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Content note: This article contains descriptions of psychological abuse.
Since it’s National Domestic Abuse Awareness Month, we need to talk about relationships that look dreamy on the outside, but they’re a nightmare on the inside. It happened to me, and I would hate for it to happen to you.
I’ll never forget the day our couples’ therapist called me alone into her office. She closed the door and got right to it. “Listen,” she said, “I rarely say this, but you needed to pack a bag, like, yesterday and get out of there.”
I knew the relationship had soured, but I thought I was the only one who could see it. I often wondered if I was crazy. She reassured me that I wasn’t. “I’m concerned for your physical safety. Stay with a friend or go to a women’s shelter,” she urged. “You might want to leave town.”
Sitting alone on the couch, I felt my whole world turn upside down. The reality was crushing. I had become one of those women you look at and think, “Why does she stay?”
My answer was simple: because it didn’t start out this way.
A controlling relationship is rather like capturing a firefly in a jar. At first, the firefly can’t tell it’s in a makeshift prison, because the walls are made of glass. But eventually, it’ll realize it has lost contact with the outside world. Its light will fade dimmer and dimmer until, one day, it just doesn’t glow anymore.
This is that story and how I broke out of my glass cage.
This romance was a perfect way to kick off springtime. It began the way many rom-coms do: with us talking all night and completing each other’s sentences.
Halfway through our first hike together, Alex* suggested we find a place to sit and meditate. For a straight-edge, crunchy-granola type like me, that was pretty much the hottest thing ever. “Whoa, where did this person come from?” I mused.
In the weeks that followed, I heard lavish praise like, “I’ve never felt this way before,” “your ex didn’t deserve you,” and “you could have anyone you want — I’m so grateful that you’re choosing me.”
I had become one of those women you look at and think, ‘Why does she stay?’My answer was simple: because it didn’t start out this way.
Alex wanted to see me every day, multiple times a day. When we weren’t together, no doubt there was a text waiting in my inbox. There were surprises, too, like a sunset picnic at the beach, flowers, and thoughtful handwritten notes.
It was hard not to fall for it. Alex was more determined than anyone else I’d ever dated and, well, I was flattered.
What is love bombing?
Dr. Ramani Durvasula, an LA-based psychologist and author of multiple books, has seen this “fireworks” pattern many times.
“Where people get confused is that, initially, this can be interpreted as attentiveness,” she says. “I always tell people, make sure you pace the early part of this relationship. It is so tempting to get swept up.”
In a healthy relationship, the early stage is a critical time to ask yourself the tough questions and take an objective inventory, she says. Are they empathic? Are they kind?
But as is often the case with controlling partners, “These people are on it, and they are always planning something. It can have a love-bombing feel to it because of the intensity,” says Durvasula.
“You’re not able to look at those hard questions because you’re so busy pulling flowers off your windshield and responding to their texts that you’re not putting on the brakes.”
It seemed like we shared everything in common. We bonded over nearly identical values, spiritual beliefs, and dreams for the future.
I was an activist, so Alex volunteered in the same social circle, befriended all of my friends, and became an overnight expert in the cause.
I was teaching fitness classes, so Alex enrolled in instructor training at my gym and suggested we teach some classes together.
I was taking a Spanish course and wanted to move abroad, so Alex downloaded Duolingo, the language app, and began planning a trip to Peru, asking me to join.
These are just three examples out of dozens. Alex was everywhere all at once, blending into my life like a chameleon. It fed that inner fairy-tale narrative that maybe, just maybe, I had met a match.
What is enmeshment?
Sharing some interests is healthy and normal, but there’s a fine line. It’s important to know where one person ends and another begins. Durvasula warns of the shadow side of too much overlap: When controlling partners slip into your closest circles, even if you want to leave, you can’t.
“They’ll start getting familiar with people you’re close to, adding everyone on social media, getting to be very helpful with the family. It’s an absolute infiltration. It’s a great way to control someone,” she says. “The more they can infiltrate, the less likely it is that you can get away from them, because now your lives are all so mixed up together.”
As things heated up, I was adamant about waiting a while to date seriously so that a solid foundation of friendship would have time to form. The honeymoon phase was so dizzying, I forgot to take off the rose-colored glasses and spot the glaring red flags up ahead — like this one:
“I don’t want to wait that long,” Alex pushed, telling me that I had an avoidant attachment style (read: commitment-phobe), rolling their eyes, and laughing at me.
It was the first time that my boundaries became a punchline, though I didn’t recognize it then.
