The anatomy of an emotionally abusive relationship

Domestic abuse can happen to anyone, at any time and go on for many years. Abuse takes many forms, not all of them obvious. We read about physical abuse, partners pulling hair, kicking, punching, and pushing their partner down the stairs, threatening or worse, with a weapon. Then there are the cases of sexual assault. There is also emotional abuse, which, to the untrained eye, is invisible. 

We hear and read the accounts of the victims and wonder how they managed to find themselves in that situation. We tell ourselves we would never be in an abusive relationship. We wonder why the victim went into the relationship in the beginning. I was one of those people. Then, it happened to me.

The Beginning

I met the man who was to become my husband in 1988. I considered myself an experienced woman of the world, a good judge of character. I knew about all forms of physical abuse, but I didn’t know about emotional, financial and narcissistic abuse and coercive control. Nor did I have any understanding of how insidious those forms of abuse are and how they can creep up on you and ensnare in their trap before you realise what is happening. This is what happened to me.

At the time I met him, I was saving up money to go to Australia. Having a serious relationship wasn’t part of my agenda, then he walked into my life and my plans changed. At first, I was reluctant to have anything to do with him but slowly, he slipped into my affections. He told me the story of his life, highlighting everything that was wrong with it and it tugged at my heartstrings. The truth be told, he had had a better life than many. There was something about him that I fell for. What I didn’t see was the man behind the mask, the professional victim, the narcissist, the emotional abuser.

Looking back, the warning signs were there early on in our relationship. A few months before we were married, we went away on holiday. At the end of the break I became sick; we had to delay our return by a day. He went on secondment immediately when we arrived back home. By then, we were living together. I was ill for close to three months. Each weekend he came home, despite still being sick, I was expected to cook for him, do his laundry and not to mention anything to do with my health. I excused his behaviour.

The Early Years

Shortly after we married, I became pregnant. He didn’t use contraception and pressured me not to either. This, as I now know, is called reproductive coercion. Our second son was conceived the same way.

From early on in our relationship, I knew my husband didn’t like his job. He had made comments about wanting to move closer to his parents. Within the first six months of our marriage, I had become pregnant, he had found a new position and we had moved. I had to give up my own job, but had every intention of finding another one once we were settled. I didn’t. Initially we lived with his parents. I wanted to rent a house; he wanted to buy. We bought. Yet more warning signs, which I failed to see.

My life revolved around my husband and the boys. My friends slowly slipped away. Contact with my own family was limited to my parents and that was a fraught relationship. From the beginning, there was no love lost between my father and husband, although my husband always made a point of being especially nice to my mother.

Money was always an issue. He had champagne tastes on a beer salary. His job frequently took him away. During those times, I kept our expenditure low, but worried what he would be spending money on. I continued to suggest I return to work and was constantly rebuffed.

Our Life in the USA

In 1996, my husband’s job took us to California, USA. I welcomed it; I had lived abroad before and was confident we would make a life for ourselves. I also didn’t feel quite so guilty about not contributing to the family finances as our visa didn’t permit me to work. What I never anticipated was for my husband to exert full control over my life and that of the boys.

By control, this is just a taste of what he did. First, when my parents came out to visit during our first year, he used an incident to split me away from them, thereby removing my parental support and that of any members of my family.

The second was that, although initially my elder son went to school, I started homeschooling him and then his brother. It was only supposed to be for a short period of time, but ended up being permanent. In 2000, we moved to Oregon and that was when I wanted them to go to school, but my husband wouldn’t agree. He was, by that stage, isolating us more and more. The boys being at school wouldn’t have made them so isolated, thereby denying him even more control over them.

The third issue was healthcare. In the USA we had to pay for our own. My husband’s company provided healthcare coverage, but we did have to contribute towards it. Even before we moved to the US, my husband had been against me or the boys seeing a doctor. He didn’t, unless required to for a medical or an emergency. Apart from the boys having their required vaccinations, we didn’t visit a doctor. That continued in the USA: No doctors’ visits unless for an emergency. Then came the offer by my husband’s company, for them to sponsor us for permanent residency in the US.

As part of the application process, the four of us were required to have a medical. On the day of the medical my husband was in a bad mood; it was an early start and the traffic was bad. I could feel his anger and it worried me. The staff were very nice and did their best to put the boys and myself at ease. However, there was tension between them and my husband.

When it was my turn for the medical, the nurse, who administered it, had noticed my husband’s behaviour towards me. She told me he was being abusive. This was the first time I had heard his behaviour referred to in this way. Immediately, I defended it. She didn’t believe a word I said, but then I didn’t believe what she said either. It was the first time a professional had picked up on his behaviour, and as I now know, I reacted in the way victims do by denying what he was doing was wrong.

