“When we reach our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change.”
The spirit of Aang speaks these words at the end of the first season of Legend of Korra. At the time, I remember thinking it was a nice quote, but perhaps not fully earned. Korra had suffered a defeat – losing her bending and her sense of identity. The loss, however, seemed very minor. I know weeks were supposed to have passed in the show but, from an audience standpoint – it had only been a couple minutes. We didn’t have time to see Korra’s suffering – to understand the pain she was going through. While Aang’s words were poetic, they would have had much more impact had they come at the end of season three or the beginning of season four.
Update (4/7/2015): a revised version of this post is pending. I will not be taking down the original as I do not believe in whitewashing. A link will be provided when the new version is published.
This blog post is not like any other. While Red Rings of Redemption continues to be a site targeted at examining the way that media shapes our world, it is also a site dedicated to insuring that abuse and human rights’ violations do not go unreported. In the past, I have written about many injustices taking place. It has been my hope to add my voice to a positive movement for change and equality. It is because of that that I am writing this. Watching the courage around the world of young men and women standing up, unafraid of being who they are – it has inspired me. I am coming out as a victim of mental and emotional abuse, and I am going to tell my story so that others out there will know that they are not alone, and that there is always a way out.
The following is an account of actual life events. I have altered the names to protect those involved. I am not writing this to point fingers or assign blame. I do not wish to demonize while sanctifying myself. I will try to be completely honest with what happened to me. One last note: I am including pictures and links to help boost this post’s reach. It is not my intention to dilute the message with flashy distractions, I simply want as many people as possible to be able to access this if they need to.
To begin with, I suppose I better summarize how the relationship started – to give everything that follows context. In college, I was lucky: gifted with many friends. One of my best friends was dating this woman (let’s call her Sinda for this article). Sinda and I quickly became great friends. We had a lot in common and enjoyed playing games and going for drinks together. Everything was kept very simple by the fact that Sinda was dating my best friend. There was no drama: I was there for her and she was there for me.
Then they broke up.
Anyone who is friends with a couple knows how hard dealing with a breakup is. You never want to take sides; you do not want to lose friends. It sucks when two people who have been together suddenly aren’t anymore. However, breakups happen for a reason and are usually for the best.
Months went by and Sinda and I kept talking. I began to see sides of her I never had before. As she shared more and more of her life with me, I began to realize something: this was someone who I truly cared for . Really, my first sign should have been how reluctant she was… or moreover how she spoke:
“You don’t want someone like me.”
I may be paraphrasing but I remember that main reason very clearly. On the face of it, it does not make sense… but it was a warning sign. People with healthy self-esteems do not ever say that about themselves. After all: why wouldn’t someone be wanted? It confused me greatly as I did know her, and more than that – I knew I wanted someone exactly like her…
Over the months that followed, our relationship grew before ultimately ending. I will cover that more in the proceeding paragraphs. Right now I am going to list some of the signs of an abusive relationship and explain how they related in this particular case. This is to help those out there who are unsure… although really, you can always feel when something is innately wrong.
This is the big one. It will serve as a factor for most of the following points and is, in my opinion, the most dangerous element of an abusive relationship. I was saving it for last but really, it has to be addressed. Everything was used as control, and she let nothing happen that was not within her power to fully tweak or change at a moment’s notice. To put in bluntly: our relationship never existed when she was not okay with it.
What do I mean by that?
I told my friends when she and I started dating. How could I not? I was so excited. This was someone I was really crazy about. We were spending a lot of alone time together – going out for drinks, to watch movies, etc. She had at this point told me she loved me and I had told her I loved her. Yet when we talked about my friends, she labeled it as “boasting” and definitively told me that the two of us were not – nor had ever been – in a relationship. Not only did this hurt emotionally, but it pulled the rug out from under my feet.
Had I been wrong? It certainly felt like we were dating. Months later when I detailed exactly what had happened between us to my friends, I was met with the universal “that sounds like dating to me.” To be fair, I used the term boyfriend/girlfriend once to stop someone at a party from hitting on her. I should not have done that as we were not using those labels. However, she and I had arrived at that party together and would leave together that night. Yes, maybe we were not “boyfriend/girlfriend” but we were two people who had said “I love you” and were together.
