If a bird is trapped in a cage, two things could potentially happen: Either the bird will become conditioned to accept the restraints of the cage, living its life trapped only to be let out from time to time when its owner feels the desire, or it may go crazy trying to find ways to escape, only to finally exhaust itself.
The reason I referenced a bird trapped in a cage is because it reminds me of how I felt in my past relationship. From the outside, I looked like the luckiest girl in the world. My ex was very successful. We traveled a lot, attended tons of social engagements, and hosted big dinner parties for friends. But what I can tell you is “All that glitters is not gold.” I was merely a bird in a gilded cage. The outside world didn’t see what went on behind closed doors. They didn’t know about the numerous sleepless nights I endured with my ex screaming at me and accusing me of things I didn’t do. My emotionally abusive, controlling, and volatile relationship was a secret to everyone but me.
I am very inquisitive, so after I ended my relationship, I began doing research on abusive relationships—everything from why abusers become abusers, to warning signs of abusive partners, to how to heal from these toxic relationships. I am going to share the things I know now that I wish I knew then in the hopes that this may inspire and help people who may be experiencing the same situation.
The Things I Know Now That I Wish I Knew Then:
1. The Love Bomb Is Not Much Different Than An Atomic Bomb
After having researched how abusive relationships usually begin, I realized that the “love bomb” is very common in the beginning of abusive relationships. This is because it is a great way for the abuser to gain control and prime their victim for manipulation. Love bombing doesn’t last, and when it explodes, the victim will spend the majority of their time desperately trying to get that love bomb feeling back.
So, what does love bombing look like? The abuser will usually come on very strong and will shower you with attention, affection, and sometimes even gifts or trips. It will most likely feel like something you haven’t experienced before. They will usually push for a commitment very soon and may even tell you they love you within a few weeks.
In my case, my ex came on very strong. I honestly felt like I had met the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. No man had ever showered me with attention the way he did so quickly. He’d send gifts and flowers to my office, and within a month, he told me he was in love with me. He also needed to be in constant communication with me and would text me many times throughout the day. At first, I thought this was extremely thoughtful. As it continued, I felt obligated to text back right away because if I didn’t, he would send follow up texts, and I would in turn feel guilty for not responding immediately. In the blink of an eye, the love bomb exploded and the abuse began.
Although love bombing feels incredible in the beginning, deep in your gut you will get a feeling that it isn’t normal to move so quickly with someone you hardly know. If something is too good to be true, it usually is. Love bombing is not genuine. It is a way to get you hooked on the abuser—a similar feeling to being addicted to a drug. Most likely, the abuser does this with everyone they first get into a relationship with, so it isn’t authentic to just you. A healthy relationship that involves two healthy people takes time to evolve and grow. The biggest thing you need to remember is that the love bomb inevitably explodes.
2. Enough Red Flags Should Be A Deal Breaker
In the beginning of a relationship, it can be hard to detect red flags immediately, and most of us like to give people the benefit of the doubt, especially early on. It is normal to be infatuated and excited when we start dating someone new, but at some point, we need to take off the rose-colored glasses, make a conscious effort to be discerning, and look at the red banners waving in front of our faces.
Usually, someone who is abusive will show warning signs in the early stages of the relationship. In hindsight, I remember feeling that there were quite a few warning signs but also feeling that if I brushed them under the rug, I would forget about them and it would all work out. The biggest red flags that I overlooked were that my ex had been married a few times and was unfaithful during his marriages. He also didn’t seem to have any remorse, but instead played the victim and talked very poorly about his ex-wives. He was very selfish and demanding when it came to the way he treated his family. And lastly, he was extremely jealous. I can’t explain why I decided to stay after I saw these glaring red flags. I clearly had some unresolved issues and a desire to feel wanted by a man.
Keeping your eyes open to see the red flags early on can save you from major heartache in the end. Even if you’re dating someone new and you’re excited, remember to take a step back and assess their actions. Pay attention to how they handle situations and their relationships. Do they play the victim or do they take accountability? Do they treat others and themselves with respect? These are questions you should ask yourself early on. Eventually, people will show you who they are but it’s up to you to see it.
3. Bend Your Boundaries Too Much and Eventually They Will Break
I never understood the importance of boundaries until I left my ex and had time to do some self-reflection. I have always been somewhat of a people-pleaser, afraid to say “no” because of the inevitable disappointment that will result. This is just part of my nature and a big reason why I think I tolerated abusive behavior.
Abusers don’t know the meaning of boundaries, and they will stomp on yours any chance they get if you let them. Abusers will test you early on to see how much you are willing to bend. A lot of the time, victims of abuse don’t know what their boundaries are because they have let the abuser walk all over them for so long and have essentially become a doormat.
When I was dating my ex, I had a career as a publicist, and I took my job seriously. In the beginning of our relationship, he told me he admired that quality in me… until I wasn’t able to jump when he needed me to. If he wanted me there, I better be there or I would get an earful. He didn’t respect the fact that I had a career and that occasionally that took precedence when I was on a deadline.
Another way that abusers will try to break your boundaries is by trying to monitor your phone or personal space. As I mentioned, my ex was extremely jealous, to the point that he would go through my phone because he wanted to know who I was in contact with during the day. Although this made me very uncomfortable, I allowed this to go on in order to avoid his rage.
