I was tortured for two years.
Not in the conventional sense. My tormentor wasn’t fond of physical restraints. Her fits of rage never left me with cuts, bruises or broken bones. In fact, there wasn’t a single visible sign of the pain she inflicted…and that’s the way she preferred it.
To an observer, I was completely free and yet I lived in utter captivity.
It’s no secret that domestic abuse is a pervasive problem in our society. Nearly half of all women and men in the US have experienced psychological aggression, or emotional abuse, by “an intimate partner” in their lifetime and emotional abuse is largely considered to be the most common form of abuse.
And yet, after enduring two years of torment, I couldn’t help but wonder: how did I miss it? If it’s so common, then why wasn’t I able to recognize the signs?
They had been drilled into me since I was a child. “Don’t date a man who tells you what to wear, where to go or who to hang out with.” “Don’t let a man pressure you into sex when you want to say no.” “Find a nice guy, someone who respects you and treats you well.”
And that’s when I realized it.
I was only prepared to recognize the hallmarks of heterosexual abuse. As a lesbian woman, who was raised by two heterosexual parents in an exceedingly heterosexual community, I had no reference for a healthy lesbian relationship. My knowledge of queer romances stemmed solely from fleeting displays of affection on TV. [Hands up if you remember Alex and Marissa on the OC].
While these teen dramas were on the forefront of pushing LGBTQ representation in media, many inadvertently normalized toxic behavior. They depicted women as innately more emotional than men, so two women together was just a powder keg of uncontrollable emotion. As a result, intensity and obsession was considered to be romantic or desirable in lesbian relationships. The lack of positive, realistic and healthy queer romances left me with no idea of what abusive behavior actually looked like between two women.
It’s estimated that 1 in 4 LGBTQ people experience domestic abuse and yet it’s rarely discussed or reported. And I can understand why.
I didn’t discuss it myself. Not even when I was a crumpled mess, sobbing on the kitchen floor unable to trust my own thoughts. I didn’t tell anyone. I even made up lies about how well she was treating me.
Why it’s not discussed:
Growing up in a conservative Catholic environment, I was taught to believe that homosexuality was inherently sinful. Gay people, when acting upon their disordered nature, were “tearing their souls” from God. I even had a woman tell me that, “gay relationships only result in depression, drug addiction and suicide.”
When I came out, I vowed to prove them wrong. I wanted everyone to see how much happier I was being open and confident in my sexuality. I wouldn’t settle for anything less than perfect.
So, when my first serious relationship with a woman turned toxic, I refused to admit it. Despite desperately needing help and slowly drowning in a situation I couldn’t control, the thought of admitting the abused I experienced seemed so much worse. To me, it meant that I had failed. I was nothing more than another disordered, suicidal lesbian who got what she deserved.
Many months later, I discovered that this is actually one of the reasons LGBTQ people don’t report abuse. We’re afraid to show a “lack of solidarity” with other LGBTQ people. We view discussing this topic as a betrayal of our community because we think it’ll confirm society’s assumption that same-sex relationships are inherently dysfunctional.
But that isn’t true.
I wish I could scream it from the mountaintops. If you are being abused, then please seek help. It doesn’t matter if you’re straight, gay, queer, trans, cis, asexual, etc. You do not deserve to endure abuse. You are not betraying your community by coming forward and ending abuse. Being controlled by an abuser is just another closet that you don’t deserve to be in. There is bravery in admitting that you need help.
I met my abuser shortly after graduating from college. I had a job I loved, lived in a gorgeous place and was finally comfortable with my sexuality.
And then I met her.
(For the sake of privacy, I’ll just refer to her as Grace.) She was everything I thought I wanted: interesting, kind, charming, bold and beautiful. She had been out since she was a teenager and I admired her ability to be so brazenly gay. Grace spent her days caring for those with severe physical handicaps, occasionally volunteered with the food insecure and planned on spending her life tending to the sick. She seemed perfect… right?
Unfortunately, that’s the tricky thing with abuse. It doesn’t discriminate. Perpetuators could be involved in objectively good ventures like pushing for social progress or healing the sick and still be abusive. Too often we think of abusers as rotten to the core. It’s almost like we’re expecting them to sprout horns and wear a glowing “abuser” sign around their necks. But abusers typically have many attractive and redeeming qualities. Sometimes they’ll lay with you when you’re sick to your stomach. Sometimes they’ll listen to your problems and offer compassionate, unbiased advice. Sometimes they’ll be thoughtful and overwhelmingly kind. But that’s exactly the problem–only sometimes.Occasional good behavior does not excuse months, or even moments, of terror.
