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First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Your Stories of Emotional Abuse
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Spurred by Olga Khazan’s chronicle of G-chats called “A Diary of Toxic Love,” readers open up about the emotional abuse in their own relationships. To share your story, send us a note: hello@theatlantic.com. (If you’d like to supplement your story with screenshots of texts, we’ll make all redactions necessary for full anonymity on both ends.)

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Was It Abuse or Just Cultural Differences?

That question haunted this reader:

When I read Olga Khazan’s “A Diary of Toxic Love,” it was as if I was reading about my own marriage. I am a young American, and I got married to a Central African man a couple of years after moving to West Africa after college. The emotional abuse was rampant, but I continuously told myself that these were just cultural differences that I needed to deal with through open communication.

The problem was, it was totally impossible for me to communicate with him. Any mention of feeling bad meant that I was hysterical or overthinking things. If he stayed out all night drinking instead of helping me take care of our newborn, I couldn’t bring it up in the morning without being told that I was ruining his day and having a door slammed in my face.

I was told routinely that I had no right to feel the way that I did, and that if I ever told anyone about how much I was struggling, it was a direct betrayal of my husband and his family. I was not allowed to “talk badly about them.”

He convinced me to quit my job when he got a well-paying one, then refused to give me access to his bank account and only let me use the money that he gave me, shaming me if I ever asked for more than I was given.

I lived in absolute terror of the consequences of my actions; I would talk myself up for hours before attempting to talk to him about any problem, then enter the conversation practically shaking with fear. When I witnessed him beat his 5-year-old nephew to the ground and aggressively called him out on it, he told me that I had no right to say a word about it, that he knew what he was doing, and that I should have known what I was getting into when I married an African.

Here’s the first of two readers owning up to emotional abuse:

Even before I read Olga Khazan’s account of a toxic relationship, I have recently been having some revelations and self-realizations about a relationship that have made me finally accept the role that I played as an emotional abuser.

The relationship ended five years ago, and I feel ashamed that it has taken me so long to see the situation clearly. But I think that I was in a kind of denial about accepting the label of “emotional abuser” because I had never actually been physically abusive, and the examples of domestic abuse that we see  and hear about in the media always seem to be examples of physical abuse.  So it was pretty easy to tell myself that I was not an abuser because I had never caused any “physical harm” to anyone, and it was easy to dismiss any complaints or concerns as my ex just being “overly sensitive,” like Lauren’s ex told her.  

I think I was so oblivious to my role as an abuser, or so unwilling to accept that I was anything other than the “nice guy” who looked “good on paper” to my ex and to everyone else in my life, that I was frequently able to recast my guilt as a form of victimhood, or to split the blame by labeling the entire relationship toxic. However, when I look back on the relationship, I can see now that it was toxic because I made it toxic. I was overly critical about almost everything, and I failed to maintain a proper sense of perspective on both the relationship and on life in general, so that a “dent in the floor,” or a banana peel in my car, became things that enraged me and justified my criticism and emotional abuse.  

In my case, everything came to a head on the night we broke up.

I’ve always struggled with depression and anxiety, and when my ex decided to leave me, I convinced myself that I was suicidal, when in fact I was trying to manipulate her into remaining in the relationship. My ex called the police because I threatened suicide, but when they arrived, and found out that I had impeded her from leaving the apartment by putting myself between her and the door, they arrested me for false imprisonment.

That feeling ate away at John, a pseudonymous reader:

There were certainly parts of Olga Khazan’s account of Laura’s relationship that resonated with me, mostly the complexity of something like emotional abuse. I think in some ways I conceive of myself as both a recovering emotional abuser and victim—an idea that Khazan’s article begins to approach near the end, when it discusses how Lauren would “push back” against her ex. Not that I think she was an abuser herself, but certainly in her ex’s memory, there were plenty of times where Lauren perhaps behaved in a manner that could be described as abuse, though not to the same magnitude.

After my ex and I split, I would describe some experiences with her to other people (mostly women, actually) who identified them as forms of emotional abuse against me. The constant fight-picking, threats to leave the relationship over minor disagreements about things like my opinion of news articles, belittling of my feelings, and the dredging-up of old arguments got to the point where I fantasized about cheating on her and keeping it to myself. Not because I actually wanted satisfaction elsewhere, but because I knew the pent-up guilt would make me feel like I deserved to be treated how she treated me.