A few weeks ago, I met a man. He was nice in a way that gives considerable depth to the word “nice”. We had a million things in common, and found an easy way with each other immediately. He had a fulfilling job doing work he loved, lived nearby, and had ended a serious relationship long enough ago to be in just the right place to start a new one. There was chemistry. We talked, and exchanged contact information, which he availed himself of after a respectable few days. He wanted to meet for coffee, which I found a reason to decline; I was busy, or working, or something.
Within days, I quickly found myself rejecting his calls, and neglecting to reply to his texts and emails until I forgot to respond at all. As he showed himself to be open and pleasant and not playing games or pretending to not like me, I felt my internal opinion of him start to erode until, in my mind, he was a sad, pathetic, lonely person whose interest in me was purely a product of desperation. I had absolutely no basis for thinking this. But to me, he was merely desperate for love – it had nothing to do with me, he just wanted to love someone. He was “clearly” sad and fucked up. What had started as a promising spark of interest had fallen so quickly into passive condescension. The initial excitement I felt upon meeting him had been easily replaced by judgmental disinterest. I heard myself dismiss him to friends with casual blow-offs like, “Yeah, he seems nice but kinda lame” when, in reality, all I knew of him was that was intelligent, talented, and thought I was awesome and intelligent and talented.
I live with my ex-boyfriend. We broke up about a year ago without significant drama – neither of us was particularly fulfilled, and we recognized some fundamental incompatibilities, and made a reasonable decision to end our romantic relationship. We did, however, co-habitate quite well. I had always hated having roommates, but he was an especially good one. He took the trash out, and I organized our bill payments and rent. He was clean and cooked yummy food. It wasn’t a difficult decision to remain in the same house, and while it wasn’t the easiest thing to transition from lovers to friends, it wasn’t altogether that hard either. Before long, we were past our break-up sadness, and started dating new people. It felt healthy and comfortable, like we had figured out how to keep the functional parts of the relationship while freeing ourselves from the parts that didn’t work.
Around the same time I met Lame Not Lame Guy, my ex broke up with the girl he had been dating for several months. I was out with friends and he texted me with the news. He was upset. I came home quickly, and started saying all the things you say when a friend has been dumped and is sad: “She’s a rancid hell-beast! You’re better off! Fuck her life! She was never good enough! She wore metallic leggings on weekdays! Onward and upward!”
But my words of encouragement weren’t heard. He hadn’t been waiting up for me to talk.
It would’ve been understandable and forgivable if, in his sadness in the hours after being chucked by his girlfriend, he confusedly thought that he had renewed romantic feelings for me. It happens – you get dumped and you’re bummed and you convince yourself that maybe you were wrong to ever end things with the ex who is now you’re friend. You forgot what sucked about being with them, and in the moment, idealize your past romance and make a usually poor choice to try and rekindle something.
But that’s not what this was. This was an attempt to use me as a physical object of comfort. This was him not caring how our having sex, or even his attempt to have sex with me, would feel for me, or what it might do to the relationship we had worked so hard to maintain. This was him demonstrating that I mattered so little that it was permissible to use my body to make him feel good about himself for a few minutes. There was no love, no connection, no friendship, and no respect. As he made a sudden pass at me, I felt like a dirty ball of crumpled paper on the floor. I barely existed in his presence, and the way I did exist was as something far less whole and valid than human. The surprising part was in realizing that I had been feeling that way for a very long time. The surprising thing about that moment was rapidly understanding that not only did he see me as a dirty ball of crumpled paper, but that I had started to see myself the same way.
I won’t go into the long list of examples of ways he had made me feel exactly that way when we were together. There were the compromises he asked me to make, the parts of me he demanded I surrender in deference to his comfort. There were the times he had leveraged my love for him to get me to give up goals and things I cared deeply for, things that were intrinsic to who I was, because they made him uncomfortable. There were the promises of support that he made and never delivered on. There were a thousand moments of effort he didn’t make, and the message behind all of them that nothing about me mattered. There were worse things that had happened.
