Was this an abusive relationship?
October 25, 2014 2:08 PM   Subscribe

I dated a guy for a couple years. There were a lot of problems. For my own self-knowledge, I'd like to know whether it was just incompatibility, or whether he was being abusive.

The first few months were great and we were both very happy. We got along well, didn't argue, and had fun.

I liked a lot of things about his personality, but I was bothered that he only wanted to be affectionate on his terms. When he was in a sweet mood, he was very cuddly. But if I wanted affection or to have a conversation and he didn't feel like it, he would refuse. Sometimes I felt more lonely around him than when I was by myself. I complained a number of times about this to him. He said he would make an effort, and sometimes he did for a few days, but mostly it didn't change.

A few months into the relationship, he started to have short angry outbursts at me out of the blue, every month or two. Once it was because I was staring at him too much (I was actually looking at him lovingly). Other times he got angry because I'm nervous and making him anxious, or because I was grilling him, or once because I was really happy and my bubbliness annoyed him.

He started saying that I'm too "pushy". I offered to work on it and become less pushy if he could tell me which of my behaviors were too pushy. He said it was actually all of my body language, the way I walked and touched him and spoke and moved.

He always told me that I'm extremely special to him and in a league of my own, and more important than anyone else he's ever dated. But he also criticized the way I dress, my make-up, my humor, the way I set up my home. I started to feel insecure around him. I started dressing more conservatively around him and stopped telling the jokes I knew he'd find annoying, but he still seemed disapproving.

I have a hobby of making music and writing songs, and he hated it. It really bothered him that through my song lyrics, people could learn more about him. I made sure never to mention him or our relationship in any of my songs, but he still felt it revealed too much. I wrote fewer and fewer songs as time went on, and he was happy about that.

He was often putting down other people. For everyone we knew, he had some criticism about them.

Throughout our relationship, I was complaining that he was only affectionate on his terms. I sometimes got really angry about this, and we had fights. A few times I walked out in the middle of a huge fight, or once I got angry several times in one week, and then he said I had an anger problem. I acknowledge that I acted poorly in some of these situations. I wondered whether my anger caused him to also change from being sweet to being critical, or whether it would have happened anyway.

I'm glad the relationship is over, but I want to know how to think about it so I don't make the same mistakes in a new relationship. Were we just incompatible, or was he behaving abusively? Also, did my complaining about his coldness lead him to become critical in response, or does it sound like he would've become critical no matter what?
posted by vienna to Human Relations (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Truly, it sounds like you were just dating an immature, insecure jerk.
Abuse can be measured with any yardstick you want, but my big red flag is that you began changing WHO YOU ARE to please him or indulge him or keep him freakin' calm.

You're a smart one to want to learn lessons from this, and I'm glad that you are. Think about him. Think about his actions. Think about your reactions. Vow to do better next time. That's about all you can do.

The next time you're out, the next time you start dating, should you see any of these things come up again, you need to handle them differently, in a way that both empowers and protects who you are and the type of relationship you want to be in.

You go girl!
posted by John Kennedy Toole Box at 2:16 PM on October 25, 2014 [3 favorites]


"He started saying that I'm too "pushy". I offered to work on it and become less pushy if he could tell me which of my behaviors were too pushy. He said it was actually all of my body language, the way I walked and touched him and spoke and moved."

This is a sign the other person is no longer connecting with you. Had you moved on and dumped him, the rest of what happened would not have occurred.

You opened the door for this person to mistreat you.

I'm betting that having a boundary about that sort of talk (don't be close with anyone who expresses this sort of resentment towards you) is not something you were taught growing up.

Hon. You can't stick it out around people or organizations who treat you that poorly.

Of course he was horrible towards you. Of course.

But you stuck around for it. Next time, ditch the loser heaps quicker.

Whatever comes after "everything you do annoys me," is never ever going to be fulfilling and loving. Never.

Next time look out better for yourself, OK?
posted by jbenben at 2:18 PM on October 25, 2014 [9 favorites]

Without more knowledge of your particular relationship, I wouldn't say you were merely incompatible, but I wouldn't exactly say he was abusive, either. An insecure gaslighting asshole fuckwad, maybe, but I wouldn't exactly label him as abusive.

