What I learned about domestic violence from my last relationship
A lesson on being your own hero, healer, and leader and how to recognize if you are falling short in your own relationships.
⚠️ Disclaimer: I am not an expert on domestic violence and this article is not about physical abuse, it is mostly about psychological and verbal abuse. Writing this article was part of my own individual healing process following a breakup. By sharing it, I’m hoping it brings support, clarity, and awareness to those who are looking for it.
Early this year, I discovered that my partner had been cheating on me during most of our time together and, with that discovery, came the realization that I had been in an abusive relationship.
Many lessons were taught from that experience – learning about the cycle of domestic violence, learning when you are being manipulated by someone, and most importantly learning about respecting your own boundaries.
I’ve always been a helper at heart; I love giving. I thrive when nurturing people around me, it brings me joy to support them and see them flourish. On top of my work, I find purpose in volunteering, mentoring people, public speaking, and writing. When I’m around people I love, I tend to forget about my own needs and usually shoot them down my priority ladder.
I truly believe people are inherently good; I believe everyone is trying their best in life based on their own experiences.
Today, I see how the combination of my nurturing self and my beliefs in good turned me into the ideal prey for an abuser, all the while exhausting my energy by forgetting to take care of myself.
About domestic violence and manipulation
Although domestic violence can take many forms in a relationship, it is ultimately a strategy someone will use to dominate or affirm their power over the other party. Domestic violence is not uniquely about physical violence. In fact, psychological abuse is the first step on the scale of violence.
When I met my partner, he and I wanted the same thing from a relationship; trust, honesty, monogamy, support, and transparent communication. At least, this is what he was telling me he wanted, the more time we spent together, the more I shared my feelings and values, the more he shared he felt the same way – what a perfect match!
This all seemed great, until I noticed along the way the accumulation of misalignment between his words and his actions.
It started with small things; being vague in communication, not being intimate in public, not following through on certain things, forgetting a lot of details about our time together, mixing memories or repeating himself often. I was confused and would shrug it off, often finding excuses for his behavior during the early stages of our relationship.
Eventually, I noticed behavioral patterns that did not match the values I thought we shared. For example; not getting back to me on something that was important for me, being dismissive when having difficult conversations or as soon as there was tension between us, confusing me and blaming me when I shared a personal need.
As time went by, I felt increasingly more anxious and riddled with self-doubt. I started asking myself if I was the one being too insecure or too needy.
I was not.
Manipulation is a mechanism of control and is wildly used in domestic violence. Manipulation can be defined as a way to intentionally (sometimes unconsciously) influence, alter, or exploit the thinking and/or behaviors of others.
Someone’s intention becomes manipulative when it is motivated by an unspoken, secret desire that is meant to deceive another person and affect their perception.
Manipulation can show up in many forms. Here are a few I noticed in the relationship I was in:
- Charm: being engaging verbally or using body language, complimenting, flattering and being romantic with an ulterior motive.
- Silent treatment: refusing to communicate to the other party by ignoring them, waiting for the other party to open up the conversation again.
- Reasoning: justification and explanation, for instance highlighting only the positive aspects of an issue being discussed.
- Gaslighting: bringing the other party to question their own sanity by denying things that were said or actions that were done, twisting the truth.
- Regression: reverting to acting like a child such as pouting or whining.
- Reciprocity reward: using exchange or favors, promises of future return, promises of change.
- Debasement: looking weak or in need of support, playing the victim.
- Lies: lying, hiding information, omitting to say the entire truth.
Manipulation has been used for ages as a mean for survival (attracting a partner, building alliances), so eventually everyone uses manipulation tactics. However, according to the experts at Dialogue, an individual can be defined as a compulsive manipulator if they exhibit more than 20 of the following 30 characteristics. Here are a few examples;
- They make other people feel guilty, in the name of professional conscience, family ties, friendship, love, etc.
- They lie.
- They change their opinions, behaviors, or feelings depending on the person or situation.
- They unload their responsibilities onto others or dismiss their own responsibilities.
- They do not clearly communicate their requests, needs, feelings, or opinions.
- They generate a state of discomfort or of not being free (feeling trapped).
- Their words appear logical and consistent, while their attitudes, actions or lifestyle are totally opposite.
- They know how to make themselves into victims to gain sympathy (e.g., exaggerated illness, “difficult” surroundings, overloaded at work).
- They often respond vaguely.
- They cast into doubt the qualities, skills, and personalities of other people — they criticize without appearing to do so, devalue and judge.
- They cite all kinds of logical reasons to disguise their requests.
Being stuck in the cycle
Domestic violence is a loop. Understanding that was very insightful for me;
Despite the context, type of abuse or level of violation, the behavior between the abuser and the victim usually remains the same. Here are a few examples from my own experience to illustrate this cycle:
Context 1: The kissing
While having a drink with colleagues of his, I learned that my partner kissed one of them while being away on a business trip. When I brought it up to him and shared how that kind of behavior does not respect my boundaries (tension), he said it was the colleague who initiated the kissing and claimed we’ve never really discussed exclusivity before (aggression and justification). He made amends by promising it won’t happen again. I believed him. (reconciliation).
