06 Mar Going into it with my eyes open turned out to be little defence: Dealing with an abusive partner
At one stage of my life, I was in an abusive relationship. This is something that some people know, and some people knew at the time. There were a lot of people who tried, in all sorts of ways, to persuade me to get out of it. And there were an awful lot of people who didn’t know anything at all, and assumed that everything must be rosy.
I knew it myself. I went into it open-eyed, but also sympathetic. I could see the damage that I thought caused it all. And understanding it – or thinking I understood it – made it difficult to condemn it. But what I eventually had to acknowledge is that understanding means nothing at all. I was never going to “fix” him, because his problems were personality-deep. It wasn’t damage that I could do a darn thing about.
During that time, I read a lot of articles about abusive relationships. I was extremely educated on exactly what was happening. In the end, they were what helped me to say no when I did. To resist giving in to the apologies and the romantic declarations.
I’d like to be able to help other people as well. Because in spite of all of the education, there was part of me that still saw our situation as different. That saw it as salvageable. Nobody can tell you to get out, but I want to lay all my cards on the table and state that no situation is different. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, how emotionally switched-on you are, or how much you tell your abusive partner what they’re doing to you.
If your partner is abusive – emotionally or physically, I think, though my experience is only of the former – then your only call is to get out. Particularly if, like me, you have a small child to think about. And maybe the effect of that break-up will help fix them somehow. Focus on that if you need to. But acknowledge that you are never, ever going to make them better by staying with them and letting them erode your self-confidence and subject you to what can be daily trauma.
It wasn’t hard to establish that my ex was a narcissist. Even from an armchair-psychology point of view, it was pretty obvious. There wasn’t a single symptom he didn’t have. He was obsessed with self-image to the point where nothing would stand in the way of the latest self-indulgent purchase – whether that was a new car, new clothes, a holiday, sporting equipment, or some seriously expensive technology.
He would exaggerate his abilities, including telling little white lies about achievements. And when thwarted, he would behave in an extraordinarily arrogant way. I saw him do it to people – the sentences dripping with disdain – and I found it uncomfortable.
But the extent of these problems only became obvious when I began living with him.
The belief that you can fix them
Early on, I still thought I could help. I still thought I could fix. The subtle signs of things that were worse than I’d thought were things I thought I could manage. He was so very into me that I thought that alone made it worth it. And that’s the trouble with narcissists. It’s all full-on, intense attention, and it makes you feel like you’re connected in a way that ties you to them. By the time the worries start to surface, you feel like you understand them uniquely, and ought to give them a chance.
And there were some worries, even early on. The extravagant generosity he portrayed in the first months of dating rapidly fell away, and instead, I began to realise that I was footing the bill for everything. Because I hate the idea of girls being bought everything by menfolk, that suited me for a while. Until it became obvious that the borrowing of money wasn’t going to stop.
But I wasn’t allowed to get tough about money. He had two tools he would use to take down any complaints: the first, that every so often he would in fact buy me something. It would never be anything useful, or anything I’d asked for. It would specifically be something that he thought I ought to wear. Something that made me look “ladylike” in his eyes. Something that was “nicer than my current dresses” or whatever it might be.
The other was breathtakingly outrageous. The first time I well and truly lost my rag about his ever-increasing debts, and his spending instead of paying me back, he told me (without looking up from his phone screen) that “R’s dad should be paying more in child support. Why didn’t I go and ask him for some money?”
That particular statement – based on nothing but his own warped opinion, and spectacularly unfair when he was living the high life off me – made me so angry that I ended up walking out of my own house. But instead of causing any improvement or at least space, I was instead told via text that I should have some backbone in standing up to R’s dad, as if he were somehow the one with the right to decide how I managed that particular interrelationship, and I was somehow being taken advantage of by someone other than him.
That little series of events spanned a few months in total, and was something that was to recur. But actually the first time I felt the sting of his extraordinarily nasty behaviour was pure jealousy.
He “happened to see” on my phone that I’d been facebook messaging a mutual male friend. Which is something, by the by, that I do, and I am never going to not do. It’s ok, in my very firm opinion for girls to have male friends when they are in a relationship. People can have friends of the opposite sex without it being a problem. I know, because I’ve done it.
So this “accidental” reading of my messages produced a monumental attack because, according to him, making a joking reference to a ridiculous Halloween costume someone had worn and putting a winky face meant flirting. That was it. A joke and a winky face.
The argument about it went on for an hour, after which I felt sick and beaten down, and had almost started to feel guilty for even daring to talk to some other guy. He cast doubt on the friend’s intentions, and made me think I ought to avoid talking to him. But at least after all that the argument was over.
But of course it wasn’t. It was round one in a constantly-recurring fight that went for hundreds of rounds. And there weren’t any bloody winners, either.
