So many of my relationships—both romantic and platonic, both friends and family—have been abusive. I’ve been on the receiving end of emotional abuse and manipulation more times than I’m comfortable admitting, and probably more times than I’m even aware. The fact that this abuse has come from people who are meant to love and protect me, like parental figures, has meant I have a thoroughly warped perception of what love and affection is supposed to be.
I’m trying. I try really hard to think analytically about my thought processes and the way I react to things. I have a bit of a hair-trigger temper and get angry and frustrated easily, but it doesn’t tend to last long and when I cool down I immediately start thinking if I reacted appropriately.
The problem is that I have no idea what an ‘appropriate’ reaction is. I have never hit Boyfriend, nor have I ever called him names, or swore at him trying to hurt him. But I’m scared to death that I’m emotionally abusive anyway.
Here’s a recent example:
Boyfriend had surgery two weeks ago. It was a minor procedure and he’s healing well, but as a result of his healing, he can’t wear anything below the waist and getting up and down is hard. I’ve been doing more housework than usual because of this. I know Boyfriend is stressed—he has tons to do at his job at the moment—and didn’t expect to not be able to wear pants, and thus be unable to be in the office. He can work from home but isn’t as productive, so I think he’s frustrated at this unexpected hurdle, especially at such a busy time.
This is all to say he’s stressed, and understandably so.
Now that more time has passed since the surgery and he’s a bit more mobile, on Wednesday, the day before yesterday, I asked him via SMS if he could put the bins out and do a couple of things around the house.
me: after class is done would u mind helping me tidy up the living room and take the bins out? it doesnt need much
me: [sends photo of to-do list, which includes ‘go through box-o-shit’, ‘tidy up living room together’, ‘take bins out’]
him: Ill have to do the box after work
me: i thought we could do it together
me: it wont take 2 hours for us to clean up the living room and shit
him: Cant it wait until this evening? I have a ton of work to do its a bit more than just taking the bins out
me: woah ok
It might seem trivial—and upon reading it back, it absolutely is—but Boyfriend rarely texts in that frustrated, abrupt manner, and I was taken aback and a bit upset. I also think I was reading more into it than was really there. I was worried Boyfriend was upset with me for asking him to resume some housework duties after his surgery, but also exhausted of doing it all solo. So I closed the door and went to sleep.
him: I’m sorry if you thought I was being harsh 😔 I’m just stressed
him: Clearly I have upset you for which I am truly sorry. I understand if you want to go to [the shops] without me.
I woke up to those texts and felt immediately guilty. I hadn’t been trying to guilt trip him into an apology, but somehow it had felt like it—by tacitly closing the door between us without saying a word, I simultaneously felt like I was removing myself from a situation that had upset me and making a petty point. I wasn’t trying to be a bitch. I didn’t slam the door shut and give him the finger through the wall. I honestly wanted to put some space between us, but at the same time, I was scared that doing so would be misconstrued into the silent treatment (which is absolutely emotional abuse) or some manipulation tactic.
We talked and made up, but it’s still nagging at my mind.
Another example is this:
Yesterday, a friend, Co, came over to help me build some Ikea furniture. We’re running out of room for my model horse collection, my books, and Boyfriend’s cookbooks and D&D miniatures. I wanted to get all this done before puppy arrives so we’re not building furniture and hammering with an eight-week-old puppy around the house. I knew building furniture would be hard on Boyfriend after his surgery, so Co came around and we started with the bookshelf that was meant to go upstairs, in the study, next to my desk.
Space constraints meant we had to build it in the hallway upstairs next to the study (where Boyfriend works), and I could tell we were annoying Boyfriend, although he was a good sport and didn’t say anything about it. When it came time to move the completed bookshelf into its spot next to the desk, we attempted to do so, only to realise it didn’t fit. Despite Boyfriend measuring the space and confirming confidently it would fit. Despite the fact it had nowhere else to go.
We eventually shoved it in on its side, so it looked awkward and out of place with the rest of the room’s furniture, and made the bottom three shelves inaccessible without climbing underneath the desk to get to them. I was annoyed. I didn’t say anything but I scrubbed my forehead and rubbed my eyes and sighed and said it was fine, even though it was not really fine—but what else was there to do? It didn’t fit, and no amount of rearranging would make it fit, so it would just have to stay there like that.
I shooed Co back downstairs and we resumed building the other shelves down there. (‘I think Boyfriend could tell I was mad,’ I whispered to him, and he shrugged. ‘You handled it well, though,’ he said.) Boyfriend pottered about but I didn’t really pay any attention to whatever he was doing until I heard power tools fire up, at which point my curiosity was piqued. After about twenty minutes he called for me to come and have a look, and I did, only to find the bookshelf in its rightful place, in the correct orientation. Boyfriend proudly announced he’d shaved a piece off the side to use the skirting board as a support, meaning it now fit. He’d also painstakingly emptied the two bookshelves of horses and books, laid the horses carefully on the sofa, unscrewed the shelves from the wall, and moved everything over a couple of centimetres before re-screwing the shelves back into the wall. The room looked great, and we now had tons of storage space.