Insidious in nature, emotional abuse can pollute even the strongest mind. Like ink dropped in a glass of water, the abuse spreads slowly. Without you even noticing, its roots extend in every direction, twisting and turning. Each passing day deepens the hue little by little until it has completely altered the liquid’s color. Then you’re left to wonder, “How did this happen to me?”
And my story is no different.
Interestingly, I never even intended to date Grace. At the time, I was nursing a broken heart and was quite clear about needing to be alone. Despite agreeing we’d remain friends, she pursued me heavily, was extremely affectionate and even admitted months later that: “I wanted you and I was going to find a way to have you.”
This phenomenon is called “love bombing.” It’s a form of psychological manipulation where an abuser is excessively loving in an attempt to manipulate you into a relationship. Once obtaining the relationship they start to become mean and unreasonable. However, the love bombing stage has been described as “pure, unadulterated ecstasy…the excessive praise and flattery the predator showers on the prey might as well be crack cocaine.” This figurative high makes it difficult for survivors of abuse to realize the love is all manufactured.
For me, it took Grace about two weeks to become my serious girlfriend. Despite knowing I needed to be alone, I had somehow fallen into a committed, highly possessive relationship without fully realizing it.
Like most abusive relationships, the toxic behavior started slowly. Every so often she’d get intensely angry over small stressors or randomly question the “true” nature of my friendships. At first, I was completely bewildered by these seemingly out-of-character moments. I knew that she had suddenly lost a close family member, so I’d excuse her bad behavior as a reaction to trauma. I just assumed she was having trouble processing her grief and I admonished myself for not being more considerate or understanding of her needs.
But, as I realized months later, this is how emotional abuse frequently begins. It “starts with something small, such as your partner snapping at you for something that you wouldn’t expect them to. It goes against everything they started off as [in the love bombing stage]..so often it is brushed off.”
The first time Grace broke her charming facade was after we had spent a really nice day together. We were about to say goodnight when, out of nowhere, Grace told me she couldn’t be with me anymore. Completely shocked, I asked why? She told me that she couldn’t trust me because I was close friends with my ex. I reminded Grace that she was also best friends with her ex girlfriend but she insisted my situation was different than hers.
Thinking that our relationship was ending, I began to cry. Within seconds, Grace went from refusing to look at me to suddenly holding me, wiping away my tears and kissing my face. She apologized and told me that we could work through anything together. She admitted that she’d been cheated on, claiming it’s a sensitive subject. “I just feel so intensely, a way I’ve never felt before, and I don’t want to lose you.” Bewildered by the exchange, I just nodded and forgave her. That was the first time she broke up with me.
Over the course of our relationship, she would break up with me nine more times. Once
because because I “valued my friends too much,” another time because I didn’t text her enough during my cousin’s wedding, a third time because I asked to meet her friends (which she found to be “suffocating” and “pointless”) and yet another time when she went through my phone and accused me of deleting text messages.
It’s easy to look at my story and think “I’m too strong for this to happen to me,” “I know better than to get myself involved with someone like that” or “I would have left before it got that bad.” However, it’s important to note that I once said the same naive things after hearing about abuse. I didn’t fully understand the oppressive, all consuming nature of psychological abuse until I was actually being abused.
Abusers find a way to make you question your worth, your intelligence and your own thoughts. They intentionally create a codependent relationship so it’s difficult for you to leave. You’re falsely led to believe that they, and only they, can make you whole. If you don’t have them, then you have nothing. For LGBTQ people, it is especially challenging to leave an abuser because they may 1) be the only one who knows your orientation/gender identity or 2) the only support you have due to lack of familial/ communal relationships.
Examples of Emotional Abuse:
1) Gaslighting, or manipulating someone by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.
Example: Grace was better than Charlotte at weaving an elaborate web of lies. One night, she had told me that she was going to bed exceptionally early. An hour later, she accidentally sent me an audio message of her talking to another girl. When I asked if she had someone over, Grace told me she must have just recorded herself while talking on the phone. Knowing that was literally impossible to do with an iPhone, I questioned how I was supposed to believe her.
