real life

"I met James when I was 17. It took me 7 years to realise what was wrong."

WARNING: This post contains mentions of domestic violence and may be triggering for some readers.

Being in a controlling and possessive relationship doesn’t happen overnight. You don’t go on a first date and get given a list of rules to abide by. It’s painstakingly slow and dotted with red flags that seem too insignificant to challenge in the moment. You sacrifice and surrender and relent, bit by bit, until you become a shell of who you were at the start of the relationship.

I met James* when I was 17 years old. He was attractive, charming and, much to my surprise, he seemed into me. I had graduated from high school on that very night, and my outrageously fake ID had allowed me access in to a nightclub with all my friends. While they all seemed to exude self-confidence and flourish in the nightclub environment, I quietly struggled to feel like I belonged in the big, bad world of young adulthood. I was small and scrawny, but out of all the beautiful women in that room, James chose to talk to me. I fell for it. We added each other on Facebook, exchanged numbers and started talking to each other daily. Then, we started seeing each other whenever we could. After six months, we decided to make things official and announce ourselves as boyfriend and girlfriend.

As things got serious, his control intensified under the guise of concern and love. I was offered the perfect bartending job that would allow me to study throughout the week and earn pocket money on the weekend. James was livid. Why would you want a job that opens you up to opportunistic men? A job that makes me sickeningly anxious for your safety? Do you understand how embarrassing it will be to tell people my girlfriend is a bartender? I was fiery and strong-headed, and because James wasn’t employed, I thought that he didn’t have the right to tell me if I could take this job. So, I took it.

After ignoring me for two days, he arrived at my home with a piece of jewellery and apologised for overreacting. However, he started lingering around the bar on weekends and drunkenly confronting any men that appeared to be looking at me for longer than he deemed necessary. My co-workers started picking up on his behaviour and gently expressed their concerns with me. I kindly brushed them off, reassuring them that he was just adjusting to my role and looking out for my safety. Then, one night when the venue was at full capacity, I didn’t have the time to stop and talk to him properly at the bar. He turned around, punched a hole in the wall and left. I remember looking at the wall with wide eyes and being afraid to turn around and make eye contact with anyone that witnessed it. Instead of fearing for my own safety, I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of guilt for making this loving man so angry. I quit my job without notice.

We document the signs of an abuser, as told through his victim’s phone.

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His jealousy slowly worsened. On my birthday, a guy that I had a very short fling with before James was in the picture wished me a Happy Birthday on my Facebook wall. James called me in the middle of the night and asked me to meet him outside of my house. Heavy-eyed, I walked outside expecting that he wanted to stay the night. Instead, he started yelling at me at the top of his lungs. Not only were you a slut, but you keep all of them as Facebook friends? If I knew you were such a slut, I would never have talked to you. I want a girlfriend that I can be proud of but I’m ashamed to hold your hand and walk down the street with you.

The hurl of abuse felt like it went for hours. I begged and pleaded with him to stop. I asked if he would feel better knowing anything about the two romantic partners I had before him. (Yes, two). I felt the air change. He stopped mid-sentence, stared me dead in the eye and told me he never wants to hear me mention anyone from my past ever again. He walked in to my bedroom, laid down in my bed and drifted off to sleep. I laid next to him, sobbing in the fetal position until my eyes were so swollen that my body decided to take a rest.

Something changed in me after that night. The love and sense of self-worth I had no longer existed. You shouldn’t go out in public much because people think you’re a slut, I would think to myself. You’re lucky to have a partner that can overlook all the terrible things you’ve done. Before I knew it, I had withdrawn from my friends and any activities I enjoyed. Why would I want to be friends with anyone that let me be the terrible person I was before I was with James? This was further encouraged by James who convinced me to drop things that I was “better than.” Tasks as simple as going to the supermarket would send me in to a spiral of anxiety and panic. Walking 60 metres along a public road to get from my car to my workplace would give me palpitations. I would overthink every small action that I made to make sure I wouldn’t set off a verbal beating.

As the years went on, the things that set James off became smaller and smaller. If I took a few steps in public without quickly reaching out to hold his hand, he would accuse me of being embarrassed to be with him. If I started people-watching while we were having coffee, he would accuse me of finding other men attractive. If the poached eggs I made were too soft for his liking, he would accuse me of being incompetent. If I wore something that I thought I looked pretty in, he would tell me I had no fashion sense. If I made a joke, he would tell me I wasn’t as funny as I thought I was. If he caught me crying, he would accuse me of making him look like a bad person and being selfish.

In between the things that set James off would be a confusing amount of love and adoration. He would show me flashes of the man I fell in love with when I was 17 years old. He would compliment my body. He would bring me coffee and breakfast in bed. He would clean the house and light some candles for my return from work. These cycles made me feel like I was going insane. Are things as bad as I think they are? Is this all in my head? Is this normal in a relationship?

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After a period of self-medicating and drinking a bottle of red wine a night, I made the decision to open up to my family and friends. I knew that the safest way for me to leave the relationship would be with their support. Individually, I opened up to my parents, my brother and my closest friends. I shared every detail, and it was the most liberating thing I have ever done. I urged everyone to give me the chance to find the right time to do it.

The last thing that set James off was my request to travel overseas for one week to visit my best friend who had recently moved there. He called me and screamed about how I have no respect for his rules or our relationship and that I know I’m not allowed to travel overseas without him. In fact, I was lucky that I could even travel interstate.

With everyone ready to support me, and in the safety of my parents’ home, I called James and told him that I could no longer be in a relationship with him. I swiftly blocked his number, and the numbers of each of his family members. I shut down my social media accounts. With help from my parents, we entered the home I shared with him and collected all my belongings. I left a note that stated I would pay my half of rent and utilities until the lease ended and he could keep the furniture.

I remember waking up the next morning, looking at myself in the mirror and knowing that I was ready for the next phase of my life. Everything became clear. All the insults, all the red flags, all the times I would cry myself to sleep, all the times I would make myself sick with worry because I had displeased him, all the times I had sacrificed the unique things that made me, me, for the sake of his happiness. This was never a healthy or loving relationship. It was ownership.

I’m free, now. I’m surrounded by the most patient and kind family members and friends. I have so much to look forward to that I would never have been able to do beforehand. If this situation sounds even remotely similar to you, I recommend talking to a trusted loved one or calling 1800RESPECT.

Can you relate to this writer’s story? What are the relationship red flags you look out for? Tell us in comment below.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

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