But I was hit with a wave of guilt as I stood there looking at it. Was this my fault? Had my passive-aggressiveness, something I know I have a problem with, made Boyfriend feel so upset that he’d done all this to try and fix it? I didn’t want to say ‘I am upset that the bookshelf doesn’t fit when you told me it would’ with our friend in front of us, so instead I’d just sighed and pursed my lips and been a passive aggressive bitch, which wasn’t any better.
Am I a bad partner?
Am I emotionally abusive?
I can’t help thinking about J, my ex-best friend whom I’ve written about quite extensively on this blog. Since our friendship broke apart, in my lowest moments I’ve been turning things over in my mind, trying to see where I went wrong. I know a big part of it was the difference in our communication styles in conflict. They preferred to face things head on, the moment after they happened; I need time to decompress and let my emotions settle, otherwise I’ll say something in the heat of anger that I don’t mean. For me, it meant that after a conflict they were overbearing, and for them I was distant and emotionally cold.
Objectively one could just say we have different communication styles and they weren’t particularly suited to each other. But it doesn’t feel as simple as that. They often made me feel awful for needing time and space after a fight; they implied I was running away from my problems, and in a way I suppose I was.
I remember right after I got back from Korea, they came and stayed with me. This was a bad idea in retrospect—I desperately needed time to resettle into life in Australia—but at the time we hadn’t seen each other in months and were eager to. One night at my welcome home party, they drunk a lot more than I did, and I slowed down on the drinking. They then got angry that I didn’t want to go out clubbing afterwards when I said I would previously, but I had underestimated how exhausted talking to all those people would be, and I just wanted to crawl into bed and sleep for a week. I could tell they were angry at me so I avoided them for the rest of the night, which infuriated them, and when we went to the bed we were sharing I could feel the anger radiating off them in waves. I lay in silence for a while before finally apologising, and we talked it out through there. They were angry that I changed my mind, and especially after they had already been drinking—they told me that they get really nasty hangovers and prefer not to drink if they don’t have to (something I didn’t know), and they wouldn’t have started drinking if I knew I didn’t want to go out earlier. They were angry that I avoided them. They thought I was being a coward. I don’t know if they used that exact word, but the sentiment was there. They expressed how utterly frustrating it was to them that I seemed so closed off, withdrawn. I apologised profusely and explained why I preferred to avoid them after we had a fight. I told them it wasn’t personal, that it’s just how I operated. They said they wish I had just told them instead of closing off without a word. I apologised again and promised to communicate more in the future.
That friendship ended six months ago, as you all know. Perhaps the lessons learnt from it are pointless. But that day was the first time I had articulated that this was my preferred method of communication in high-stress situations, and I was left feeling like it was wrong.
I’m not trying to make myself out as an angel, and J as an abusive friend or anything like that—they were absolutely right that I should have communicated how I was feeling towards them. My previous experiences (of being punished for telling how I feel) were not relevant with them. But I didn’t get the feeling that ‘that’s how you communicate, and that’s ok.’ It was more like ‘I don’t like the way you communicate and I think it’s wrong, but I’ll put up with it.’
I don’t know if it would make them feel any better, but it wasn’t unique to J.
Before Boyfriend, my only other relationship of any significance, length-wise, was a three-year relationship with a boy I’ll call T. T and I met online. He too came from a background of emotional abuse, also from a stepmother with a father complicit, and was a nerdy guy who got me into video games and building computers. Our relationship was… fine. It wasn’t abusive, but it wasn’t healthy. I was dealing with vaginismus—a tightening of the muscles in the pelvic floor which makes any form of vaginal penetration excruciating—and refused to get any help with it, and he made it clear that sex was very important to him. Whenever we fought, which was pretty often, I would distance myself from him. I would sleep in the study. I couldn’t stand to be around him not because I hated him, but because I needed time to let the feelings from our fight settle and mellow out. I feel like I moved into the study at least once a month.
It obviously wasn’t great. We broke up in early 2017. That that relationship is the only one of two that I would consider important to me—the other one being truly emotionally abusive, where I was raped repeatedly—before Boyfriend came along speaks volumes.
I am not proud of the way I acted with T. I was immature. I was lacking empathy, I was abrasive, I was a bitch. Maybe I was abusive. Maybe the relationship was just unhealthy on both sides. Maybe I was just a stupid seventeen year old child. I don’t think I’ll ever know.
I think part of the problem is that I don’t know how to express my emotions appropriately. Somehow saying ‘I am frustrated’ or ‘I am upset’ feels wrong, taboo—not least because I have been punished by other loved ones in the past for saying these things—so I try and say how I’m feeling without saying those words, like with the bookshelf, where I pursed my lips and sighed. But is this passive aggressiveness any better? What is wrong with me where I can’t just say what I’m feeling? I know that other people aren’t mind readers. Years of therapy and some common sense tells me so. But why do I keep doing this?
I don’t have a neat ending to this blog post, a nice way to sum everything up with the lessons that I’ve learned from writing everything out—which usually provides clarity. Instead I’m more confused than ever, and I feel like absolute ass. Intention doesn’t matter when it comes to abuse. If I hurt someone, I hurt them, regardless of whether I was trying to hurt them or not (the road to hell, etc). If I’m abusive I’m abusive, no ifs, ands, or buts.
I love Boyfriend. I love him more than I’ve ever loved anything or anyone else. I want to spend the rest of my life with him. I want to live, for him. I want to live with him. But I’m terrified that I’m bad for him, even if I don’t mean to be.