Sinda wanted desperately to control my level of comfort in the relationship and she succeeded beautifully. By always being kept on my toes, I could never relax around her. This stopped me from taking any real risk in advancing the relationship – allowing it to stay exactly where she presumably felt comfortable. The Isolation
I mentioned before that she dated my best friend before me… so you can imagine that things were a little awkward. What made it worse was that I could tell my best friend nothing, NOTHING, about my new relationship without enraging Sinda. Again the words “bragging” or “boasting” were used often. In the end, Sinda asked that I let her tell my best friend, as the two of them had been in a prior relationship. I agreed and kept silent. It wasn’t until after the relationship had ended that I learned that Sinda had never told my best friend anything. As a result, when the relationship ended and I went to my best friend for solace – it wasn’t there.
Indeed, I later found out that Sinda had told my best friend (and several other friends) that nothing had ever existed between us and I had made the whole thing up. To hear that someone who said “I love you” now tell your friends that you were crazy… I did feel a little insane. She wasn’t describing the relationship I remembered but… what if it all was in my head? It would not be until over a year later when she finally admitted to a couple of my friends how much she had lied in regards to her words.
That said, her initial denial and subsequent lies by omission to my best friend put them in a spot that no one should ever be in. Two people telling radically different stories? It creates drama… unnecessary drama. I love a good conflict as much as anyone but senseless drama is just that. In a sense, it was the same manipulation and control described above, except directed at my best friend instead of me. By keeping everyone unsure, she controlled the reactions. My best friend could not really be there for me… if they weren’t sure I was telling the truth.
By inserting doubt with my friends, my support network was effectively taken away from me. This was incredibly challenging to battle through, but luckily friends are not called friends for no reason. Don’t worry: Lies have a tendency to change over time and to be exposed for what they are.
Punishment for Affection
Yeah, I’m not making that up. Right away you might be thinking “affectionate” in a sexual context but no, I’m talking about saying things as simple as “I love you” or making breakfast. At times, it appeared fine to let Sinda know just how much I cared for her. Other times, she berated me for it.
She insisted that I only loved her because “I didn’t know her” (we had known each other for over two years at this point) and that I was just seeing what I wanted to see. In one respect, she may have been right. I was insulted or put off whenever I was open with my feelings. She trampled on my words and created this feeling of fantasy where none existed. I was essentially told that I was stupid for caring, although I don’t think she was ever that direct.
These actions deflated my esteem and added to my feelings of unease. In any healthy relationship: you want to make your partner feel good. I wasn’t trying, I was simply saying the positive emotions that I was feeling… and I was trampled for it.
Everything was an argument… and not usually a small one
If you can’t tell from my blog, I am opinionated. I love debating people, playing devil’s advocate, engaging in friendly arguments. This was a ballooning. Simple misunderstandings derailed entire evenings and most of the time it did not appear like there was any reason for fighting. In many cases we both seemed to just be trying to express that we cared. Yet when two people say they love each other, what follows next should never be tears.
An Emotional Roller Coaster
As miserable as Sinda could make me feel, she also elevated me to new heights. When things were good, they were wonderful; when they were bad, they were terrible. It was not until much later that I realized the full impact of the lack of median. With nothing ever feeling “stable”, there was no way to get comfortable. Again, this prevented me from feeling like myself and created traumatic after effects.
The Double Standard
One of the main points of punishment came from the “double standard.” If I said anything ever that implied I anything less than loved her, my claims of emotion were labeled as complete lies. In anger, truth is usually said… but nearly always in a distorted way. With Sinda, anger was the only truth and everything else was a lie. Part of the fantasy she convinced me that I was living in.
Yet she in the relationship (and after) frequently went between “I love you” and “so there were some things I said last night.” In the end, I am unsure how she ever felt about me. I can only spin the tale: actions speak louder than words.
The No-Win Scenario
This is where nice people, truly nice people, get trapped. Being with someone who tells you that you make them feel so special is a wonderful emotion. It makes you feel overjoyed and fills you with the happiness that can only come from making another human being happy. Yet this can be dangerous in abusive relationships. It can be used to create an unrealistic standard and a “no win scenario.”
With Sinda, my no win scenario was this: if we did not have a happily ever after, I was full of crap. In our relationship, I said things like “I will always be for you” and “You will always be special to me.” Only to be met with:
“You cannot make those promises. You are lying.”
