Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault and domestic abuse in a way that may be distressing to some readers.
I met him at a local music venue. He paraded around with a sense of arrogance, giving off the vibe that he was too cool to be there, that you’d be lucky to get to know him. He read poetry in the smoking area between bands. Upon reflection, I wish I had realised what a total cliché he was. He was a poet, a musician, a tortured artist. His dirty blonde locks fell over his face. We exchanged niceties and spent the rest of the gig together, which led to the night, which led to the most tumultuous and damaging seven months of my life.
It felt like an instant connection, one that I desperately craved. I turned a blind eye to how quickly the relationship accelerated – why wouldn't I, when the person I’d met constantly flattered me and made me feel like I was the only one? For the first month, he would text me saying he missed me after an hour apart. He would tell me he'd never connected with anyone as much as he did with me. He would compliment me excessively, telling me how intelligent and beautiful I am, with a particular focus on my body. Never had I been with someone who validated my insecurities the way he did. It’s almost like he knew exactly what to say.
We spent near enough every second of every day together. He would encourage me to take the day off university or work and be with him instead. He wanted me all to himself, isolating me from my friends. I never questioned it — he made me feel so special. Then, one night about two months into our relationship, he confessed something which set the precedent for the rest of the relationship: he told me he was mourning the death of his ex-girlfriend. He told me she’d died by suicide. At the time, I had been dealing with mental health issues and suicidal ideation myself, so this struck a chord. He wanted me to help him and I felt as if it was my purpose to.
It wasn’t long after his confession that his behaviour changed. He began making sexual comments about other women and when I questioned it, he’d humiliate me and make me out to be 'crazy' or 'overly jealous'. After all, it’s always easier to scapegoat the mentally ill partner, right? He started to make fun of my outfits or selfies that I posted on Instagram. He became emotionally distant, the excessive compliments and praise stopped – it was like he was a completely different person. But I loved him so I held onto the way he made me feel when we first started dating. Surely he still felt the same way?
Around the same time, I visited his flat and his bedsheets were stained with blood. He told me that it was period blood from a girl he was seeing prior to me and had always been there, even though I was adamant that I’d never seen it before. He refused to change his bed until I finally gave him a new sheet. If this isn’t bizarre enough, he also started watching videos of people accidentally falling off buildings, finding them hilarious. I know all this must be setting off major alarm bells in your head and honestly, I wish it had in mine. But I could only imagine the pain he was in from losing a partner so young, and he made me believe I had the power to teach him how to love again. So I kept trying and turning a blind eye to all the red flags.
From the minimal interaction he had with my friends and family, the reception wasn’t great. My mother, who rarely dislikes anyone, told me she felt strange around him. My friends put up with him whenever we hung around in a group but never particularly liked him. I urged them to empathise; none of us had been in his position.
Around five months into our relationship, I knocked on his front door after he’d not been in contact for a couple of days, only to find him showing a girl out of his house. He told me nothing had happened but at that point I became sceptical. I was curious about his late ex-girlfriend, so I looked her up on Facebook and found a profile matching her exact name and description. I felt conflicted: how could someone lie about such a thing? I chose not to look further, and cut all contact with him.
This is when he began to call me from blocked numbers, sometimes 20 times a day. He would show up at my house unannounced. I ignored him, until one day I gave in. I forgave him, only for him to cheat on me again two weeks later. This was the final straw. I was heartbroken and couldn't process it all. I messaged his sister, telling her he was in a vulnerable mental state and was obviously still struggling with the death of his ex-girlfriend. I told him that I’d messaged his sister this, only for him to respond: "I can’t believe you actually thought she was dead, I meant dead as a metaphor. Like 'dead to me'. How did you not understand that?"
Silly me, not realising suicide was a 'metaphor'.
After this, my sense of reality became distorted and I began to question every aspect of my life. Maybe I had misheard him. Did I? Was I going insane?
I clarified with friends, who agreed that he had lied about the death of his ex-girlfriend – and then I was done. Yet I still question myself and have to remind myself that I didn’t get it wrong. That's gaslighting for you.
U.K.-based domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid says the main indicators of emotional abuse are a partner questioning your memory of events, trivialising your thoughts or feelings, and turning things around to blame you. A pattern of these behaviours, as well as those which intimidate, criticise, undermine or control an individual, are all major indicators of emotional abuse.
He made me question my own memory. He criticised things about me which, initially, he claimed to like. He undermined my thoughts and opinions. He humiliated me in front of others. He controlled how I spent my time. He never left me alone to heal – it took me moving cities and blocking him on every platform to recognise the relationship as abusive. But I got out. It was difficult, but I did it.
If you or anyone you know has experienced domestic violence and is in need of support, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), the National Sexual Assault Domestic Family Violence Service.