The fourth incident happened over a period of ten years. I call it the period of almost complete isolation. My husband loathed California from the moment we arrived. I liked it and where we were living. Unusually, for much of the US the town we were living in was walkable, I could walk to the shops, take the boys to activities and it was rare that when out, I didn’t meet someone I knew.

My husband being a field based engineer had some flexibility as to where he was located. He had been to Oregon and decided that is where he wanted to live, so we moved.

Whilst my husband was glad to leave California, the boys and I were not. We had friends there and a good homeschool support network. In Oregon, there were none. As previously mentioned, I wanted the boys to go to school. He refused to let me send them. As I don’t drive, it was difficult to access home school groups. I found homeschool support on the internet, but the boys found none.

The location of the house he chose was in a private valley with seven other properties. During the time we lived there, we were at various times neighbourly to them all. That depended upon the mood of my husband. If he wanted something from them, he was as charming as he could be. Behind closed doors, he criticised them.

My world became smaller and smaller. We rarely left the valley, unless it was to go shopping, a forty mile round trip, or for the occasional sightseeing. The only time we left the valley was for “approved” trips. For example shopping, sightseeing trips when his parents visited and sightseeing when he needed something to boast about. There were also the trips to Portland, in conjunction with our residency application and a business trip to Seattle when my husband thought it would be beneficial to take us with him.

To give you some idea of just how bad the isolation was, in July 2002, a wildfire came close to the valley and we had to evacuate the house. For a few days we stayed in town, whilst it was alarming to have to leave the house, the upside was that we were around people.

By the time we moved back to the UK, I had become nervous around people. As for the boys, their socialisation skills were far behind their peers.

The most obvious sign of his control was financial control. From the moment I gave up work, I was financially dependent upon my husband. In this day and age, it does sound horrifying that a woman would allow someone to have financial control over her, but I had been brought up in a house where my father provided my mother with a sum of money for clothing, groceries and sundries. What my father never did was question my mother on how she spent the money.

We had a joint bank account and I was careful about how much I spent on clothing and groceries. Initially, he didn’t question our expenditure but, as time went on, he asserted his control over the finances. The money in the account was his to do with as he liked he told me. I tried to point out that there were bills to pay before discretionary expenditure. This was when he did show traces of anger, not physical, but angry verbal outbursts. Over time, I learned to refrain from saying anything to avoid confrontation with him. His tongue was that vicious.

I would say fear and financial control, from my experience, go together. There were times when I did see his true nature but, I was in no position to leave him. There was always the fear he would take the boys away from me. He had the resources and he had the money. I should clarify: he would have gone to his parents and asked for their help in any custody battle, and I didn’t have the resources to fight him. He held all the cards.

Emotional abusers can turn any situation to their advantage. In 2003, my husband was made redundant. Fortunately, we were, by then, permanent residents. He became self-employed. With him, it was all about image. He took on several lines of credit and remortgaged the house. He had access to more money than he had ever had. As long as he was spending it and boasting about what he had spent the money on, he was content. Rather than keep business coming in, he preferred to spend his time on the internet. There were jobs that brought in some money, but not enough to cover how much he spent. He also had the idea that, given my background was in childcare, I should start a nanny placement agency. This he expected me to do on zero investment. This was in addition to continuing to homeschool and assist him with the paper work for his “business”.

When the money situation became dire, rather than stop unnecessary expenditure, or seek a full time position, he turned to the bank of Mum and Dad. Eventually, he made the decision that we would return to the UK. His parents had been keeping a roof over our heads for a while and they financed the move back. I will be honest; the boys and I didn’t want to return. Despite being isolated, we liked living in the USA; however I didn’t have the financial means to be able to stay there. I also, at that stage, would do anything to keep my husband happy, and if moving back to the UK made him happy, so be it.

Return to the UK

To the outsider it might seem strange that I would consider our return to the UK as part of the emotional abuse. I do, because it demonstrates just how much control he exerted over me.

Upon our return we lived with his parents. He was happy, although ideally wanted to live with them permanently. Eventually we did move, twice, as he was let go from one job before obtaining another in a different location.

Whilst we were living with his parents, he was the doting husband and father. His controlling tendencies were hidden. Once we were living in our own home, they reappeared. There were days when I saw him for what he was, but somehow I continued to believe he would change. Instead, his controlling tendencies became worse, as did his control over the finances.

