April marks a year since I broke up with my first official “boyfriend.” It took me almost that long to admit to myself that he emotionally abused me.
He seemed shy and intelligent. He introduced me as his girlfriend after a month, which seemed sweet, even though I was somewhat concerned that he had done so without talking to me about it first.
Slowly, I began noticing that when we were around other people, he was happy and full of energy, but when it was just the two of us, he would get sad or angry. When I tried to empathize with him or comfort him, he’d assure me I’d never understand. I felt insufficient, trapped between my desire to make him feel better and my inability to do so. He complained to me about work and his family. He was icy and mean.
You always hurt the one you love, I told myself.
At first, we would make out and then he wouldn’t want to go any further. He was just nervous after a hard relationship and a harder breakup, he assured me. I reasoned that he must really like me, to want to be with me even without sex. Nice boys don’t only want sex, I thought. They want to hold hands; they want to spend time getting to know you. He was a nice boy.
More dates went by, and we started to grow closer.
His nerves about sex seemed to be settling. We’d dry hump and make out and then he’d finish. But still, he didn’t acknowledge my pleasure. Please touch me, I’d say as I wiped cum off my stomach or back, even though I never consented to being a receptacle for his ejaculate.
I met his friends. They talked about how highly he spoke of me. They were nice people, some of them couples our age, and I felt mature being in a couple among couples.
Meeting my friends was a different story. My closest friend is a guy. At first, my ex gushed about how lucky I was to have a friend like that. But one night when I excused myself to answer some texts from my friend, he came after me fuming. He accused me of cheating, and slung insults at my friend. “Trust is earned,” he yelled, pointing his finger at me as I sobbed, feeling trapped and unable to escape without conceding that I had done something wrong when I knew I truly hadn’t. The tirade lasted an hour and a half.
It wasn’t just my social life that was unacceptable. Everything about me was deserving of judgment. I was a naive college girl whose choices were deficient, in need of fixing and controlling.
I needed to get up earlier. I needed to handle my anxiety differently. I couldn’t even manage my birth control. He once spent an hour googling my pill, suggesting I try something new, telling me when I could and couldn’t get pregnant in my cycle. I know I can’t get pregnant now, I’d assure him. No, you’re wrong, he’d correct me.
As a feminist, I know the signs of abuse, and I never expected to miss them when it was happening to me.
My academic pursuits were a novelty. He would cheer them on to create the illusion of nurture, and then tear them down to remind me that I was not as smart, perceptive, or driven as he was. One night when we were out to dinner, he told me he thought my thesis on feminist philosophy and reproductive rights was based on an unsound premise. He spent two hours belittling research I had spent months gathering, trying to delegitimize every claim I made. As we walked to the train, I prayed no one overheard my boyfriend yelling at me in public about how I had no idea what I was talking about, and letting out a cynical chortle every time I tried to defend myself. He didn’t relent until I broke down crying, finally conceding he knew I cared about this, but he just didn’t agree. I worried that I was violating my feminist duty by lying next to someone so blatantly wrong on the issue, but I thought maybe he would start listening, eventually.
Even my sexual history was embarrassing, something I should have been grateful about leaving behind for him. He had only had other serious girlfriends before me, and was relatively conservative about sex. I happily drifted from month long fling to month long fling since high school and I’m open about my sexuality. In his eyes, this made me a slut, and I was often reminded of this distinction. One night, I made a raunchy joke about my sexual prowess, and he said, “Lines like that might work on guys on Tinder, but not me.” I laughed it off, but it hurt to hear him think of me that way, like I should consider my past scandalous. He’d turn his nose up at my suggestions that we try sexting or something new — desperate attempts to derive some sexual pleasure from our arrangement.
Our sex life continued to be rife with problems. I was sad in a way I didn’t recognize. I had never wanted something so blatantly awful to work. He got more assertive, and rougher in bed, but he still never wanted to have sex with me or go down on me. I don’t like the way it tastes, he’d say. I’d lie naked underneath him, feigning pleasure and holding back my discomfort as he ground against me, the harsh fabric of his jeans or boxer shorts chafing me. He’d flipped me onto my stomach to hump my backside. With my face pressed into his pillow, I’d hope with tragic optimism this newfound assertiveness came with an openness to caring about my pleasure.
I had grown so accustomed to his frigidity that his roughness almost felt exciting and promising. He’s getting less nervous, I’d think. He’s getting more comfortable with me, I’d assure myself. My pleasure will matter soon, I’d lie.
Still, when it came to my pleasure, he would act too tired, too nervous. Towards the end of our relationship, he was usually too drunk.
I practice affirmative consent. But to him, my consent was implied. I was never asked if it was okay to finish on me or if it was okay to bite me, as he sometimes did, despite my protestations. Because the sex never involved much more than some humping, and if I was lucky, some lukewarm fingering, I told myself I had no reason to feel violated; it was barely sex at all.
I was manipulated to feel bad for him. I wanted him to work through whatever he needed to, and I never wanted him to feel pressured. But bit by bit, I started to feel like my own pleasure was a luxury, something of which I wasn’t deserving. I started to wonder why I was undesirable; why I had a boyfriend whose only pleasure was his own, and why I was rarely made to feel like I was a part of that.
One night, when he knew I had my period, I tried to initiate something, and he told me we didn’t have to — he had already masturbated twice that day. In other words, he had already gotten his, so why bother?
I lived in a hazy state of constant self-deceit, sustaining myself with thoughts of the fleeting happiness we shared. He’s troubled, I’d remind myself, he has things he needs to work out. It felt cruel to leave someone for that, even if his issues were slowly corroding my mental health.
Things came to a head when he wanted to talk about the future. He asked if I wanted children, and I said I probably would at some point, but not now. Almost perplexed by the certainty I expressed in not wanting children immediately, he asked what I would do if I was to get pregnant. I explained plainly that I would have an abortion. He recoiled, and told me if I ever did that, he would leave me; that it was his child too, and he couldn’t look at me the same if I made that choice. I tried to explain what a baby would do to my dreams; I was starting law school in the fall intent starting my life’s work of fight for women’s and reproductive rights.
It brought it all into focus and it was like everything I had been suppressing for six months was now unavoidable. Encapsulated in his stance was his need for control and his utter disregard for my humanity. It took him disagreeing with something so deeply fundamental to who I am — my belief that abortion is a fundamental human right, a social good, and a choice for women to make without the intrusion of others — to end it.
When we were together, I had frequent panic attacks and I wasn’t eating right. As a feminist, I know the signs of abuse, and I never expected to miss them when it was happening to me. Through it all, there was superficial happiness. I thought the good meant the bad couldn’t possibly prevail, and I was just waiting for it all to even out. It never did.
Immediately after we broke up, I was fine. But as time passed by, my anxiety crept back in. The thought of him made my heart race and my breath harder to catch. I used words like manipulative, possessive, and mean to describe him, but never abusive. I didn’t want to validate my own experience. I didn’t want to belittle the experiences of others who had it so much worse. I was doing to myself what he had done to me.
I blamed myself for staying with him. Until my best friend snapped me out of it.
“You’d never blame another woman for staying with her abuser,” he said. There was so much to arriving at that conclusion though: admitting my ex was an abuser, and understanding that my pain was real.
Top photo: Flickr/the.mutator
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