Domestic abuse is a form of brainwashing and happens slowly over a period of time. Abuse can be physical, psychological and emotional.
In the aftermath of my mother’s death, I met and fell in love with a man who I then found out was already in a relationship, an abusive one. It didn’t involve physical violence but psychological and emotional abuse, with an element of financial abuse as well.
The victim was a really lovely guy but had low self-esteem, I found; he thought himself worthless, had to account for his spending and daily movements, could not have a life of his own. He lived a double life for at least three of the five years he’d been with his abuser, locked into a terrible cycle of mental abuse at home and gaining some refuge in work while seeking out anonymous, quick encounters that were often brutal and using of him. He felt guilty at home, guilty when he was unfaithful.
This lovely but trapped, essentially hunted and caged man somehow managed to build friendships, a measure of social life, against the immense coercive will of the abuser, by fighting for scraps of independence to get away for precious hours, maybe once a month, turning off his phone or ignoring the constant buzzing from it. Still, he had to be home by certain times, faced what I would call emotional extortions, was always made to think he was doing wrong by not being contactable or within the same observable space. Those who knew the man came to see his partner as the monster he really was, but could not convince their friend to leave the relationship. He was not supposed to have friends of his own, and they were resented by his abusive partner who undoubtedly knew the risk to his control of unsupervised encounters with people he had no power over. The victim was the only wage-earner of the two, and yet his money was not really his own.
The victim’s established patterns were interrupted when he met me. I’m a gentle, kind, loving person. I didn’t know at first about his home situation – I found him personable and sweet, warming to him instantly – and, when I did find out, I didn’t walk away because I cared. It didn’t matter whether he stayed with me or struck out on his own, I prayed for him to just leave the man I came to refer to as the Bastard; I wanted my boyfriend to find his freedom, to own his life for himself, to be ruled by no one.
I discovered patience and frustration within me during our time of being sort-of together. I listened and learned. I did not judge this man. He came up with excuses to leave his house so he could call me every day; he plotted to leave, applying for positions with the company he worked for that would take him away. They did not have sex, had not in a long time, and I found I was able to give him a sense of being loved physically and emotionally that he’d never known before.
I’ll always be glad I was able to show him a window through which an alternative reality could be seen: one in which love was not nonconsensual subjugation to the will of another, where sex was not abuse-tinged. It did not involve him being told during it that he was a slut, a whore, a sissy, a faggot – all things he’d come to expect in brief encounters, and be excited by, for the name-calling and feminisation had come to be a way of ensuring, I think, that he was punished for infidelity even while he was in the act. He slut-shamed and hated on himself, two terrible things to do to anyone, for having the drive to seek out sexual intimacy. My only concession to this established pattern was to call him my princess – to raise him up, not push him down – and tell him, so what if you are a slut? He really wasn’t, I don’t think so, not that it mattered to me, but my message beamed across to him was that you should always embrace who you are, never put yourself down. I always sought to build him up, sexually and mentally. He was clever, I told him, witty, had a beautiful smile, was sexy and important, his choices valid, a good and remarkable man. It was all true. Every word. It remains so.
This man had come into my life after the death of my mother and I hadn’t fallen in love with anyone for over a decade. He helped with my grief and, I came to realise, I eased his own. He had a family background of abuse, a monstrous father his mother had an affair to get away from. The pain of that had never been resolved in his soul – and now here he was, repeating that sad, traumatic history in his own life.
Except, he didn’t get away, unlike his mother. She’s a lovely lady I very much warmed to. She knows what her son endures, and she was keen for me to get him away from the Bastard. I pray that one day he will. But, for now, my boyfriend, now my ex, is back in thrall to his Svengali-like abuser. The two possible towns to which my love had planned to escape, they have become destinations for the two of them to consider. The monster promised to change, you see – to ‘make things how they used to be’ – and, like so many abused men and women, my boyfriend, made weak by years of putdowns, chose the comfort of promises and lies over the unknown. He chose false hope, misery and subjugation over love and freedom. Most of us know that abusers do this to their victims; we know they will enjoy a brief honeymoon of sorts before the abuser reasserts humiliation and control.
The Bastard had been told about me, one night by my lover. He proceeded to invade my lover’s safe spaces online, ramping up the pressure. My lover ended up shutting down his Facebook, deleting apps, even, as he put it, “I’ve shut my mother out as well as all my friends”. He’s opened a new Facebook account since going back to the Bastard but told me his friends from before, and his mother, are being kept away from it. It won’t be a name we recognise.
The one thing he cannot bring himself to say to me – I tried to get him to say it but only if it was true, I told him I wanted no lies – is, “I do not love you any more.” He can only say he loves me but he’s doing what he’s doing regardless. I don’t believe he has magically fallen back in love with the Bastard; I believe he is desperate not to repeat family history by escaping like his mother did – even though it is already far too late, as he is in the exact same position he told me his mother was in with his father. She found a way to leave. I hope her son does too.