After that, the milestones of a romantic relationship seemed to exist on a sped-up timeline (more like minute-stones). There was an urgency to it all that I wasn’t given time or space to understand. In my naivete, I mistook impatience for romance.
What is gaslighting?
“That’s a big one that comes up with controlling people,” says Durvasula on the topic of being criticized for trying to slow things down. “They’ll say that it seems like [you] have issues with commitment, then start pathologizing [you] for not wanting to be in a suffocating relationship. That’s a form of gaslighting.”
All the bells and whistles can make it hard to spot what’s really going on. “In our culture, sadly, these gestures are viewed as sweepingly romantic,” Durvasula says. “The quicker they make you invested in them, the more exhaustive their sense of ownership and control.”
As our lives intertwined, I glimpsed a different side to Alex. But because it wasn’t there all the time, it was easy for me to dismiss.
I heard negative commentary on my character, habits, appearance, friends, aspirations, and lifestyle, delivered with a holier-than-thou attitude: “You’re not even getting the right nutrients from your diet, but whatever…”
There were also hurtful labels casually tossed in my direction, like how I was a ditz and a bitch. I was called a flirt, too, for giving my friends hugs. When I stood up against the unwarranted jealousy, I was told I was overreacting. “It was just a joke,” Alex would fire back.
And so I would agree, thinking, “They probably didn’t mean it that way.” It became natural to gloss over my gut instinct whenever I had to process their comments, each tinged with subtle disgust.
What is passive aggression?
“After the love-bombing phase has resulted in the deepening of feelings and strong emotional investment in the relationship, subtle criticisms and put-downs may begin to emerge,” says Dr. Joseph Cilona, a psychologist in Manhattan. “These are often cloaked [as] ‘teasing’ or ‘joking’ and dismissed as such if confronted directly.” That, in part, is why it can be so hard for people to leave.
“Remembering ‘how good things were’ after they begin to turn sour often translates into difficulty seeing inappropriate behavior for what it is and making healthy choices in response to bad behavior,” he says.
We moved in together while things still felt (mostly) OK. I was scared that it was too soon, but I needed a new place to rent and Alex kept pestering me about it, so I caved. I thought, “What’s the worst that can happen?”
As it turns out, a lot.
Now in a shared space, I started to catch Alex in little lies, here and there, yet I was told I was imagining things or that it was somehow my fault. I also wasn’t given alone time in the house, and Alex would blow up my phone whenever I was away. I felt like I was under constant surveillance.
Next, my life became defined by rules I didn’t remember signing up for. I lived with a low-grade anxiety that I couldn’t shake, like I was about to get in trouble all the time. Seemingly simple choices were subject to scrutiny, like how I did the dishes (“wasteful”), drove to Trader Joe’s (“inefficient”), or put up a tent at a campsite (“backwards”).
No subject was left untouched, not even my body. “I like curves,” said Alex, dismissing my desire for six-pack abs. “You can get that fit, but I won’t be attracted to you anymore. I’ll have to get sex from somewhere else.”
These strange rules extended to physical objects too. I couldn’t bring certain books into the house because it triggered them. I couldn’t buy my own Tupperware because they wanted to share everything. I couldn’t put my hammock here or my desk there, but double standards meant Alex could rearrange the house without asking me first.
Gifts were withheld on my birthday and holidays, even though I could see the packages. If they came at all, they had strings attached. “You’re not allowed to get rid of this,” I was told about a mug.
Anxiety: Take it seriously
“A very frequent consequence of being the victim of a controlling romantic partner is general anxiety, low mood, and the feeling of ‘walking on eggshells,’” says Cilona. “These are common responses to constant criticism, manipulation, stress, and the overall emotional exhaustion that comes with being the target of the often-relentless crusade to control and manipulate.”
If you have recurring anxiety around your partner or you feel like you’re walking on eggshells, you’re not alone, and help is available. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or text “LOVEIS” to 1-866-331-9474.
Along the way, people tried to drop me hints. “They watch you like a hawk,” I heard at a family dinner. “They seem to have control issues,” said a friend at coffee. “How are you really doing?” asked a concerned friend at game night. “I notice Alex has an edge.”
But with each comment from a loved one, Alex had an excuse for their behavior and a criticism against anyone who questioned it — including me. I became confused about who was right, and my own version of reality felt hazy at best.
There was a name for my compulsive caretaking behavior: codependency.
