Trigger Warning: This inquiry contains graphic descriptions of physical and emotional abuse. If you or someone you know is experiencing an unhealthy or abusive relationship, check out our real-time resources, or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. If you’re in imminent danger, please call 911.
Dear One Love,
Three years ago, I broke up with my boyfriend. It was definitely an unhealthy relationship, but I’m still struggling to get past the relationship because I need to realize if it was abusive or not. From the beginning, we moved very quickly and were planning for marriage. He didn’t have crazy mood swings and he wasn’t isolating me from my family or friends. He also didn’t care to look through my phone or know where I was every second of the day. However, he wanted me to play into traditional gender roles and once told me that he’d break up with me if I were a feminist. He believed that he was smarter than me and wouldn’t consider the alternative. Sometimes, when I was biting my nails or doing something else he didn’t necessarily approve of, he’d push my pressure points until I stopped. At the time, I didn’t think anything of that.
During our relationship, I mentioned to my boyfriend that I wanted him to have control. However, this didn’t end up like I expected. Nights when I would drop him off at home, I’d come back hurt, but I didn’t think anything of it; I thought it was what I wanted. One night my boyfriend got really angry about me not paying him enough attention on our anniversary and then got mad at me for talking about my ex too much (even though I rarely talked about him). I hadn’t realized how jealous he was of my ex and that those things were bothering him. He slammed me into my car, but I continued to make out with him. Another night, I’m fairly certain he broke my tailbone. I never saw a doctor about this, but it still hurts, 3 years later, if I sit on it for too long. I did break up with him eventually, but not because of any of this.
I need to understand this relationship before I feel like I’ll be ready to enter into another relationship. I recognize in some ways that this relationship could be considered abusive, but I feel like I asked for it. He was somewhat controlling and he did push pressure points to get me to do certain things, but to me, that’s not as big of a deal. Could you please shine some light on this, so I can understand what I went through?
-Stuck in the Past
Dear Stuck in the Past,
It’s completely normal to feel stuck when you are haunted by the memories of your past. If you are still feeling the adverse physical and emotional effects of your previous relationship than it was likely extremely unhealthy. Further clarity might come from understanding the signs of an unhealthy and abusive relationship especially since it sounds like you are describing many of them. From your previous relationship’s intense and quick start to your S.O.’s volatile anger, these are all signs of an abusive relationship. You also describe physical abuse, like the incidents with your tailbone and the car. His claim that you weren’t paying him enough attention is an excuse to justify his lack of trust which turned into another opportunity to dominate you under the guise of hurt feelings. And I know you mentioned to your boyfriend that you wanted him to have control but it didn’t end how you expected. A healthy relationship has clear communication and boundaries, both of which were missing here. Control can be a good thing, for example, when you are trying to stop a child from running into the street but in a balanced, mutual relationship you shouldn’t have to give up power in order to appease your partner.
Another tell-tale sign that your previous relationship was abusive is that you felt like you had to tip-toe around certain subjects (namely feminism) in order to pacify your partner. This is nothing to be ashamed of, and you didn’t ask for it, this is the result of having been guilted and threatened with physical violence to control, dismiss and manipulate you.
It’s incredibly common for survivors of relationship abuse to minimize their experience, even if they knew the relationship was unhealthy while they were in it. And to be honest, whether or not you consider your previous relationship unhealthy or abusive is less important than you getting the help you need (and deserve). Abusive relationships can be tough terrain to process on your own, a counselor can help you navigate some of the issues that may come up, like grief, shame and guilt, and subtler signs of abuse that often get discounted when you take responsibility for your partner’s abusive behavior.
Psychology Today has a great online tool that you can use to search for therapists in your area. The website Love is Respect is another great resource. You can also check out our real-time resources, or check out or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE) – they offer resources and counseling specifically for relationship abuse.
I know you want to enter a new relationship soon but you really need to know what you want out of a relationship and what your boundaries are before starting a new one. Continue to learn more about the difference between healthy and unhealthy/abusive relationships because everyone deserves a healthy relationship and knowledge is power.