How I Knew It Was Emotional Abuse: The Subtle Signs I Almost Missed

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“I hope you find love, but more importantly, I hope you’re strong enough to walk away from what love isn’t.” ~Tiffany Tomiko

A few weeks after breaking up from what I thought was a loving relationship that in reality was sliding into an emotionally abusive one, I had a dream.

In it, I was hiding from a group of dangerous people, but could see the footsteps of one of them coming toward me. Suddenly they saw me, and I pleaded to them, “Please, don’t kill me,” and they turned and left. When I emerged, I could see the victims all around me suffering from a fate I had been spared.

I believe dreams relay information from our unconscious to our conscious mind, and that they hold huge significance in the processing that occurs while we sleep. I have no doubt at all that this dream signified the narrow escape I had from a man who was being emotionally abusive.

The Cognitive Dissonance of Emotional Abuse

I don’t use the term “emotional abuse” lightly, and I have struggled to apply it to the man I shared so much love with. Yet, one of the resources I used to understand what had been happening in my relationship was a podcast called “Love and Abuse,” which sums it all up so perfectly.

Emotional abuse is a cycle that flips between loving moments and abusive ones, sending you on a rollercoaster ride toward a place you never wanted to end up. A result of the constant highs and lows is a state of mind that is unbalanced, ungrounded, and permanently confused. In this state, it becomes very hard to understand what’s happening.

You’re caught between wanting to appease the person whose behavior is so hard to read and staying true to yourself. There is no part of you that wants to connect with your intuition; you only want to fix things and make them go back to the loving part.

My relationship became a fog of confusion, as my brain struggled to understand how one moment it was loving and another it was abusive. This is a state of mind called “cognitive dissonance.” In the immediate aftermath of the relationship I read something that perfectly resonated with me—cognitive dissonance is when your heart needs time to catch up to what the mind already knows.

Once I surfaced from the relationship, I could finally see the abusive part, as subtle as it was, and understand that it wasn’t healthy, without my heart getting in the way.

The Moment I Knew It Was Emotional Abuse

The realization that something was very wrong in my relationship dawned on me in the most fortunate way. We had been watching a program on Netflix called Maid. The series was about a young woman, isolated with a child and an emotionally abusive partner.

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You never see him hit her, yet the controlling behavior and shouting are there. Even though she doesn’t know that he’s abusive, she knows she needs to leave.

As we watched, I could feel something shifting in my subconscious. I was seeing something playing out on screen that ran parallel to my life. I wasn’t with someone who was breaking things or yelling in my face, yet I was right on the edge of the cliff and he was about to lead me over the ledge.

I just know, intuitively, that if I hadn’t gotten out of there, I would have slid downward to a place that would have been much harder to leave.

The other lucky thing that happened to me was meeting someone who picked up the pieces of what I told her and showed me all the red flags. I had dismissed them before, not wanting to judge him for his choices, yet they were all there.

He didn’t have any friends, he wasn’t close with his parents, he didn’t like me making plans without him, he got tense and silent, he would raise his voice at me, he was moody, he questioned my beliefs, he spoke badly about my family… all the signs were there.

The Trauma Bond

The trouble is, when you’re deep in it with someone, when they’ve love-bombed you so hard and fast that you’ve barely had time to breathe, when they’ve called you their soulmate and moved you in within months of dating and declare they want to marry you, you just can’t see the wood through the trees.

Being loved feels so good, and that’s dangerous because love can blind you. Worse than that, when you’re in a cycle of love and abuse, whether or not the abuse is emotional or physical, the chemicals in your brain become severely dysregulated. This is called a trauma bond.

The trauma bond is a chemical concoction made up from the abusive cycle—the bonding phase, where you’re showered with love, promises, and romance; the stress during the abuse; and the making up period afterward.

It’s why making up feels so good after they’ve been angry or given you the silent treatment, and it’s why leaving someone hurts so very much. You’ve gone into withdrawal from your dopamine fix, and it’s horrific. You’re also stuck in that foggy state of confusion where you’re trying to align the messages you’re getting from your heart and your brain.

The trouble is, they don’t match, and in this state of cognitive dissonance, which feels so deeply uncomfortable, you reach for the easiest, simplest, and safest answer—you listen to your heart. After all, what the heart wants, it gets.

It’s this trauma bond that keeps people going back to an abusive partner. To add to this confusing chemistry, the emotional abuser will do everything to win you back, from bombarding you with messages and emails proclaiming their love and inability to live without you, to hurling their hurt and anger at you, guilt-tripping you right back into your arms.

For someone whose self-esteem has been slowly whittled down in a relationship, this behavior is like a balm to your fragile soul. You feel so loved and needed that you fall right back into their trap. They say you’re their soulmate and you believe them, but after a period of making up, they can then continue the cycle of abuse right where they left off.

They know you’re fragile, they know what you want to hear, and they are masters of manipulation. They pull at your heartstrings in every way they can, so be ready for it, and stay strong.