Suffice to say, all of that is largely why I decided to end our romantic relationship. I felt like my needs, and really my whole life, didn’t exist to him, or at least weren’t valued by him. In that moment, late at night in our shared living room, I realized that I had been so devalued by him for so long that I had forgotten it was wrong. When he wanted to have sex with me that night, my first instinct was to say yes – not because I wanted to, but because it felt…appropriate. It felt like what I was there to do. It felt okay that he wanted me to have sex with him without actually wanting me at all. He wanted to feel better and I was just a conduit of comfort. It was casual objectification and until that moment, I didn’t see how indoctrinated I had become to it.
And then I thought of that guy, the one I had convinced myself was pathetic for doing nothing more than seeing me as valuable. And then I just got it.
Physical abuse, as horrific as it is, is arguably easier to deal with than emotional abuse. You can see the damage, you can clearly identify when the blows come and where they land. You can watch the healing happen. You can put physical distance between yourself and your abuser, leave their fists behind, and watch the bruises fade and scars lighten. But emotional abuse, which is just as real and just as painful, is something altogether harder to recognize, easier to justify, more difficult to separate from – and the wounds are unable to be bandaged. The scars are harder to find and slower to heal. And too often, when we find ourselves in relationships – with lovers, family members, employers, or friends – that hurt us emotionally, we somehow find that just a little more tolerable.
It’s not fair that we find emotional abuse more acceptable for some reason. Maybe it’s because there is less media attention; without shocking photos of black eyes and blood and broken bones, psychological violence isn’t gory enough for people to want to write about it. It’s not entertaining enough. It’s a calm horror. And because it’s not as sensationalized in its media depiction, we aren’t as well-trained to identify and be outraged by it and immediately cut off the relationships where it thrives. Maybe we’re just programmed to accept hurt feelings more than damaged flesh. For whatever reason, victims of emotional abuse have a tendency to stick around and take the hits for longer.
And that’s when things get really bad – when you have someone in your life for enough time who treats you like you aren’t worth respecting and loving and taking care of, it starts to feel normal. It starts to feel like what you deserve. You stop remembering what it means to be regarded as the brilliant, tender, lovely being you are.
The real damage from letting someone convince you that you’re not worth anything doesn’t come from that relationship – it’s when it keeps you from having better relationships when the opportunity for them arises. When you accept something awful for long enough, you start forgetting that you should be demanding more. You stop, in fact, believing that something more can genuinely exist; if real love is offered, you are immediately skeptical and skittish. You reject it for its foreignness. You convince yourself that there must be some dark, ulterior motive to the offer of healthy love, because to believe that it’s real means to be forced to confront that you’ve been letting yourself suffer when there is a better option. Any suffering is more bearable if you forget that you have the option for anything else.
Because it will happen: You will meet someone who sees all the beauty and greatness in you that you’ve stopped seeing. But when someone like that seems to really care about you, no matter how amazing they seem on paper, just the fact that they like you at all makes you judge them. When you’ve been seeing yourself as an inferior, unlovable person for long enough, or someone has been telling you that for long enough, you can start to believe it on such a subconscious, engrained level, that if someone treats you like you’re better than that, you think there’s something wrong with them. Like, sure, they seem awesome and smart and cute and like a completely normal, kinda lovely person, but they like you? They aren’t playing games or being manipulative or standoffish or making you feel shitty and full of doubt? You start interpreting simple sweetness for desperate lameness. And it’s very likely that you don’t even realize that your judgment of them is actually a reflection of your own poor sense of self-worth.
And that’s how people who don’t think they’re worth anything – who have been made to feel worthless by people they love – end up either alone, or emotionally dependent on the very people who make them feel like they don’t deserve more. When you believe you’re not worth loving, and someone tries to care about you in a healthy, real way, you either think they’re pathetic and would love anyone, or you think they’re full of shit. That’s how, once your opinion of yourself has been taken low enough for long enough, you start rejecting the people who could actually love you in the correct way. You push away the people who could potentially, slowly start helping you remember how truly valuable you are.
Maybe this is how things get better. Perhaps now that the wound has been uncovered and identified, it can be repaired, and maybe where there currently exists raw, infected tissue, healing will happen and only a scar will remain. I hear scar tissue is stronger anyway.