Now, it is true that life can throw some curve balls and that we can lose the people we care about. That said, those extreme cases aside – life actually is not that complicated to at least manage. If you care about someone, it is very easy to make time for them.
With Sinda, she was convinced that I was only saying those things as a “spur of the moment” or that I would only love her until she pushed me away. In this way, I began to feel superhuman – and not in the good way.
I was either going to be labeled as the savior – the first man to see her for who she truly was – or just some lying jerk who only wanted to take advantage. In relationships, it is always best to be seen as just a person – a regular, fallible person.
I could not win by being supportive and loving, I could not win by being myself.
In going with what has been mentioned above, there is another dangerous sign here. With Sinda, it always felt like we were already over. I later found out that she “always felt we would never work out anyway.”
If you are with someone with that outlook: do not start anything. Our perceptions shape the world around us, and someone who is dominated by a negative outlook will inevitably be a negative person. Again, the positive was treated like a fairy tale, something that went against the truth of the negative: we weren’t going to work out anyway.
My true “no win” turned out to be in a relationship with someone who was already convinced it was a bad idea.
It was Never Her Fault
Her hometown, her parents, her upbringing; eventually every person has a choice: be the person you were raised to be OR be the person you want to be. With Sinda, she avoided blame in every action by passing the torch to someone else. If it was not those three things, it was me. I provoked her, I said something stupid, I acted the wrong way… I was lead to believe that it was always my fault.
So Now What?
I will take a break from revealing my experiences to address the area where I feel that internet help is weakest: now what? Listing traits of emotional abuse is all well and good but it renders the relationship far too black and white. People are gray. Even when the relationship is abusive – you still care about the abuser. They are not some devil come to inflict pain. They are often a screwed-up mess themselves.
“Just get out.”
That’s what your friends and family will say – and they are right to say it. Sometimes though, the truth can be very hard to swallow. If you are with someone who makes you feel that level of superhuman positive, it can be difficult to walk away, even with the devastating accompanying negative.
In society, we are raised to believe that being in a relationship is part of an end goal. Everyone wants to be together, to be by yourself is lonely. This is not entirely true. While healthy relationships are wonderful experiences, being in an abusive relationship is worse than being alone. Let me repeat that: worse. In an abusive relationship, there is no way to ever be yourself. True, being single can force one to confront a lot about themselves, but that is all part of the process of being your true self. That still occurs in healthy relationships as well.
This may be hard to accept (it was for me), but even if you’re staying for the best intentions, it is not worth it. An emotional abusive person will take and take until there is nothing left. You cannot devote yourself to pleasing another human being at the expense of yourself. Being nice is a virtue, a goal to strive for. Being a pushover is a vice, it is a self-destructive weakness that will ultimately leave you crippled when it comes to actual relationships.
Loving someone means doing what is best for them, true. Really though, is allowing an abuser to stay comfortable in that level what’s best? It is prolonging a sick joke that was never funny. We all want to have our faith rewarded. Fun fact is that it usually is… just maybe not in the way we’re expecting.
Someone who loves you will never force you into such a defeated and powerless state. Remember that. Take responsibility for yourself and your behavior. Doing the right thing and doing the easy thing are seldom the same thing. There will be no medal for walking away from an abusive relationship. Your life will not turn magically and instantly better. Your friends and family may not understand what happened and may not be there for you right away. This not a movie, not a video game. Healing takes time – real time. It may not be easy, there will be periods of loneliness and sorrow. The good news is that it does work, and surrounding yourself with a healthy support network of people who care is one of the best tools to help break free.
The Cautionary Tale: What Happened After
I am a romantic. I have said this on the site before. I love to believe in the best of people, and I believe I am good at seeing the true potential in every person. I love being supportive, friendly, and open. In short – I like being who I am.
With Sinda, after it ended, it did not take her long to begin dating someone else. Over the course of that relationship, I would sometimes receive texts: “I love you”, “I miss you”, “I made a huge mistake”. I wanted to believe in these things. Sinda even went so far as to come over my apartment and spend the night. She told me that night how she had made a mistake and she loved me far more than the person she was dating… then she went right back to dating him.
