Being in a controlling relationship does not happen to you overnight. It isn’t like you go on a first date with a guy and he says, "I would like to date you under the condition that you follow all of my conditions." That’s not how it happens; it’s gradual and riddled with red flags. That’s why a controlling relationship can be such a source of shame. You give in to an elusive lover, bit by bit, until you no longer recognize yourself. I was attracted to Devin* because he was handsome and charming. I mean, yes, he did wear a fedora, which should have been red flag number one, but he was so suave that it seemed like he was the only person who could pull it off. We met when we were both actors in the same show, and much to my surprise and delight, he seemed into me. A guy this handsome and with a good job had never shown interest in me before. I fell for it. We started hanging out before and after shows. Never mind that sometimes during the week I would text him and get no response for 48 hours, because sometimes he "just turns his phone off." Mysterious, I thought — but that should have been red flag number two. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was one of the many ways he attempted to exert power over me. As things got serious, his control intensified. Once I became his girlfriend, he felt he had the right to constantly critique me under the guise of helping me improve myself. I even stopped wearing jeans after he said they didn't "do my ass any favors." When I expressed negative feelings or felt under the weather, he told me I was "ruining our day." I later learned that this is a tactic used by controlling partners to make someone feel bad about their needs and deplete their self-worth. If I felt constantly unworthy, then I would never leave him, because I wouldn’t feel good enough for someone else — or even myself. He also withheld sex as a punishment, which is another common sign of emotional abuse. Withholding physical intimacy is a way to manipulate someone into doing what you want. I did anything to gain back his affection, including take his verbal beatings — he’d tell me that he wished I were taller or tanner, and he’d call me "too emotional to trust" — as well as his long bouts of the silent treatment. Sex meant everything was okay again, that he loved me. I put up with this because I loved him — and because he had conveniently isolated me from all of my friends and the activities I enjoyed, convincing me to drop things that I was "better than." Why do you hang out with so-and-so when you complain about her? Why do you work at a job that disrespects you? Why do you waste your time performing improv? Let’s break those things down: He objected to the way I made money, he objected to my lifelong friends, and he objected to activities that gave me an outlet for expression.
I put up with this because I loved him — and because he had conveniently isolated me from all of my friends and the activities I enjoyed.
I know now that all of his actions are considered signs of a controlling relationship. Every last one. Constant criticism, conditions on affection, punishments, isolating someone from friends and family, making someone "earn" affection — those were all factors that kept our relationship running under the guise of "love." It went on like this for a year, even as I began to recognize that this was a toxic relationship. It was only when he was hired to work as an actor on a cruise ship that I began to see my way out. The period of time before he shipped out saw the worst depression I've ever experienced, because I knew — absolutely — that this relationship was destroying me. He had quit his day job and quickly went through all of his money, so I let him move into my studio apartment to save him rent. I silently acquiesced to his needs and told myself that this was what I deserved. Maybe the worst part was that I stopped performing almost entirely, because he harshly judged every performance I did and would punish me when he felt I "could do better." This made me feel like I was just performing for his approval. Luckily, I was still allowed to write, because it meant I stayed home "waiting" for him. Writing was all I had that was mine. Everything else in my life was supposed to belong to him. I was supposed to bow down before his every desire. The day he left, I didn’t miss him. I relished my newfound freedom by rekindling my friendships that I had let slip away. I went out. I relaxed. But I wasn’t yet free. Devin required me to check in with him every night and every morning via text. If I didn't tell him when I was going to bed, he would call me the next day and berate me. It finally came crashing down a week to the day I was going to go visit him on the ship. I had fallen asleep before texting him goodnight, so the next morning he called me. His tone was super-flat as he interrupted my greeting to say, "So this clearly isn't working out." He said we were done, and then he hung up. I laid on my bed, numb. I wasn’t even sure what had just happened. Minutes later, he called me to say, "I forgot that you were coming out here next week. You can still come if you want." I told him I didn’t want to come out there. He threatened never to talk to me again, and that's when my attitude fully shifted. "Good," I said. I hung up, already feeling my confidence rising. I texted my best friend Meghan and asked if I could come over. Like a true friend, Meghan said she had a coupon for Pizza Hut, and this seemed like the most opportune time to redeem that coupon. She texted: "Come over. Let’s get Pizza Hut." I put on a pair of jean shorts that he hated. I wore my glasses that he disliked to such an extent that he made me cry in a LensCrafters. The person assisting me that day even said, "This guy and his opinions are not worth it," while I wiped my tears and paid for the new glasses I had been excited about only moments before. I looked in the mirror and knew that I was fucking beautiful. It didn’t matter what Devin thought. On my walk to Meghan's, everything became clear. All the red flags, all the fights, all the insults, all the times he would scream at me in public and abandon me at bus stops in the middle of the night, all the times he didn’t call, all the times he called me crazy, all of his radio silences, all his yelling, all the times I felt sick with worry and pain because I had displeased him so much — it was like I was a slave to everything he wanted. Everything shifted into focus. Fuck him. Devin derailed my life and I let it happen, but now I was free. Finally.
Finally, as if with fresh eyes, I saw how manipulative and pathetic all of his tactics were.
While we were getting our cheese pizza, I checked my phone, which was full of his insanely long and accusatory texts, phone calls, and voice messages from the last few hours. Texts begging me to call him and telling me that I was causing him so much pain, and he couldn’t believe that I had the nerve to ignore him when he was crying for me. Didn’t I see how much he loved me? Finally, as if with fresh eyes, I saw how manipulative and pathetic all of his tactics were. My friend said, "Ugh, just tell him you’re at Pizza Hut." And actually, that felt like the perfect way to get the message across that I wasn’t about to take his shit anymore. So I texted: "Don’t bother me. I'm at Pizza Hut." I realize that may sound heartless. In fact, he left me a voicemail right after saying that these were the cruelest words I had ever said to him. Let that be clear. "I’m at Pizza Hut" are the cruelest words I’ve ever said to him. L-O-fucking-L. I'm sure that, when he tells this story, everyone cringes at that line. Yet, I am not ashamed of my infamous last words to my ex-boyfriend. I was celebrating my freedom. Pizza Hut was my goddamned redemption. I was a phoenix rising from the gooey, cheesy ashes to become my fully formed self. I was back, and the red-domed roof of Temple Pizza Hut welcomed me home. Devin and I didn’t speak to each other again. There was no reconciliation. I was done, because I knew that the person I had become under his influence was not me. It hurts me to think about this girl who lost herself for a lover who never loved her, but I’m so proud that she got out. If any of this story sounds familiar to you, perhaps like a situation you or a loved one is in, there is time to leave. There is a way to leave. You can leave, and you can get yourself back. Your Pizza Hut is waiting — I just know it. *His name has been changed to protect his identity.