My Whirlwind Romance Was Actually Something Much Darker

Photographed by Meg O'Donnell.
"I felt all grown up: I had this charming older boyfriend who wore winklepickers and paisley dressing gowns."
Kelly* was 21 when she met her 26-year-old boyfriend in a nightclub. He swept her up in a whirlwind romance and as she tells Refinery29, she was besotted. "He lived in his family’s second property, with a fountain and French doors. I lost my virginity on his sheepskin rug, around a fire, with music playing. After sex, he’d gaze at me, tell me how wonderful I was and how my mother didn’t appreciate me. He’d bring home oysters and scallops, and we’d have luxurious feasts. He was so adoring, couldn’t do enough for me and wanted me to move in," she says. 
The whirlwind romance is nothing new: two people meet and fall in love almost instantly, believing they’ve found a life partner. Relationship milestones like moving in together or getting engaged happen rapidly – almost in a 'whirlwind'. You can find this trope all over popular culture, from Disney heiresses shacking up with beasts, princes and peasant boys to the reality shows of today. The most popular reality TV show of recent times, Love Island, is the modern incarnation of a whirlwind romance: new couples spend every day together for eight weeks, moving in with each other immediately afterwards. See also Married At First Sight, where couples skip the business of a relationship altogether, meeting for the first time at the altar. 
The whirlwind romance narrative is prolific and although we’d prefer to think we’re immune to fairy tales and pop culture’s archetypes of love, we don’t exist in a vacuum. Somehow, the whirlwind romance trope seeps into how many of us operate in real-life relationships. Yet the reality is that emotionally intense, whirlwind romances aren’t always healthy, and can have potentially dangerous consequences.
Within three months, Kelly's boyfriend had exploited her tense relationship with her mother and, together with the financial generosity that implied an environment of safety and care, encouraged her to move in with him. "At first, everything felt sparkly and beautiful: like true love to last a lifetime. He pursued me, I was a prize to be won. Unfortunately, I saw how quickly it turned once he’d got me from under my mother’s roof," she says. He showered Kelly with affection while planting seeds of doubt about her friends, saying that they had made a pass at him or remarks behind her back. "I couldn’t see he was trying to isolate me. When I moved in, the whirlwind romance became a cyclone of destruction." 
Over the next eight months, he gradually gained more control. In time, Kelly was only allowed to leave the house to go to university or the shops. "He insisted I put my Christmas gift under the tree at Mum's to open it. It was a red, crotchless G-string: a middle finger to Mum, deliberately geared to hurt, embarrass and manipulate," she says.  
Typically in whirlwind romances, couples spend a lot of time together in a short space of time and there can be excessive gift-giving or spending. Then there’s a whole host of complicated hormones cascading around the brain and body. Worryingly, the lavish gifts and excessive compliments that may come with a whirlwind romance are also hallmarks of love bombing – the attempt to gain control over a person through intense adoration – making it difficult to tell the two apart. Speeding up the milestone of moving in together can be particularly critical if done with malicious intent: it can be a manipulation tactic used by abusers to isolate women from their support networks.
Soph* was 25 when she met her 25-year-old boyfriend on Tinder. Their whirlwind relationship also began with romantic gestures, moving in together quickly and isolating her from family and friends. However, his abuse became financial instead of physical. In the first month of the relationship, they spent every day together and he moved into her shared house. After four months, they rented their own place. "When we met, he was staying with a friend as he’d just arrived in the city. He moved in and we struck a deal with my housemates about the rent. He slowly turned me against them. By the time we moved out, I was estranged from them," Soph says. 
"Within two weeks, he’d told me he loved me and taken me to three Michelin star restaurants. Three months in, for my birthday, he rented a Cadillac and driver to ferry us around a vineyard."
The danger is that getting to know someone in a short space of time creates a false sense of emotional and physical intimacy. Firstly, it gives you the sense of knowing this person better than you really do; secondly, physical intimacy releases neurotransmitters such as dopamine and oxytocin, creating pleasurable bodily sensations and contributing to a glowing perception of your partner as trustworthy. This allows for an environment in which red flags are more easily bypassed and abusers can gain trust. 
It can be hard to grasp which aspects of the relationship are healthy romantic gestures and which are red flags but one way of distinguishing between the two is by assessing who is pulling the strings. Holly Roberts, a counsellor at Relate, says that control usually ebbs and flows in most relationships but when things move very quickly and control is dominated by one person it might be cause for concern. "The signs are quite subtle; this kind of abuse is not physical. It involves repeated patterns of behaviour that are degrading, belittling, humiliating and intimidating," she says. 
Breaking down the stigma of shame is crucial. The crumbling away of everything you believed to be true can cause uncomfortable emotions to arise. You may feel foolish, that you’ve been naive and missed the red flags but as Holly tells Refinery29, this can happen to anyone. "Relationships like this can feel really safe to start with. An abusive partner will work hard to gain your trust so that you will forgive them for anything," she says. Holly recommends enlisting your support network and external forces in recognising coercive control, especially as moving in together early in the relationship can be an abusive tactic to isolate you from your community. "Use your friends and loved ones to help you keep a check on things, or speak to a counsellor." 
Breaking through the isolation is hard but not impossible. Kelly was able to reach out to her mother when her boyfriend became physically abusive. "I’d lost all my friends but I had Mum. I asked: 'Can I come home?' She replied: 'You can always come home.'" 
Soph got out, too. Her breaking point came when he refused to attend her birthday dinner just after her grandmother passed. "He labelled me a controlling psycho for wanting him there: it was worlds apart from my first birthday with him. Now, I’m an advocate for taking it slowly. At the time, everything felt circumstantial, but he was pulling the strings," she says.
Kelly, now 45, and Soph, now 32, are sharing their stories in the hope of encouraging others to try to establish the truth of a person before taking important steps such as moving in together. They hope to give others the tools to spot the signs of abuse, both in dating and later in the relationship. 
Ruth Davison, CEO of Refuge, says education is an important tool in recognising domestic abuse. "The first thing survivors calling our National Domestic Abuse Helpline usually say is 'I’m not sure if I’m being abused…but I don’t think my relationship is right.' We need to understand what healthy relationships are so when abusive behaviours occur they are noticed and understood." 
The similarities between whirlwind romances and love bombing can make it difficult to discern potentially troubling or abusive behaviour. If a relationship moves too quickly, and control is unknowingly unfairly distributed, moving in with their partner can leave a victim isolated and vulnerable to emotional and financial control.
Relate suggests a good starting point to identify whether you’re experiencing coercive control is to ask yourself:
– Did the relationship feel safe to start, but something’s changed?
– Does your partner praise and say kind words about and to you, or do they berate you for their own mistakes and bad behaviour?
– Is there excessive jealousy, for instance they dislike you having your own friends?
– Do you feel frightened, isolated and cut off from support?
Additionally, there are great resources like Charlie’s Toolbox, a platform dedicated to providing women with the tools to centre themselves and de-centre men when dating. It focuses on everything from healthy infatuation vs obsession to the risks of moving too quickly.
*Name has been changed to protect identity

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, please call the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247.

More from Relationships

R29 Original Series