It’s a hideous, painful and often bewildering rite of passage for many women (and some men but most often women). An emotionally abusive relationship never starts out that way. It starts out exciting and usually with great sex. Lots of passion. Highs. But also lows. This drama cycle can easily be mistaken for True Love. A deep connection. Intense intimacy.
But what it is is just toxic and destructive for the victim of abuse. I know this because I’ve been there. I wrote about my relationship with “Charlie” at length in my memoir Mamamia and even though it was years ago in my early twenties, writing about it felt raw and real and recent.
I’m a confident person. Even was back then. I had a great job. I earned my own money. Rented my own apartment. Owned a car. “Charlie” had none of those things. And yet he still managed to cast a twisted spell over me that slowly saw me isolated from my friends, family and anyone who could say “what the fuck are you doing? Get OUT of there.”
It wasn’t their fault. They didn’t know the true extent of it. One of the quirky signatures of emotionally abusive relationships is that the victim actively protects her partner. I didn’t want to tell anyone the truth because I knew they would all judge Charlie and just tell me to dump him. Because that was exactly what I should have done. But for some perplexing reason, I didn’t want to. I was in his grasp. And that isolation made me extremely vulnerable to his manipulation. Even more vulnerable.
So in a weird twisted way, we enter into an unspoken contract with our abusive partner to enable fucked behaviour and protect him from judgement by other people. I wasn’t a doormat with him. Well, not entirely. I could yell at him and often did (less and less as time went on) but I wouldn’t want others to criticise him. One of those “it’s ok for me to be critical, because i love him- you don’t so you’re not allowed” things.
I’ve seen girlfriends repeat this toxic cycle to their extreme detriment. Smart girlfriends. Financially independent girlfriends. Women who have ever reason and ability – ON PAPER – to kick his arse to the curb and walk away. But it often takes months and years. I know older women (often the mothers of emotionally abusive men) who NEVER find it in themselves to leave. This is the saddest thing of all.
Today, I want to share with you a story by a woman I admire very much. Nina Funnell is a regular Mamamia contributer and her writing always makes me think. This is her story…….
I’ve always been terrible with men. The sweet, devoted types I tend to let go, while the cocky alpha male types I tend to cling onto well after they have left the relationship, the building and possibly the state.
The most recent case is a shocker. First some background. This is the guy who told me I could afford to lose 5 kilos when we first started dating a year ago. He forgot important dates, never gave me a birthday or Christmas present (or card), and never bothered to turn up to important events (including my birthday lunch, a ceremony where I won an important national human rights award as well as a range of other important work and family functions). But it doesn’t end there.
This is also the guy who cheated on me. Who took another girl on a romantic holiday while I was overseas on business. Who later went for late night swims at the beach with her, claiming it was normal because “she is European”. (As an aside this girl knew all about me and also had a boyfriend she was cheating on).
When I finally found out the extent of the betrayal and lies, he was not apologetic, instead he told me that “jealousy is an unhealthy emotion” and that I might want to “get some help for it”. He added that it was wrong and “unethical” of me “to try to emotionally or sexually monopolize him”. He then gave me an ultimatum of an open-relationship or no relationship and when I did not jump with joy (shock, horror!), he again labelled me as “unhealthy” and “possessive”. Oh and the icing on the cake? He actually wanted to fraudulently marry his Swedish toy-girl so she could stay in the country after her student visa expired- all while still dating me.
Sounds like a keeper hey?
So why oh why, when he decided to finally end it with me (because I wasn’t cool with him sleeping with other women) did I burst into tears and plead with him not to leave me? Why did I cry into his shirt asking what was wrong with me? Why on earth would anyone want to stay with a guy who cheated, lied and constantly undermined my self worth?
It’s bizarre. In my professional life I’ve always been strong and confident. Ballsy even. And logically I know that I should have left the guy months ago. Scrap that. I should never have been with him in the first place.
Yet for some reason I sat their grovelling, begging and trying to bargain with him. “Just give me a second chance! Give me two weeks to show you we can make this work!” I pleaded. “No? OK, what about just one?”
Urgh. It’s all so humiliating to recall.
So what’s the deal with this? Why do so many savvy, strong women stick around hoping cheating or toxic men will change? Why do we come up with excuses for the behaviour, often blaming ourselves? And why do we let ourselves be ground down emotionally and psychologically to the point of accepting such treatment as normal?
More to the point why do we grovel and try to save toxic and utterly damaging relationships? After all, it’s one thing to stay put (or paralysed) in a toxic relationship because you don’t have the agency, self esteem or capacity to end it. It’s another to try to perform CPR on a relationship that your ex has just disembowelled right in front of you.
But apparently I’m not the first to have ever done this. According to the authors of He’s Just Not That Into You, many women fall into the trap of begging poisonous guys not to leave them out of fear of loneliness or abandonment. This fear of remaining alone forever is far more insidious when your partner has spent months or years not just telling you, but convincing you that you are stupid, or mad, or fat, or ugly, or promiscuous, or not good enough, or that what you want and what you feel doesn’t matter.
I’ve realised that one way emotional abusers stop women from walking out the door is by ensuring they can’t even stand on their own two feet to begin with. The process by which this happens is subtle. It happens over a long time through a series of “negative grooming” techniques that leave women doubting their own judgement and perception of reality.
When a guy (including a toxic guy) breaks up with you it can also be difficult to accept that someone else is seizing the reigns and making a major decision that affects your life, without bothering to consult you in the process. It feels like your opinions and feelings are totally irrelevant to them and that they just don’t care. It feels uncompassionate. Most of all it makes you feel powerless and vulnerable.
Having been on both sides of a break up, I’ve always thought that initiating a break up is comparable to quitting a job. However sad you might be to leave, you know you are in control of what’s going on including the timing. Being broken up with can be like being fired without warning. You feel shocked, hurt, rejected, humiliated, disoriented and scared about what the future holds. You also cop a pretty hefty blow to the ego. This is only made worse when your self esteem is already at an all time low to begin with.
But I suspect there is one more reason why women beg toxic guys to reconsider a break up: stubbornness. When women feel they have invested a lot of time and emotional energy in a relationship (as I had done), they often become determined to make it work regardless of the emotional cost or enduring quality of the relationship.
Having the guts to be realistic enough to “call” a relationship and get out when it no longer enhances your life can be tough, especially for individuals who consider any relationship that ends as a “failed” relationship. The truth is that most romances (particularly in our early years) will end. To view them all as failures is to lose sight of the things we gain and the important lessons we take from the relationships that don’t end in “till death do us part”.
Whatever may have been taken from me in this last relationship I’ve certainly learnt a number of valuable lessons for the future.
About the Author: Nina Funnell is a 26 year old researcher in the Journalism and Media Research Centre at the University of NSW and a freelance opinion writer. She is currently completing a PhD on “sexting” and sexual ethics and she sits on the board of the NSW Rape Crisis Centre. She also acts as a victims rights advocate.
Have you ever been in a toxic relationship? How did you get out of it?
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