A week later, he “happened to see on my computer” that I’d been talking rubbish to an earlier ex of mine, with whom I’d remained on good terms. I’d made the obvious mistake (jeez, how didn’t I spot this?) of replying to a question about how things were going with Mr. Narcissist. This was apparently not ok. And then, a few days later, this ex sent me a picture of a clothing purchase and the stuff really hit the fan. It was in appropriate, I was told. And he didn’t see why I would even want to talk to the ex unless I wanted to get back together with him. With this person I had broken up with some while ago and who was also seeing someone else.
It wasn’t ok to tell him he was being ridiculous. He had a particular condition, he explained, that meant he obsessed about past relationships. And my behaviour had been wrong, which I needed to acknowledge. I should have told him to f*&% off and blocked him. (8 months down the line, I still hadn’t acknowledge this, and it was still a problem.)
Once admitted to, this particular condition of his became one of the most dominant features of our relationship. We could watch a film about a serial killer, and something in it would trigger his jealous thoughts, and he would become silent, and then the interrogations would start. And he wouldn’t stop questioning, coldly and harshly, with dripping scorn and total doubt in any of my replies. I could ask him to stop, and tell him I was upset, and he would carry on. Usually, he would give a sarcastic laugh and ask why his feelings didn’t matter.
Two things started to become immensely obvious as these interrogations recurred every couple of days:
- That he wouldn’t ever, ever stop, until I was so upset that I’d broken down, which would eventually “get through to him.” Which actually, I’m not convinced was the case, in retrospect. I think he saw it as a victory. And then he could be apologetic, and tell me that he’d never meant to hurt me, that “no matter what he said, he still loved me.” Which went to show that he and I had very, very different definitions of love. Nowhere in mine was the desire to beat someone down and ignore their pain for the sake of something I wanted.
- That he wasn’t “accidentally” looking on my phone, or my computer, or anywhere. He was doing it deliberately. He was checking up, constantly. And if I password-protected anything I was “clearly hiding something.” In contrast, let’s make it clear, everything of his had passwords.
The jealousy got worse and worse. I read up on it, and I stood up to him and refused to give into his questioning, even though that made him bully more and more and more. I told him at one point that I might have been drowning in front of him when he was in that mood, and he wouldn’t have cared, and in a moment of honesty, he admitted that was probably true.
I reached the point of really, truly standing my ground and saying “no” when I found that he’d gone onto my phone and blocked two of my male friends from all messaging contact. I only found this out when one of them emailed to ask why. And it was a great time to find out. I was on a night out with him and had made the inexcusable mistake of jokingly calling him a twat in front of his friends, and he’d spent the entire rest of the evening cutting me dead, and arranged to go clubbing with his friends, without in any way making me welcome. After I found out what I had, I decided to leave, and he followed me outside to tell me “Perhaps I wouldn’t call him a twat again” with a little smirk. And I replied, succinctly, that “Perhaps I wouldn’t have the opportunity given he’d blocked people on my phone without asking.”
After I left, I expected some kind of apology. What I got instead was stunning. He messaged to tell me he wasn’t going to apologise, because he hadn’t done anything wrong, and then he went partying with them all and turned his phone off.
After that, I made him go to therapy. I made it a condition of our relationship. I should have walked out at that point, of course, but I didn’t, because in the end, he grovelled again, and told me it was something he needed help with.
“Look what I’m doing for you”
The idea of him striving to change himself “for me” was one that came up a lot after that. He began going to therapy (and complained how expensive it was whilst spending hundreds on designer clothing) and reading up on his jealousy problems.
For a couple of weeks, it improved a bit. I was harangued less, and told how much he loved me more.
But of course it was only a moment of quiet. And in the interim, he was quite happy to show some of his other major issues. I’d got a job that he considered better than his, and his “how was your day?” turned out to be an excuse to say, with utter contempt, “Wow, it must be great being Gytha. Everything’s just working out so well for you.”
I ask myself a lot why I put up with this even then. Even before some of the more major things that went on. Nowhere in my definition of a desirable partner is one who resents my achievements and wants them for himself.
But of course, he was “trying” – and he loved to remind me that he’d had a terrible time of it in his past. That he had really suffered.
The sad thing is, he had suffered. Some of it was not through his own doing, and a huge, huge amount of it was his own doing entirely. But I have friends who have suffered, and don’t treat people like that. I should have held onto that, and not been talked round by his poor-me stories.
The things I couldn’t deal with
This is already a long and involved story. Credit to you if you’re still reading… But I wanted to go into the things that really did kick me out. And it took several goes, because I got talked round. But if you’re in a relationship that’s anything like the above, then I think it’s worth knowing that you can reach breaking-point, and that there are some things that even me with my understanding, fixing hat on, would not put up with.
- The other women
It’s commonly said that people who are terrified of being cheated on are more likely to cheat. And in the case of Mr. Narcissist, whether or not there was cheating, there was certainly some breathtakingly hypocritical behaviour. It came up a few times, with previous flings and with close female friends. He would message them whilst drunk and I wasn’t there, and then the next day, sit in front of me (somehow thinking I was stupid) and delete the conversations. Some of them he would get drunk with, alone, and somehow this was acceptable whilst me being allowed to even get unblocked content from anyone male was not. Others he was calling late at night, also whilst drunk, which I only realised after one of his friends audibly asked if he was on the phone to one of them at 1am when in fact he was on the phone to me.
