real life Subscriber Exclusive

'I was with a covert narcissist for 20 years. I didn't have a clue.'

This story mentions domestic violence.

The abuse was so hidden, so insidious, so covert I had no idea it was abuse until someone pointed it out. I knew my relationship with Marg* was bad, toxic even, and that Marg was moody and needy but that this was a serious form of abuse that would take years to recover from. No. freaking. idea.

I want to tell my story in the hope it prompts even just one person to think twice about their partner’s treatment, to call a helpline for support, to make the first move to escape this situation, to have a discussion with a friend they suspect might be a victim. And I want more understanding in the community of abuse perpetuated by females in same-sex relationships. This is a snippet of my story of living in and escaping from, a 20-year same-sex relationship with a covert narcissist.

Watch: The signs you are experiencing coercive control. Post continues after video.

Video via Mamamia.

After I escaped the relationship, I spent about 12 months stuck in fight-or-flight mode. My nervous system was completely shot, overwhelmed and dysfunctional. When I could finally start to properly confront and process the trauma and recognise what had happened to me, it was truly a shock.

To identify as a victim of domestic violence after you have left a relationship where you had no idea how bad it actually was, really messes with your mind and sense of self. I actually didn’t realise I was scared of my partner until, post-separation, a Centre for Non-Violence counsellor asked me what it meant to be 'walking on eggshells?'. "It means I was scared of her" I answered, this realisation came to me like a punch in the face accompanied by a feeling of wanting to throw up. I am still scared of her. We have children so I cannot go no contact as is the best outcome after this kind of abuse. I believe my healing would be easier and quicker if I had nothing to do with her.

Almost two years later I still suffer from vivid, frightening nightmares that stick in my mind long after I wake up. I am edgy and jumpy; I startle easily; I have a permanent shake in my hands, and I have panic attacks. The impact on my life has been extreme but I am slowly healing through therapy, medication and a strong support system. The examples of abuse I am going to share seem so small, so insignificant when standing alone. It’s not until you put them together, recognise the pattern and realise the effect they have on you, that you grasp the truth - it is abuse. But it’s so hard to put a finger on the problem like you can when there is physical abuse. Instead, like a frog in boiling water, you just get used to the silences, the moodiness, the subtle put-downs and the gaslighting. Until you are in a situation so awful that you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy but are so accustomed to it, that you hardly question it.

I had no idea at the time but after I knew about gaslighting; I realised that this had started early. Only a year into our relationship, we moved in together. After living together for a few weeks, Marg said to some friends, “Nell said she was neat and tidy - well she lied about that!”. A fairly insignificant, if not a little confusing, comment. Until I looked back at it with more knowledge and understanding and saw it in years of the same subtle gaslighting behaviour. I know now this was Marg projecting her issues onto me, and gaslighting me into questioning my reality and my understanding of myself.

I am a neat, tidy and organised person despite what my ex thinks but narcissists live in chaos, in the physical and psychological sense. Marg was messy, constantly late, disorganised, unsettled, and unable to decide without a lot of turmoil. And when she made a decision, she regretted and lamented her decision for months on end. It was exhausting and by ensuring I was exhausted living in this environment of uncertainty, stress and indecision, I was much easier to manipulate and use for narcissistic supply.

The exhaustion was compounded by the fact that for the last half of our relationship, Marg pursued (self-indulgent) further study, so we lived for many years on the poverty line. I worked as much as I could but in the 2010s a single average income, even with a university scholarship thrown in for a few years, was not enough to sustain a family of four. In contrast, too many narcissists make you dependent on them through financial abuse, Marg created a situation where she and our children depended on me making leaving impossible. This is another way narcissists maintain control, they position themselves above you and use you to serve their needs. Marg contributed very little to the housework, cooking, and shopping. Whilst she was an attentive parent when I was not there when I was home the parenting always fell solely to me. I even had to get the children fed (and Marg insisted they had oats made fresh on the stove each morning) and ready for school before I went to work. Marg was the 'stay-at-home parent' in name only. 