A good example of this came when we were working out what to bring back with us from the USA. I will say at this point, there were plenty of his belongings that made the journey back, but the boys and I had to cut ours back. Furniture was an issue. Beds were sold with the intention of buying new ones. Blow-up mattresses were bought as a temporary replacement. Temporary became permanent. I was allowed to buy replacement mattresses, but not new beds. Finally, I used some birthday money that his parents had given me to buy a new double bed. This is the first time I had stood up to him. I told him I was considering seeing a doctor because my back was hurting. He backed down and also agreed the boys could have new beds. I never did persuade him to buy a new sofa; instead we had a couple of garden chairs. He continued to spend money at the levels he had spent it during our time in the US.

A new and, in my opinion, more serious form of control had appeared in the relationship. Technology when used correctly is beneficial to all. When it is used for nefarious purposes, it is harmful. In the early days when he was away for work, he would phone every other day. When we finally got a computer, we didn’t have the internet. It was only when we moved to the USA that we connected to the internet. He also started to phone me every day. Given that his job took him across the USA, I had to be aware of the time difference and be available when he phoned. I was also not internet savvy, and had in those days, no idea how to clear my browsing history. Foolishly, when I set up my own email account, I let him have access to it. Why? Because he told me if something happened to me, he would need to be able to access it.

When finally in the UK I had my first mobile phone, I let my husband have the phone unlock code for the very same reason I gave him the password for my email. Once again, he had a job that required a lot of travelling away from home, either in this country or Europe. He started to phone me at all times of the day and evening wanting to know what I was doing. He would phone me on the landline or my mobile. If I didn’t answer one, he would phone the other. The calls could be broken down into two parts: one, I had to provide him with details of my day, and two, he would list a litany of complaints about his job. On those rare occasions when I needed to contact him, he demanded to know what I wanted, and did I need to call him? There were also the evening Skype calls, not one, but two. If I said something that he felt displeased at, he would cut the call. He would do this for phone calls as well. I would feel guilty and attempt to phone/Skype him back and apologise for whatever I had done to displease him, although I never knew what I had said.

It is important, at this point, to emphasise that in all the time we were together, he never hit me. If he had, then there is no doubt I would have left. Although he wasn’t particularly tall, he had a physical presence that even now thinking back, I find intimidating – although initially when we met, I didn’t. It’s one of those things that slowly creeps up on you.

For reasons only he knew, he would come into the kitchen when I was preparing dinner or doing the dishes etc and stand behind me. When I asked him not to do it, he did it more. To this day I am nervous about anyone behind me, which includes if I am out for a walk, or even in a queue. I have to resist the temptation to move out of the way.

As time went on, the boys noticed a subtle shift in me. I started to embrace my husband being away. Apart from the Skype calls and having to answer the phone the moment he rang, I did enjoy him not being around. Although I did enjoy the time he was away, there was a part of me that worried about his health. One night whilst we were living with his parents, he woke up complaining his chest was hurting, and he was short of breath. I wanted to get his father who was a GP, but he refused. After a while, the pain subsided and he started breathing normally. Nothing more was said, until it happened again. I wanted him to seek medical attention, but he refused. I worried what would happen if one of these incidents turned more serious when he was away, but he brushed away my concern.

In August 2014, my elder son left home to go to college. It was around then that I started to face the truth that I no longer loved him and was trying to figure out what to do. Our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary was coming up, in January 2015, and I was prepared to give my marriage one last chance.

The Realisation

Another year dawned. I wondered how I would get through January, February, March etc. My goal was to celebrate our anniversary – if that was the right word – with a special dinner. On January 6th he went to work as usual. The following week he was going on a business trip to Europe. Just before lunch, the landline rang, I didn’t recognise the number so I left it, believing if someone wanted to talk to me they could leave a message. They didn’t and it rang again during lunch, no message. It was only after lunch when my mobile rang, the same number appeared and a message was left. I checked it. It was my husband’s boss asking me to phone him. I did. My husband had collapsed, the paramedics had been called and he was sending someone to collect me and take me to the office, I was told. I let my younger son know and phoned my elder son. He wasn’t at college that day and asked me to keep him informed as to how his father was.

When my husband’s colleagues arrived, they informed us that instead of going to the office, we were instead going to the hospital. Upon arrival at the hospital, I was taken into a side room and then eventually to meet a doctor who was treating my husband. The news wasn’t good. To this day I can hear the sounds of the machines keeping him alive, the silence of them being switched off, started again, and then switched off for the final time. At that moment, I went from someone who was contemplating leaving her marriage to being a widow.

I was plunged into unknown territory. I had never been to a funeral before, let alone organised one. On the outside I was seen as the grieving widow. On the inside I was a mixed up mess. Somehow I survived those early days, although I had pretty much given up sleeping.

