How One Woman Lost Herself In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship At 23
For the month of October, we are sharing stories of abuse survivors as part of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. See more tales from our Survivor Series here.
At 23, Theresa* was a single, independent woman living the dream in New York City. Soon, though, she found herself in a long-distance relationship with a recording artist she met in Atlanta who, throughout their three-year relationship, slowly chiseled away at her self- esteem. Eventually, Theresa moved to the man’s small town to be with him full-time and became isolated, dependent, and made to feel crazy anytime she objected to her partner’s disrespectful behavior, including dating other women.
The more success Theresa achieved professionally, the more her partner manipulated her to do things for the sake of their relationship. She was in constant fix-it mode, relying on therapy to help her meet this man’s emotional and physical demands. The more pressure he put on her, the less energy she had for herself, and the more her body freaked out, leading to weight gain, breakouts, and lack of sexual desire.
Eventually, Theresa moved on and in our interview, she talked to us about what it was like being in an emotionally abusive relationship and how she regained her spiritual and emotional strength afterward.
How did your relationship with your abuser begin?
It started in hindsight exactly the way it ended. There would be these very intense moments where he would act interested, then moments where I felt I was clawing for his attention when he would pull away from me. We were long-distance then ended up meeting in Atlanta. Part of our relationship was long distance, but I later found out that he wasn’t exclusive to me. He was dating other women and had full-on relationships with other women. He convinced me to move to where he lived, saying we’d be there for a year because of my sacrifice, then after we’d find a different place in a bigger city because I never wanted to live in that town. He was just saying whatever to get me down there. When I moved that’s when a lot of things became apparent, things I sensed that wouldn’t allow me to fully trust myself.
I would bring things up. That’s one thing I was proud of myself for, even though he would talk me out of it and make me feel like I was crazy for a lot of things. I would still bring it up. But the past is kind of blur about how it got started.
How did your abuser make you feel like you were crazy?
It started very early in the relationship. I was still in New York and I met one of his friends who was a girl and we found out that he told a friend he didn’t want me talking to her because she knew too much — she was around and saw certain things.
He would put me on these breaks, after talking to my therapist I found out its called trauma bonding. If I brought up anything that is normal like “Where were you?” or “Who were you with?” it would turn into him saying “I think we need to be on a break.” It would make me feel like maybe I overreacted.
One specific time his friend told me, “You need to know what’s going on he’s hanging out with this girl…” Early on, he didn’t want me to have a relationship with this girl so he called me and asked: “Do you trust me?”It’s funny because his niece was in the car, and I later found out they were going to breakfast with another woman that day.
He was very manipulative. Any time I would bring something up he would use the fact that I suffer from mild depression- situational depression after college, which was super common- to say I was insecure, acting crazy, and that I needed to see my therapist. I was constantly in therapy regurgitating what he said to me back to my therapist– “I dont trust him, I’m insecure because he has all these women friends.” Meanwhile, I was completely right. Every time he would put me on break the same women would come around.
What did your therapist say about the relationship?
I was seeing two at one point, one on Talkspace and one in person. He recommended I go see a therapist in Atlanta; that was his way of getting me out of the city so he could do whatever he wanted while I was gone.
Both would say, “What is he doing to work on the relationship?” I was so defensive and so confused by this. I’d withdraw, saying certain things because he convinced me that it was me. I was the one that needed to work on all these things. That was one of the things that cut me off from a lot of people. Most of the people around were his friends so they would make comments that were in agreement with him. There weren’t a lot of people I could talk to. When my therapists would pick up on anything I’d get very defensive and shut down on sharing things.
Before the final break-up did you ever think maybe you weren’t crazy?
Yes! A couple of times. Like when we first moved in together. I had visited a few times before I officially left New York. One of the women sent a text message, and he said, “Oh My God,” and read the message to me. He did the whole “she’s crazy” thing to me about her and said that she was overreacting. I asked why I hadn’t met her and he said, “Oh she’s just a friend and I asked if she wanted to meet you and she said no.” I went to a party and saw her and the energy he described didn’t resonate with me.
