*TRIGGER WARNING: This article mentions abuse and self-harm. It is not suggested if you are uncomfortable with either of these topics.
*Several names and events have been changed to protect those involved in this article.
I remember my mother telling me phrases such as love is blind when I first started going out with boys. She had always taught me to be independent, and to put myself first. With stories of her own past heartbreaks and cautionary tales, I laughed at my middle school friends who doted over their boyfriends’ every move. As I progressed in to high school, I didn’t understand how obsessive my friends became over their partners. Whenever I called them out on skipping movie night for a date, they shook their fingers and told me when I had a boyfriend of my own I would understand.
I wonder if that was why I put up with everything that I did. See, I was known by my friends as the girl who was always single. Sure, I had been on plenty of dates, but they never led anywhere. I valued my grades and future, so as soon as any guy began to seem too interested, I politely broke off the potential relationship. I had seen so many of my friends change their interests and even dream colleges for some pimple-faced, skinny jean jerks, and I didn’t want to be a statistic of naïve girlfriends devoting their lives to a high school boyfriend.
The problem with me not allowing myself to get close to any guys in high school beyond friend-status was that I had never been in any long-term relationships. I didn’t fear commitment, I just feared being controlled. I felt like I was too extroverted to be anyone’s girlfriend; I had strong values and voiced a lot of controversial opinions. I didn’t see myself as what my guy friends tended to call wifey material, and I didn’t plan on making anyone else a main priority.
My friends told me the stars must have collided, because soon after swearing off dating entirely, I met my boyfriend, T*. Most of the people I hung around were guys, so I assumed every man on Earth was a burping, belching, sports fanatic who still rated women on a 1 to 10 scale. T was completely different than anyone I had ever met. In fact, we were polar opposites. I was the extroverted writer always surrounded by a handful of equally as social friends, while T was in a band and ate lunch outside by himself every day. Through a series of coincidences and awkward messages on T’s part, he finally got the nerve to ask me on a date.
The beginning stage of our friendship was great. The dates I had gone on before would have made some great hidden camera footage. While I was used to being asked out to a bar where I would sulk in the corner while my date showed me how many beers he could shotgun and then cry about his ex in the parking lot (see what I mean?), T took me to the movies. When he walked me to my door, he didn’t try to pull anything sly.
In fact, every date we went on for the next few months made me feel like he was courting me. I met his friends. I had dinner with his parents. T never tried to get physically close to me, which made me feel respected and valued. And as we spent more time together, I began to pick up on little quirky habits he had. Unfortunately, I now know these traits to be red flags in a new relationship, which I will explain later.
After several months of being courted, T finally asked me to be his girlfriend. I was ecstatic because not only would we be exclusive, but now I assumed T would start doing sweet boyfriend things. But I was so wrong. As soon as I agreed to be his girlfriend, T’s demeanor changed entirely. He told me straight-up that he didn’t like doing intimate things in public. It crushed my spirit and ego a little, but I told him I wouldn’t want to make him uncomfortable.
When I went home to tell my parents, they were both less than excited. Usually both of them loved meddling in my business; especially my dad who I believed prided himself in driving my suitors away. What struck me as odd was that my mom immediately asked, “Are you sure this is what you want?” I didn’t understand. This was a woman who got frustrated when I wouldn’t flirt with a McDonald’s cashier because he looked like a good, Southern gentleman.
Things only became stranger from there. T started to plan out our entire future. He wanted to move in with me three days in to dating him. Two weeks later, he was telling me that he loved me. However, we hadn’t even kissed yet, and I felt like things were moving too emotionally fast. Part of me dreaded to see T every day because I was afraid he would bring up a future life together, and I had to explain to my boyfriend that I didn’t like him THAT much just yet.
After actually skipping some of my classes to avoid him, my mom told me to get a grip and confront him. When I did, T’s odd behavior started to make sense. He admitted to me that he had a slew of mental illnesses. He was bipolar, depressed, and had an eating disorder. While I just thought T was moody and skinny, he was actually hiding several secrets about his past. As the conversation droned on, I learned about past abuse in his family as well. And as he started to cry, I felt utterly trapped. I told him I wanted to help him get better, but he ended up using that against me.
The next several months of my life became a hell of guilt and fear. Any time I told T that I didn’t want him planning our future, he would burst in to tears and tell me he was afraid of being abandoned like his mother had done to him. He became extremely jealous, and wanted to know where I was all the time. Any time I would shut off my phone to just be away for a few hours, he would start to call my friends and family to see where I was. And if I got mad, T would just tell me he was feeling depressed and didn’t know what he would do without me.