People can argue vehemently without it being abusive. People can make unreasonable demands of their significant others without it being abusive.

However, this guy's behavior as you've described it -- putting you on a pedestal while simultaneously cutting you down and making demands on your behavior -- is definitely red-flag controlling behavior that could easily become abusive.

The vast majority of relationships in my life, it's been implied -- or even outright requested -- that I change something deeply personal about myself to please the other person. The style or amount of makeup I wore, my hair color / cut / style, whether I wore short or long skirts (or skirts at all), heels or no heels, too feminine, too unfeminine, too trendy, too gothy, too flashy, too plain, there was always SOMEthing wrong. I spent too much time on guitar or art ("time I couldn't share" with the other person), I wanted to go to boring places, I wanted to go to exciting places the other person didn't want to go, blah blah blah blah blah.

Most of those relationships were not great. Some were controlling to the point of being abusive (for short amounts of time until I left them). The vast majority of those relationships were with young, insecure people who were figuring out what they really wanted and needed in a relationship, while also trying to figure out how to appropriately deal with adult relationships.

I've had exactly one relationship with a person who has never asked me to change a single thing about myself and who has been happy to accompany me on every adventure I've wanted to go on. I married that one.
posted by erst at 2:23 PM on October 25, 2014 [16 favorites]

In my mind, incompatibility is when you don't like the same things, or in the same amounts. Abuse is when you try to make someone be a certain way.

Incompatible = he doesn't like cuddling as much as you do. Abusive = angry outbursts for things like you looking at him the wrong way, criticizing you for how you dress, etc. As you've described him, he certainly does sound abusive to me.

Also, did my complaining about his coldness lead him to become critical in response, or does it sound like he would've become critical no matter what?

It's impossible to know what would have happened if you had done X or Y differently, but you didn't cause him to be a certain way, he chose to be that way. If he's critical or lashes out, he chose to be that way, regardless of what you did or didn't do.

I would strongly consider therapy for yourself so that you know how to draw good boundaries in future relationships. You should absolutely not have to change who you are for another person to be happy with you. They are free to leave if they don't like you as you are.
posted by desjardins at 2:24 PM on October 25, 2014 [10 favorites]


Let me add that "Everything you do annoys me" is NOT something a safe, sane, mature person expresses in any relationship!

Normal person would have said, "You're great, but I'm not feeling it. Let's go our separate ways with no hard feelings."

Awful terrible people tell you everything you do annoys them, and then they keep dating you anyway.

Just to draw the distinction.
posted by jbenben at 2:24 PM on October 25, 2014 [9 favorites]

I wouldn't say abusive so much as just being with an asshole and not knowing that you should have bounced long before he got mean.

If you're with someone and they don't make you feel awesome, even if you look like the dog's breakfast, then that person is just not the right person for you.

It's a given that shit will annoy you about him and vice-versa. We don't say anything about it to each other, unless it gets to an 8 or above. And then, we're sweet about it, "Sweetie, you're crunching those pretzels really loudly, let me turn up the TV."

You're allowed to complain about stuff, but frame it as something you need, rather than something he's doing wrong. "George, I want to hold hands," or "Please text me at noon, I like hearing from you." As for people being critical, opinions are like assholes, everyone has one. So if he says, "Those jeans make your ass look flat," you can either say, "thanks! I knew there was something not-quite-right about them," or "I like 'em, let's went Cisco!"

In a healthy relationship you feel comfortable saying what you think and hearing what he thinks. It's a give and take, and you both feel better for the exchange. If you feel yourself saying hateful stuff, or if after you've been together, you feel fragile. Keep moving.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:37 PM on October 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

You are the only one who can gauge this, not us. The necessary amount of context for your question cannot be transmitted in one metafilter question.

You might consider reading some books about abusive relationships to figure this out yourself.
Why Does He Do That by Lundy Bancroft
The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans
Controlling People by Patricia Evans
How to be an Adult in Relationships by David Richo - not about abuse, about healthy relationships, but a good counterpoint and a great book.

