What It Feels Like To Be The Victim Of Emotional Abuse

Domestic abuse isn’t always physical. Victims tell their stories.

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“You’re crazy. All my colleagues at work know how crazy you are, I’ve told them and they said they don’t know how I put up with you. You’re damaged goods. You’re fucked up.” This was what my then-boyfriend shouted at me as I was crumpled on the floor, sobbing. For most of my twenties, this kind of abuse was my reality.

My ex was charming, witty and romantic when I met him, and we moved in together early. The truth about him emerged over time. His behaviour ranged from implying I was overweight (“I’m worried about your BMI”) to confiscating the internet cable after an argument - knowing full well I worked from home.

Things escalated when I found messages to other girls in his office and on dating websites. I became paranoid, insecure, and depressed. Rather than show any sympathy, he said I had serious mental health issues and was “making him ill” (he would reiterate this to my family over the phone so they would end up feeling sorry for him – he was a lawyer and an incredibly skilled manipulator.)

Made to feel responsible for everything that was going wrong, I decided to take antidepressants, which made me drowsy. I thought I was taking steps to save the relationship, but ended up in a zombie-like state. After the umpteenth row I finally found the strength to move out. I am now in a relationship where my feelings matter and my sanity isn’t called into question just to gain leverage in an argument.

Only recently did I realise that what had been going on was abuse. It’s taught me never to ignore seemingly one-off instances of cruel behaviour - it’s never just a one-off. No one should ever have to suffer in silence to make a relationship “work”. Other people I spoke to had similar stories to tell. Their names have been changed.

1. Amy: “When I first met him, he was friendly, funny, kind, the perfect gentleman (when I lived in Sheffield, he drove from Manchester to have a bite to eat with me, then drove home straight after). He changed slowly. It started with the odd argument, usually after he’d had too much to drink. He started insulting me in jest in front of our friends; encouraging them to laugh, blaming me somehow if they didn’t. He became insanely jealous of anything I wanted to do, or anyone I wanted to do those things with. Over the years, he’d convinced me that none of my friends were any good for me, and my family didn’t care for me. He once made me swear that I loved him more than my own mum and dad. He’d said he’d been through my phone and knew I was cheating on him. I wasn’t. He broke my ankle which now bears hideous scars, pins, and plates.”

2. Ally: “The person I was with held a knife between us (not necessarily at me) and told me that he’d kill himself if l left him. The weird thing is, if someone asked me outright if I felt I’d been in an emotionally abusive relationship at the time, I’d say no. I’d even go as far as to say that the guy was, fundamentally, a nice guy - that’s fucked up isn’t it?”

3. Reena: “My self-worth and confidence was slowly destroyed over a period of 11 years by my high school sweetheart and fiancé. Lies and mind games became a part of daily life; I was labelled paranoid when I suspected he had been cheating on me. It turned out that he was. This led me to points in my life where I felt so worthless I wanted to cease to exist, to end the misery I was stuck with being me. I couldn’t even dare look at other men in the eye for fear of being judged, the way my ex used to judge me.”

4. Tracy: “When my boyfriend’s mum died, he became so nasty. Usually he would make spiteful comments about how ‘stupid’ or ‘ugly’ I was. I put it down to his grief talking, but the behaviour didn’t subside. Once, we had arranged that I would go round to his place after I’d worked an evening shift. He lived on the opposite side of town and when I knocked, he said that he ‘couldn’t be bothered with me that night’, so I had to walk back across town in the middle of the night. We were together four years - I look back and think that all the signs were there, I was just blind to them.”

5. Tom: “He openly flirted with other men, messaged them on dating websites, and met up with them while I was at work, but always told me I was being paranoid. For a long time while we were living together he was unemployed and he never offered to cook or contribute towards the running of the house. One time I came home from work during the day because I was ill and he shouted at me for ruining his day at home alone and refused to go out to get food or medicine for me. He often told me I was emotionally unstable and that I had a ‘victim complex,’ which I now realise was a Get Out of Jail Free card he could play whenever he liked.”

6. Helen: “When I met Pete, he was charming. Extrovert and intelligent, he was the life and soul of the party. A year passed before the physical violence slowly crept in (which led to hospitalisation and a miscarriage), but it’s apparent to me now that the emotional abuse was so expertly played out from the very beginning, that I didn’t even notice it until I regained my sanity post-separation. A lot of the negative things he said were disguised as banter or playfulness. He offered to pay for me to have cosmetic surgery because he ‘wanted me to feel happy with my body’. He was an incredibly talented manipulator who knew that feigning a damaged personality would encourage sympathy from me.”

7. Kelly: “Basically when things were good it was great. A great companion to talk and party with. But whenever there was a bad day at the office, less money in his account or mine, the storm was just seconds away. It took me a long time to realise that I reacted with stomachaches just before outbursts happened. I ended up being afraid to say or do something that would encourage a torrent of abuse. But I didn’t leave. I still hoped that if we talked, discussed, tried to fix things, all of this could have been mended. We were in love and that was worth fighting for, or so I thought. The last straw was when he told me he hated me, that I was a weak person who would never succeed in life. And that was it. I couldn’t take any more. I had run out of excuses.”

8. Leanne: “It was my first serious relationship, just after I started university. I’ve always been drawn towards guys that were talkative, confident, and funny. After a year we moved in together and the problems started. The first time I was verbally abused was such a shock. No one had ever spoken to me like that before. But I accepted his apologies. Then there was more abuse and more apologies. I honestly didn’t understand that what was happening was very wrong. My previous relationships were OK, but this was the first time I had ever lived with anyone. Somehow I thought, Maybe it’s the same for all couples and then it stops and just gets better. It didn’t. This toxic relationship is over but it still casts a shadow on everything I do.”

9. Julia: “At the beginning of the relationship it was very intense. He went straight from being friends to completely in love and wanting to spend the rest of his life with me. I didn’t think it was strange as it was so nice to finally feel wanted. Then came gradual changes that I didn’t really notice at first. If I wanted to hang out with a male friend he would get extremely jealous. (I was later forbidden to see any of my male friends.) I had to tell him when I woke up and went to sleep, where I was going and whom I would be with. I eventually ended the relationship because he was very involved in drugs. I didn’t actually realise it was emotionally abusive until a couple of months afterwards. It’s really scary how you can let someone control your life without even realising.”

Where to Get Help


Women’s Aid offers information and support, including a survivors’ forum.

Refuge has a network of safe houses providing emergency accommodation for women and children.

If you have abused your partner and want to seek help to understand and control
your actions, call Respect.

Broken Rainbow provides support for domestic abuse victims in the LGBT community.


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