My boyfriend knew exactly how to keep me from leaving. I stopped hanging out with friends because I knew if I didn’t go over to T’s house that afternoon he would be sitting alone in his room and become more depressed. If I hung out with my guy friends, T would tell me how he wasn’t good enough for me and was afraid I was leaving him, which in turn made him so sick he couldn’t eat. Everything was always my fault, except the consequences of me getting upset were that he would skip his meals or wallow in so much pity he claimed he was afraid of what he’d do to himself.
The wake-up call for me was when T began to self-harm. We got in to our first fight when I confronted him about never seeking professional help yet, and T began to give me his list of excuses. He said his family would hate him, and that he had no idea how to seek help without anyone knowing he had begun hurting himself. That was a surprise to me, because I had no idea he had been doing that for quite some time.
I had to admit to T that I did not feel comfortable being his girlfriend anymore. Even though T made snide remarks like me leaving would only make his problems worse, I put on a brave face and told him that I would help him get better without dating him.
T admitted that his motives were to eventually win me back. While I had no real plans to date him again, I still tried to be there platonically. I did a number of things for T to seek help, and for a while he was doing them. T began going to therapy once a week and taking daily medication for his bipolar disorder. But as I began to put distance between us and focus on friends and family, T completely fell off the bandwagon.
Late one night I received a garbled, frantic call from T that he was in the process of commiting suicide just days after breaking up with him. If I could describe what that felt like I would, but then again I never want anyone to feel that kind of pain.
I will tell you firsthand that breaking up with someone who has a mental illness is the hardest thing a person can ever do. You want to be there for them, but you have to learn to put yourself first.
After some intensive therapy and a lengthy hospital stay, T was released and sent back to school. Even after I cut off all communication with T, he still tried to stalk me. He was blowing up my friends’ and family’s phones trying to see where I was. He told me I had abandoned him. I was his only friend. He hated me. He loved me. He was going to get better. He was so much worse without me. Everyday he seemed to feel differently about me, and for months I would find out he was looking at my social media and spreading awful rumors about how I handled our break-up.
The lesson I had to learn from all this is that people need to love themselves before they love someone else, and you are never obligated to “fix” anyone. The truth about why my friends and family never liked him slowly came to surface, and I began to realize I was in an emotionally abusive relationship. For anyone else dating someone they think is trying to control them, you need to know that it will only get better AFTER you’ve parted ways.
What is an Emotionally Abusive Relationship?
An emotionally abusive relationship is any relationship where a partner uses verbal assault, fear, or humiliation to undermine the other person’s self-esteem and self-worth. Unlike a physically abusive relationship, the scars of the victim can usually be found in the form of a deteriorating mental health. The abuser uses manipulation to make their partner feel at fault for all the issues of the relationship, and fear to keep them from leaving.
Signs of emotional abuse can be:
- Accusing/blaming – Does your partner deny their own shortcomings? Do they refuse to take responsibility for their own problems? Do they have trouble apologizing? Do they make excuses for their own behavior? Do they become extremely sensitive when made fun of or responding to what they deem to be a lack of respect?
- Emotional distancing – Do they not protect your personal boundaries and share information that you have not approved? Do they require continual contact and haven’t developed a healthy support network among their own peers? Do they play the victim to deflect blame on to you for their own actions? Do they use the silent treatment instead of communicating concerns?
- Control/shame – Do they often chastise you that your behavior is “inappropriate?” Do they belittle your accomplishments and goals? Do they give you condescending comments because they think they know what is best? Do they make you feel guilty?
- Humiliation – Do they say your feelings are “wrong?” Do they tease you or use sarcasm to put you down? Do they tell you that you’re being too sensitive?
I remember when my boyfriend told me he didn’t want to discuss the future if I wouldn’t include him in it, and I thought that was a completely reasonable demand. Now I realize that he didn’t want to hear about my aspirations. My boyfriend would rather have me talk about a future where he was guaranteed to still have me wrapped around his finger as opposed to my plans to study abroad or move to the city.
Dating Someone Who is Mentally Ill
Dating someone with a mental illness is much different than dating someone who does not have depression or bipolar disorder. It requires research and lots of patience. And while it should never deter you from being in a relationship with that person, you should know about the effects of their illness.