Months later she convinced me to stay for drinks. She told me how lucky she had been to date someone like me and that she believed we were soul mates. The following day, she went right back to dating him.
So many nights, so many texts. I was part of a cheating relationship… one that was still as abusive as ever.
Eventually they broke up and Sinda and I agreed to talk again. Almost immediately the old habits re-emerged. Sinda kept me controlled, declaring that she needed to be alone for a while and to fix the emotional issues she was struggling with.
“I am doing this so that you and I can have the chance to be together.”
I will never forget those words. I will also never forget these:
“I love you… I didn’t mean to tell you that so soon.”
She said both of those things to me that night. Less than a month later, I was informed that she had gone out and gone home with some random guy. In the two weeks that followed, she resumed what sounded like its own form of abusive relationship with her ex-boyfriend. Sinda never told me any of this. I had to find it all out on my own.
“I am doing this so that you and I can have the chance to be together.”
In truth, part of me believes that Sinda did what she did out of pure fear. Love is not a controllable emotion. When someone you love hurts you… it really hurts. The part of me that believes Sinda did love me… feels that she was so afraid I would hurt her, so afraid I would stop loving her and leave her for someone else… that she did it to me first. Fear can make a person do truly terrible things.
The Message of Hope
I will not lie and say that this relationship did not leave a scar. In a way, it left a very ironic one. In the months that followed Sinda – I only engaged in relationships that I could begin and end on my terms. I kept things simple and unemotional. I did not share feelings, I did not tell the person I cared, I did not trust that they would not hurt me like Sinda had. I started to become what had hurt me. Luckily, I had friends, loved ones, and the ability to step back and seriously examine my behavior and my reasoning.
I have been forever altered by what happened to me. There are many events… some truly tragic ones… that I have omitted due to irrelevance. To be fair, there were beautiful times as well, and it is important to never forget those. When someone you love hurts and leaves you, it leaves a hole. Heart break no longer sounds cliché but rather like a very apt description. It actually hurts – there is a scientific reason for it. When you truly love someone, you never stop. But there is a difference in loving someone and being used by someone.
Someone who truly loves you back will never use you. You do not exist to make them feel better or even to make them feel loved. You exist as a person. Love is not a condition; it is not something that is negotiated or controlled. It simply exists and either a person is brave enough to embrace it and trust it… or they are not.
And it is still out there.
For we who have been abused, it is the easiest thing in the world to shut everyone else out. To believe that love is a lie and that things like it only exist in fairy tales: to become cynical and unfeeling, to become emotionally distant, to build a wall so strong and so thick that no one will ever be able to tear it down. Sure, you won’t be close to anyone… but at least they can’t hurt you.
I think that beliefs like that are how Sindas get created.
Am I able to love as freely and as openly as I could before. No. But I’m working on it.
That is the message to take away from this. Do not abandon your beliefs simply because someone took advantage of you. People like Sinda are the exception, not the rule. Believe that people are basically good and trusting and seek out those who seem to emit this positive energy. That quality you have to love, don’t blame it for what happened. If you’re like me and are ever the optimist – don’t lose that optimism… just remember to keep a level head and an open heart when dealing with people. Also: do not demonize the person who hurt you – but also make sure you see them for who they are, and for the behavior patterns they follow.
I do not hate Sinda, she is still incredibly dear to me. I simply know that, people take time to change (if they change at all) and right now, it is damaging for me to be near her. I will always trust, I believe in giving the benefit of the doubt to people. These are not parts that anyone who has been in an abusive relationship should want to give up.
Those people who are able to be emotionally there and open with their feelings, they are out there. In finding new and healthy relationships, you will find people to help open your eyes to what loving can be. It isn’t easy and there is no quick happily ever after… but the key is to keep trying. Every day is a new adventure. It is limited only by what you believe can happen (and also reality but you see my point). That is what I have started. In doing so, I have begun to heal, and where there will always be scars… I refuse to be afraid of getting hurt again. Life is about risk and love is the greatest risk of all. We’re only alive once as ourselves, and living without regrets appears like the best option. Do not let past abuses fill you with regret. Take the chance: you are worth it.
Part two further outlines a plan to escape the cycle of emotional abuse, and a warning to be more aware of your potential role within it.