But god forbid I should question him on this… He would be angry. He would tell me that he “would be angry if I brought this stuff up again.” He would delete messages “because I should trust him.” And somehow I would be brow-beaten into thinking that maybe he was upset because he really did hate not to be trusted…
Yes, I was an idiot. Over and over again. 😉 In the end, when I’d demanded absolute openness and honesty about all this, he deleted yet another set of messages between him and one of them (and by this point, I’d decided I wanted to check) and then lied about it.
- The lost kid
You know how in some romantic films, they show that the main character is with the wrong guy by having him do something really awful, so it justifies ditching him and going out with the hero instead? And how it often seems really overplayed?
Well I had one of those in real life. And it did, actually, do a pretty good job of hitting home.
We were on holiday, at the beach. It was the last day, and we were getting packed up to go home when I saw that there was a woman there who had the very clear, terrified look of someone realising she couldn’t find her child. When she said, “Where is he?” to her partner, I asked if she’d lost a child, and I could help. As you do.
Mr. Narcissist said sternly, “Don’t get involved.” I ignored him, and got a description of the child (who was three, and missing on a crowded beach – possibly one of the most terrifying places) and started to job towards the Life Guard while the two of them continued to look. Mr. Narcissist did not help. Instead, he called out from behind me, “Fine. I’ll see you back in Cambridge then.” And continued to pack the car.
I went on doing what I did, and we found the kid at the far end of the beach on his own. A three-year-old. We’d alerted a lot of people on the way and there was a big search going on by the time we’d found him.
Mr. Narcissist hadn’t finished packing the car by the time I returned, and hadn’t left for Cambridge, but uttered no word of apology. I then had to endure a long drive back with him when I was too furious to even speak properly. I demanded an explanation, and was told that I’d been “flapping about, embarrassing myself.” Which just goes to show that people’s opinions of what does and doesn’t make them look bad can be profoundly different. To me, for example, the selfish a%$^@!& who carried on packing the car was going to look a lot worse than the person helping find a missing child.
- The money
It wasn’t just the owing money and then spending, the fact that he would somehow run out halfway through the month and have to be supported by me for half of every one, despite my disposable income being lower and despite the fact that I had a child to support. It wasn’t just the fact that he lied about it, like the time that he ordered a spanking new computer and claimed it was costing £25 a month, and then it arrived and I opened the invoice and found that he’d paid £2,500 in full.
It was the fact that he responded in exactly the same way as with those texts to girls – with anger, with brow-beating, and with the critical “You’ll just have to trust me.” The fact that when pressed, he said he’d been given the computer money as inheritance, for example, and I was interfering in his family.
And it was, worse than that, the fact that it emerged that he was stealing from his family whilst borrowing from me, and that the amount he owed them was breathtaking.
- The time he said R’s dad wasn’t allowed in “his” house…
…because he insisted on reading a message that R’s dad had sent and there was something ALMOST A LITTLE SARCASTIC in it about himself.
Funnily enough, he did not get his way over the house that he wasn’t even paying rent in at the time because he “couldn’t afford it.”
- The killer: his treatment of R
There are lots of things you can put aside and not act on, but seeing your child start to get bullied (about getting out of bed, about eating messily, about not tidying up enough) and get more and more anxious is never going to be one of them. He had expressed himself keen to get involved in parenting, and then when it finally started happening, it wasn’t parenting at all. It was controlling. It was wading in and deciding in his almighty wisdom that R was “too needy” or “too messy” or “too scruffy” or whatever the hell else, and that somehow he needed fixing. And it was the fact that when I put my foot down, he said “Well I’m not going to change, so it’s him or me.”
I don’t think there’s a universe in existence in all the possible parallel worlds where I would have said, “Oh, goodness, well I’d better choose you.”
I mean, what the hell was he thinking?!
So these things happened, and I tried to get out, and each time I got talked back round, until the last one. When it was one time too many and I wasn’t going to do any more of this any longer. And of course I was “abandoning him when I most needed it,” and I “didn’t understand that love meant supporting people through their problems.”
In the end, you can’t be told by someone else to get out. You have to be ready to do it, and to have finally broken the feeling of dependency. You have to have grown tired of the romantic declarations and the apologies, as well as of all the horrific, bullying behaviour.
I’ve taken damage from it. I know that I still carry it around now, even if it lessens a bit every day. I was vindicated in my belief that, although he felt he “needed me” (which I accept, as narcissists can be as needy as anyone else) it wasn’t me he needed – it was someone. He very quickly found another girl to control; to syphon money away from; and no doubt also to cling to and expect admiration from when he needed it. And although I still feel sorry for him, I feel an awful lot more sorry for her, and for everyone else he damages in his headlong pursuit of his fantasy ideal life.
For anyone who wants to ask any questions or talk directly, I’d be really happy to. I don’t think there’s any replacement for the sharing of experiences and mutual support. So just drop me line – firstname.lastname@example.org