“Aaron* and I had only been dating a few months before I began to notice how I felt around him. In the beginning of our relationship he was kind, loving and supportive, but as time went on, he changed in the way he spoke to me and treated me. It took me another year before I realised that I was in an emotionally abusive relationship, and it was only then that I found the courage to leave him.”
Hurtful words and put-downs
“Whenever I was with Aaron, my self-esteem always took a hit. He would jokingly criticise what I wore or the way I did my hair and makeup, saying things like, ‘Were you still asleep when you got dressed this morning?’ and ‘Your eye shadow and lipstick colours make you look super-old – maybe you need some makeup lessons’. Looking back now, I can say that his comments were hurtful and unnecessary, but at the time I just passed them off as him trying to be funny. Whenever he made such belittling jokes, I would force a smile but on the inside I’d be crying.
“Once, I told Aaron about a job I was interested in applying for. Instead of encouraging me to go for it, he said, ‘There’ll be loads of people trying for that position and they’re probably more qualified than you. What makes you think you’re better than them? If I were you I wouldn’t bother’. I was shocked and upset at his lack of support. Instead of believing in my abilities, he was downright discouraging. When I asked him why he didn’t want the best for me, he blamed me, saying that I was the one who didn’t believe in myself, and that he was just being realistic. ‘Even if you got the job, I don’t think you have what it takes to succeed in it – you don’t have enough faith in yourself, and besides, you’re not a hardworking or competitive person’, he said.
“Aaron often put me down in front of my friends, too. Whenever we all went out in a group, he would not hesitate to tell them that I was lazy, messy, disorganised and undisciplined. After a while, I began to dread having my friends around because it seemed that Aaron rarely had anything positive to say about me. Whenever I called him out on his meanness, he would say that he was just kidding and ask why I couldn’t take a joke.”
A toxic relationship
“We argued a lot. I’d get upset whenever he criticised me or made me feel bad about myself. Instead of apologising he would brush off my reaction and tell me that he was only being ‘honest’ with me, and that whatever criticism towards me was for my own good. Over time, his hurtful words and behaviour chipped away at my self-confidence and I slowly began to doubt myself. In addition, I started to feel afraid about confronting him with my problems because I knew that he wouldn’t be supportive. I also stopped showing him how upset I was whenever he put me down or was mean to me, because I knew that he would not take me seriously or blame me for being too sensitive.
“I knew that the relationship was bad when I began crying myself to sleep at night and finding excuses not to talk to Aaron. I also realised that I was always finding fault with myself and that I would tweak my behaviour to please him. I didn’t like the person I’d become. I also didn’t like the fact that Aaron liked playing mind games with me. Once, he told me that I’d probably never leave him because I knew that no other man would want me. Then he laughed in my face. Another time, he made me feel that his love for me was conditional. He said, ‘I love you, but there are still many things about you that I don’t like and that you need to improve on. If you changed for the better I would love you more’.
“Occasionally, however, Aaron would compliment me or say something supportive – in those moments, I would reassure myself that our relationship was okay and that I ought to stay with him. At the time, I couldn’t see that that was just his way of controlling me and to keep me hooked so that I wouldn’t leave him.”
Finding the courage to end it
“It was my best friend who pointed out that I’d changed since meeting Aaron. She told me that I had become anxious, timid and withdrawn. She had also noticed the way Aaron spoke to me and told me that she didn’t like it. ‘He says things that make you angry, upset or uncomfortable’, she said. ‘He questions your sanity at times, criticises your choices, calls you names, and blames you for his problems. He belittles and demeans you. And you still want to be with him?’
“My friend was right. This wasn’t a healthy, supportive relationship. I’d become a shadow of my former self; I’d started to doubt my abilities; and I was walking on eggshells around my boyfriend, the one person whom I expected to love, support and accept me unconditionally. I knew I deserved better.
“Breaking up with Aaron wasn’t easy – he was surprised that I didn’t want to be with him anymore and made me feel that I’d be lost without him – but I did it anyway. It’s been about six months since our relationship ended and I feel like my old self again – happy, confident, and outgoing.
“The signs of emotional abuse are usually subtle compared to those of physical abuse, but they are just as hurtful, if not, more. Physical abuse may leave scars on the body, but mean words and manipulative mind games cut pretty deep, too. I would have only been doing myself a disservice had I stayed with Aaron. In ending our relationship, I was taking a stand for myself and showing him that I was better off without him.”
*Names have been changed