In 2007, Paramount Pictures released Stardust, a high-spirited family fantasy film… that no one saw. Seriously, the film was made for $90 million (before advertising) and didn’t even generate $140 million. This was a shame as many people, myself included, find it to be a fun and well put together movie. Based on a Neil Gaiman book by the same name, Stardust follows the life of young Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox). It is the classic man-of-destiny story. Tristan needs to grow from a boy into a man in order to take his place in a newly discovered magical kingdom. Sounds pretty generic by fantasy standards – but still well done. What Stardust does that I find worth mentioning is how it handles the abusive relationship in the story. Oh yes, not everything is happy in the land of enchantment. Specifically the relationship between these two:
Tristan Thorn has grown up in a small town and seems to know most everybody. Problem is that he’s kind of a nobody. He’s not exactly the man to exude confidence or strength or anything like that – just more of your average nice guy. Then there is Victoria (Sienna Miller). Victoria is not as subtle a personality as Tristan. She is loud, center-stage and appears to adore being the center of attention. Case in point: she stands idly by and Tristan and another suitor, Humphrey (Henry Cavill – wait, seriously?) attempt to win her hand.
This right here could be opportunity to criticize Hollywood for yet another ditzy woman character who does not ever take an active role in her romantic life. Yet Victoria is not completely voiceless. She is not presented as the empty-headed “I don’t know what I should do” type. Instead, she is far more sinister.
The abusive relationship between Tristan and Victoria is more subtle than most plot point/character interactions in this movie. Victoria is not overtly evil. She has no dastardly plan designed to hurt Tristan. She is instead presented as immature – self-centered to be more specific. In the movie, the audience learns very quickly that Victoria is at the center of her world.
In a sequence near the beginning of the film, Victoria enters a shop to buy things. Tristan is manning that shop and there is already a very long line of customers waiting to be served. Victoria sees fit to use her advantage, Tristan’s infatuation with her, to bypass said line and be served immediately. Of course Tristan does it – the abusive relationship always needs a bully and a victim. The resulting action costs Tristan his job. Not to worry though, Victoria says she’s sorry about it the next time she sees him.
There are six main types of abuse that occur within relationships and Victoria appears to be using both emotional abuse as well as mental abuse. She is essentially keeping Tristan within her power. She knows she can make him do things by just using a few simple words. Is Tristan to blame for his behavior? Not really. True, he is a bit of a pushover (especially in the beginning) but that really is no excuse for Victoria to use him. It is the classic “dangling carrot” scenario. Anyone with a horse knows how this works: dangle a carrot on a rope in front of a horse. The horse will move forward to try and get the carrot. The carrot that Victoria is dangling in front of Tristan is quite simply – her.
For the entirety of the film’s opening half, many of Tristan’s actions are driven by the desires of Victoria. He is so desperate to “win her affections” that he will do just about anything to impress her. Granted, these actions by themselves do not mean abuse. Tristan could simply be a helpless romantic. It is that, like the horse with the carrot, Tristan has no chance of winning Victoria – but she is too busy enjoying using him to inform him of that, and he is too trapped to see it for himself.
Victoria wants to marry Humphrey, it is very obvious to everyone (except Tristan). Later in the film, after Tristan has left on his journey – a journey he only initially leaves on to impress Victoria – and met Yvaine (Claire Danes), he finally begins to learn what is it to have an actual relationship:
Yvaine: Tell me about Victoria, then.
Tristan: Well, she… she… There’s nothing more to tell you.
Yvaine: The little I know about love is that it’s unconditional. It’s not something you can buy.
Tristan: Hang on! This wasn’t about me buying her love. This was a way for me to prove to her how I felt.
Yvaine: Ah… And what’s she doing to prove how she feels about you?
Again, this lesson is very applicable to real life and I really feel that the movie should be applauded for having it. Too often in movies, abusive relationships are blown out of proportion for dramatic effect (Looking at you, Prince Hans). While many elements of Stardust are unbelievable, the movie has some very well written relationships. Tristan’s unhealthy attachment to Victoria can serve as a both a warning and a beacon of hope. He escapes the cycle and learns who he really is.
I will make one thing clear: I am not using this post to simply show how women can abuse men. This type of abusive relationship can occur between people of any gender. Stardust happens to showcase an abusive female, but that is not to say that it is only women who can mentally abuse other human beings.