“I don’t care if you say it’s impossible, it’s what happened.” “Just tell me the truth, please. I know you’re lying” “I’d believe you, without question, if you told me the same.” “You’d believe me? Even though I know what you’re saying isn’t possible?” “I can’t believe you’d even doubt me.”
She was so insistent that after a half an hour of questioning, I was beginning to wonder if I could have been mistaken. I thought, “maybe it was just some weird fluke.” After that, Grace began routinely gaslighting me. She’d make up false stories and forbid me from confirming them or claim I never said things that I know I said.
2. Shaming and blaming with hostile sarcasm or outright verbal assault
Example: Grace noticed that my ex-girlfriend texted me (literally about baby geese) and she demanded to see my phone. After looking at the message, she verbally assaulted me, accused me of cheating and said she can’t date a liar. Awkwardly, she still needed me to drive her to a doctor’s appointment the following morning. During the ride there, she told me how much she loved me and how she’d fight for me. She apologized for overreacting, blaming it on nerves.
On the ride home, she forcibly took my phone from me again. “If you have nothing to hide, then you you should have no problem with me seeing it.” She then accused me of deleting text messages and nearly jumped out of my car. She began screaming that I was a terrible person. “I don’t ever want to see you again, we’re done.” At this point, I was beyond angry or sad. I just drove home, a shell of my former self, and laid on the couch.
An hour later, she came over. She let herself in the front door went to my kitchen and made me a plate of food. “You have to take care of yourself,” she tells me, kissing my face. “You mean everything to me, I can’t lose you.”
3. Withholding affection as punishment
Example: Near the end of our relationship, I had developed a serious issue with panic attacks. Unfortunately, I had one in the mall when we were together and asked if she could please walk with me to my car. Angrily, she agreed and began berating me for how I couldn’t control myself. She told me that my anxiety was pushing her away and callously said that I “needed serious help.”
Devastated, I then had to endure Grace’s screaming while I drove her to the train station. She accused me of making her late and said she was going to miss her train. I apologized and offered to pay the fare. She replied, “yeah, you’re definitely going to” and took all the money I had. Before she left, she refused to thank me for the ride or even look at me. “You’re seriously not even going to tell me you love me?, I asked, furious. She grabbed her stuff from my car, slammed the door without saying a word and walked away. After using my money to purchase a ticket, she texted me to say I was too broken for her. [Ironically, she’s the one who had left me shattered].
4. Isolating from supportive friends and family
Example: Grace really hated how close I was with my friends and family. One day, we planned on going to the park together. A short while later, my best friend told me she
was also going to the park that day. When I told Grace, she demanded I cancel. She told me I was being very inconsiderate of her and she couldn’t stand the value I placed on my friends. Despite explaining that my best friend was planning on going to the park regardless, Grace left my house, turned off her phone and drove to Manhattan. After getting wasted in a gay bar, she called me at 1am to inform me that she was, once again, “done with me.”
Another time, we had made plans to go to on vacation. A close friend of mine, who I rarely see, lived in the area and asked to see me for dinner. Instead of wanting to meet my friend, Grace told me that she couldn’t believe I’d even consider it. “It’s only going to be an hour, we’ll have the rest of the weekend to ourselves.” “You have no respect for me. Why would I ever want to see your friends and interrupt our alone time. I would never even think of doing this to you.”
While these examples seem extreme, it’s important to remember that abuse builds slowly. In between her freak outs, Grace was kind, fun-loving and supportive. Unfortunately, this didn’t last and I became trapped in a terrible relationship. I knew I was being treated poorly but Grace had done an exceptional job of making me terrified to walk away. By the end of our relationship, I was so worn down, terrified of upsetting her and physically ill that I allowed her to dictate literally everything. I refused to ask for help and it nearly killed me.
Please, don’t be like me. Reach out, get help and talk about domestic abuse in LGBTQ+ relationships.
These are LGBTQ friendly resources.
Love is Respect Hotline: 1-866-331-99474 (24/7) or Text “loveis” 22522
The Anti-Violence Project– offers a 24 hour, bilingual hotline (212)-714-1124
FORGE: Assists transgender and gender nonconforming survivors of domestic and sexual violence
The Network La Red– serves LGBTQ, poly, and kink/BDSM survivors of abuse and it has a bilingual hotline:- 617-742-4911