Alongside the exhaustion, I was slowly and systematically ground down to a shadow of myself through years of belittling, criticism and derision. After escaping the relationship I said to my new partner "I don’t know what I like… I have spent so long being criticised and squashed, [that] I have totally forgotten who I am and what I like."

Marg had successfully made me discard everything that made me, me. The music I enjoyed, movies and TV shows I liked, books I enjoyed reading, hobbies I engaged in. The books I chose would be scoffed at, TV shows I watched met with "Why on earth are you watching that?", cross stitch was met with comments about it being an old lady hobby, and roller skating was laughed at. I requested a pair of roller skates for my birthday, which she bought but the present was accompanied by the comment "What a waste of money, you’ll never use them." Unfortunately, she was right. I did rarely use them but that was because she never allowed me any spare time to do so. I saved a couple of FM stations I enjoyed listening to right at the end of the pre-selected station choices in the car so she wouldn’t notice. I stopped reading books. I stopped baking with my son, a pastime we really enjoyed together after she refused to let me buy new electric beaters when ours broke. I tried, using hand beaters, but have you ever creamed butter and sugar by hand? Hard work.

Narcissists often use money to control you. Even though I earned all the money, Marg controlled it all. Financial abuse often involves one party restricting the spending of the other with a paltry 'allowance' but I didn’t even have that. I had zero discretionary spending.

If I ever talked about my childhood or wanted to show our children photos of me when I was young, Marg would berate me saying "They don’t want to see that, how boring." All these made me feel invisible and worthless. But still, I didn’t see this as abuse.

Listen to The Quicky where we talk about how we can help women who are locked inside their abusers. Post continues after podcast.

The person who first got me to see that what I was experiencing was domestic violence, had seen a red flag in my inability to commit to a social outing. I could not say yes to a drink with a friend until I had asked Marg. And I would not just "ask Marg" I would wait until she was in the right mood to ask and sometimes I didn’t ask at all because I knew it wouldn’t be worth the trouble. This is coercive control at its finest. Marg would use coercive and manipulative means to control me - she would use the silent treatment, guilt trip, use my children as weapons and make me put the children to bed and clean up the kitchen before I went, often meaning it was too late to bother.

On the rare occasion I was able to have a drink with colleagues or a friend, if I didn’t have cash I would ask that they buy my drink and I would give them cash another time. I would try not to use my card because I would be questioned about it later. She did not like me going out socially with friends. But the most damaging and distressing way Marg controlled my life was to create a wedge between myself and my brother. My brother and I were incredibly close all our lives, and as he started to see the abuse and talk to me about it, Marg twisted the whole thing to convince me he was in the wrong and we spent years not talking. I lost many precious years with my most favourite person in the world and his wonderful wife, as did my children, and I am thankful every day that I escaped and they are back in our lives.

These are just a handful of hundreds of examples of gaslighting, coercive control, emotional, psychological and financial abuse. It is almost two years since I escaped and I am healing but I still have a long way to go. 

So my message is this... if it feels wrong and sounds wrong, it most likely is wrong. Severe abuse can happen even if your partner is female. You should feel safe, loved and valued by your partner and if you don’t, talk to a friend about it, do some research, and call a helpline. Things will not get better, they will only get worse and the longer you leave it, the more stuck you get. Get help and get out as soon as you can or if it’s a friend you are concerned about, be a fierce friend who is brave, persistent, and supportive and who helps them to understand what’s happening and get out. 

*Name has been changed for privacy.

If this has raised 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.

Mamamia is a charity partner of RizeUp Australia, a Queensland-based organisation that helps women and families move on after the devastation of domestic violence. If you would like to support their mission to deliver life-changing and practical support to these families when they need it most, you can donate here

Feature Image: Getty.

Unlock unlimited access to the best content for women