Content note: rape, emotional abuse, suicide, self-harm, eating disorders.
Welcome back to G4RL’s collaborative posts and ‘A Tale of Two Survivors’. Allow me to introduce a remarkable woman, Tess. She’s a User Experience Researcher by day and a Broadway musical star by night. You can find her over on Instagram, where she refuses to let the Inhaling Seagull meme die.
Of all the thorny topics we cover at G4RL, it took courage to press publish today. I have not spoken publicly about being in an abusive relationship. I wanted G4RL to be a place of positivity, growth and light-heartedness. For many years, I struggled to draw anything positive from my own experiences. Then I met Tess.
Tess has also survived an abusive relationship. While the abuse came in different guises, we discovered so many parallels in our experiences. I am blown away by the resilience Tess continues to show in her recovery. I never wanted G4RL to be The Nikki Variety Hour. I wanted the honour of sharing stories from strong women who have positively impacted my life. To share Tess’ story on G4RL is a real mark of trust, for which I’m extraordinarily grateful.
Tess showed me that our experiences have positive value for ourselves and others. While our stories are sad, they are also uplifting. They show strength, determination and self-awareness. Here we are in conversation about power dynamics, reconciling love with abuse and the advice we would give anyone in an abusive relationship.
Can you describe the power dynamics of your relationship?
Tess: When I met him, I was 18 and he was 25. He held his previous relationship experience over me. It was my first relationship. He made it very clear that I hadn’t ever been in a relationship, so couldn’t know what I wanted from love. He would say, “You’re going to like anything that happens, because you’ve never had a relationship before”.
The uneven power dynamic and toxicity of the relationship centred on me being overweight. He withheld love from me in exchange for me losing weight. He would remind me, “You’re still fat. You still haven’t lost the weight you promised. You’re not normal. If you lost weight, then I would love you.” He was very scientifically minded and would apply logic to his abuse. If I made an argument trying to stand my ground, he would use logic to undermine me. He was very convincing.
Nikki: We shared the same age -gap. When our relationship began, I was 18 and he was 25. On paper, that doesn’t sound significant. It’s not illegal and society doesn’t consider it morally wrong. For some people, that age difference could be healthy and normal. I definitely wasn’t mature enough for a relationship with an older man. As a teenager, you think you have the world figured out. I still had the mentality of a child.
Growing up, I’d lived a sheltered life of privilege. I was very naive. John* was charismatic, highly intelligent and had a disregard for authority. He was a smoker, a drinker and a drug-taker. As an 18 year old, that was very exciting to me. His intelligence was superior to mine. He was incredibly bright and that allowed him to be extraordinarily manipulative. I definitely idolised his intelligence. I saw him as this “tortured genius” character. I was in awe of him, which meant I was easily led and readily adopted his unhealthy habits.
When did you recognise that your relationship had become abusive?
Tess: Retrospectively, after the relationship had ended. There was a key moment when I realised just how damaging the relationship had been. When I showed you some of the messages Pete* had sent me, you burst into tears. Witnessing someone’s objective reaction to my experience was so crucial to my understanding of the relationship.
I would talk to other people and they would tell me my relationship was wrong. I felt so isolated and I’d justify everything: “But he’s a really nice guy. Most of the time it’s okay”. I’d gone a long way to convince myself that the relationship was worth something. As an intelligent person, it’s difficult to believe that you’ve been manipulated. You think that you’d recognise it if it were happening to you. But you don’t. I was so focused on him and was so scared of the relationship failing. I didn’t care that other people thought the relationship was abusive. I just wanted him to love me and that was my personal challenge to overcome.
Nikki: I only labelled the relationship as abusive retrospectively, years after it ended. The severity of the abuse held me in a traumatised state for a really long time. I was utterly unable to vocalise the extent of what was going on, because I was so unwell. I didn’t talk about the relationship honestly to my friends or family, because I was ashamed. I was also blinded by infatuation. The fog was so dense and it was really hard to unpick everything.
There was one sexual encounter which was not consensual. That’s when I realised I was in a deeply disturbing situation, before the pattern of abuse escalated. We were both drunk and I was really far gone. I was unable to give consent. I woke up alone, in pain and with scarring on my body. I didn’t report it as rape. At the time, I didn’t understand the law. Naive as it sounds, I didn’t know that you could be raped by your partner. I also didn’t think I would be believed in court. I knew he would spin it as kinky, consensual sex that I had enjoyed.
It is undeniable that I was abused. It’s taken years to work through the trauma and fully come to terms with everything that happened. The emotional abuse escalated to the point where our relationship was toxic and damaging to both of us. He would self-harm in front of me regularly. He made attempts on his life when he feared I would leave him. I adopted his unhealthy coping mechanisms myself, because I was intimidated or coerced into acting as he did. I lost a lot of myself in that relationship. It took a long time to rebuild my identity by remembering the caring, thoughtful person I had always been before him.
I thought that if I opened up about the abuse, I’d be attacking somebody who was severely mentally ill. I didn’t want to cause him any more pain, when he was already suffering. I overlooked the fact that I was desperately ill myself. When you’re in a toxic situation, you just lurch from one crisis to the next without reflecting on the bigger picture. At the time, it was really difficult to see the wood for the trees.
How do you reconcile your love for the abuser with their abuse?
Nikki: At the time, I believed that love came with intensity and extreme fluctuations. I convinced myself that the more intense your relationship, the deeper or more meaningful your connection. This is an extremely unhealthy set of values. I think those values can fuel an abusive relationship dynamic.
A lot of what underpins G4RL stems from these experiences. What we see in movies, or hear in songs, perpetuate the idea that love has to be this intense, all-or-nothing experience. Realistic love is the opposite of that. Love should be calm, committed and devoted. In hindsight, I don’t consider myself to have been loved by him or to have loved him. With distance from the relationship, I can reconcile the two with awareness of what love really feels like.
What do you feel this relationship taught you?
Tess: Your intelligence doesn’t determine how likely you are to fall victim to emotional abuse. I’ve learned who I am and what I’m capable of. I’ve learned how strong and resilient I am. Dealing with the relationship and the breakup has shown me the depth of my coping skills. So many people have said how well I’ve handled everything. I’ve truly learned my worth and how I deserve to be treated in a relationship. I know what kind of relationship I will tolerate in the future. I’ve discovered the importance of female friendship. I didn’t have that when I was in a relationship with Pete, but I do now. It’s something I’ll never take for granted.
What advice would you give somebody in an abusive relationship?
Tess: Don’t isolate yourself. You’re not actually isolated; you’re made to feel as if you have to isolate yourself. Always sense-check things and get another opinion. Talk to your friends and talk to other people. If you get other people’s opinions, it gives you evidence to gradually stockpile in your mind, telling you that the situation is wrong. Reach out to everyone you feel comfortable talking to and keep track of their reactions. It’s important to divulge things, even if you feel embarrassed or ashamed. That’s when you really free yourself from the abuse.
Nikki: If you are experiencing physical violence, or emotional abuse, seek professional support. Call the police if you are in immediate danger. You need to talk to your GP, a therapist or use a helpline. Professional support will allow you to deal with the ongoing emotional trauma and aid your recovery. It’s important not to feel guilty for taking your time to come to terms with the abuse. Eventually, you will see your worth through your own eyes. I want to remind anybody in an abusive relationship that being abused is not a reflection of your own value.
*names changed to preserve anonymity
Please get in touch if you have been affected by any of the issues discussed in this week’s post.
UK National Domestic Violence Freephone Helpline: 0808 2000 247.
UK National Rape Crisis Helpline: 00808 802 9999.
Samaritans: 116 123.
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