Picture of a dry stone wall with the words: 'Stonewalling and Emotional Abuse: my Story'

Stonewalling and emotional abuse: my story

I saw my ex boyfriend a few months ago. I hadn’t seen him in six years and he lived hundreds of miles away. I honestly never expected to see him again. It was a time of mixed emotions – I felt sad that it never worked out because I genuinely loved him in a way that I hadn’t loved a partner before. But I also felt a huge sense of relief that I’d escaped, which I couldn’t understand until I started talking about it with my counsellor. I realised that whenever I looked back on that time I felt trapped and traumatised.

I always brushed off any abusive behaviours towards me – I didn’t think I had the right to call it abuse because there was always a reason for it. And besides, he wasn’t coercive or manipulative like my previous boyfriend. But one thing he did do a lot of was stonewalling, or going for long periods without talking to me except where necessary. Then he would explode. It all caused me to walk on eggshells around him.

Stonewalling is where someone refuses to engage on an emotional level and ends up giving the silent treatment and putting up a big wall that’s impossible to break through. For him, he’d had a stroke and was struggling at work, but he only rarely opened up about what was bothering him and got defensive when I tried to bring it up. We couldn’t connect at a deep level because he was constantly pushing me away. I knew he was going through a lot of struggles.

He would speak to his friends on the phone and laugh and joke with them as if there was nothing wrong but as soon as he hung up the phone he was back to his cold, quiet self. I still remember a phone call he had with a colleague that he didn’t even like much. He seemed so happy and like he was having such fun. When he hung up the phone, still smiling, I asked him if he had been called into work and he suddenly snapped back into his cold self and lashed out at me, saying it was none of my business.

Similarly, one time we were in the supermarket and there was a tiny miscommunication – perhaps I hadn’t heard or perhaps he forgot what he’d said – but he shouted at me. Then as soon as we got outside to where our friends were waiting, he smiled and became chatty and friendly again. It confused me and all added to my belief that I was the problem.

In fact, during that time, the only time when we talked at any length was when I queried what I was doing wrong to cause his behaviour. I would get a long list of petty issues – I left the washing hanging on the radiators for too long after they were dry; I didn’t dry the kitchen surfaces after wiping them down; I didn’t wash and iron his shirts for him even though I was home more than he was. But the issue he kept coming back to was my health and why I wasn’t just pushing through my chronic illness and doing more.

He would also bring up the fact that we didn’t talk much as a reason for his unhappiness.

Is it me?

There was the confirmation – the problem was me, never him. If I could only be the perfect girlfriend then we wouldn’t have these problems. But as much as I tried, I couldn’t force myself to be good enough. If only I was chatty and fun then he’d be different, I thought.

But the truth was I was treading on eggshells around him for months. I got to a point where I was too afraid to even speak to him, except for safe topics like asking if he wanted a cup of tea. But I was still so desperate to connect so I organised picnics with all his favourite foods, cooked nice meals, tried to arrange days out – anything that would bring us closer together. But it didn’t bring him out of his shell. Instead, he barely acknowledged my efforts and the time we spent together was the loneliest I’ve ever been.

All this time I believed that if our relationship failed it was only because I wasn’t good enough or I wasn’t loveable. It was me who was the failure, not him. I didn’t feel I had the right to bring up the subject of his behaviour, I would always bring it back to me: what was I doing to cause him to act that way? Because I didn’t recognise his behaviour as abusive, I internalised the shame and spent hours trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. I questionned everything about myself: my looks, my personality, my life choices, even my sanity. I eventually believed that no one could ever love me because I would never be good enough for anyone. I also shamed myself for my genuine trauma responses to his behaviour, thinking it was my fault that I was tongue-tied and treading on eggshells whilst constantly trying to please him. All the while, I never questionned him.

Gaslighting

One of the reasons for my belief that I was at fault was that he gaslighted me in certain ways.

He did this by making out that I was the one with major issues. He told me so many times that I had depression (and even said so to my parents without me knowing) that I started to question myself and wonder if I really did have it. He denied my experiences of chronic illness (ME/CFS and POTS) and told me that I wasn’t pushing through hard enough. He would get annoyed and criticise me for tiny things I’d done wrong but when he did the same things himself he told me I was making a big deal out of nothing and it wasn’t his fault. He constantly undermined and challenged me on my business decisions, diet, life choices and friendships.

All this left me questioning myself, my values and my sanity. I felt like I’d lost myself and didn’t know who I was any more. I constantly felt like I was the one in the wrong.

Feeling Trapped

I had a recurring dream during that time where instead of a pet dog, we had a pet tiger (sometimes it was a lion or other dangerous animal). In my dreams I would pet the animal and look after it but constantly felt on edge, as if the animal would turn on me and attack me.

I had the same dream again last night for the first time in years, only this time, after petting the tiger, I went to a secret area upstairs where all the animals were kept in different secure rooms with glass-fronted doors – a tiger, a snake, a pack of hyenas and more.

I think for me this represents the fawning trauma response that I displayed during that time. I was doing everything in my power to placate the tiger but was aware that if I did something wrong or looked away for a minute then I could be seriously harmed. I felt I had to constantly be with the tiger and meet its needs and didn’t think I could just walk away. My traumatised brain told me that this was my lot in life and that I should stick with the tiger that I know rather than the dangerous animals that could be lurking out in the world. My shame told me the same story: ‘No one else could ever love you, you don’t deserve any better.’

I know looking back that there’s no way I would have ever left if he hadn’t ended the relationship, even though I was desperate to leave. To this day I’m actually grateful that my health declined to a point where the relationship was unsustainable because that was the push I needed.

Naming it as abuse

For many years after leaving the relationship I felt a sense of tenderness towards him and always saw my relationship with him as the only relationship where I hadn’t been abused in some way. I deeply loved him, even long after we broke up, and would have done almost anything for him. In my head he had so much going for him that my other ex didn’t: he acted like an adult and took responsibility for things, including household chores. He got on well with my friends and didn’t seem to be jealous at all. He never coerced or forced me into doing anything. He wasn’t selfish and he didn’t verbally or physically abuse me. He never put pressure on me to have sex. He didn’t expect me to drink or take drugs. He seemed to genuinely care about me and took our relationship seriously.

But in spite of all this I never felt he respected me. I’m not talking about the type of respect that you have to earn but basic treating-me-like-an-equal-human-being respect. So when I heard his behaviour labelled as emotional abuse I wasn’t surprised but it did feel like a naming of something that I’d so far refused to acknowledge. And simply acknowledging it felt like a heavy weight lifting off my chest. Everything seemed to click into focus and I realised I’d been making excuses for him all these years and pushing down my own suffering and trauma in the process.

Here’s a truth that someone may need to hear today: there’s a difference between a reason and an excuse. Just because there’s a valid reason for someone’s abusive behaviour, doesn’t excuse their behaviour.

I put his behaviour down to his autism, my illness, my unloveableness, our circumstances, his stroke, his job, his lifestyle, my lack of income, my past trauma, my annoying habits and probably many other things. I never questioned him, only myself. But the truth is that even if I had slipped up there would still be no excuse for him abusing me.

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