Context 2: The flirting
My partner and I are at my work party. I see him on the dance floor with a colleague of mine, flirting and touching her in front of me. Later, I shared how this made me uncomfortable (tension), he told me she was just a friend. He gaslighted me by questioning if I really saw what I saw, because he wasn’t flirting (aggression and justification). I had doubts, so I decided to let it go (reconciliation).
Context 3: The sexting
**Disclaimer: the following text includes sexual content
I was using his computer while on a Zoom call with his parents when a notification appeared. I clicked on it and viewed the recent multiple conversations he was having with different women I did not recognize. When I opened one conversation, I saw a picture of a naked woman along with a message asking him to “cum on her boobs”. When I asked him about it (tension), I was told that I too have conversations with other men (aggression), that it was she who initiated the sexting, and that it all meant nothing to him (justification). After days continuously reaching out to me and justifying himself, I saw him again (reconciliation).
Context 4: The cheating
My partner and I bumped into a colleague of his on the street. I said hi, she looked shocked and uneasy and walked away. I asked him about her reaction, (tension) and he said he did not know the reason for her behavior (aggression). I ended up calling her to figure out what was going on. I learned they were sleeping together regularly and have been for more than a year. I asked him to stop contacting me, blocked him everywhere yet he managed to reach me through the few channels I could not block: email and postcard (justification).
This time, there was no reconciliation.
For me, being stuck in the domestic violence loop made it difficult to know what to believe or how to act. Confusion and self-doubt clouded my judgment and the hope of a brighter future together made me want to stay.
This is why acknowledging my own boundaries was crucial. When I learned what he did, I went on a mission to know what else I missed during our relationship in order to attach meaning to our experience.
Who else did he sleep with? How many were there? Were they protecting themselves? What else did he lie about? Did he not love me? Was I used?
I thought by knowing, I would have some peace of mind, but the more I dug and the more I uncovered, the more I realized I would never know the truth.
Not knowing the truth was difficult to accept, but I knew for a fact that multiple boundaries were crossed; the violation of trust, the violation of intimacy, the violation of respect. Knowing that was enough for me to know that my partner was someone who did not have the capacity to love me the way I needed him to.
If you are a giver or a nurturer at heart, know your boundaries because abusers don’t have any.
A boundary is a personal property line that marks those things for which we are responsible. As Henry Cloud said, boundaries define who we are and who we are not. Boundaries can sound like:
I am not confortable doing this,
I allow you to be responsible for your own emotions,
I am not emotionally available to support you right now,
I need some alone time,
I am not ready to talk about this,
No, and I need you to stop asking,
Thank you, but one drink is my limit,
I need you to treat me with respect even when we disagree on something,
I need you to stop.
Everyone has different boundaries which is why setting them and respecting them can only be something you, yourself, can do. Setting boundaries is vital to experience healthy relationships, and when someone does not respect a clear boundary, it creates an opportunity to either Say No and Let Go or change the boundary itself and therefore change yourself and your values.
Letting go of someone you have feelings for is never easy. I kept trying to prove to my abuser that I was enough for him to be happy. The hard truth was that the person I needed to convince was myself, I needed to believe that I was worth respecting myself in order to let him go.
“The beauty of self-love is that it can grow into the unconditional love that can end all harm.” — Yung Pueblo
Looking back, I see how I was forcing myself in a relationship that didn’t feel right, thinking I was going to save it by doing the work and loving my partner. Each time, I would excuse my partner’s behavior thinking it was a way to give us another chance, thinking that my love for him would eventually make him change for me, when in fact I was being over-responsible around someone who was incapable of respecting me. On top of that, by excusing his behavior I was enabling it and showing him it was okay to treat me this way. It wasn’t.
Today, I see how listening to my gut and intuition has always served me. Seeing how I was able to save my authenticity, my values and my integrity, I can only reiterate on how letting go is not easy, but it is definitely worth the effort. Making place for self-love and listening to my needs helped me heal, it made me accept that things did not go a certain way and offered me the mental clarity I needed to move on.
Despite everything, I am grateful to have experienced this relationship. Because every time you fall down, you can choose to be your own hero and rise again.
Since this happened, I have accepted help from friends and family around me. Thanks to my employer, I was also able to take some personal time. The COVID-19 restrictions and social-distancing made this period particularly difficult and I am so grateful to be well surrounded. Reaching out for support helped me retrieved myself, and today I am doing okay.
Asking for help can look like a message to someone close to you, a friend, a sibling, a neighbour, a specialist, even a phone call to a help line — you are not alone. If you are in need of support or clarity related to domestic violence and/or manipulation, I hope these local resources can help you:
If you are a victim:
- Domestic violence, Quebec’s helpline and information.
- SOS Violence Conjugale, an online service, free, anonymous and confidential for the Quebec population.
If you are an abuser:
- Sortir de l’isolement (FR).
- A coeur d’homme, helping men who needs support in changing their behavior (FR).