While I was in my first year at Queen’s, my best childhood friend was starting her first year in another province. We had grown apart in recent years and I heard about her new relationship through a mutual friend. Initially, I was excited for her and the prospect of new love in her life, but it soon became apparent to me and many others who cared about her, that her relationship was abusive. Her partner would ask her not to wear makeup out, discourage her from taking her contraception and a host of other acts of violence. Over the next year, they broke up and got back together countless times, while and I others stood by shocked by her inability to just walk away for good. This friend and I had nearly identical upbringings, with loving, married parents. We both identified as feminists. We were both intelligent and strong women who were deserving of healthy relationships. I could not understand why someone I saw as so strong remained in such a toxic relationship for so long.
Fast-forward to a year and a half later, and I am sitting in bed googling “how to know if it’s emotional abuse.” I am emerging from a year-long relationship and am only now beginning to see the ways in which my partner’s behaviour was wrong. My former partner was a few years older and extremely charismatic. To all those on the outside, my close friends included, our relationship was picture perfect. For almost our entire relationship, my deep love for him and his powerful charm caused me to see it this way too.
I am emerging from a year-long relationship and am only now beginning to see the ways in which my partner’s behaviour was wrong.
It started very slowly, with tinges of jealousy here and there when ex-partners came up. Eventually, I was reprimanded each time an ex of mine came up in conversation and asked to block particular ex-partners on Instagram or badgered for liking other guys’ photos. When I was in the shower, my boyfriend would check my phone to make sure that I had done what he had asked on my social media channels and if I hadn’t, he would do it for me. The most memorable incident was when my partner read my journal, looking for evidence that I was crushing on a co-worker. His defense for this invasion of privacy was that my behaviour had made me impossible to trust. To this day, I am unsure what behaviour he was referring to.
When I tried to tell my boyfriend that his actions made me uneasy, he would say that any guy would act the way he was. This was my first “university relationship” and he was older, so I believed him. If I suggested that my girlfriends disagreed with his behaviour, he would state that this was only because they were my friends, not because there was anything objectively wrong with what he was doing. Eventually, I just stopped talking to my friends about his actions. I believed my boyfriend when he said that they just wouldn’t understand it and deep down, I knew that if I were honest about what was going on, their opinion of him as my Prince Charming would change.
If I suggested that my girlfriends disagreed with his behaviour, he would state that this was only because they were my friends, not because there was anything objectively wrong with what he was doing. Eventually, I just stopped talking to my friends about his actions.
Following our breakup, I finally opened up about my ex’s behaviour and my friends were shocked. I think that the first time that I heard the word “abuse” used to refer to my relationship was in the mouth of a girlfriend. I only began to accept that my ex’s behaviour had been wrong after countless hours of running over past fights both with friends and in my own mind. There is not a cookie-cutter definition of emotional abuse or a perfect checklist that I can use to figure out if what happened in our relationship overstepped a particular boundary. I am not sure that I will ever be able to say with complete confidence that my relationship was abusive, but I do know that I don’t want another like it.
In the aftermath of my relationship, I have had to learn to hold two difficult truths at the same time; my ex never explicitly set out to hurt me, but that is what happened. We have an image of abusers as evil people who want to harm others, and that is simply not true. This image prevents us from seeing abuse in its most common form; mixed in with deep love and affection. At 20, I cannot say that I know exactly what love is, but slowly, I am beginning to recognize what it is not.