Confessions of an Abuser

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

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.

In retrospect, this was something necessary and deserved, and I have learned more from that than from any other single event in my life, but even that took me years to accept. In the immediate aftermath of the arrest, I was still convinced that it was an overreaction by the police, and that because I had not physically harmed my ex, there was no way I was guilty of any actual abuse. My friends and family helped me to maintain this delusion by defending my actions and encouraging me to hire a defense lawyer, and so it has taken me around four years to be able to clearly see that I was an abuser, even if it was “only” emotional.

In my case, my life kind of fell apart because of that one moment, and that has brought a welcome check on my ego and the arrogance that I used to tell myself that it wasn’t my fault.  Unfortunately for most victims of emotional abuse, the average abuser probably never experiences this kind of reckoning, and I think that the absence of this allows many emotional abusers to continue to justify their behavior to themselves, and consequently, to continue to act in the same way without learning from their past mistakes.

This next reader dissents over “Diary of Toxic Love”:

I felt the article was very heavily biased towards the woman’s experience, and the conclusions seemed massively overstated, particularly given the strong emphasis on abuse in the preamble. I feel that the previous and subsequent relationships of the individuals involved should have been described, to establish if there was any pattern consistent with emotional abuse or personality issues. I felt the article needlessly pathologised (or “therapy-ised”) what sounded to be simply two people with different expectations of how to behave in a relationship.

If you identified with Lauren’s ex in any way and would like to share your own story, please drop us a note—all perspectives are welcome. Here’s another one from a self-described abuser:

As a male sufferer of borderline personality disorder, I wanted to give a perspective on my own abusive relationship. We met three and a half years ago in college. At the time I frequently abused alcohol in an attempt to deal with constant depression and anxiety, mostly stemming from a childhood spent under physically and emotionally abusive parents. She had a history of low self-esteem and self-harm, including cutting and anorexia, and had also grown up in an environment that negated her own emotional life. In short, we were a match made in heaven.

Lauren’s ex described her as “oversensitive,” which really resonated with me. I can’t diagnose him, but I often felt this way during my own relationship with my ex. It’s not because it’s true, and to be honest I don’t think there really is such a thing as being “oversensitive.” What was really happening was that when my ex made any kind of emotional demands on me, it was simply too taxing for me to bear if I was not already in a stable place—which I rarely was. I didn’t have the coping skills or emotional strength to deal with someone else’s negative emotions on top of my own, so I lashed out. At the time I genuinely believed that me lashing out was OK because I was “finally making sure my own emotional needs were met”—but this was happening because I had no healthy way to satisfy my own emotional needs.

Sufferers of BPD often think in black/white terms: Having a stunted range of emotional expression, we think of people and situations as entirely good and pure or else passionately hate them, often switching between the two modes of thinking like a light switch. I went through cycles of valuing and then devaluing my ex almost constantly: thinking of her as an angel, someone entirely perfect and the only person who could ever love me; then without warning she became a harpy that was ruining my life, and I believed that this had always been the case and I was just too blind to have seen it before.

This switch could happen with almost no warning—most often it was triggered by a fight, but sometimes it was simply because I felt like she didn’t express positive emotions enough! When I felt that she “wasn’t appreciative enough” of favors I did or that she “didn’t show enough love” to me, even when she was being appreciative or loving, I would experience negative emotions such as self-hatred that quickly spiraled out of control. This latter “not enough” feeling is also a hallmark of thinking in sufferers of BPD.

When I abused my ex, I genuinely believed that my emotions reflected reality and that my actions, even if heinous, were justified. The hardest part of BPD to deal with, for me, is simply not being able to trust your own thoughts and feelings. In our fury we break things, the people around us, and ourselves, and then when the wave of self-hatred washes away we are left to pick up the pieces. When this happens time and time again in life, we doubt everything we think and feel, remembering what happened the last time we “went with our gut.”

It’s important for me to remember that, yes, some of the things my ex said or did towards me do count as abuse. But this does not justify or mitigate my own abusive behavior, and it did not make it acceptable for me to reciprocate.

She ended things about six months ago, originally with plans to get back together if we could work out our problems individually. Recently she has told me she has moved on, and although I am hurt, I understand that sometimes there is simply too much baggage to make things work. For now I still think of her fondly and wish the best for her no matter where her life takes her. I want nothing more that for her to experience the kind of loving, stable relationship she should have had.

As for myself, I am exorcising my demons, developing healthy ways of thinking, and letting life guide me one day at a time.