I’ve always seen myself to be a strong, independent woman (insert sassy finger here).
One who does not need to rely on anyone for happiness, or comfort, or validation.
I guess that stems from my growing up in rural Scotland, with nobody but my chronic fatigued mother for company. I had to be okay with being my own entertainment provider.
Somehow, as I got older, and boys became a bigger focus in my life, all of that slipped away; and what was left in its place was the lie I told myself:
That I don’t need anyone. I have myself.
Of course I had girlfriends, boyfriends, close friends; people I relied on and riffed off of when I needed support. But ultimately, I kept telling myself I was alone and I had to be okay with that.
Maybe I felt like at the end of it all, everyone would see me for the waste of space I am?
Perhaps that’s why I let myself fall for him, be consumed by him, let him take me over. I gave every little part of myself to him, blindly and willingly, and let him take control. I felt that that way it would be harder for him to leave me. He’s responsible for me. No one can give up responsibility for another person, right?
Maybe if I let him have control, I wouldn’t be a waste of space. I would have value. Because he’s put time and effort into me, crafted me and moulded me into the perfect woman he wants me to be; you wouldn’t, couldn’t, leave all that hard work behind.
None of this happened immediately. It took time. I didn’t even notice it was happening. It’s not like it was a conscious thing. It’s not like I said to him, “okay, you’re in charge of me now,” and handed him the keys to my soul. Manipulative and emotionally abusive men are subtle. They take their time. They are patient, reaping the rewards, taking joy in knowing what lies ahead.
When I look back, I’m not sure where the control started; but if I had to guess it would be with food and exercise. He always appeared to take delight in my body, but we’d have conversations like this:
“Just imagine it though, you’re walking down the street, you’re wearing those boots I love, and every man on that street is turning to look at you. And you’ll know they’re looking at you and wouldn’t that be awesome? And you can smile, knowing you’re with me but men are still interested in you.”
So the food portions were restricted, the carbs were reduced, the take outs (minimal at best) were stopped. Gym memberships were bought, living room work outs became the norm.
And the anger started when I suggested anything as audacious as “taking the bus.”
Then came the “self-awareness.”
I was no longer allowed to divulge information about myself, no longer allowed to tell secrets; no matter how small or trivial. I was expected to smile coyly and veil truths in disguised riddles. Learn more about the other person than they knew about me because “everyone is after you, Olivia, don’t forget that. They will fuck you over if you let them know anything about you.”
I had to be mindful at every waking minute of the day of how I presented myself to others. He’d dig in his thumbs behind my shoulder blades to make me sit straighter. Pinch my leg when I wouldn’t look where he wanted me to look. Snap his fingers at me if I wasn’t raptly paying attention to him and only him. A few times he even twisted my wrist, clenching with his strong hand causing me to buckle into him when I was being obtuse.
He controlled what I read, what I watched, who I followed on Instagram. His suggestions were not suggestions; they were demands, commands, held over my head with a threat.
If I failed to comply, he’d let loose a torrent of emotional, verbal abuse.
I do this because I love you.
Do you not love me, do you want to leave me?
You’re better than this, I can see it in you, why can’t you see it?
You think you’re better than me, you think you’re above me, I don’t provide for you, you don’t think I’m worth it.
Innocuous examples individually and out of context. But when pulled together and combined with his patronising and commandeering tone, targeting my low self esteem, it became a desperate fight to keep him. To reassure him of my love, my continued devotion. That no, I was the one who wasn’t worthy, make me better, make me whole, make me human, don’t leave me.
Layered into this tangled web of manipulation and control was the physical aspect of the relationship.
I was never allowed to initiate sex. He would get angry, throw me off him if I even hinted at wanting sex, and look at me like I was disgusting. It had to be on his terms, when he wanted it. He liked to coax me into it, liked to beg for it almost sometimes; reinforcing this ideal that I was his goddess yet I should be flattered to even be next to him.
Once, when the coaxing didn’t work, the sex was without my consent.
When he finally managed to line up the last string on the control bar, ensuring I was his marionette, that’s when he started spending my credit.
He never had money, was always drowning in debt, and he, “need[ed] to survive somehow.”
I lent him £200 of my savings to begin with. Then he moved in with me under the guise that sharing a house instead of living alone is cheaper. He spent a further £600 of my savings on a car “for me” that he drove. He applied for a £6,000 credit card in my name, after he burnt down a portion of my kitchen, to cover the damage. Then he took that credit card and spent £400 on a new jacket, new shoes, a watch, cologne. We took a day trip in his truck, went too far, got lost, spent £200 on a hotel, another £100 on petrol. All at my expense.