For the service at the crematorium, the boys had chosen the music and we wrote a piece to be read out. As I sat and listened to the words we had written, I was mentally re-writing them. For example, where we had praised him, mentally, I thought the opposite. I was glad when the day was over and I was able to process my thoughts.

There was much to do after the funeral, like sorting through his possessions. I found I had no attachment to any of them. I didn’t want pictures of him around, nor did I want to keep items of his clothing, apart from one or two sweaters that he hadn’t worn and I quite liked.

During my clearing spree, the results of his post-mortem arrived. Due to the suddenness of his death, one had to be performed to confirm the cause of death. When it arrived, I found he had died of hypertensive heart disease brought on by extremely high blood pressure. In the end, his heart had given out. I was furious, he had known for years his blood pressure was high, yet dismissed it. Ultimately, it killed him.

It was also around this time that I opened what I would end up calling Pandora’s Box. It was a small wooden box with a shiny padlock on it that my husband had when we first met. He claimed he had lost the combination and joked it probably had dirty laundry in it. I had noticed the wood had started to crack. One afternoon I went into the garage where it was stored and armed with a variety of tools broke the box apart. In it, I found all the letters he had received from his previous girlfriend, and an empty ring box that from reading the letters, appeared to be for an engagement ring.

The nature of their relationship I deduced from the letters was vastly different to the one he told me. It was a lot deeper than I had been led to believe. I destroyed the letters. I finally understood why he didn’t want me to see the contents of the box. It was a shrine to his former girlfriend and had I seen it, it would have taken an awful lot for me to have stayed with him. The first Christmas we were together, we had both gone home to our respective parents. Afterwards he told me he had seen his former girlfriend. At the time it hadn’t bothered me, but seeing the contents of the box, I was left wondering if he had hoped for a reconciliation with her. I did come to the conclusion that he never loved me and that he married me as a way of getting revenge on his former girlfriend.

Sleep became almost impossible. My nights were filled with strange memories. My younger son suggested I write them down. As I did so, more were released. In the meantime, life continued. My landlord needed to sell the house we were living in and so we had to move.

We moved to the same city where my elder son and in-laws resided. I made the choice as I wanted to be close to family. At this point, I had not faced the truth: I had been in an abusive relationship with my husband. Any thoughts of support from my in-laws disappeared. I haven’t seen them since we moved to this area. Given the circumstances, it is a good thing.

After the move, I resumed my writing and a torrent of memories was unleashed. The more I wrote, the more they came flooding out. Articles I read on the internet, I could relate to. Words were added to my vocabulary like coercive control, emotional abuse, financial control, gaslighting and narcissistic abuse. Yes, I had been in one form or another subjected to them all. My writing became book length and with my son’s encouragement, I self-published it. Once it was published, my plan was to forget about it and move on with my life.

I did reach out to friends I had made since my husband had died, and to those I had reconnected with. I didn’t want to hide the truth about my marriage and how I had come to discover it. What I didn’t anticipate was some of the reaction I received. While some were supportive, I did receive many negative comments, I was told emotional abuse didn’t exist, I should get over it, I was making it all up. One person told me what a great marriage she had. In the end, I stopped talking about my past.

I ended up diving into a very dark place. So dark that I wanted the pain to end, and was prepared to either take an overdose, or go to a nearby river. Thanks to my son, I didn’t do either. I still want to erase the past, pretend it never existed. If I do, I am essentially wiping out the period of my life from 1988 – 2015 with my husband and the six years since, and starting afresh. I wanted to pick a day and say “this is the start of my life”, but that wasn’t realistic. For one, how was I supposed to account for thirty-three years – just over half my life? So, I’ve had to find ways of coming to terms with what happened.

Positive Memories

First of all, even though my sons were conceived through reproductive coercion, I don’t regret having either of them. I love them dearly and wouldn’t be without them. It may seem strange, but I do look back upon my wedding day with fond memories. I am by nature very nervous, but that day I was calm. I loved my dress which my aunt had made; I didn’t even mind that it was a cold January day. During our time in the USA we met some lovely people, visited beautiful places and lived in an area that – although remote – had deer, jackrabbits, hummingbirds and wild turkeys to name but a few, come close to the house. Those are positive memories.

Questions and Answers

Over the last few years I have asked myself many questions. What did I see in him? Why didn’t I see him for what he was? Did others see the man behind the mask? Why did he choose me and what was his motivation for abusing me? Why in those moments, when I briefly saw I was in a bad marriage, did I neither confront him, or leave him? Why didn’t I see his behaviour towards me as abuse?