Some abusers will also violate your boundaries when it comes to being intimate. My ex was a bit insatiable when it came to intimacy. In the beginning stages of a relationship, it’s fun to be overly intimate, but as time progresses in a relationship, life happens and you are not a walking and breathing blow up doll, so there are times when you may not feel like being intimate at that moment, and that is okay. This exact situation happened a few times in my relationship, and my ex proceeded to call me every name in the book and gave me the silent treatment for hours on end. It was clear he had no regard for my feelings, and his lack of respect for my boundaries was extremely blatant.
You have every right to set your own personal boundaries. Boundaries are healthy and they keep you from losing your authentic self. As relentless as an abuser can be, you shouldn’t have to jump through hoops and do certain things that may make you feel like you aren’t being true to yourself. If someone can’t respect your boundaries, they will never respect you.
4. Be Careful Of The Codependency Trap
Many abusers are codependent because their desire to control and have someone consistently validate them is so great. My past relationship took the meaning of codependency to a whole new level. I am a pretty independent person with my own career and goals, but my ex, although very successful in his career, is the type of person who needs constant validation and admiration. He also needs whoever he is in a romantic relationship to be around 24/7.
Don’t get me wrong, I love spending time with the person I am dating, but I also enjoy my autonomy within reason to recharge and focus on myself. It wasn’t until one night that I had come home from work, exhausted, that I realized how severely codependent he was. I called him to tell him I was going to stay at my place that evening because I wanted to go to bed early, and this caused a massive fight with him accusing me that I didn’t love him and didn’t care about his needs. After that night, I never slept at my apartment again until the day we broke up.
His codependent issues also affected my friendships because he would spin into a rage if I planned a night out with my girlfriends. I eventually stopped spending time with my friends and only spent time with him and his friends to avoid arguments. This is very typical behavior in abusive relationships—they will begin to isolate you from the people who love you the most. Not only was I enabling his codependency and controlling behavior, but in turn was becoming codependent myself.
Even if you are in a relationship, you still need to remember you are an individual with your own goals, aspirations, opinions, and feelings. Our identity is not defined by our partner, and we are not on this Earth to give up our individuality. Someone who truly loves and respects you will want you to focus on your goals and friendships and will want to see you succeed in your own right. They won’t want to hinder you, and they won’t want to keep you from growing, even if that means you are not with each other 24/7.
People who are codependent don’t feel like a whole person without someone else—they base their identity on their partner. In a healthy relationship, two people respect each other enough to let the other person flourish and they support each other along the way. They are two people who are whole on their own and are with the other person because they choose to be, not because they need to be.
5. Pay Attention To Your Body Both Physically And Mentally
When you’re in a relationship, it is important to take a step back and notice how you feel in your body. Do you feel restless, uneasy, or drained? If so, that is not a good sign.
Many people who are being abused can develop illnesses because of the constant stress they endure. When I was in my relationship, I lost a lot of weight because I was constantly stressed out and walking on eggshells around my ex. It got to a point where I would barely eat because I was a ball of nerves every day and could hardly focus at work. I was so mentally and emotionally drained by the time I ended my relationship that I looked and felt like someone I didn’t even recognize.
Take a step back and pay attention to your body, because your mind can play tricks on you, but your body doesn’t lie. Have you picked up unhealthy habits as a coping mechanism? Do you feel like you are constantly walking on eggshells to make your partner happy? Does your relationship give you constant anxiety? If you’re answering yes to these questions, then it’s time to take a step back and what is going on.
A healthy relationship doesn’t make you feel mentally or physically ill on a regular basis. On the contrary, you should feel strong and full of life.
6. The Only Person You Need To Prove Yourself To Is YOU
By nature, I am an extroverted person. I have a lot of friends and I like to socialize. I think my ex hated the fact that I had a strong support system because I didn’t solely rely on him, and I think brought out his controlling behavior.
My ex would constantly accuse me of cheating on him, and I felt like I needed to prove myself and my loyalty to him every day. I knew I wasn’t a dishonest person but the constant accusations made me question myself. After much reflection on the relationship, I realized that his accusations were part of his desire for control and his own personal projections from his unfaithful past.
Abusers also don’t tend to take responsibility for their own actions and will use their victim as a scapegoat for their behaviors. For example, my ex would regularly blame me for his moods and actions. If he treated someone badly, he would tell me it was because I put him in a bad mood, so it was my fault. He was also a master gaslighter.
For those who don’t know what gaslighting is, it is an insidious tactic that abusers use to manipulate information to make their victim question his or her sanity. Some examples include the abuser telling outright lies, the abuser denying something was said or that a situation happened when it did, the abuser telling you that you’re crazy, and the abuser telling you that you can’t trust anyone but them because no one else cares about you the way they do. I experienced all of these gaslighting tactics, and by the end of the relationship, I was so mentally and physically exhausted from walking on eggshells, blaming myself for everything that went wrong in the relationship, and trying to prove myself to him.
If your partner is constantly accusing you of things that you didn’t do, making you question yourself and your sanity, and gaslighting you, then these are major issues that should not be ignored. Don’t take this lightly, because if you do, you will eventually stop believing in yourself, stop listening to your own intuition, and eventually, you will lose yourself.
I want to emphasize that it doesn’t have to be “physical abuse” in order for it to be abuse. Emotional abuse can be just as demoralizing, painful, and traumatic. Abusive people are usually severely unhappy and insecure inside, and no one should have to be their punching bag or endure the burden of trying to heal them. Don’t let someone else’s brokenness determine your own feelings about yourself or strip you of your authentic self.
I know it’s easier said than done, but trust me, once you break out of that cage, you will see there is a whole world full of amazing people and opportunities waiting just for you. All you need to do is fly.