The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I broke up with my abusive boyfriend. But the pain remained.


I have no bruises.

That’s what I would tell myself when my therapist described my first romantic relationship as emotionally abusive.

I couldn’t say that word “abuse” out loud. I didn’t want to be a victim; I wanted it to be as simple as having made a poor choice in a partner. I didn’t know how to hold him equally responsible. I would rather blame myself than admit that his behavior toward me was wrong.

We’re told to not hold new partners accountable for the transgressions of the past. That’s a sound philosophy. But what if your wounds are so hidden that you don’t even realize the baggage you’re carrying?

Here’s mine: I spent a couple of years with an unfaithful man who fed me a steady diet of emotional abuse. He made me believe that his hurtful actions were caused by my inability to give him exactly what he needed. He made me believe I was smaller than him. He joked I wasn’t talented enough to be a published writer. My ambitions and dreams were worthy of his mocking, but his lofty aspirations were untouchable. Never mind that he never attempted to achieve them, I was still supposed to — and did — offer unwavering support.

Always trying to please him or have my creative ideas taken seriously meant that, for me, our relationship ranged from heartbreaking despair to incredible elation with no middle ground.

Emotional abuse is sneaky. After being with him, I had no context for what love or hurt felt like in a healthy relationship. What I had thought was love in actuality had been all hurt. We had intermittent moments of calm between bouts when he would disappear for days then show up on my doorstep and beg for forgiveness. He’d tell me I was the love of his life; then pretend he had a business trip and turn his phone off for days (which turned out to be him taking another woman to Aruba).

He repeatedly told half-truths and outright lies. He manipulated my emotions so that I constantly felt confused and paranoid that I wasn’t doing enough to be the kind of partner he needed and deserved. Every breach of my trust was glossed over with grand proclamations of love and need, culminating in the always tearful yet smoothly delivered “please don’t leave me, Danielle.”

Even after we broke up, our time together left me with an inaccurate baseline for how a relationship is supposed to feel. It wasn’t until years later that I could look back and see that I wasn’t ever happy with him. I was young, and I didn’t know what I deserved. I let physical attraction and my yearning to fall in love cloud my judgment.

After we broke up, I wanted to believe I left him — and the damage he’d wrought — behind. But moving on from an abusive relationship isn’t that easy.

Going forward, any guy who did something even slightly in the red-flag arena was immediately cut off. No second chances. No explanations. It felt gratifying, like a powerful move to never again end up with someone like my ex. But when a guy didn’t inspire the intense emotion I was used to, I immediately and erroneously wrote him off as boring.

It took me at least five years to realize how tainted words had become. I had trouble spotting sincerity. When a guy told me he loved me, I would panic and sometimes run away altogether. I didn’t trust that this new person meant what he said. After all, my ex had said “I love you” over and over, yet he continued to mistreat me. I was terrified of ending up in a similarly abusive situation.

By now I’ve learned that finding and keeping love isn’t contingent on me remaining small. That I don’t need to tolerate a partner’s every whim to prove my devotion. That I deserve so much more.

And I do have bruises. It just took me a while to admit they were there.


I get my best relationship advice from my ex-boyfriend

He wasn’t my boyfriend. But it still hurt like hell when it ended.

Why is it so hard to recognize domestic abuse in same-sex relationships?