This made social engagements increasingly uncomfortable. I knew Alex would go out if I went out, and their attention-seeking behavior in public made me cringe. If I wanted to attend an event alone, it came with paranoia, questioning, and arguments, which I preferred to avoid.
By the end of summer, I had distanced myself from everyone out of embarrassment, one by one. I didn’t want friends or family to see me like this. Isolating myself was also easier than admitting that I had gotten this one wrong — so, so wrong.
What is isolation?
“I think it is much more common that controlling and eventually abusive partners slowly and methodically isolate people from their closest relationships, not become enmeshed in them,” says Cilona. “The isolation is what eventually makes it easier to control [someone] because they cut them off from support.”
And that’s when things get dicey.
“When someone is isolated from their primary support network and those relationships are put in question, it can impact the ability to think objectively when it comes to identifying bad behavior,” Cilona says. “This can result in an individual being more prone to questioning themselves and falling prey to further control and manipulation.”
By autumn, I was already a ghost of my former self. I felt exhausted all the time from recurring arguments and holding space for Alex’s never-ending cascade of dramatic problems, many of which seemed self-created.
No matter how much energy I poured in, I was told it was never enough. The relationship felt like a bucket with a hole in the bottom.
I wasn’t afraid of being alone (I’m an introvert, after all), yet I didn’t quite know how to say “no” to Alex either. I was scared of what would happen if I did. There was a name for my compulsive caretaking behavior: codependency.
It was depleting me of everything that made me “me,” yet I was so determined to keep the house as calm as possible that I sacrificed my own well-being in the process.
As I drove away in my car, I repeated my therapist’s mantra over and over: ‘My personal safety is nonnegotiable.’
I stopped caring about activism, fitness, and my community connections. I relegated my clothes to the back of the closet when they no longer fit, traded them for sweats, and avoided my reflection in the mirror.
As for our sex life, well, my mojo had become a no-show a long time ago. The dry spell was just another thing I took the blame for, just another flaw eroding the bedrock of what used to be my self-esteem.
Remember, this is not your fault
“Self-blame and damaged self-esteem are common once the ugly truth about a controlling partner is revealed and their inappropriate behavior escalates,” says Cilona. “Feeling foolish for being duped and manipulated is a very common and unfortunate result for the victim of the controlling partner.”
“It’s important to remember that there is no fault in believing the [initial] behaviors that you are witnessing,” Cilona says. “None of us can predict the future or know that behaviors may change or that there are other hidden intentions or agendas.”
In winter, I forced myself to go to a yoga class that I used to love, hoping to feel something other than staunch numbness. While I was lying there in Savasana, a lightbulb went off in my head: This whole thing feels a little too familiar.
I booked a therapist to figure out why, and having a weekly appointment gave me hope for a better future. As my emotional anesthesia wore off, cognitive behavioral therapy helped me connect the dots about the last time I’d felt this trapped: childhood.
In session, there was room to finally honor my past in order to transform the present. “I guess it really is true,” I laughed. “We date people that remind us of one of our parents.”
My therapist showed me that I actually did have power and the ability to leave the situation (unlike when I was a kid). I also realized that I had to stop playing a co-starring role in this toxic dynamic.
To build myself up even more, I secretly pored over books that I was stashing in the trunk of my car:
- When Your Lover Is a Liar
- Stop Walking on Eggshells
- I Hate You — Don’t Leave Me
- The Body Keeps the Score
- Children of the Self-Absorbed
- Will I Ever Be Good Enough?
Soon I felt confident enough to ask Alex for a break. I wasn’t in a financial position to move out, but I hoped the emotional space would clear my head. I started sleeping on the couch and, for a while, things felt stable.
That is, until Alex made a “joke” about chopping up my body into little pieces and burying me in the forest on the side of the road. “If I can’t have you, no one will,” they mocked.
After that, I knew I needed to be careful, just in case. I also knew I needed more support ASAP. I calmly suggested couples’ therapy, a last-ditch effort to figure out my next move.
Does couples’ therapy work?
“Couples’ therapy does work, but it really depends on how motivated the couple is,” says Beth Sonnenberg, a licensed clinical social worker and relationship expert based in New Jersey. “Both partners have to be motivated for themselves, not just to please the other person.”
Part of that motivation should be a positive vision of the future. “If you’re in a relationship that’s unhealthy and it’s preventing you from the future you think you want — careerwise, friendwise, passionwise, sexually, all of those things — and you know you’re going to be giving up a lot, it’s time to re-evaluate,” says Sonnenberg.
