I’m a 30-year-old man and I was in an emotionally abusive relationship for five years. She controlled all aspects of the relationship, frequently breaking up then changing her mind. We only met at large social events or hotel rooms in her home city. After one particular break-up, she decided that calling what we had a relationship made her uncomfortable and I was banned from doing so for the final year of what we had. She was dismissive, cold and would often go silent for long periods until I was begging her to tell me what was wrong (usually something I’d done). I adored her, and know now that I was addicted to her and her approval.
Two years ago, she broke up with me for good. My confidence was shattered, I spiralled drastically, and resorted to harmful behaviours to cope. Since then, she has continued to manipulate me, one day telling me she missed me then the next saying we shouldn’t speak any more or that we never should have dated. I often found myself apologising for things that happened years ago in an attempt to keep her on side. I have a huge problem with loss, and the idea of losing my “best friend” of five-plus years terrified me.
Around the same time as the break-up, I met someone who has been an emotional anchor through everything. She’s been the first person I’ve trusted since my ex, and she has helped me to manage my harmful behaviours, as well as help me understand that my previous relationship was not normal and has caused significant damage. We have become emotionally and physically intimate since January. However, this has been difficult at times because I know she wants to be in a proper, established relationship, but I still feel emotionally unable to label what we have as that.
Since becoming close to someone new, my ex has being very nice again, sending photos of herself in underwear, reminiscing about the good times we had, and being very public about how close we are, despite not seeing each other in months. She has gone out of her way to make the new person in my life uncomfortable, but I have done nothing to stop that beyond telling her that we were seeing each other.
I want to be free of my ex and her toxic influence, but I’m finding it nearly impossible to cut her out completely. In the meantime, someone I’m very close to and don’t want to lose is getting increasingly frustrated at my inability to commit to her, while still putting me and my needs first.
It is a feature of an abusive, controlling relationship that the person so plays with your mind that you no longer know who you are. Because they are so controlling, you also lose the ability – and confidence – to think for yourself.
Such relationships are deeply damaging and that damage can continue for a while after the relationship has ended, because that person has defined you so completely. And you have not severed contact with her, so her influence continues.
One line of yours really jumped out at me: “She’s been the first person I’ve trusted since my ex.” But you could not trust your ex. Do you have a role model for someone – male or female – who has never, truly let you down, who puts you first? I would also have liked to know more about your problem with loss and where it stems from. Apart from a fleeting mention of other friends in your longer letter, what is your general support network like? Where is your family? What anchors and grounds you?
It’s possible that neither of these two women is right for you. I wonder if you could get some distance from both to find out a bit more about yourself. Perhaps you can’t give your new “girlfriend” what she wants because it’s not what you want, lovely and supportive though she sounds? And even though this relationship may seem entirely the opposite to the last one, and so very much better, it may still not be right for you, at this time.
There is no doubt at all, however, that your ex is not good for you. You know that. I’m afraid the only way to be free of your ex is to free yourself from her and give her no purchase on your life. This will be hard, but I do believe you are ready to do this: if you do nothing, nothing with change. Only then can you really see what this new relationship holds for you.
I think it would be hugely beneficial to talk to someone outside your circle of friends (all of whom, however well meaning, will have their own agendas). You can be totally honest with someone neutral and I do think that it is important to really explore why your ex still has a hold on you. However, I want to make it clear that her abusive behaviour was not your fault – she alone must take responsibility for that.
The Men’s Advice Line (mensadviceline.org.uk, tel 0808 801 0327) offers support on the phone or by email. There is also advice online but I urge you to ring and speak to one of their specialists, who will have specialist knowledge of male victims of abusive relationships.
This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 2 July 2016.