The toxic shadow of emotional abuse

Trigger warning: this story discusses emotional abuse

To me, kind and lasting love feels like a Jack Johnson set; with everything merging into a calm and gentle background melody. Toxic love feels like living at a Slipknot concert (nothing against Slipknot) with booming noisy chaos and masks that blind you from the reality of the relationship.

I have experienced covert emotional abuse: its power and control, and the damaging impact that had on my mental health. I want to share my story to raise awareness of the serious nature of this type of abuse, the impact it has on mental health and to help other victims feel like they are not alone.

What a toxic relationship and emotional abuse felt like

Barrage of love

It all started with love bombing, mirroring and flattery, leaving no space for me to see chaos and red flags. The relationship was possessive and obsessive, filled with poetic language, movie-esque intoxicating love and grand gestures. It was intense and short lived.

Subtle shifts

It involved subtle shifts through inconsistent communication, the giving and taking away of their availability and affection. Danger was implicit and always there. I was to be made aware of a sense of fragility in the relationship, the growing cracks that I needed to tread delicately on due to the risk of it ending if I didn't stay in line.

The unravelling

Everything started to reverse, at a fast pace. The unpicking of the love and flattery they gave at the beginning was deeply unsettling and confusing, and took with it my self-esteem… and at this point I was weak and so under their control that I was living off the illusion that was created at the start. 

Nothing left of me

It was a black hole that sucked me in, soaked up my goodness and spat me out when there was no longer any use in me. It felt dark, toxic and damaging – because it was. At the end I was vulnerable and my mental health had spiralled. My family and friends were left confused as to where the bubbly and happy person they knew had gone, and how this had happened in such a short amount of time. This is because I'd just had one of the most confusing experiences involving emotional manipulation, gaslighting and abuse such as:

  • telling lies or exaggerating 
  • denying they said things that you both know they did 
  • their actions not matching their words
  • putting you down and then praising you 
  • eliciting insecurity and anxiety when you bring up their conflicting actions 
  • convincing you it is your mental health causing confusion after directly causing it with their actions
  • it all culminating in a co-dependent relationship caused by the fear and vulnerability that the abuser created.

What emotional abuse and a toxic relationship taught me

There is a tendency to self-blame - it is not your fault

It is okay to keep yourself safe and allow time to heal​

"The result was I became a wallflower

A forgotten, colourless wallflower,

A wallflower that was taught to allow anything from the one they love, to feel a small amount of energy in return

A wallflower that gave the sun to someone else, after they said that they should be the entire energy source

The issue was, I was the sun all along

And now, with kind love, I feel compassionate and powerful again

I feel able to say I want to shift myself from the ones that offer toxic energy

I feel like I have the strength to wake up in the morning and work on being my own sun

I feel like I have the strength to curl up at night, and protect, watching the weary petals fall away to the earth

Letting the winter heal"

Journal entry, after the end of the toxic relationship 

Toxic love and abuse is NOISY

It is fast moving, unsafe, cruel, destabilising, and selfish with no boundaries.

It's a broken promise and pushing of personal boundaries followed by grand, big gestures to fix it … on repeat.

Healthy love is quiet

It is so still that you almost forget it's there. It is constant, safe, kind, grounding and selfless with healthy boundaries.

It's a cup of tea on your bedside table each morning.

It is my mum feeding the birds and changing their water every day, even when the bird bath freezes over and she still manages to come back inside with a smile on her face.

Signs of a toxic relationship

  • You don't feel good enough.
  • You constantly seek the other person's validation.
  • You feel you have to walk on eggshells and monitor everything you say and do.
  • You're afraid to bring things up because you're not sure how the other person will react.
  • The other person puts you down.
  • The other person doesn't take responsibility for their actions and instead blames you.
  • You start to withdraw from participating in activities or seeing people in your life.

Signs of a healthy relationship

  • Both people treat each other with respect.
  • There is trust and the relationship is nurturing.
  • Both people listen to each other and there is compromise.
  • Both people are honest and can hear feedback without it leading to physical, verbal or emotional abuse (for example, the 'silent treatment' or ignoring).
  • Both people can be responsible for their own needs and also care for the relationship.
  • Both people feel supported to do things they like.
  • Both people are able to exert boundaries in the relationship.

Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid: 

“Does he manipulate you by making you feel sorry for him? Does he blame you for everything that goes wrong? These behaviours can slowly erode your confidence and independence, and have a devastating impact on your mental health. They are possessive, controlling and ultimately abusive.

“These are some of the signs of emotional abuse that form part of a repeated pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour. This sometimes subtle form of abuse was made illegal two years ago, yet much more awareness needs to be raised to make sure that everyone understands it and can recognise it. Lack of understanding is one reason why women and their family and friends don’t always recognise abuse straight away, or realise what is happening until it has got extremely serious. It can have a devastating impact on women, including causing or exacerbating mental health issues. We know from our work with survivors that nearly a quarter of women accessing community-based support services had mental health support needs, while this increases to nearly a third of women who are living in refuge (Women’s Aid 2016 Annual Survey).

“This simply has to change. Coercive control is at the heart of abusive relationships, and that’s why at Women’s Aid we work hard to raise awareness of all forms of abuse and offer expert support to those who are experiencing it and their friends and family."

If you are worried that your relationship, or that of a friend or family member, is controlling or unsafe, visit Women's Aid or call the Freephone 24/7 National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Women’s Aid in partnership with Refuge, on 0808 2000 247.

Further resources and advice: