An Abusive Relationship Made Me a Perfectionist
How learning to be in a healthy partnership finally made me feel “good enough.”
It’s 1:30 in the morning and I’m lying awake listening to the sound of my boyfriend’s light snoring. The box fan is humming softly in the corner. Cool night air blows through the window.
Although I’m happy, I’m also torn. In the dark I debate whether the fan is making enough noise to keep him asleep if I get up to go put away the clean dishes. Half of me is kicking myself for forgetting to do so. The other half is wondering if it’s a good opportunity to also clean the bathroom overnight as a surprise.
I remind myself how lucky I am to have found a good guy. I wonder whether this is business as usual for domestic violence survivors everywhere. I tell myself I’m most likely not as alone and abnormal as I feel. I force myself to fall asleep.
This all sounds weird, but these little debates play out in my head all day, every day. When I shop, I try to find little gifts for him to keep him happy, like a new pair of shoes. Every time I make it home before he does, I try to use those spare moments to clean something. Getting into his car also means clearing out a few bits of trash as I exit. I always make sure he has everything he needs before he leaves for work and his alarm is set before we go to bed.
Sometimes scars make you sweet.
It comes with a darker side, though. He’s done nothing to spark my fears, yet I’m often overwhelmed with anxiety. I can’t let myself spend more than a few dollars on gifts, or I’ll spend the rest of the day anticipating a fight over money. Everything I clean has to be spotless, yet I still worry about cleaning something incorrectly. I worry I’m taking too long getting out of his car and running to the nearest trash can or else he’ll get impatient. I’m somehow convinced at any moment he could snap at me for patronizing him by making sure he hasn’t forgotten anything.
I’m careful about everything. I try to avoid talking too much (challenging for my personality) or too little, keep myself from smothering him or being distant. I let him choose what to have for dinner or what to watch on television without forcing him to always be the one to decide.
I’ve haven’t seen him angry, but I try to be the perfect boyfriend. It feels safer to pursue perfection than to risk making mistakes. But I’ve haven’t met my own standards of perfection.
A Brief Education in Domestic Violence: The Skeletons in My Closet
A few years ago I was in a codependent marriage with an abusive alcoholic. No need to apologize. Although I appreciate the reflexive “I’m sorry” that comes along with any sad tale, I assure you it was almost as fun as it sounds. Without getting into the gory details, it wasn’t an easy time in my life.
As a victim, you’re under control, not in control.
We call it learning or adjusting. You convince yourself you’re being flexible and smart when you learn the little things that trigger your abuser. Then you convince yourself you’re making a conscious choice to avoid those triggers. In reality you’re not in control. You’re relinquishing your power and autonomy to avoid getting yelled at or beaten or called every name in the book.
In a nutshell, you can’t win in an abusive relationship. Not even when you play by their rules. You’re choosing whether you’ll take physical punishment for rebelling or bear the emotional cross of being someone’s doormat.
It’s important to be able to recognize emotional abuse in intimate relationships. Now, years later, I’m still paying the price.
Gentle Can Drive You Crazy
About a month into my current relationship, I realized I don’t know how to actually be in a healthy, long-term, committed relationship with a happy, healthy, responsible individual. My marriage was kind of a bust. Although I’ve had boyfriends since then, it was obvious from the get-go we were not going to be together forever.
My parents were not particularly good examples either. Like most survivors of domestic violence, I was raised in an abusive household. My dad was particularly adept at coldly ripping people to shreds without disrupting his stoic, sociopathic facade. My mom has been married six times.
She finally got it right with my stepdad, but by the time he came into the picture, I was already in my “parents are lame” adolescent phase, so I haven’t witnessed much of what a healthy marriage looks like. I know it involves more laughing and fewer slamming doors.
I may have gotten it right with my current boyfriend, though, and that’s a scary concept. It means I have to learn how to survive without dysfunction. I tried embracing my vulnerability a few weeks ago and almost threw up in panic. The first time I said, “I love you,” I was bawling my eyes out because becoming emotionally attached to someone is a scarier prospect for me than my own mortality and public speaking combined. I still have nightmares nearly every night that tell me all the reasons he’s going to leave me for someone else or suddenly start to act like my ex-husband.
Funny how gentle can drive you crazy.
That’s why I’m so conscious of being good to him. I keep telling myself I’ve found a good one. He deserves to be treated as well. I’m simply a kind and sweet boyfriend.
Deep down I know better. I know I’m trying so hard to be perfect out of fear. I’m afraid he’ll leave me for someone less damaged. I’m afraid he will feel the need to control me. I’m afraid I will relive my first relationship.
Learning to Be in a Healthy Relationship
Tonight, instead of getting up to go clean the bathroom and put away the dishes, I’m going to lie here, rest my head on his chest, and feel his heartbeat. For the first time in my life, I’m going to know how it feels to be both loved and worthy of being loved. I’m going to trust him when he tells me he actually likes me for who I am. When he gives me a compliment, I won’t worry about him taking it back someday in an angry, drunken rage. I will move forward, albeit carefully, with the confidence and faith that I’ve learned from my mistakes, gotten incredibly lucky, and made the right choice.
When I told him about my feelings, he asked me to wake him up so we can do type A midnight dishwashing sessions together.
I believe I’m damaged, but not doomed. Continually working on my mental health will help alleviate and heal the first part of that equation.
If you’re currently experiencing domestic violence or need help dealing with the aftereffects of abuse, visit our Help Now page. The National Domestic Violence Hotline also offers many resources to those in need.
Originally published at www.talkspace.com on April 21, 2017.