Two abusive relationships have helped me prevent a third. Jealousy, pervasive criticism and over-the-top reactions were three of the warning signs that made me abandon this sinking relationship.
He made his jealousy my problem
A little jealousy is normal in any relationship. If you’ve found someone great, you hate the thought of losing them, right? Healthy people deal with their jealous feelings: they don’t use it to try to get their partner to change their behaviour. Stewart* showed no signs of jealousy in the early days. He liked that I dressed up, enjoyed ‘showing me off’ to his friends. But as the relationship progressed, I saw a different side. Here’s three examples:
- I thought one of his pals was a nice guy, but he played a bit hard and loose with women. Wrong! This friend was, apparently, a cynical reprobate that Stewart’s ex girlfriend wouldn’t share airspace with. He was covering up his sleazy intentions so he could make a move on me at a later point. He didn’t trust this friend, so neither should I. I was a poor judge of character. I should un-learn my habit of always seeing the good in people.
- I’d called by his friend’s house one evening to pick Stewart up. When I entered the kitchen, one of the group grabbed my hand and asked for a kiss, trying to pull me in. I stepped back, firing off what I thought was a witty comeback and then moved on without a fuss. The world didn’t end. His disrespectful pal realised he’d overstepped the mark and shut up. Stewart, however, immediately ushered me to the other side of the room, arm draped over my shoulder. Later that night, he spent almost an hour criticising my handling of the situation. Apparently, I should’ve punched his friend in the face to demonstrate that I wouldn’t accept inappropriate touching.
- After a party, Stewart and I had gone to another couple’s house. This friend had had a fight with his girlfriend, who was sulking upstairs. Ever the peace-maker, I tried to persuade the downhearted bloke to go make it up with his girl. He seized the opportunity to pump me for relationship advice, which was pretty amusing given my personal circumstances! As he slid closer on the coach, Stewart returned to the room with a face like the proverbial thunder. The friend was instructed to go out to the yard for a discussion, that instant. The unfortunate friend came back in, red-faced, and has never looked me in the eye since. Dissecting the events the next morning, Stewart told me his friend had previously made a move on his ex (oops, there she is again!) and therefore was not to be trusted. I received a protracted lecture on not being so trusting.
This developed to the point where I became uncomfortable being around his friends, and said so. It was a sore point, as Stewart wanted us to spend a lot of time with them. Stalemate. Instead of addressing the causes for his insecurity, Stewart chose to try to make me responsible for his feelings. I knew that the references to his ex were manipulative, designed to get me to change my behaviour in line with his expectations.
His possessiveness even extended to my interactions with females. If I spent too long talking to someone out of earshot, he’d want a detailed account of what we discussed. Those conversations almost always wound up in a warning from him that the woman in question was, of course, not to be trusted. It also turned out that any time spent with my family was an ordeal for him to endure, and so special occasions became a stressful time as I worried about whether he’d show up, leave early, or make me miserable about it afterward.
I couldn’t help but remember that abusive individuals rely on isolating their targets, and wondered if maybe this was the path we were stumbling along. And, having escaped a relationship where extreme jealousy governed my life, I wasn’t about to sign-on for more.
Healthy, constructive criticism is A-Okay with me. I like to learn. I like people to help me improve, to grow, to make my life better. What I don’t respond well to is pervasive criticism that is designed to undermine, yet cloaked in the guise of ‘being helpful’. Stewart wasn’t a parent, but soon expressed views about my parenting style. At first, this seemed positive – as a single mother embarking on a new relationship, I welcomed his opinions and that he wanted to get involved. At the same time, I communicated a clear boundary: I knew how I wanted my son raised, and I also knew what worked best for my son and I.
In time, Stewart became increasingly insistent that he was right and accused me of being defensive any time I tried to put my point of view forward. He did not respect the boundary I’d laid out, which is another of my early warning signs of burgeoning domestic abuse.
Then Stewart ‘casually’ mentioned that one of his friends had recently left his wife because she didn’t listen to his views on parenting their child. I put this comment into a box marked ‘Thinly Veiled Threats’ and from that point tried to end conversations about parenting the moment he began to get heated. Many of our conversations ended up like this:
Stewart: “You’re too defensive. You don’t listen.”
Me: “You’re attacking me, so I’m defending myself. I’m not talking to you about this anymore.”
Still, he regularly found something to criticise and would sometimes go on for hours, whether I contributed to the discussion or sat in silence. One of these sessions revolved around my attitude to his dog. Some days, he told me I was giving the dog – who I enjoyed petting and playing with – too much attention. He’d tell me to stop, or send the dog to bed. This particular day, I’d apparently been “dismissive” to the dog. I was close to tears as I realised I didn’t know how he wanted me to behave with his precious pooch!
Listening and apologising
The longest lecture lasted three hours forty minutes. His favourite word was ‘listen’. Despite this, he continually said he never felt heard by me. He knew that I’d been in abusive relationships previously, and – though he was initially supportive and understanding – in time used this as an excuse to invalidate my feelings and viewpoint. I was not upset because he was behaving badly, he’d tell me, but because I was over-sensitive as a result of my past. When I refused to go with him to visit his friend, a therapist, he went and discussed my history with her anyway. Of course, her conclusions matched his own! I lost faith that the things I shared with him would remain private. I closed up.
I also noticed I was spending a lot of time apologising to smooth over a row, watching what I said and how I said it, or feeling like an unruly teenager being lectured by a parent. I could no longer ignore that the situation reminded of the abusive relationships I’d had in the past.
As we spent more time together, instances where Stewart would over-react to small things mounted up. For example, my ‘happy clicking’ on a computer programme that wouldn’t open led to a massive diatribe from him of all the irritating things I did. I rinsed the detergent from the dishes after washing them: that wasted water. He had found a morsel of half-chewed garlic bread down the back of his sofa (my toddler had visited for dinner!). My stuff was all over his living room whenever I stayed over. I sometimes fell over in high heels.
In general, I annoyed the hell out of him!
Confused as to how his gigantic outburst had arisen, I couldn’t wait to get away from him and we broke up for a couple of weeks. Though this was the first breakup I’d ever had where garlic bread had been prominently featured, this episode was one of several splits over our six-month relationship.
We got back together, but things didn’t improve. To Stewart, this conflict and break-up cycle was normal, even in a new relationship like ours. Me, I was all kinds of uncomfortable – the jealousy and destructive criticism was making me unhappy. I didn’t want to be around him, looked for excuses to avoid our dates
I decided to end it. It wasn’t the most pleasant conversation I’d ever had, but when it was done, I felt a weight lift off my shoulders, and as Taylor Swift’s Blank Space played out on the radio with ironic timing, I couldn’t help but smile.
I’ll never know if this relationship would have turned from toxic to dangerous, but I am happy I had confidence in my judgement. All I’ve learned about the dynamics of abuse helped me close the door on a relationship that was slowly leaching away my hard-won joy.
If you’re in a new relationship and feel something’s not right: you’re probably right. Trust your instincts. Hit the exit. Life is too short to be unhappy. So go be happy!
* Not his real name.
** Featured photo by Fortune Cookie.
Has your knowledge of domestic abuse caused you to end a new relationship? What were the red flags that you spotted? SHARE in the Comments!