There was even a meeting at the bank to see if I could secure a mortgage in my name to buy his mother’s house from the council. It was a relatively small amount of money in property terms, but thankfully, for whatever reason that escapes me now, I didn’t go through with it.
All told, he landed me in about £20,000 of debt. And yet I still loved him.
I said “If I was ever going to marry anyone, it would be him. If it’s not him, it’s no one.”
I would have done anything for him.
I compromised a lot of the morals that make me who I am—no, was; in order to protect him and provide for him.
I got him a job at my work and I could tell, even through all the wilful ignorance, that people judged me for dating a man like him. But I didn’t care. He was handsome, charismatic, charming, and he made me weak. What I didn’t see was the ugly narcissism, the devious lies, the dead emotionless glaze to his eyes.
I think my friends tried to warn me, tried to make me see. If they did, I didn’t pay attention. Some friends drifted away from me, stopped inviting me places, stopped texting. But to me, if they couldn’t see what I saw, then who needed them?
I made new friends.
It wasn’t until I took a job on the other side of the country and had to move away from everything I knew, that I finally started to find peace.
There was a settling of my mind, a silencing of white noise that overcame me after a few weeks on my own again; and it was like my brain reset. We chatted on WhatsApp most days and nights, and spoke on the phone once a week. I lied to myself and to him that I missed him. I made new friends, went out clubbing and drinking; taking offence whenever a guy hit on me. I stayed loyal.
He didn’t. Like some cheap soap opera, he cheated on me with his childhood best friend. I didn’t find out about this until after we broke up. From what I hear, they’re still together.
He moved down to live with me about eight months later. That’s when it all fell apart.
The noise in my head was back, immediately, suddenly and violently. It was an assault on my senses, clouding my judgement, making me react negatively.
We argued constantly. I had begun to understand the implications of his spending my credit and understood the control he was trying to keep me under, and I was rebelling.
One night before bed, I stood at the foot and screamed, “why are we together?” This simple act of defiance against my overlord was more than he could take; and it was like a final release for me.
After that, I started trying to get my life back.
One morning before work, we were arguing about something and when he left and walked down the street, he turned and looked back at the bedroom window where I was standing watching him. I threw up my middle finger and walked away. I hate admitting it, but the look of hurt on his face still haunts me today. That memory and that look still makes me question his intent towards me.
Did he love me? Did he actually mean well? And did I just misunderstand?
But then I remember, one night when he’d met me after work to treat me to a nice dinner and a glass of champagne to celebrate something trivial—in a desperate, last ditch attempt to save our relationship kind of way—when it all turned sour again and we began arguing.
I stood up, grabbed my backpack and left rapidly. Next thing, I felt him grab my backpack, hauling me backwards so I lost my balance on the street. I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t fight back, I just went limp and caved in on myself. It wasn’t until a stranger wedged himself between us, pushing him back and telling him to fuck off, did I raise my head to take in what was happening to me.
We travelled home separately that night, and once I arrived back to the flat we shared, I tried to end it. I felt I was clear in my message. For no longer did I want to be in this relationship. I was finished.
I travelled back home for a long weekend to get some distance, where I fell into bed with a friend. It felt good to be free to do as I pleased, with whomever I pleased.
After that weekend, I went back to face reality. I told him what I’d done and he tried to accuse me of cheating. It was his final stick to beat me with. He grabbed that stick with both hands as the lightening opportunity he’d been looking for to blame the end of the relationship on me. He was the untarnished angel, rising above and smelling of roses, leaving me on the ground surrounded in shit.
But I didn’t care. I was free of his tyranny, though not of the debt he left me in. Four years later, I’m still struggling to keep my head above water. But if it means being allowed to be my own person, then so be it.
Once I finally realised what our relationship was, who he really was, I spent a lot of time beating myself up about what I’d done to deserve it. I questioned what had I done to make him this way. It took me a long time to let those questions go, to make peace with my past and move on.
That’s not to say I’m not still scarred by it.
I still find it difficult to fight back or argue with my boyfriend (an amazing, gentle man who loves me for me and has never once tried to change me or control me). Instead, I capitulate too easily, still living under this hellacious myth that if I bite back, I’ll lose him.
Overall, the experience has made me a more cynical, wary person, which probably isn’t a bad thing. Had I been like this when I met him, who knows what might have happened.
All I know now is that it was a hard lesson learned; one I won’t be hasty to make again. But this too shall pass.
All I can do now is live for the now, focus on what makes me happy, and learn to let go.