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Illustration by Maya Chastain

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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:

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.

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.”

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.

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.