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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The life changing magic of trauma

If you’re familiar with Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, you know that her method of simplifying requires you to get all of one type of item together (clothing, books, toiletries, papers, whatever), touch each and every one, and decide if it gives you joy before deciding whether or not to keep it in your life.

I’ve come to realize that moving on from trauma has similarities. For me, being minimalist isn’t just about having fewer possessions. In fact, it’s not really about possessions at all. Minimalism is about letting go of the excess in order to focus on the things that let you live your authentic and most joyous life. And being a minimalist also means letting go of people, relationships, and obligations that don’t bring you joy (or that actively reduce your joy).

I’ve recently left an emotionally abusive relationship and I have been processing many of my experiences on my personal Facebook page, sharing with friends and family who only saw the pretty picture I shared for public consumption, showing them what my actual experience was like behind the mask. I didn’t even understand myself that I was living in an emotionally traumatic relationship until I began prioritizing my mental health.

At first, I shared because it was cathartic. It was validating. It was community. So many women reached out to me, via comments or private messages, to thank me for sharing my story. They shared their own. I’ve seen a ripple effect of women beginning to publicly share their own stories of leaving abusive relationships, and even women realizing their relationships are traumatic without them ever realizing it consciously before. Sharing stories has power.

I’ve come to realize that I’m also sharing my story because I have to touch it. I have to pick up the years in my hands, turn them over, look at the rough spots and the pretty spots and decide that it’s okay to let go of the happily ever after I thought I’d found. Even amidst good memories of laughter and comfort and companionship, I can sift through these experiences and realize that they don’t add joy.

What makes this process a little more difficult than admitting you don’t wear an old dress anymore is that a lot of the good memories involved in a traumatic or abusive relationship were just lies and manipulation. Charm. Part of the cycle.

The good times happened in a pattern, after I’d gotten upset at the inequalities in our relationship, after some inane multi-day discussion about something that shouldn’t have been a fight, after I called out a double standard. Suddenly things were better again, he’d treat me to a nice dinner out, we’d have sex that weekend, and our normal easy life was back. Until it wasn’t.

Every day I unearth memories through this new lens, and I see that what I once thought was sweet was actually possessive, what I once thought was supportive was actually controlling, what I once thought was misunderstanding was actually covert and deliberate gaslighting. It’s exhausting. But I have to touch it all to let it go. Hiding it and never thinking about it will just extend the amount of time it eats away at me, but by being so open and honest about my experiences, I’ve found that I feel less and less grief, anger, and resentment. I’ve touched it, realized it brings me nothing positive (aside from the power to tell my story), and let it go.

I don’t say these things to romanticize trauma or say that everything happens for a reason. But for me in particular, sharing my story has been cathartic. Touching the trauma has helped me set it aside. And opening up about my experiences has helped me realize that finding what I do want out of life includes a good amount of leaving behind what I surely don’t. 

To quote my beloved Space Mom, Carrie Fisher, “Sometimes you can only find Heaven by slowly backing away from Hell.”

 

An open letter to my abuser’s ex wife

Hello.

I am not sure if you care to hear from me, or indeed if you even know who I am. I’m the woman your husband left you for. And I am deeply sorry, on so many levels.

When I met him, he was in an open relationship with permission to play and “get his needs met,” because you no longer wanted to have sex with him. You wanted things “don’t ask don’t tell” because you didn’t like the details. I don’t know if this is true.

When I met him, he said if your comfort levels changed at all about the open relationship, it would be game over for non-monogamy and he would stop dating outside partners. I do not believe this to be true, given what eventually happened and that he disclosed other infidelities he committed during his marriage to you.

When I met him, he spun me a tale of being neglected at home, living with you as a friend and roommate without any passion. He told me that you two once went to a party and the hostess put her hand on his shoulder — and he flinched, because it had been so long since he had been touched. I do not know if this is true.

When I met him, he was turning 41 and I was 23.

Within days of meeting him, he told me he had never felt this way about anyone, and that he realized he wanted to be with me forever, that we were fated to be together. Within a month, we had matching tattoos and promise rings and we’d exchanged short words about how much we meant to each other. And because I was only 23, and because I was in a dying relationship myself, and because I want to save people who feel broken, I fell for it all.

And I am so sorry.

I waited for him. I believed we were destined for each other.

