The ghost of a relationship’s past

Michelle Zheng

Editor’s note: The following column includes an account of emotional abuse and manipulation and may be triggering to some people.

In the summer of 2011, I was attending my first East Coast college tour in the United States. Students from my international school in Suzhou, China, banded together with students from sister schools across Beijing and Shanghai.

Before the tours even started, I wandered to a Subway at a generic mall food court, expecting to be left alone by my peers, as per usual. As I was about to place my order, however, one of the older students from a sister school came over and struck up a conversation with me. He was tall, athletic, had short blond hair and deep, amber eyes. I saw his tea-stained teeth when he chuckled at one of my jokes. I learned he was fluent in five languages and loved playing piano and tennis. I was captivated by him and amazed that he paid me any attention. I thought it was love at first untoasted ham sandwich.  

This was the first time I met my abuser.

When we parted ways, our friendship progressed to purely online communication. Even before meeting him, I had severe anger issues and other neuroses which resulted in understandable but unfortunate segregation from my fellow classmates for years. As the only person who willingly spoke to me since I was 10, he felt like the only person I had in my life.

His humiliation tactics started off small. I would show him things I was proud of, like my writing, singing and artwork. While they were nowhere near masterpieces, he ridiculed sentences with small grammatical errors and shared my singing clips with friends for a laugh at my expense.

His behavior snowballed to invalidation of my experiences. He used my deep desire for any form of attention or connection to control me.

When I tried talking to him about my feelings and how his actions hurt me, he once replied with: “it’s tiring to hear you talk about this because it’s just the same thing over and over.” As a result, I felt incredibly ashamed to talk to anyone about my problems, large or small, because I thought if I complained, they would abandon me. And then I would be alone again.

You hear “I don’t care” so many times that you forget that it only comes from one person.

In December 2011, he told me he loved me, then proceeded to ignore me for five months, refusing to explain or respond to my increasingly desperate messages. As our entire relationship was built over long-distance communication, this isolation was crushing.

When he finally responded, he told me that he was in love with someone else. He, however, still valued me and wanted to maintain our friendship. I was so afraid of abandonment that my idea of a healthy relationship warped into one where I would prioritize him at the expense of my own health.

I ended up supporting him emotionally for another three years.

I didn’t understand that I deserved a mutual love. That I deserved better.

This is the insidious nature of abusive relationships. I used to see abuse as shouting matches and physical violence, and, thus could never imagine myself being a victim. The Twitter hashtag, #MaybeHeDoesntHitYou, started by Dominican-American writer Zahira Kelly, highlights everyday examples of non-physical abuse. The National Domestic Hotline reports that in the United States, almost half of all women and men have experienced psychological abuse by a partner in their lifetime. While we were not involved romantically, the abuse I faced was still valid and as hurtful as if it came from a partner.

As I attempted to untangle myself from this briar patch of abuse, I realized there were more thorns to remove than I previously thought. I finally cut off all contact with my abuser by the end of my freshman year of college when I realized he was taking me completely for granted. I believed I had moved on and was no longer affected by how unhealthy and damaging our relationship was; that removing him from my life would lead to closure. But when I began making deeper connections with people my sophomore year at UC Berkeley, I realized I hadn’t shaken off those feelings — they were merely repressed.

As a defense mechanism, whenever I perceived any sort of toxic attribute in someone I would cut them out of my life with no explanation. What I thought was direct communication only seemed to break down friendships further. In actuality, my traumatized self created a weird system of self-care which actually created more conflict.

While I recognized I experienced an abusive relationship, which is an important first step, my progression had stopped there. I took no further steps of healing from the abuse or addressing the toxic behaviors I had co-opted from my abuser. I insisted for a long time that I was purely the victim in my life’s narrative.

Recovering from an abusive relationship sometimes means facing the monsters that one has created to defend oneself in a time of trauma.

I realized I needed to confront my own toxic behaviors, and started weekly therapy again during my sophomore second semester. If I found myself wanting to react drastically while in a negative headspace, I worked to hold myself back from making spur of the moment decisions, waiting until I was in a clearer headspace before revisiting the decision. I started seeing a psychiatrist my junior year first semester, and am currently on 100mg of Zoloft.

The trajectory of healing is like wandering through a corn maze: spooky and non-linear. In conjunction with my progress, I have made many mistakes and regressions, hurting many along the way. But I know it gets better. A labyrinth always has a way out. The violent Minotaur borne from my abuser’s actions has now become a harmless pet, its sharp horns whittled down to dull nubs.

I’m happy to say that on Halloween, which also happens to be my three-year anniversary with my current boyfriend, the beasts from my past will not be one of the things going bump in the night.

Michelle Zheng writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @thezhenger.

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  • disqus_ykCNo6tDyc

    Caveats: I realise the author had a traumatic experience related to this and don’t want to discredit that; non-physical abuse is an important issue that needs much more highlighting and it is laudable that the author highlights this and how difficult the healing trajectory can be. The comment below is not meant to be taken personally – it is simply to spark discussion and explore some questions I’m genuinely curious about (which might serve ultimately to improve people’s behaviour in relationships).

    I’m curious how precisely the above amounts to psychological abuse and what the ramifications might be of calling such behaviour abuse. I’m no expert and am by no means trying to belittle such experiences – I just want to see the issue more generally. In a relationship where the two met once and thereafter had a consensual, years-long online relationship (which could have been stopped by either party at any time), I’m curious where the exact problems lie. From my understanding of the facts of the situation (the ‘abuser’s’ actions going from ridiculing sentences with small grammatical errors; to being tired of hearing of the other person discuss their feelings; to saying they loved the other person; to radio silence; to disclosure that they loved someone else, but still valued the other person and wanted to maintain the friendship; to the other person eventually cutting off all contact), I fail to see how this amounts to psychological abuse. Yes, the other person appears to have had psychological issues related to this online relationship, but I’m wondering how the abuser would better have behaved. Constant reassurance and validation, love and affection bordering on mollycoddling? Adolescents online would be hard pressed to be so aware and mature (flashback to idiotic, but wholly laughable, conversations on MSN! Flashback to MSN ‘boyfriends’ I’d never met!). Anyway, the broader questions I’m asking are to what extent conflating psychological abuse with the above behaviour could carry certain risks and how the ‘abuser’ could have modified his behaviour so it would not amount to apparent psychological abuse.

    • Brian

      This. If this woman finds this to be some form of abuse, she will feel abused in every relationship she has. Looking for victimhood will only make one miserable. Ironically, if a man were to write a similar article, he would at once be needy and pathetic.