Have you ever heard the analogy of the frog in the pot of boiling water? The frog hops into a pot of water on the stove, and it’s lukewarm and feels nice so he stays in. But over time the water grows hotter and hotter, and dangerously so, yet the change is so gradual the frog doesn’t even notice. Eventually the frog boils to death, not because he couldn’t get out, but because the rising temperature was so gradual that he never even felt the danger.
Abusive relationships are a lot like that.
I once started dating a guy who wanted to be with me all the time, who was jealous of other guys, who made me feel incredibly special. I had just come out of a relationship where I had essentially been used and discarded, so this kind of devoted attention from someone felt really good. I knew he would never reject me. In fact I wasn’t even sure he could live without me. I was wanted and needed and for a while, it felt like healing of all the hurt places inside me.
But over time, things slowly began to intensify. His attention, as well as what was once a jealousy that I found flattering, turned into downright paranoia. The anger that was at first only directed at others slowly began to turn towards me. He would yell at me on a regular basis for little offenses (often things I hadn’t done on purpose) and I found myself figuratively tip-toeing around his emotional land mines in the hopes of keeping the peace. One summer we were separated by an hour and a half, and I would drive to visit him with a knot in my stomach knowing that if I was ten minutes later than I said I would be, he would blow up.
I knew enough about his family life to know that he had his reasons for paranoia, and I tried to be understanding about it. I believed that he sincerely loved me, and we still had a lot of fun together much of the time. So although it never felt exactly healthy, it didn’t set off too many alarms in my head either. After all, I couldn’t imagine him ever actually hitting me, and wasn’t that what abuse was all about?
But again, the emotional temperatures kept rising. There were incidents where his physicality made me uncomfortable: too rough with my little brother when he was annoyed, too rough with our puppy after a potty training accident. He still had never hit me, but when I looked 10 years down the road, I was no longer confident that it wouldn’t happen. His anger problem was taking a toll on my mental health, and much of my time and choices revolved around trying to avoid being yelled at. The night we got into a dramatic public yelling match over something that should have just been laughed off, I began to realize that I didn’t want to live my life this way.
Ending the relationship was really hard to do. We went back and forth for a little while; it was far from a clean break. Ultimately I decided to move cities, and to move back in with my parents. To this day, I still think I might not have been able to sever the ties had I stayed in town. We had too intimate of a connection. He made me feel too needed, and I liked that feeling too much.
After we broke up for good I was able to acknowledge that the relationship was emotionally abusive. I never wanted to say that before because my boyfriend wasn’t a bad person. I still don’t think he was. He had a lot of goodness in him and I have some sweet memories along with the bad ones. No one is perfect and he is certainly not a villain. But what I realized is that saying a relationship is bad is not the same thing as saying the person is bad. I loved and cared about him a lot, but I simply learned I had to care for myself more.