Words by Emily Fuller
It is incredibly difficult to articulate the intricacies of emotional abuse and gaslighting. Its silence and invisibility allows for it to go undetected for frightening lengths of time in all different forms of relationships. The nature of this abuse is incredibly broad, with no case ever looking identical and comparable. It may be as overt as name-calling and degradation, or as blatant as controlling certain aspects of the relationship with calculated intent. Or, it can come in infinitesimal subtleties – which is where things tend to get a little murky.
In a past relationship of mine, the abuse was entangled in the exuberance of grand gestures. Ensnared with words upon words – lovely, tantalising words of affection. I struggled profusely to acknowledge instances of emotional abuse, as it was constantly obscured by the glamour of love – which I have now learnt to be an act of love-bombing. Even in those moments of a sinking gut-feeling, when my body was screaming out for me to recognise that something was not quite right. The subtleties of the gaslighting and the invalidation of my own emotions crept quietly by, whilst all my attention was lured towards those beautiful words and manipulated gestures. I could feel it in the air, that sensation of uneasiness that crawled across my naked flesh, making me feel prickly with vulnerability. I justified this feeling of wrongness again and again, because the surface level of the relationship was painted with such beauty and splendidness – I believed what I had felt must clearly be figments of my imagination, an overreaction of harsh judgment. And so I continued on, as enchanted as I was by the intensity of it all – thinking this must be the natural way of things when you encounter a powerful connection.
Further through the course of the relationship, I learned that this former partner of mine had made a serious breach of my trust. I was absolutely dumbfounded. Before they told me of what they had done, I was interrogated and questioned regarding my own sense of loyalty for the relationship. I was groomed with declarations of love and discreet threats of suicide: you’re my soul mate, I would rather kill myself then to be without you. Then, the truth of what had happened just slipped on by. Almost as if it was merely an insignificant afterthought of their’s, briskly chased and consumed by excuses to alleviate the awfulness of what had been done. I recall sitting in the crinkled mess of my sheets, my nails bitten raw as I anxiously awaited for the shock to dissolve into despair. My brain felt as if it was malfunctioning, struggling to process the reality of what had occurred. I could not understand. I refused to comprehend. How could someone that made me believe in the authenticity of our love inflict something so traumatic and devastating on to me? In the days and weeks of the aftermath, I was in such a state of turmoil as to whether I was validated to feel anger, resentment and distress. By this point, I had been so conditioned by the frequent emotional abuse that I tried to consider every possible reason that would justify their actions and would still prove they loved me and truly did not intend for this to happen. I was fearful for any decision I made or action I followed through with that could trigger them into a state where they would be a risk to themselves. In dealing with the impact of this trauma, it quickly became about how I needed to approach this with compassion and understanding of my partner’s compromised mental state rather than a matter of them taking responsibility and doing what needed to be done to reinstate my sense of trust. It was utterly draining, both mentally and emotionally. Guilt would possess and undermine any capability of rational thought I had in trying to process everything. My mind was instead plagued with thoughts about how I was not providing enough support or understanding in the relationship, even though I have come to understand in hindsight that my partner’s actions were not in my control nor were they my responsibility – the onus lies completely on them.
Not long after, the conversations revolving around why we had separated ensued. To an objective onlooker, our relationship was one of adoration and utmost respect – and so it was extremely tricky to be transparent about the realities of what our relationship looked like once the veneers of grandeur were abandoned. I had barely begun to wrap my head around the sheer length of emotional abuse that had been invisibly strung throughout the relationship. For quite some time I thought it was all in my head, compelling me to question my own sanity. I couldn’t even imagine explaining the nuances of my grief and trauma to those around me as I struggled to even recognise the tangibility of it myself, and so I felt imposed into silence. It wasn’t until close friends and family gently approached me after we separated, warning me of the small forms of abuse they witnessed within my relationship. I began to unpack the relationship with my psychologist, who provided me with a space to feel valid in my trauma and to better understand the realities of the abuse I had experienced. I was surged with relief, relieved that not only were these instances of abuse actually absolute and legitimate – but that I was supported by people who believed me.
That is the single most devastating thing that gives emotional abuse its power and authority to run rampant – that it coerces its victim into self-doubt and dizzying confusion when they are lured into an abusive relationship. It takes time and open dialogue and patience for a victim to begin to unravel the conditioning in which they have been bound. I am so incredibly grateful for those in my life who have been more than enthusiastic to listen to my narrative and to help reconstruct the perspective of it in order for me to better understand the nature of the trauma I experienced, completely uninhibited. Now, I am quite capable in sharing my experience of abuse without any shame or blame, as I want those to around me to be in a better position to recognise any potential instances of emotional abuse within their own relationships. I do not write this out of spite, but rather out of love and compassion for those who have ever experienced abuse in relationships, where you have not felt valid or confident in calling it out. May you seek out your own narratives that help you to understand the trauma of past relationships, and to heal and flourish from your experiences. I believe you, and so do the rest of us – even through its threatening invisibility.
Art by Wiktoria Kaminska – @wi_kaminska