up with him tonight,” she told them, gathering her strength. She called her aunt, who sounded exhilarated. “Do it!” she told Lauren. (“Finally!” the woman thought to herself.)
“I think it’s time to split up,” Lauren told her ex that night. She forced out a few tears.
Her ex went through a baffling array of emotions, according to Lauren. He asked her to go to the beach with him that weekend as a last hurrah. When she refused, Lauren says he raged and told her to leave the apartment. (“I would say I was upset with her choice,” he said, but “I do not remember ever telling her to leave the apartment.”) Finally, he walked her over to the neighbor’s house, where, with his arm around her, he calmly announced they were breaking up and Lauren was moving. “I think he wanted to make a big show of it being a mutual,” Lauren told me later. (He told me he was just being courteous, not trying to prove a point.)
A few days later, Lauren loaded her boxes into an SUV and slid into the back seat behind her mother.
“Do you need any more time?” her mom asked.
“Just go,” Lauren said.
The car pulled away from the condo building, and Lauren didn’t look back.
* * *
Not long after the breakup, Lauren took part in a training for advocates of domestic-violence survivors, where the discussion turned to emotional abuse. “They were talking about the signs, like criticism, minimizing feelings, and victim-blaming,” she said. “And I felt like the person talking had been watching me for the past four years. It hit me so hard that I almost had to leave the room.”
In the aftermath, she worked on “remembering that people liked me; that guys could like me,” she said. “These were all things that I knew in my heart but had been picked at for four years.” She still apologizes more than she should.
Though less obvious than physical violence, emotional abuse is more common. It creates “a pervasive imbalance of power in a relationship,” said Jeffrey A. Lieberman, the director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute. The abuser uses manipulation, criticism, and fear to control the partner.
Why doesn’t the abused person leave? “Their self-esteem is so limited that they feel they couldn’t find another spouse,” Lieberman said, “or that they deserve it.”
Several experts told me that if the relationship played out as Lauren described, it could be considered emotional abuse. “There’s a hierarchy,” said Marissa Nelson, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Washington, D.C. “She was always in a one-down position.”
Even if everything happened the way Lauren described, her ex does not think his actions “rise to anything near the level of emotional abuse.” His friends were also surprised to hear it described that way. He’s not critical or mean around his friends and colleagues, they said, and they never noticed anything amiss in the relationship. He’s on good terms with all his exes, he told me, except Lauren.
“He definitely has a strong opinion, but so does [Lauren],” one of the ex’s friends told me. “I can’t picture a scenario where he would belittle her and she wouldn’t say something back.”
Lauren said she sometimes did push back, but only after “tying myself in knots trying to say it in a way that wouldn’t upset him.” When they would fight, she blamed herself for not picking a better time or better way to bring it up. More often, she said nothing. “But I internalized all of it,” she said.
The experience made her realize that “good on paper” isn’t good enough. “I found someone who checked the boxes,” she told me. “But I really lost myself.”
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