Please note that couples’ therapy is meant to repair and strengthen relationships that have the potential to be healthy and to help you respectfully dissolve relationships that are toxic and abusive. If your personal safety is threatened, it’s time to make an exit plan. Find a list of your state’s resources and shelters here.
If you’re still reading, you already know how this story ends: I left.
It wasn’t long in couples’ therapy before our life together unraveled. Alex admitted to conning me from the very first text message and hiding a web of lies ever since, big and small.
Thanks to all the inner work I’d been doing, I could see that my partner wasn’t at all who I’d believed them to be. I knew I wasn’t perfect — far from it — but I sure as heck didn’t deserve this. I was sick of being used as a prop. A prize. A pawn.
By spring, when our therapist urged me to leave, I was ready. It was the final push I needed. The relationship had not yet escalated into physical violence, but I was unwilling to stick around and see if it would. By saying “no” to Alex, I was saying “yes” to me.
I went home from her office, packed a few bags, and grabbed my dog while Alex was out. As I drove away in my car, I repeated my therapist’s mantra over and over: “My personal safety is nonnegotiable.”
Can you ever stay?
“The idea of change with a controlling partner is very hard,” Sonnenberg says. “Most of the time, they don’t think anything is wrong. They don’t want things to be different.” So in that case, staying should not be an option.
However, if your partner is willing to take a hard look at themselves and the negativity they bring into the relationship, repair is possible. “You want someone who will say to you, ‘I can see why you haven’t been happy with the way I have treated you, and I’m willing to take a look at myself because it has impacted all areas of my life, not just this one,’” says Sonnenberg.
If you are in need of help with finding a women’s shelter in your area, you can start here. The YWCA also offers short-term, temporary housing for all women and families, except men over the age of 17.
Getting myself back was a long process. In fact, longer than the relationship itself.
I stayed with a friend for a while and then moved into my own apartment. I also continued therapy, this time with someone who specialized in domestic abuse and EMDR treatments, to heal childhood trauma and cure my attraction to “assholes,” as she put it.
For about a year, I didn’t make any new connections. I struggled with PTSD, and I was terrified of getting duped again by someone who seemed so normal. I had trouble making eye contact with people, and I fumbled through many conversations.
When I wasn’t working, I spent most of my days alone with my dog, journaling, meditating, and reading. Over time, I went after little victories, like wearing mascara, putting on a nice outfit, or cooking a healthy meal. Each completed task calcified a growing sense of self-confidence.
Soon, I took on bigger projects. I got back into exercise. I picked up new hobbies. I made connections around town, like my neighbors, grocery store clerks, and the people I bumped into every day.
When being out in the world no longer felt like a panic attack, I knew I was on the right path. In total, it took a year and a half for me to recognize myself in the mirror again.
Eventually, I opened up to friends and relatives about what happened, much of which I couldn’t even begin to cover in this article (that would take a novel, believe me). It was validating to hear things like “I knew something was off” and listen to stories about how Alex had freaked them out too.
Healing from PTSD
“The dynamics of these relationships — and especially the reasons you might have been vulnerable to engaging in one — are often tied to past experiences in love and earlier in life,” says Cilona.
They can also cause PTSD and long-term issues with relationships. If PTSD is impacting your ability to function and you need help, it may be time to look for a therapist. If you need to talk to someone immediately, you can also call the National Alliance on Mental Health hotline at 1-800-950-NAMI. In a crisis, text “NAMI” to 741741.
These days, I’m unf**kwithable. That’s the greatest gift that Alex gave me.
You would think that after everything, I would hate my ex, but I truly don’t. I actually feel sadness and compassion for them and the life that caused them to behave that way in the first place. More than anything, I hope they found professional help.
I still think of the good times, though I wonder if any of them were real. As I healed, I learned to let go and stop caring as much. It’s as my therapist said, like a well-timed fortune cookie: “Sometimes the best way to love someone is from a moving car.”
Oh, and about those rules…
The day I threw that mug onto my concrete patio and watched it break apart, I smiled wider than I had in a long time.
Ears still ringing from the clatter, I went back inside to meditate and drew an oracle card for my altar. I had to laugh. What greeted me was a luminous creature, flying through the night.
A firefly, free at last.
*Alex’s name and identifying details have been changed.
Hilary I. Lebow is a health journalist with fitness and nutrition certifications through the Yoga Alliance and the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). When she’s not working, you’ll find her playing on the beach with her two dogs or exploring around Miami, the beautiful city she calls home. Read more of her work here.