The wolf promising to become a lamb? It never happens. Yet, for the abused, the idea appeals. It means they gain back some self-esteem for a time: look, I’m not all bad, I’m trying to make this work; I know I’m the one who did bad, not you, but I’m grateful you’ll give me the chance to put this right; you’ve promised to change, so I’ll change too. The joy is short-lived but there’s no telling the abused that. It is utterly tragic. It is heartbreaking. And it is happening in relationships the world over, every day: supposed partnerships that are diseased and dangerous things, antithetical to joy and love and growth.
My boyfriend had grown so used to telling lies at home, they were second nature to him. They were the means by which he had survived and maintained a life away from his abuser’s relentless monitoring. This does not mean he is a liar by nature, for he is not. I will always tell others he is a decent, kind, hardworking man, who was very loving towards me and helpful to others if they ever had need. He is lying to himself now. I hope he wakes up to the truth one day, before he is old and has seen his entire life consumed by a pathetic, malign individual whose obsession is to diminish a most beautiful light. To extinguish hope and personality, drive and ambition.
The fact that the Bastard came so very close to losing his slave, it means he has tightened his grip. I’ll admit to feeling hopelessness and despair for my ex. Friendships won’t be allowed by the Bastard unless they’re his friends first and foremost, with regulated contact. Certainly, friendship is out of the question with the man who nearly robbed him of his prize (this is not phrasing I would use but seems appropriate to the thinking of the Bastard). I have, however, made sure my former lover knows my home remains available to him, day and night, should he ever want to escape. And I can be called for help at any time. I will come, whether I have a partner at the time or not, for it is my ex’s ability to live freely I want to enable. I am not interested in picking up where we left off, where it was ripped asunder. I only know how important it is not to abandon the abused to their fate, no matter how upsetting it is to see them return to their dreadful and undeserving oppressors. They might not avail themselves of a refuge but knowing it is there could make a difference. One day. He knows, my former lover, that I will always be here for him when he needs my help. It’s all I have left to offer him.
My former lover has now turned his back on friends in the LGBTQ community, and on his own interests within that grouping. His exclusive focus is on the Bastard as he seeks to do penance. He had an established, positive reputation within our network and he has trashed it. He has given up pretty much everything, not just me, for what he will one day learn is nothing. I am certain he will regret what he has done. I hope it drives him to leave the Bastard, rather than sink into greater despair when he finally accepts he has been deceived. Psychologists, therapists, they can explain the whys and what’s going on in the minds of the abused; for the rest of us, it is unfathomable.
The sense of having failed this man I fell in love with is real and enduring, even though friends tell me this is nonsense. I feel it because my every effort to help my lover came to nothing. He did not leave. They split up, only for the stranglehold to tighten and the horror story resume after a short time. The narrative is always the same, be the abused male or female; and yet, they always believe theirs will be the tale with a different ending. They will make it work.
They don’t. They never do. Still they try, rejecting love and help, and the opinions of everyone else they ever come into contact with.
For a time, only for a time, I was able to persuade the victim he was worthwhile. Maybe he will remember one day, and the memory will finally propel him to escape the grip of his tyrant.
I have to move on, having left behind a promise that I’m always ready to help him if he decides he wants me to. It feels insufficient, inadequate. It feels like I have left a wounded animal out on the street, alone. I fight to remind myself, though: his aloneness is a choice he’s made, but with a crushed psyche, a perspective warped by abuse that has come in so many forms but all of which are relentlessly persuasive and corrupting.
I wrote the following on the day I found out my lover was now my ex-lover, reunited with the Bastard:
If a wonderful lover who has lifted you up and sent you literary quotes, poems and stories he wrote just for you, and more, all while helping you to dress up as the princess you wanted to be, raised up high on a pedestal, cannot shift you from the deck of the Titanic because you insist the fat entitled Baron loves you more, even as he robs you of your place in the lifeboat, I fear I must bow to the insanity of the age. I can only watch sadly as the ship sinks. I will keep watch a while, of course, but the water is going to be all the colder for the loving friends you left behind to take such a doomed journey. There is nothing of courage about this. It is futility and fear that guides you, not hope, not dreams. And certainly not true love from that man who seeks not to free you but to hold you in a vice-like grip as you drown.
I am not afraid to say I wept writing this, not only for the beautiful, sensitive, tortured man I love but have lost; no, I wept for all those, men and women, who suffer as he suffers. As an empath, and as one with the experience I’ve detailed here, I feel for them all.
I don’t know what else to do. I have done all I can. I hope this essay helps someone. Thanks for reading.
Galop is the UK’s only specialist LGBT+ anti-violence charity. Its mission is to make life just, fair and safe for LGBT+ people, providing advice, support and advocacy to people who have experienced hate crime, domestic abuse and sexual violence. Galop is an independent organisation and its services are confidential and free. Call them on 0800 999 5428 or visit their website.