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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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For this reader, the line was difficult to see at first:

Thank you to Olga for publishing her compelling article on emotional abuse. Normally I would post a Facebook comment to convey my appreciation for a great article, but much like the woman in the story, I am not keen on having my own struggles go fully public. Also much like Lauren, I’m an alumna of an Ivy League university, I grew up with parents who have been happily married for 30+ years (they are still married and in love with each other), and I could not see from the inside that my last relationship was abusive.

I was completely in love with my ex, who is an active-duty member of the U.S. Coast Guard. My own career is in animal rights. I have a master’s degree and spend my days investigating cruelty to animals, doing research and writing as well as handling animals directly in an office that doubles as a shelter. Most of the animals who come to our shelter have been abused by awful humans.

My ex has been a vegetarian for several years and acts compassionately toward animals and humans. He is exceedingly liberal, leaning toward socialist. He’s been a Coastie for nearly 20 years and looks fantastic in the uniform, he’s in charge of maybe a dozen people on board his (relatively small) ship, and he loves the search-and-rescue aspect of his job. How could I have possibly found the one member of the military whose philosophies and ethics align so closely with mine? Dream come true!

When I first met him, I was over the moon, and he apparently was, too. Things moved so quickly that within a month or two, we were discussing moving in together. I was dealing with PTSD that came from a violent rape two years before we met, and I had a few physical triggers that would send me into hour-long panic attacks. He was patient with me, telling me he wanted to help me heal and recover from the PTSD.

We are both into the BDSM lifestyle, and he was both my boyfriend and my Dom. He would test my limits, and I would tell him “please don’t do this without verbally warning me beforehand.” He would abide by that for a while until he “forgot” and did it again without the verbal warning we’d agreed was necessary.

We paused our reader series on emotional abuse last month when the results of the U.S. presidential election came down, both because of the overwhelming number of timely emails we posted over Trump’s victory and Clinton’s defeat and because posting stories of emotional abuse right after an especially toxic election seemed a little, well, abusive. This reader also felt the strain of the election:

This summer I left my husband, kids in tow, because of his continued treatment of me. The drinking, the constant attitude, the belittling, the constant commentary (“are you really going to wear that” / “you sound like you are flirting with that guy when you talk like that” / “you can’t be friends with a man; he just wants to fuck you”) and the second-guessing built up and was too much to endure.

It all came to a head during our annual vacation. My husband got it in his head on the 13-hour drive that I was being rude to him, so he refused to sleep with me all week. He started drinking every day at 11 am, and by midweek he was screaming at me that I was a cunt, a bitch, a whore, frigid, an asshole, stupid, and a sheep. He said he wanted a divorce in front of his parents and our two small children. And yet he says he remembers none of it.

Leaving him was a shock. A real shock. He had no idea, he said, that I felt that way. Certainly he “never meant to hurt me and would never hurt me.”

I eventually came back for the kids, and because I really couldn’t break his heart—although I do not love him or want him. He has been true to his word and not cursed at me since the trip, but the other behaviors still exist (and totally exacerbated by this election, believe me).

An older woman writes:

During my 30-year marriage (now ended for five years), my partner blew up inappropriately, belittled me, insulted me, threatened me, bullied me, and isolated me from family and kept friends from visiting. Over the years he became so upset over my two grown, married sons, he even banished them from visiting as well. He was also careless with money and had a disability that nearly ruined our finances.

My innate gift as a singer-songwriter always threatened him, so I kept it buried during our marriage. When I finally resumed playing music at age 60, he tried to make me stop with insults, belittling my vocal abilities and my character for starting music again. But I kept with it and decided to end the relationship. At the same time, I began dating the person I was playing music with.

This next woman “definitely never thought I would be in any relationship like the one I’m in now”:

I did wrestling and football in high school, being the only girl on the team. A lot of people thought I was brave. I’m currently in an Army ROTC program to be an officer in the National Guard after I graduate.

I met my husband three years ago. Our relationship moved very quickly. Within three months, we were living in an apartment together. Almost a year after that, three weeks before I went to Basic Combat Training, we eloped. My family really didn’t like him, but he had me convinced that was because they were bigots (he referred to them as “hillbillies” a lot).

When our relationship went downhill, the constant criticism, belittling, and anger over my career choice in the military chipped away at what I thought about myself. I didn’t even realize that it was emotional abuse until I instant-message chatted with TheHotline.org about it. They confirmed it was emotional abuse.

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.