by Victoria Durden
[content warning: mentions and descriptions of partner and emotional abuse, gaslighting, PTSD, sexual coercion]
This piece comes out of my own reflections, having exited an emotionally abusive relationship with someone who identifies as leftist, feminist, and radical. To those who are in, or are recovering from an abusive relationship, I cannot, with good conscience offer you words of wisdom or hope on the subject. I won’t promise you that everything will be okay. I won’t promise you that with time, you will stop feeling the dread, fear, grief, sorrow, addiction, hopelessness, or maybe, like me, you do not have words for whatever you are feeling—only physical reactions allow you to understand that someone has hurt you in more ways than you could know. I won’t promise you “it gets better,” or that one day you will stop feeling the confusion, cognitive dissonance, the anger and bitterness, the hole in your heart that forms when you lose someone you loved even if they broke you. I will only tell you that emotional abuse has changed you. And you will continue to change.
Do you remember the first time you began to understand and gain language to name and deconstruct power structures? For some, the moment is excruciatingly painful; it becomes salient through violence, interpersonal or state sanctioned. For others, the moment is one of clarity and epiphany, a gift because it allows us to put words to the pains we feel. For a long time, I gave credit to my abuser for bestowing this gift upon me. He had been the first person who introduced me to anti-racism, and later feminism. But the credit I gave him, in the end, obscured my ability to name the pain that he in turn was enacting upon me. I let things slide with him that I would not have done otherwise. In radical spaces I learned and internalized that “safe” space mantra to “assume good intent.” It echoed in my brain throughout the final years of our relationship, when I began to feel the weight of his manipulation accumulate in my stomach and when I began to see it materialize in how I interacted with him. I was constantly triggered during our sexual encounters in the last and final cycle of abuse. At the time I blamed this on my failure to deal with past traumas of sexual assault, but having since had sex with other people without being triggered, I now realize that my body was literally and physically reacting to the constant pain he had caused me for years.
Let a kumbaya circle burn, I am not here to assume good intent any longer.
A quick Google search for “emotional abuse” gives you results that fit one narrative of what emotional abuse looks like. I know it’s difficult to condense emotional abuse down to a list of “Red Flags” that works for everyone, but that is exactly where many survivors and victims seek help and validation. The most common issue I found when seeking validation was that the bulk dealt solely with verbal abuse. Does your partner call you names? Does your partner threaten you? Blame you? Not only do many of these summary rundowns of emotional abuse not account for the manner in which long-term abuse presents itself through careful manipulation, they also fail to take into account how our identities interact and play out as microcosms of the institutional power structures that are in tact. In searching for relief and briefly entertaining the desire to hold my abuser accountable (this is impossible, for there is no one he holds himself accountable to), I went to the Creative Interventions Toolkit, and while the toolkit definitely addresses how power and identity plays a role in abuse, I did find that in some of their descriptions of emotional abuse slippage occurred between emotional abuse and verbal abuse. The two were even lumped together as one in one description.