It sounds like he didn't accept you for you. Whether that's an incompatibility or whether it was abuse may not even matter much at this point, since you are no longer with him. Either way you may also want to examine why you stayed with someone who didn't appreciate or accept you. A therapist can be a helpful tool for this kind of self-examination.

Take care.
posted by sockermom at 2:56 PM on October 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

If your description is accurate, yes, the relationship devolved into abuse.

And note: Gaslighting IS abuse.
posted by stormyteal at 3:02 PM on October 25, 2014 [12 favorites]

Another vote for: deteriorated into abuse. Here's a red flag:

I made sure never to mention him or our relationship in any of my songs, but he still felt it revealed too much.
posted by feral_goldfish at 3:14 PM on October 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

Overall, I'd say this guy is not worth thinking about. But...

It really bothered him that through my song lyrics, people could learn more about him.

I had an SO who published a series of poems about me. I never saw any of it until it was published. People who knew both of us knew suddenly knew a hell of lot about me that I was uncomfortable having out there. I felt violated. That was very personal stuff she put out for the world to see. I was an asshole to her for months and then I dumped her. Not proud of the way I behaved, but I was not going to be material for her art.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 3:15 PM on October 25, 2014

I would find it creepy if someone mined a relationship with me for songwriting. Consent matters when revealing personal details about another.
posted by jpe at 3:21 PM on October 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Then don't date a songwriter.

You didn't do anything wrong by having a hobby. As you said, you didn't mention him or your relationship in your songs. It is FINE to have a hobby. You did nothing wrong there.

Re-reading your question and thinking more I recognize a lot from your story. I am a survivor of abuse and my ex did a lot of what you describe. It's pretty awful to be with someone who treats you like your ex did no matter whether they're abusive or not. I'm sorry you went through that.
posted by sockermom at 3:29 PM on October 25, 2014 [7 favorites]

I also agree that the relationship devolved to have abusive aspects. In terms of what to look out for going forward, if a partner attempts to control what you do, who you see, and how you behave and those things aren't harming others and just are not in-line with his personal preference, I'd consider it a red flag. When your partner bombards you with so many criticisms that you start feeling quite insecure, I'd consider that a red flag as well. These things are not necessarily abuse, but they are often a prelude to abuse and are designed to break you down and isolate you. They're not things a good partner does in a healthy relationship.
posted by quince at 3:31 PM on October 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

Hey, I'm gonna play armchair psychologist for a minute and ask why it matters to you if this was abuse?

If you're wanting to educate yourself to look out for "red flag"-type behaviors that could turn into abuse in future relationships, good for you! This guy gives me major douche chills from your description and yes, a lot of the stuff he did points towards the possibility of serious abuse in the future (especially the gaslighting/controlling stuff.) Good on you for getting out, and if it's helpful to you, no those are not acceptable behaviors, and if you can be on the lookout for them next time, that would be great.

If you feel like you need an abuse label because you're hurting from this relationship or you feel like YOU were in the wrong somehow or you're more broken up about this ending than you think you should be or a million other reasons why you might want the abuse label to help understand and justify how you're feeling about this.... just remember that there are things that are absolutely not okay to do to a significant other that are not commonly labelled "abuse", but that doesn't make them less not okay. Abuse is not just about one person's actions, it takes place in a larger context of entitlement and disrespect and hurtfulness and making someone feel smaller and smaller and more and more unheard. Just because this may not be what is commonly considered abuse does not mean it is not part of the larger context, the cultural milieu of abuse. It's all sort of connected into one giant nasty fabric of treating other humans, especially women, like they are less than human. Frankly, abuse or not, it sounds like an awful and minimizing and just generally terrible experience all around. You don't need the 'excuse' of abuse to feel shitty about it or to know he was treating you poorly or to think your anger was justified (which, by the way, you being angry at him for treating you poorly does not somehow allow him to get away with being critical-- he is responsible for his own actions, always and regardless of what you do.)

