The father of my children was emotionally abusive in his relationship with me. Let’s call him Mr Ex. It took him 1 year at the beginning of the relationship to convince me of my worthlessness, after which it took me 8 more years to figure out that he was wrong and I had every right to be me after all.
During those 8 years, I learned and got totally used to this kind of behaviour:
- watching my choice of words
- never talk about any past experiences (i.e. from before Mr Ex)
- Never ever talk during sex except for 2-3 accepted words
- never ever ever say no to sex
- laugh at all of Mr Ex’s jokes
- generally approve of and agree with everything that Mr Ex ever said
- not to expect equality
- never make friends with a male person
- to accept never to hear “I love you” or any other tender words as my deserved punishment for not having reserved myself for Mr Ex before I met him
Reading this list makes me feel sick. After separating it took me about a year or two just to identify all this kind of behaviour and change it back to normal – all the time learning to accept myself and value myself again.
But what about dating?
Everyday situations occur all the time, it’s relatively easy to identify adapted behaviour, question it and change it back to normal there. But you can’t start dating somebody to practice “normal” dating. It just isn’t fair, and who wants to date somebody they don’t feel special about, anyway?
So, what I am finding happens is this:
I meet a man, and decide that dating would be nice. I am usually perceived as a strong person with a pronounced but calm personality. As long as this stays at a non-intimate level, I’m fine. I’m me. I know what I want, I know how to say it, and I feel comfortable.
But once things get more serious, I find old behaviour seeping in. I become dependent, too quiet, I am awfully careful about what I say and share… and what’s more, it the adapted behaviour isn’t limited to intimate time! It then stays there – and I’m left with a man who is probably wondering whether my shy twin has taken over for me, and what he has done wrong.
I find this really difficult – because with all the experience I have identifying weird unnatural behaviour on myself, I notice straight away what is happening. But I can’t do anything about it at that moment, which is unbelievably frustrating. I guess the only way of dealing with this is with a very patient partner, who understands what emotional abuse is and is committed and engaged right from the start. Also self-reflection of course. I for instance know that this happens, but haven’t really taken any time to think about it – to reflect on how I feel in that situation, why I feel that way, and how I could feel safe and be me at the same time. Writing about it has actually made me realise that this is not something I should be just putting up with, hoping that it will get better.
This is something I should be working on. This is really important. Ultimately, this is also what my kids will learn about relationships. I don’t want them to see me crumple up because my man is around. I want them to see me bloom in a romantic relationship, respecting myself and the person I am with, and being respected likewise.
I don’t want them to see me fade into a shade of grey ever again.