Waking Up and Leaving

I had no idea that it was emotional abuse, or what emotional abuse even was, until I started sharing my experience and reading about what others had been through. I think I was extremely lucky, because after seven intense months I gradually began to wake up to the spell I’d been under.

It hasn’t been easy, and the feelings are still fresh and raw, which is why I wanted to write them down so quickly, as it’s powering my resolve to stay away from him.

I also want to share the red flags that were there right under my nose that I couldn’t bring myself to examine at the time. I still have trouble believing that what transpired in our relationship wasn’t normal or healthy, which I think is all part of the process when leaving someone abusive. Recovery is starting to trust yourself rather than the person who was the source of your pain.

Of course, I doubt myself and think I misunderstood it all. Part of me still thinks I’m exaggerating and making a fuss. A part of me also thinks about ways I could have responded to the abuse differently and what might have happened if I had. I also still miss him. Love doesn’t just switch off, but I know that’s my altered brain chemistry rather than true love.

Then I remember the list I made of all the red flags—all the little incidents that happened, all the uneasy feelings of confusion, sadness, and wariness I felt—and I know I made the right decision to leave.

Alarm Bells and Red Flags

One of the main alarm bells that began to ring was how wary I was of what I said. I didn’t know what mood he would be in, so I was always trying to read the signals. If there was a tense silence, I knew it wasn’t good and tried to make myself as inconspicuous as possible to avoid triggering him and making his mood worse.

I also noticed that I was tiptoeing around on eggshells and making myself small and quiet, appeasing him and putting his happiness before mine. Putting someone first through fear of making them angry or upset isn’t love.

I also began to tune into my mood, which was beginning to feel flat and joyless. At times, I thought I could be immune to his moods, but they affected me whether I was aware of it or not.

I remember crying as he stormed out of the house, wondering what had gone so wrong. I remember feeling deeply confused when he picked a fight about something that made no sense to me. I remember feeling sad when he would turn from being gentle and loving to short-tempered and passive-aggressive in the flick of a switch.

Controlling Behavior

Another sign that slowly crept up on me were signs of control.

I once told him about an appointment I’d made for the following day, and he became angry because I hadn’t told him sooner. One time, I was meeting a male friend who wanted to give me an acupressure treatment, and he said he felt uncomfortable having another man’s hands on me. He once mentioned how he didn’t like waiting to receive a reply to his messages, so I became nervous to always message him back as soon as possible.

It got to the point where I felt scared to mention plans to see friends or see my family, and this is very wrong.

The examples go on and on and, as you can see, they are small things, but added together they make up a very clear picture. We should all have the freedom to see who we choose, when we want, yet he wanted to spend every evening together, as that, in his opinion, was what a ‘proper relationship’ was about. It seemed he wanted me to feel guilty for needing my space.

The last red flag was speaking badly of my family, who I am very close to. He used my need for independence from my family as a driving wedge between us. When my parents asked me to house-sit, he got angry, said they were using me, and made very subtle putdowns against them.

Even I noticed how my behavior was changing and how I was spending less and less time seeing my family, a warning sign if ever there was one.

Making the Decision to Leave

Whether all his actions were conscious or unconscious, I know I made the right decision to leave. I thought I loved him, but I love myself far too much to ever put myself in a position like that again.

I have a huge amount of empathy for him and remember the parts of him that are kind and loving, so I feel no anger, just sadness that he’s pushed love away through no fault but his own. I am not here to save or heal anyone, and if anyone places that responsibility on my shoulders or wants me to feel guilty that I am not helping them, then I am walking away.

So my advice for you is this: If you feel like something isn’t right, it isn’t. This is your intuition talking to you, and it may save your life.

You need to get away from the emotionally abusive person as soon as you can and surround yourself with friends and family. This gives you time and space to lift the fog that has been clouding your judgment, and to sever the trauma bond.

Your relationship doesn’t need to contain every sign of emotional abuse for it to be so. Just knowing how you feel—wary, confused, scared, tearful, and all those other emotions—is enough. No one should feel fearful or trapped in a relationship.

There is nothing more powerful in a situation like this than an outside perspective. In an emotionally abusive relationship, you are on a rollercoaster ride of chemicals, emotions, stress, love, and pain. There is very little chance you’re going to be able to decipher this on your own, so speak out, whether it’s to a friend, family member, therapist, or anyone at all—just speak to someone.

As soon as you start to share how you’ve been feeling and what you’ve been experiencing, you will start to see the signs of emotional abuse in your relationship, like I did in mine, and hopefully will get away as fast as you can.

About Antonia

It’s ironic that Antonia helps people with emotional stress and trauma, yet she herself wasn’t aware that she was in an emotionally abusive relationship. That’s how subtle abuse is. Yet she believes our experiences make us stronger. It was through Kinesiology that she opened up and saw her relationship for what it was. She now hopes she can do the same for others. You can find her at antoniabeamish.com/musings.

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