When I was in my early twenties I dated a guy who was just a nightmare. He played games with my mind, going back and forth between making me feel like I was the best thing ever and then making me think I made him sick to his stomach. Emotionally, I was a wreck. But things never got physical. Except once. We fought, punches were thrown and I left his apartment in tears. My roommates found out and told my parents. My parents confronted me over it; I told them it was overblown and not a big deal and they never brought it up again.
Considering that experience, I’m surprised I never talked to my step-daughter Lauren about abuse.
I started out writing this column thinking that I did a great job talking to Lauren about sex and relationships. Over the last few topics we’ve discussed, I realize I wasn’t as great about it as I thought I was. I didn’t mind talking about the nuts and bolts of sex. (This is the labia!) But I stopped short of a lot of the things that also matter—understanding orgasms and how to understand abuse and sexual assault. I was fine with the birds and the bees—not so much about the nitty gritty business.
So finally, I talked to Lauren about her thoughts on why we never discussed domestic violence, why emotional abuse is much more rampant in her circle and—as always—why social media makes it all so much worse.
I never talked to you about domestic violence.
Nope, we never discussed it!
Why do you think I didn’t bring it up?
I think you thought it was a Thing that didn’t need to be said because of course that’s not okay. Which of course, is not how that works.
I think it was based on assumption. Also, we talked about general Not Okay Abuse stuff. Like bullies and stuff. And you probably felt like domestic violence was in that category.
Before we move on, do we need to break out physical abuse from emotional abuse?
Well, we can’t privilege one over the other. But we can usually see physical abuse while it’s hard to gauge how impactful emotional stuff can be. Even when it’s your own self being abused.
Have you ever been physically abused by a partner?
Physically? No. Never. I’ve experienced emotional abuse.
What about your friends—what you know, of course.
I don’t think so. Wait. I do have two friends who were raped in a relationship. That’s physical abuse. And I know people in relationships where sexual things got out of hand in a physical way. All of that is abuse.
Did these people leave the relationship?
No. I think intentionality helps to classify this stuff. If you feel like this is something that could be discussed and you can figure out how and why it happened… Maybe…
One time, long long ago, your dad and I were sitting on the sofa about to eat dinner. He was being goofy and kept plucking me. I was not amused and I asked him numerous times to stop. He kept laughing and plucking me. I was pissed. Now, this was by no means a painful pluck.
Right, this was Dad being Dad.
And acting like a twelve year old. But I was still completely over it. So, I finally got fed up and jumped up off the couch to leave. He put his hand in the waistband of my jeans and yanked me back down to the couch. He said something like; Ha! You’re not going anywhere! Now I feel like I can’t escape this stupid goofy shit. And I’m further pissed. And I specifically remember feeling like—not fearful. But just incensed at not being able to remove myself from the situation. I was not physically strong enough to stand up and walk away! So I stood up quickly with my plate of my pasta—it was hot—and I smacked the plate into his face.
I heard him do this sort of half yell half growl and I hauled ass to the bathroom and he made it there right as I locked the door. He banged on the door and told me to come out and I stayed there.
I have no idea. I know within an hour we were laughing about it. And for the next fifteen years it was a classic scenario we laughed about.
And of course Dad is nowhere near—
Right. He’s not the one to ever physically abuse anyone. But you hear how the story sounds right? It could have ended quite differently. I dismiss it—both then and now—as a one off situation that got more heated than necessary. I never smacked him in the face with hot pasta again—but he also gave me my space and never plucked me again either.
I guess you need to take things into context. Feeling scared or fearful is not okay of course. I guess there are some situations you can recover from and not categorize it as abuse?
Lauren, if you were dating a guy for a year, which is how long your dad and I had been dating at the time and you told me the same story and asked for advice. I’d say, BAIL LAUREN BAIL!
Right, but if I told you I truly felt like it was a one-off and that he apologized—Oh wait. Yeah, that sounds like any other abusive situation.
Exactly. He yanked me down to the sofa and told me not to move. He knew I was really upset. I threw a plate of food at him and he gets pissed and chased me into the bathroom and I stayed there until he cooled off. But it’s totally fine now, I swear!
