Can emotional abuse be sexual abuse?

woman looking away

A black and white image of a woman covering her face with one hand and looking downcast. Her dark hair covers her shoulders and part of her face. Photo by Juan Pablo Arenas via Pexels

I got divorced last May, and in the midst of Justin Timberlake memes and shorts weather and anticipating my upcoming book launch, the anniversary of my divorce date looms near. And I am still mad at my abuser, which is frustrating because I thought I would have overcome all my trauma in a neat, tidy package by now.

The more I process out loud, in therapy and in online support groups and in conversations with my friends and in posts to my social media, the more the shadowy puzzle pieces of the seven years I spent with him click into place and are illuminated for what they really were.

It was not “irreconcilable differences.” It wasn’t “communication issues.” It wasn’t anything like that. He orchestrated our relationship, and my submission, from day one, and unpacking that level of abuse feels like a punch in the gut. It wasn’t love, it wasn’t happiness, it wasn’t anything I thought it was. I was preyed on, targeted, groomed, and controlled, and when I left, he was so angry about it that his entire facade fell apart.

I was scared of him for years, and went to therapy to figure out what about ME was wrong, was preventing me from trusting him, was causing these conflicts and doubts in my head about our relationship. I wish I could hold my former self and tell her that there was nothing wrong with her, and that the reason she didn’t trust him was because it wasn’t safe to.

When I first left him, I knew that he had been manipulative. I caught on to the cycles of treating me nicely, lots of sex and affection, lots of praise… followed by reminding me I was a lot of work, difficult to be with, and that he was the only one who would love me like that, whenever I expressed an interest in, say, sex without him watching porn the whole time.

When I was upset or doubtful about our relationship, he would say things like, “How can you think so little of me? There is a version of me in your head that you’re upset with that’s not the real me.” And I would go to therapy and ask what I could do to not be so anxious and distrustful. I wanted to be a good wife.

When mental abusers use sex to control

There are so many facets of our relationship that I’ve become more clear about since leaving. But the one that recently gobsmacked me is the sexual aspect of his control.

When I moved into his house, our sex life disappeared overnight. He always had a good reason. First he was upset about his divorce being final, then he was stressed at work, then he was not sleeping well, etc. And I was patient, and reassured him I loved him, and waited for him to feel better, for our drives to sync back up like they had when we had been dating.

According to him, me talking about our mismatched sex drives was pressuring him, me asking him to not fantasize about group sex or watch porn while we had sex was shaming his fantasies, and me suggesting we table the idea of getting pregnant while we worked on our issues was a slap in his face and the assertion that if I wasn’t sure NOW, we may as well never try.

He started Viagra to help things along, insisting that he had the mental desire for sex but just had some physical issues with the execution of it. He took 1/4 of a Viagra before bed, with the hopes that it would “be in his system” when he woke up and he could have sex with me in the morning. Spoilers: This is not how Viagra works.

Other reasons we did not have sex included:

  • He hadn’t slept well
  • He didn’t want to prevent me from my morning workout routine
  • He didn’t like evening sex, only morning sex (but see #1)
  • He felt I was punishing him by not providing (unreciprocated) oral sex

Finally, desperately, in an attempt to not totally screw up my life by having an affair to satisfy my carnal desires, I sat him down, told him I loved him, told him that I did not want to pressure him into sex, and asked if we could open our relationship.

He absolutely blew up in fury. He said things like:

  • If you get pregnant and it’s not mine, your options are abortion or divorce.
  • If you get pregnant in the next six months, even if we don’t open the relationship, I will demand a paternity test.
  • How could you risk our marriage by getting pregnant with another man’s baby?
  • How can I trust that you will use condoms?
  • For fuck’s sake, you should have had an affair.
  • You know this means I would be able to have another partner too.