One time while he was gone I went through his Facebook messenger and looked at all these messages. There was no mention of me and there were very flirtatious things like “listen to this song when you think of me” or “when I heard this song I thought of you and grabbing your hand and we started dancing.” I’m thinking, of course, this woman would think that you like her. But at the time I was also still working with the story he gave me about how they were friends and she caught feelings, and now she’s acting crazy.
It’s sad because I realized how much I internalized about the patriarchal mindset because of this relationship. It had me thinking that intelligent women are out here just crazy because this dude is all of that and want to be with him so bad. He was emotionally manipulating them too.
He broke off our relationship because he couldn’t believe I went through his stuff. It immediately turned into him breaking up with me and I just moved to his city to be with him. Of course, he flipped it so now I was begging for us to be together. He said, “I can’t believe you did that, you don’t even know the context of this stuff.” I know how to read; there was no context needed.
The final blowout occurred on his birthday, two days before we moved out of our apartment. While I was packing he didn’t help me do anything. I was packing the entire apartment by myself and he said, “You only have to pack your stuff don’t worry about mine,” but I couldn’t clean or do anything until he moved his stuff.
He told me he was going to get drinks and turned his phone off so I decided to surprise him. I went to the bar, he wasn’t there. My gut was telling me to look for him, and I tried to stop that feeling but I couldn’t. I looked for him, and when I got in the car that was the moment I realized this wasn’t healthy. I looked everywhere for him; it was 3 am when I heard him laughing getting out the car drunk. I asked “who were you with?” He couldn’t tell me. He kept saying “some people who knew it was my birthday, and treated me to some drinks. I heard some girl laughing in the car too.
I told him I went to the bar, and he wasn’t there. He said,“I went to that bar. you wanna see my receipt you mother f-cker?” He began to call me out of my name and yell at me. His brother was trying to calm him down and I asked if he would talk to his mom like that and he said, “but you made me mad.” I was numb. We went out to eat later that day and he apologized to his brother, but not to me. That’s what he would do, make me believe it was me. It was very emotionally abusive and very manipulative.
How did your professional success play a role in his abusive patterns?
In hindsight I realize he was very intimidated by me living on my own, being in New York City and having my own. He liked to use the success he did have in music to prey upon women. I was in Atlanta riding around in Ferraris when I was 18 with a guy I used to date. This wasn’t anything new to me. I wanted my own things. He couldn’t really get me with that. I feel like that was one of the reason’s he set out to re-establish me. He definitely wanted me to move with him so I would have to depend on him. That didn’t end up happening because God.
Before I left New york I had been doing some freelance marketing work, and I ended up taking that brand and making it into a full-time marketing business when I was living with him. I had word-of-mouth clients. I had the only VC firm in the city as my client. They were launching the only co-working space in the east and that was my project. My business was doing very well, and I had just gotten there. I got that client in two months of getting there. I took my New York hustle and applied it. I was also making 3-course meals every day in the middle of the day while running one business and getting another business off the ground.
A lot of the abuse was him wanting to strip me of who I was to make him feel better about his own insecurities. I thought I was depressed during that time, but I was highly functional. If you looked at me you would think I was very successful, and in a lot of ways I was, but my emotional being was shattered. I didn’t go out. I would work and climb into bed as soon as I was done. I had no energy; I was breaking out and carrying unnecessary weight.
Even when I was living in New York he would say he was uncomfortable with me going out for drinks with our agency after meetings. But one time he and his brother invited all these women back to his brother’s house, and I’m like, how is that appropriate? You’re not even in a public space; I don’t know these women, and he didn’t even tell me. The way he got off was by saying, “I almost got killed!” because one of the wives of the women came and found out and started swinging on him with a knife. He would try to distract me.
Did he every physically hit you?