You go Glen Coco for getting out, no matter how long it took you or what you needed to do to get there. Be kind to yourself. You're out and you're back and you're gonna be better than ever.
posted by WidgetAlley at 3:52 PM on October 25, 2014 [6 favorites]

What you describe doesn't sound abusive so much as it sounds like this guy is a jerk, insecure and kind of weird and you, for some reason, let yourself put up with it. It mostly sounds like you guys were incompatible and you stayed together for some reason, even as you just frustrated each other. You should've left him. He should've left you. Also, if he really did love you, it sounds like he is bad boyfriend -- selfish and not supportive. Less than looking for hallmarks of abuse, I'd be focusing on the hallmarks that the relationship is not healthy and not making you happy and needs to end.
posted by AppleTurnover at 4:00 PM on October 25, 2014

Were we just incompatible, or was he behaving abusively?

These are not the only two options. You may have just been dating a domineering asshole.

Also, did my complaining about his coldness lead him to become critical in response, or does it sound like he would've become critical no matter what?

See: domineering asshole.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:50 PM on October 25, 2014

I stopped reading midway through so I could come down here and write: ABUSIVE.
posted by gentian at 5:14 PM on October 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

I agree with those saying that he was abusive.

There are several red flag behaviors in what you describe especially in his attempt to control you by only rewarding you when you did what he wanted you to do. What really cinched it for me though was the engagement in the typical cycle of abuse, where tensions build up (everything you do is wrong, your body language, your words, your hobbies), then you get punished (psychologically, emotionally, verbally, or physically) with an angry outburst, then he asks for forgiveness and says he'll change, and then he tells you that you are the best thing that ever happened to him and so special and so on. Then the tensions start to build up again. He says you're too nervous, you stare too much. He yells at you or has some short, angry outburst. And the cycle goes on. That is the classic cycle of abuse and his behavior falls right into that pattern.

Also: I strongly disagree that you somehow provoked this behavior or "opened the door" for him to treat you this way. That is some victim blaming bullshit right there. You know who thinks this way? Abusers think this way. And they try very hard to get you to think this way.

You dodged a fucking bullet with this one. Get to therapy and learn how to re-set your baseline for acceptable behavior from your partners. Learn how to establish and enforce boundaries. You deserve better than this.
posted by GoLikeHellMachine at 6:25 PM on October 25, 2014 [12 favorites]

Of the examples:

Getting irritated by being "looked" at -- incompatibility. (I hate it when people try to hold my face and stare lovingly into my eyes. It creeps me right the hell out.)
Hypercritical -- abusive. (Source: what my therapist told me about my ex-husband.)
Subtle control over appearance and hobbies -- abusive. (Lots of experience.)
Withholding affection -- abusive.
Different ways to showing affection -- interestingly, not abusive. I've been accused of "withholding" affection, but on the other hand, if I'm not in the mood to get pawed, seriously -- do not touch.

Really, the best thing to do is to count this one as experience and watch for incompatibility that could lead to imbalance.
posted by mibo at 7:40 PM on October 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Ugh. It wasn't you, it was him. I'd call it emotionally abusive.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:50 PM on October 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

I dunno if I'd go so far to label his behavior as "abusive," but I do feel pretty solid about calling him a batshit crazy asshole.
posted by Jacqueline at 12:47 AM on October 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think people, when they talk about abuse, sometimes have the misconception that abusers are these evil, alien psychopaths whose behavior is completely inexplicable in human terms--when, in reality, the horrifying thing about abuse is how "normal" it makes itself seem, and how gradually it escalates into living hell proportions.

So no, I don't think your ex sounds like an "abuser" in the sense of an irredeemable monster. But I do think he sounds like an "abuser-in-the-making"--or an "abuser-with-a-conscience," if that makes sense. I think he sounds like an extremely insecure, hypesensitive, self-obsessed person who is aware of his insecurity on some level and wants to do better about it, but who ultimately has terrible control over his feelings of inadequacy. Someone who thinks too much of himself and too little at the same time, who is constantly measuring himself against other people, and who is on an unconscious, compulsive mission to rid the world of signs that he's anything less than the Sultan of Awesometown.