Some important tips for dating someone with a mental illness:
- Research their illness and its effects. Recognize when your partner is exhibiting these effects, such as moodiness, disassociation, and out-of-character behaviors.
- Their mental illness is not an excuse for abuse. Someone who inflicts pain upon themselves or yourself because they want your attention is not love. If they loved you, they would care about your own mental health and wellbeing. As hard as it may be, you need to walk away from someone who uses their mental illness as a reason for constantly belittling you or putting you in situations you are not comfortable with.
- You are not responsible for their recovery. I cannot stress this enough. If at any point your partner begins to say the things that my boyfriend did such as I don’t know how bad my depression would be without you, it is a major red flag. They can be grateful for your love and support, but should not become dependent on it.
And most importantly:
- MAKE SURE THEY ARE ACTIVELY RECEIVING TREATMENT. Not everyone with a mental illness needs medication, but many do. If they are refusing to seek professional help, they do not have either of your best interests in mind. They may feel better off of medicine or uncomfortable speaking to a therapist, but if they are showing signs of destructive behaviors, it is not your job to play the role of caregiver.
Dating Someone If You Have a Mental Illness
No, having a mental illness does NOT make you unlovable. However, not everyone is mature enough or educated enough to handle someone who does. If you are not open and honest about your mental illness, you cannot have a healthy relationship.
If my boyfriend would have been upfront about his bipolar disorder and depression, I would have been able to get him the help he needed sooner, and understood his constant moodiness. Additionally, if I was someone who did not feel comfortable handling his illness, I could have walked away before we both got hurt.
As someone with mental illness, you cannot just expect your partner to understand. If they say they do not want to date you because of it, consider it from their point of view. Did your partner at one point have a mental illness and does not want to relapse? Did they lose someone close to them who had a mental illness? You cannot assume that they just don’t want to deal with you, and forcing them to would be selfish.
If you have a mental illness and want to date a new partner, here are some tips:
- Be upfront about your mental illness. You do not have to go in to detail, but just enough so that your partner understands that some of your behaviors will not always be what they would consider as normal.
- Let them know you are receiving treatment or are seeking treatment currently. If you are not willing to better yourself, you will not have a healthy relationship.
- Do not be unreasonable with how much attention you need. If either of you need space, both of you should respect that. Cutting yourself off from your partner or relying on them entirely are both manipulative behaviors. If you are afraid of harming yourself or others, you need to seek professional help rather than the comfort of a partner with no experience in mental illness.
If you are currently in an abusive relationship, you deserve to get help. No one should make you feel like you deserve nothing less than a happy, fulfilled life.
Here are some resources for abuse victims:
- RAINN: Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network: (800) 656-HOPE (4673)
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE)
- And as always, if it is an immediate emergency, dial 911
Do not be afraid to talk to a trusted family member or friend, or even seek therapy after leaving an abusive relationship.
Most Important Advice
The weeks right after T attempted suicide, I began to feel a flood of guilt. For almost a month I refused to leave my room or talk to anyone who weren’t my parents because I feared they would bring him up (which they always did). I lost a massive amount of weight and only went outside to run errands and attend classes. My family became extremely concerned for my own mental health, and constantly told me that no matter what my boyfriend said, his decision to harm himself was not my fault, and that distancing myself was healthy.
I didn’t believe them until I was browsing the internet and stumbled upon a quote. This quote is now hung up in my room for me to read everyday, and give me peace of mind. It is hard for other people to understand what it is like leaving someone in pain, and ignoring the titles of selfish and conceited when you know they haven’t heard your side of the story. For a long time I felt like if I would have been a better, more understanding girlfriend, T would have gotten help sooner and none of this would have happened. But then I read this, and everything changed:
“Just because your pain is understandable, doesn’t mean your behavior is acceptable.” – Steve Maraboli, Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience
I realized that just because my boyfriend was suffering from mental illness it did not give him the right to emotionally abuse me. I have a right to happiness, and so do you.
Anyone can become an abuser, but that also means anyone can walk away as a survivor.
EDIT FROM THE WRITER: This was written when I was a freshman in college. It has been nearly two years and I promise you life gets so much better.
Bogdanos, Maria. “Signs of Emotional Abuse.” World of Psychology. PsychCentral, 2013. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.
Feuerman, Marni. “21 Warning Signs of an Emotionally Abusive Relationship.” World of Psychology. YourTango, 24 Oct. 2014. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.
Velez, Adriana. “15 Signs You’re in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship.” The Stir. The Stir, n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.