The answers are complex. He was the consummate actor. He was a charmer and I fell for his charm. When out in public or with his friends and family, he was the perfect husband and father. What nobody saw was the control he had over me, or if they did, they refrained from saying anything.

After he died, I had access to his documents on the computer. Amongst them were some copies of his annual review from his boss during our time in the USA. I had never seen them. He always had a hundred and one reasons why he wasn’t more successful in the company; ones that were believable. When he was made redundant, I couldn’t understand why, as from what I understood, he was a successful and well-liked member of the company. The annual reviews told the opposite; he was a good engineer, and it was his work ethic and his attitude to others that let him down. It appears that it wasn’t just the nurse who saw him for what he was, but his company management.

Why did he abuse me? I have my theories. One is that he did have issues with women. He thought his mother controlled his father, and his upper line manager at work was a woman. He didn’t like successful women and made sure his wife wouldn’t be a success at anything. He also liked to play the victim; that way he was the centre of attention. Why did he choose me? Now that I can’t answer.

As for why I didn’t leave him when I had those moments of clarity. I am by nature a healer. I’m empathetic and avoid confrontation. He was smart enough to know what I was like, and to use those traits to his advantage. There was also a part of me that didn’t want to give up on my marriage. Then there was the question of finances: he held all the cards.

Finally, there is the question of why I didn’t see his behaviour as abusive. In the early days, I never knew about emotional abuse or controlling behaviour. To me, an abuser was one who physically hurt the victim. I didn’t realise the pet name he called was abusive, nor did I realise that getting me pregnant when he did was abusive.

As I understand more about emotional abuse, I can see clearly how much he subjected me to. He belittled any and everything I did, mocked my interests, made snarky comments about my appearance, prevented me from having my own friends, made me feel guilty, and made me totally reliant upon him. This is on top of splitting me away from my family, asserting financial control and monitoring my movements.

Moving Forward

Given all I have been through, I am not going to pretend moving forward has been easy. Facing the truth about the relationship you were in for almost twenty-seven years takes its toll. As I mentioned earlier, I am one who avoids confrontation, am nervous and am certainly lacking in confidence. All of which have been exacerbated by the years of abuse.

I am realistic to know that I will always carry the invisible scars of emotional abuse, as will my boys. Now, it’s about how I manage them. Do I let them cause me pain as I know scars do, or do I manage the pain? What about another relationship? I am a romantic and haven’t given up on finding love – even in this strange world we are now living in. I am also optimistic I can, even though I haven’t worked for an employer since 1990, find employment. However it is my heartfelt desire to help those who are, or have been in an emotionally abusive relationship.

Emotional abuse, as I have said, is invisible and the long term effects even more so. Sleep or lack of sleep is something I still suffer from. However, just once in a while it does benefit me. During a recent sleepless night I came up with the idea for a website or even a community interest company (CIC) called “The Invisible Abuse Project”. It’s still in the early stages, but if it is possible I hope it will be a place for those who are being emotionally abused, or have been emotionally abused to seek advice and even if they feel able, to share their own story. I am not a trained counsellor, but what I can do is share my own continuing journey through such a medium as a podcast, a vlog or even posts on the website. What I most want is for people to understand exactly what emotional abuse is, how damaging it can be, but with support you can recover and move forward with your life.

For a long time I didn’t know where I was headed. I had ideas; half heartedly tried some out but with no success. Then along came the pandemic. It has been hard, but for me, it is a wakeup call. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life hiding. For the moment I can use the virtual world to rebuild my life and I look forward to embracing the real world when it is safe to do so. This is something I thought I would never say.

Where to get help for domestic violence and abuse

If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article, then might find the following resources helpful…

  • Women’s Aid – grassroots federation working together to provide life-saving services in England. Get help on housing, safety, planning, dealing with police, and more.
  • National Domestic Abuse Helpline – open 24/7 365 days a year on 0808 2000 247, or start a live web chat.
  • Refuge – has a free 24-hour helpline on 0808 2000 247, or access to live web chat Mon-Fri 3-10pm.
  • Respect Men’s Advice Line – the Helpline for male victims of domestic abuse. Call 0808 8010327, Mon-Fri 9am-8pm.
  • ManKind Initiative – a confidential helpline for male victims of domestic abuse and domestic violence. Call 01823 334244 weekdays 10am-4pm.
  • Galop – call the National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans+ Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0800 999 5428 Mon-Weds 10am-5pm, Weds+Thurs 10am-8pm, or email [email protected]

Can you relate to Leigh’s story? Do you have a story of your own that you’d be willing to share? Leave a comment below, or join the conversation on the community forum.

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