I see a lot in your post that suggests he genuinely didn't want to be cruel to you (the cuddling, the pedestalizing, the "few days" when he'd make an effort to accommodate your desires), but I see a whole lot more that suggests he wasn't capable of stopping that behavior when it took hold of him. Maybe it was a lack of insight and maybe it was a lack of willpower; you can't know for sure. But every one of your complaints about him seems to boil down to him feeling threatened by something that makes him feel weak and then lashing out at it: him thinking you're "pushy" => him being threatened because this other person is capable of standing up to him so maybe he ain't all the shiny shit after all; him hating your songwriting => I can't control what other people hear about me or how they interpret it (and oh by the way my girlfriend can play guitar real pretty and I can't); him being critical of "everyone" you know => him not wanting to allow that anybody anywhere could be better than him at anything.

This may sound like I'm splitting hairs about the definition of abuse or trying to make him sound sympathetic, but my point is that there was absolutely nothing you could have done to help someone like that feel more secure about himself, and the abusive cycle started when he tried to make you think you could. The only way someone like that can get better is by taking responsibility for his own self-esteem, taking steps to develop the qualities he feels he lacks, and accepting that he, too, is a flawed, limited human being who will never fully live up to his ideals. The trouble is that that kind of growth is really, really hard for some personalities, and plenty of people find it easier to just get a girlfriend and convince her she's inferior to them. They don't necessarily "enjoy" being that cruel. It's just way easier than the alternative--so much easier that they often stop recognizing that an alternative even exists, or that they might be the ones to blame for the way they feel. In a sense, abuse is an extreme form of laziness.

IMO, your situation took a turn towards being an abusive relationship when he got you to start suppressing your charisma and your emotional satisfaction (the jokes, the songwriting, the "staring") to keep him from feeling "annoyed." It probably felt like you were just respecting his boundaries, keeping the peace, and helping him feel better about himself, but here's the thing: the abuser in him was counting on it feeling that way. In actuality, he was bullying you into enabling his belief that he can stomp everything that threatens him about you out of existence. He might have felt guilty about what he was doing, and he might have had the ability, on some level, to challenge those aspects of his personality, but his ever-expanding criticisms suggest that a really bad dynamic that was taking shape. Once enabled, those kinds of insecurities tend to come back, and come back harder. In all likelihood, he would have gone on finding things about you that didn't satisfy him until you'd internalized the idea that he was above you. And even then, he'd have kept going.

Fortunately, it doesn't sound like things ever got to that point. When I say this doesn't sound like abuse I mean it sounds like neither of you got beyond a point of no return with it (you still kept arguing with him about affection, etc.) But it does sound like it was headed that way, and I think it's a very good thing you got out when you did. My advice, going forward, would be for you to be on the lookout for this kind of bullying behavior in future relationships--and, if you think it would help, to seek therapy to help you understand and challenge your impulse to placate it. Someone who's really equipped to be a good partner will not resent you for writing songs, and will not snap at you for having emotional needs that occasionally diverge from his. Congratulations on getting out while the getting was still good!
posted by urufu at 1:52 AM on October 26, 2014 [10 favorites]

> "He started saying that I'm too 'pushy'. I offered to work on it and become less pushy if he could tell me which of my behaviors were too pushy. He said it was actually all of my body language, the way I walked and touched him and spoke and moved."

This is abusive. It is essentially manufacturing an excuse to criticize your behavior at any time by creating a standard that is vague, universal, and mostly inexplicable, and therefore impossible to live up to.

> "But he also criticized the way I dress, my make-up, my humor, the way I set up my home. I started to feel insecure around him. I started dressing more conservatively around him and stopped telling the jokes I knew he'd find annoying, but he still seemed disapproving."

This is also abusive. While, unlike the first example, this is theoretically criticizing behaviors that could be changed, the criticism sounds like it was relentless, widespread, targeted at harmless behaviors, and continued even after you had altered what was theoretically being criticized.

Criticism as an abusive behavior can often be hard for people to gauge, because a certain amount of criticism is likely to exist even in a healthy relationship. But there are a number of red flags that signal when it flips over from normal relationship behavior to abuse. Your ex's behavior checked off a NUMBER of these red flags. It sounds like the criticism was, for example: frequent, targeted at behaviors you would otherwise have considered innocuous, failed to decrease (or decreased only temporarily) after sincere efforts to change, and held you to a standard that shifted and/or was too vague for you ever to be sure you were adhering to it.