He kept me awake past midnight, demanding to know why I had dared to ask him for this. I told him, “I can’t have this conversation right now, I am so tired and I need to sleep,” and he said, “You’d better wake the hell up then.” He wouldn’t let me end the conversation. Finally I said, “I guess I didn’t think it through,” and that was the only thing that made him relent and forgive me.

To my knowledge, he remains convinced that I was already seeing someone else when I left. The introspection it would take for him to realize that he pushed me to a breaking point with his sexual manipulation tactics is never going to happen.

After a year of distance from being in this day to day minefield of affection, I realize now that he had no issues having sex with me when he needed me to feel better about our relationship. When I was in my lowest lows, he managed to rise to the occasion. This was such a pattern that, when I finally told him I was leaving, one of his legitimate grasps at the straws of our relationship was, “Did our weekend of great sex confuse you?” To be clear, our “weekend of great sex” consisted of me setting a five minute timer for oral sex, asking him to continue after my five minutes was up, and then him telling me that I didn’t understand limits and boundaries, and this was another reason we couldn’t open the relationship. Because if I couldn’t be satisfied with five minutes of lukewarm cunnilingus, how could I be satisfied by protected sex with a new partner?

Realizing I was used

This part, the realizing that our sex life was never a fun and spicy time of physical affection and mutual desire, but rather a means to keep me on my short leash and happy about it… feels disgusting. I feel used, I feel dirty, I feel gross.

I struggle to call it sexual abuse. I don’t know if it qualifies.

But if I had known? If I had known that I was consenting to sex for the sole purpose of making my brain trauma-bond to the good times so the bad times seemed less painful? If I had known that sex was being used as a weapon to keep me in line, denied when I wasn’t performing my wifely duties of shutting up and looking pretty but freely given when I was at the end of my rope? I would have left him years earlier. And that feels awful.

You aren’t alone

In the year since I left my abuser, I’ve been sharing stories from survivors on my blog. Sometimes they’re mine. Sometimes they’re not. But I share them, and I continue to speak out loud about my experiences, because there is power in the story. For anyone reading this who has felt used, abused, and controlled… you aren’t alone. And you can be okay.

For help identifying or leaving an abusive relationship, please contact the Domestic Violence Hotline. 1-800-799-7233

 

 

 

 

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9 thoughts on “Can emotional abuse be sexual abuse?

  1. artandhealingheart says:

    This is so sad. It sounds like he was an abuser both emotionally And sexually. Im so sorry you went through this

    • Caitlin says:

      Coming back to this comment after sleeping on it. It’s so hard for me to consider him a sexual abuser. His persona of the guy who cared for me more than anything was so expertly crafted it’s downright bewildering to consider that he was in complete control. It makes me sick. But you’re right… he did abuse me, emotionally, mentally, and even sexually. I wouldn’t have consented if I had known he wasn’t honest. And that feels terrible.

  2. Secret Keeper says:

    I can relate to this on so many levels. It’s so hard not to feel stuck and believe that there can be better. I am so sorry for what you experienced. I appreciate you sharing.

  3. Q (formerly known as Quemada) says:

    Ah, the part about going to therapy to figure out what is “wrong” with you when in fact what’s wrong is the whole relationship and the way you are being treated… that just rang so true for me. It’s exactly how I ended up in therapy back when my first marriage was falling apart. It was a long time ago now, but sometimes it still feels surprisingly close to the surface. And I still ache for the woman who was so manipulated. I’m sorry you experienced the same thing, and I’m glad you are free of it now.

    • Caitlin says:

      Same to you. I’ve been out for over a year now and I still spend time mourning who I could have been so much sooner. Thank you for reading and sharing your story!

  4. theswordshapedpen says:

    I am so glad I found this. It hurt my heart reading it because it all sounded so familiar. I am fortunate that I was snapped out of the manipulated trance after only 6 months, rather than 7 years, but I’ve been in denial about what happened still for two years and carried so much guilt and shame that belonged to him, not me. Thank you for sharing this. Reading it has really helped me feel a little more confident about why I decided to start blogging.

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