That wasn’t an abusive act on the part of your dad. But I have eighteen years of knowing him to understand that. Now, emotional abuse. You said you’ve experienced it?
Yeah, in a few ways, mainly gaslighting.
Explain to me how gaslighting works. I’ve been hearing it a lot more lately.
It’s like, you confront your partner on something and they make it all about them and manipulate you into thinking not only that you’re incorrect—but you’re the one causing harm.
Give me an example.
My friend saw a hickey on her partner’s neck and confronted him. He said it was a rash. But then it became this whole thing. He made her feel like she ruined their whole day together and then it became about how she just wasn’t a good partner overall.
What happened to just dealing with a good-old-fashioned liar?
They’re out there. But it might not necessarily be emotional abuse.
Gaslighting feels like it’s coming from a seriously evil person!
Depends on the person. I’ve done it too.
Oh. In what instances have you done it?
When the person has done it to me! But, that’s no excuse. Wrong is wrong. Emotional abuse is serious. It’s not just lying or the regular ways we can disappoint or even hurt our partners. It’s continual manipulation when you specifically want to hurt someone. Like, that’s the goal.
And you’re dealing with this?
Yeah. Actually, I have to check myself about the ways I’m conditioned to expect the worse in a relationship.
Are you catching these signs?
Sometimes. But even when I do catch it. I don’t always do something about it. Like, when people plays those games with contacting. Like texting and stuff.
Can that be considered emotional abuse?
Maybe not at first. But if you’re dating someone who plays that stupid I’ll-wait-this-long before calling or texting—they’re showing you who they are. I need to walk away from dudes who are into that stuff. But sometimes I still make that call or send that text….
This sounds like Derrick.
Oh god, please.
Now, I’m seeing a place where I could have possibly had these conversations with you.
I think you did actually. I know you hated Derrick. Mom and Dad did too.
He was emotionally abusive to you. In freaking middle school.
He was young and stupid!
He knew how you felt about him. He would do exactly what you describe with gaslighting. One minute he was into you—the next minute not.
Did you know I lost my virginity to him?
I know. I also know that you were in some kind of Thing and then suddenly he was dating your best friend.
Yeah. They were both wrong for that. I mean, I didn’t like it but it was cool.
No it wasn’t.
But is that emotional abuse though?
Good question. I do know that I am going to talk to your sister a lot more about relationships in general. She should know by middle school that if something doesn’t feel good—bail. It doesn’t have to fit the traditional definition of “violence” to be violent.
Right, because social media makes it so easy to be super emotionally abusive. You can unfollow and block people. You can Like or Unlike posts. I met a guy who consistently engaged on all my IG posts. As then as soon as we started dating—nothing. Not a single Like and not a single Comment.
Well maybe, he just wanted to separate—
No. We’re twenty year olds. We don’t separate. We speak through our actions on freaking IG.
Well. I do have a couple I’m friendly with. Their relationship is an on-again off-again nightmare. I notice that anytime he comments on one of my posts—she immediately swoops in and comments on his comment. And then he doesn’t respond to her comment but will comment on my next post.
And then, when things got really bad, she actually called me and asked me to either Block him or stop engaging with him. I’m like, um, no. I’m not doing that.
My friends totally ask me to do that. And I know I’d better do it.
But why not? If you know what he’s doing is hurtful to her—why would you still engage with him? Just because it’s social media?
I guess. I just feel like—
That’s the thing. That’s what emotional abuse and gaslighting is all about. He knows you’ll still engage and he gets to say to her: well your friend is still talking to me. Maybe you’re the one who has the problem.
Yeah, it can really play out like that. But I’m still not sure if I need to—
I know physical abuse is a Thing. And just because it doesn’t affect me or my circle (as far as I know) we are out here dealing with some serious emotional abuse. Without even being in the same room—or country. Social Media is the real life version of You Can’t Sit With Us. If you know for sure that someone is purposely doing anything hurtful—in real life or cyber—it’s the worst.
Devin Anderson has written professionally since 1998 and currently works as a full-time freelance writer for various outlets. She’s also written five books, three non-fiction and two novels. The name Devin Anderson is a pseudonym. The writer is changing her name to protect the innocent, the guilty—and her mom.