Even a couple of those is bad news, much less the long list. And this is before even getting into stuff you haven't mentioned so I can't judge, such as tone (the manner in which the criticism was broached), reciprocity (how he handled criticism in turn), and fairness (whether he acknowledged that he had no right to judge or demand changes to many categories of behavior). Without even knowing about that, I'd still regard what you've described as abusive.

This kind of relentless, impossible-to-satisfy criticism is a way to control and manipulate someone by undermining their confidence and conditioning them to jump on command. It is abuse.

Be glad you got out.
posted by kyrademon at 5:50 AM on October 26, 2014 [6 favorites]

Came here looking for something like urufu's answer: He's insecure, scared about measuring up, maybe inexperienced.

Some of these things are borderline abusive. Most of them are just annoying, self-centered and nitpicky.

He also sounds more introverted/shy/controlled than you. More of a thinker and planner and performer, more concerned about status.

The way to deal with those types is to laugh at them. Do not take their criticism. Just laugh as if it is the silly little worries it is. Tease them, "afraid I'm going to embarrass you?" And wink. Do not change yourself. Some form of compromise and growing is bound to happen in all relationships, but it should feel more like adding rather than taking over or subtracting things you previously cared about.

Critical people are small people. Always, period. There aren't great statues of critics. This is something I believe strongly and have come to internalize so much, that I now automatically see excessive criticism as pitiable weakness, and so should you.

Real, true confidence comes from embracing embarrassment and getting back up. It comes from acceptance and not control.
posted by quincunx at 7:58 AM on October 26, 2014

I think he was behaving in an abusive way in an attempt to drive you away. This seems to me to be less dangerous than someone who is abusive to try to hold on to you no matter what, which I think is what a lot of us think of when we think of a sort of classic abusive relationship. My friend was in a similar relationship for many years and she considers it to have been abusive, but from the outside it looked more and more like were both too afraid to break up and just got meaner and meaner to each other.

Regardless, in your case as in my friend's case, it was a terrible relationship and you don't deserve to be treated that way and it's good you got out.
posted by mskyle at 8:09 AM on October 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm glad the relationship is over, but I want to know how to think about it so I don't make the same mistakes in a new relationship.

I think you will find Baggage Reclaim to be helpful. (She redesigned the site and it's a little harder to find things, but please do dig around because there's tons of good stuff there.)

FWIW, I think if you were currently in this relationship there would be a near-unanimous consensus that this was abusive behavior, even if it isn't on the severe end of the scale. Repeatedly taking your anger out on people is abusive, regardless of the relationship between the people.
posted by Room 641-A at 9:32 AM on October 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think reading up on verbal and emotional abuse will absolutely help you process what went down in this relationship, validate your choice to leave, reinforce the idea that you didn't deserve such treatment, and help you discern what you want from future relationships. Whether you want to actually use the word abusive, or other words like angry, controlling, negative, cold, overcritical, etc. is up to you and will probably become more clear with time.

For what it's worth, I would certainly characterize a relationship in which I changed my appearance and behavior to appease an angry critical man, curbed my creative output to pacify him, feared regular outbursts, and blamed myself for his anger, as abusive.

Just because he wasn't 100% evil all the time and you weren't 100% an angel all the time doesn't make his behavior acceptable.

It does sound like you were incompatible with respect to affection needs. So that compatibility would be something to look for in your next relationship. Also, if you're concerned about how you resolved conflicts yourself, you can work on your own anger and approach to disagreements and asking for what you need, without it being an endorsement or justification of his abuse.

Good on you for getting out of it. Now you know that if you're not getting what you need, you can leave-- like, the second the man who is supposed to love you says something damning he can't unsay like "everything about you is too [x]," you know the relationship is only going to deteriorate.

He seemed to want to keep you down. What a small person. Bet he would have gotten worse.
posted by kapers at 1:58 PM on October 27, 2014

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