Your husband told me he wanted to be with me but just needed time to end your marriage with the least amount of pain for you. He said he owed it to you. He said so many things about how cold you were to him, how you were disgusted by sex with him, how you used to want children with him but one day told him “Not with you,” when he asked if you still wanted kids.

He told me he had given up on his health and on ever hoping for a better relationship because he had no reason to hope for anything more.

He told me he once yelled at you over buying the wrong kind of printer paper.

He told me he finally decided your marriage was over when you suggested letting one of the cats live outside. (That cat still pees on everything). When I once yelled at this cat for peeing on a curtain I had JUST put on the floor while I reinstalled the curtain rod, he told me I reminded him of you. He said it just to hurt me. Comparing me to you was immensely effective in controlling my behavior.

He used to watch me cry, while I wondered if he’d ever really be with me, wondering how long I could possibly wait for him. Wondering why I was doing this to myself. But I waited because we were MEANT to be together.

When I finally packed up all his things and told him to call me when he got divorced, he told me that if I was with anyone else while I waited for him, we couldn’t be together. And wouldn’t you know it, I continued to wait for him. He told me he needed to see how my story ended and he couldn’t bear to not be a part of it.

I waited for him for two years.

I moved into your home the day before your divorce was final. I told him that he’d never have to feel alone in that house again. Little did I know that I’d be the one feeling alone in that house.

Despite our passionate affair, once I moved in, the sex all but stopped. Always with good reason — stress about the divorce, stress about his job, not sleeping well, not feeling well. Always a good reason. And I couldn’t help but wonder, if he needed an open relationship to get his needs met so badly, why is it that once he had a partner with a sex drive, he no longer wanted sex? It took me many years to learn that the needs he had were not sexual. They were control, power, and adoration.

I want you to know that none of it was your fault. Whatever parts of his story were true — if you were cold, distant, and lonely at home, it was not because of some failing on your part. You were not a bad wife. You are not a bad person. He did not cheat because of you.

You were tired. So you started doing things for yourself. You started running and losing weight. You found things that made you happy, outside of him. He did not like this. He did not like it when I did it either. When I cut my sugar intake, he’d buy me a candy bar. When I wanted to run longer races, he insisted I see a doctor for a physical despite never having a running injury.

When you stopped worshiping him, he went and found outside supply for his needs. He found many women in the meantime, but then he found me. And I’m sorry for both of us that he did.

He told me on many occasions that I talked too much about my exes. He said this to me so many times that I actually started keeping notes on how often I mentioned them. And it turns out that I really didn’t talk about exes much… but he did. Because of how much he built up insecurity around exes, I always felt compared to them when he did discuss them. If me talking about exes was a bad thing, why wasn’t it bad for him to do? It must have been something inherently wrong with me, right?

If he did this to you too, I’m sorry. If you knew about me and he used me to rattle your security and confidence, I’m sorry. If he talked about his infidelities or past lovers or any other outside partners to keep you under control, I am sorry. You are not someone who can be controlled. You are strong.

I am sure it hurt immensely when he ended your marriage. You were together for over 13 years. He was everything to you. You didn’t understand why he was discarding you. But that’s what it was. The cycle of psychological abuse includes this pattern: idealize, devalue, discard. When you met, it was all rainbows and sunshine, right? And then over time your confidence was degraded, you had to try harder to keep him happy, and somehow his happiness ended up hinging on whether or not you were chipper and pleased to serve him, I bet.

(Did he refuse to eat what you cooked if you prepared food while upset?)

I imagine that having a few outside partners helped him get a fresh hit of adoration now and then, and he was happy enough to go home to you. But I was a gooey caramel-filled chocolate bar for him, the perfect storm of insecurity, childhood trauma, a need for validation, and an eagerness to do whatever anyone wanted because I was too afraid to say no and lose somebody. He knew if he got me he could have me forever. And so you were sacrificed, because you no longer doled out worship. He didn’t deserve that adoration — he never did.

I spent over six years with him, almost seven.

I tried to leave once. I told him he was manipulative and abusive. He feigned shock, cried with me, apologized deeply and profusely for not only treating me that way but also not noticing how unhappy I had become. He promised change. Nothing changed.

Two years later I left for real. And his story about me is not the truth. Which makes me understand that his stories about you are probably also not the truth.

I’m sorry I believed him.

I am sorry I was part of your pain.

But I am not sorry you got away.