It’s funny, and this is why I tell people your body knows. One time he reached for a hug and I flinched because I thought he was about to hit me. My body knew this felt all too familiar in an abusive sense. I was around a verbally abusive, sometimes physically abusive relationship– my parents growing up. My body could sense, even though I couldn’t comprehend all the way, that this was all too familiar, and I flinched. He said, “you think I’m going to hit you?” I feel like that was symbolic of the way he was making me feel at the time. It wasn’t safe. It didn’t feel secure.
How did you heal after the breakup
The first step was no contact. I prevented any way for him to ever get in contact with me. Blocking him on and through everything. He ended up looking up one of my friends he met once in NYC and tried to add her on Facebook.
He broke up with me and then all of the truth started coming out as far as the cheating. Once I confronted him about that and he did essentially what a liar does, deny. With these types of narcissistic personality people, there should be no contact in any way. They crave your attention and any attention is good attention. Whether you yell at him or are nice to him he feeds off of it. The best way to stop this game is don’t respond. It makes them angry.
Therapy was key for the first couple of months. It was so helpful that I was an entrepreneur and I got to create my own time and schedule. This was one of those things where I don’t think I would’ve been able to cope — I could’ve lost my job. I ended up getting a new marketing project around that time and was also focusing on pitching my newest company as a HR consultancy business.
My support system was some of the girls he used to talk to and did this to. Connecting with them and hearing their stories and helping each other throughout this process was so important. Who knew they’d be a source of strength for me?
I also went through a lot of reflection, looking back at how I attracted him because I’m careful about this notion of attracting things and people. Yes, we do surround ourselves with certain energy, but opposites attract too. You can attract someone who is not stable emotionally, mentally, or spiritually, but you can use your discernment to say I’m not going to involve myself with that. Looking at the reason I chose to be with someone like that, didn’t listen to the warning signs, and didn’t trust myself enough — I pulled back at that stuff and healed it, wherever the root was coming from.
Have you dated since the break-up?
What was great is I had a little rendezvous with a guy I used to date four years ago. I was a senior in college and at the time I was waiting [to have sex] until I got married. The abusive man ended up being my first.
Me and the guy reconnected and had a very great sexual experience. For me, it felt great. My body stopped responding to [my ex] when it came to sex. With this other guy I realized I do work. I thought something was wrong with me. It was a situation where we were both open and comfortable with ourselves sexually. I had gotten to a place where my sexuality was a part of my humanity, and I wouldn’t shun myself. I realized that with my ex, he was doing so much behind the scenes he’d never fully show up for me (sexually) because he wasn’t living in his truth.
That was a great experience that I needed, but right now I’m intentionally remaining single. One chapter I really miss 0f being single was living in my own space. I feel like it was cut short. I really want to date myself. I want to travel and cook huge lavish meals for myself. That’s what I’ve been doing: treating myself the way I would want someone to treat me. Let me intentionally do that just like I’d intentionally be in a relationship. I made a commitment to not date and entertain men. Even light entertaining can be a distraction from our healing work so I stay away from that all together.
How else did your body changed after you ended the abusive relationship?
During the grieving process I lost a ton of weight. The night that all the information started coming to light I was literally not eating, but pooping out water. My body was getting rid of so much waste because it was grieving with me. I started making sure I ate and took a lot of epsom salt baths, drank a lot of water — making sure I was taken care of. It was rough I couldn’t sleep some nights. I had to remind myself everyday to eat a meal, now eat another meal, and just build up slowly; work out, get rid of the stress hormone cortisol, and move my body.
After the initial grieving, and well into the acceptance stage my skin was cleared up immediately. I was vegan for a while already, but to see everything finally coming together was like OMG. That midsection weight went away. I dance around my room and walk places, but I do believe that in this chapter my body is calling for rest. I’ve exhausted it so much with the obsessiveness of working out when things weren’t going well. Now it just wants to be. It’s important for me to be in relationship with my body so I know what I need and when because it shifts. Through this process I’m more in tune with my spirit and my body.
*Name has been changed to protect identity.