Being in a relationship means cheap date-nights. Falling asleep on the couch while watching comedy skits. Waking up to hot coffee and toast every so often.
It also means arguing. Sometimes about not much at all. People tire, get snappy, become peevish. They roll their eyes, they raise their voices, and they sit silently and awkwardly with their arms crossed in loud restaurants before apologising, smiling at the other person sheepishly, and getting on with their meal. But, for people who have experienced emotional abuse in their romantic relationships, arguing—be it over what movie to see, what dish to order, or who should put out the bins this time around—can feel fraught with danger.
I started a new relationship only three months after leaving an emotionally abusive one. It was ambitious, and perhaps irresponsible, but I was smitten. My new boyfriend, Paul, was entirely different to my last. He was sensitive and understanding, and every time I found myself mulling over my experiences when it came to love, hurt and the past, he was keen to listen. Even more so, he was eager to console me.
But, as is the case for all long-term relationships, the dazzle and shyness inevitably wore off. By the time Paul and I had settled into our new companionship—with a rescue dog and cat in tow, a new apartment, and a couple of shared stamps on our passport—we’d occasionally argue about trivial things before scoffing at our pettiness later.
In my previous, abusive relationship, arguing very effortlessly evolved into something dangerous
For me though, arguing was always the onset of something far greater and more terrifying. In my previous, abusive relationship, arguing very effortlessly evolved into something dangerous. It would turn quickly into a series of verbal assaults, being pinned down by him and yelled at, and being stuck in a state of scary, perpetual strain and edginess.
One evening, I cowered next to Paul in the driver’s seat of my car, the two of us tired and snappish and contemplating our dinner preferences. “Are you frightened of me?” he asked. "No,” I said, and meant it—but muscle memory is a powerful thing, and it was as if my experiences had forced me to memorise a tired mantra: that if you frustrate or annoy a man, you will be punished for it.
According to Joseph Grenny, co-author of New York Times bestseller Crucial Conversations, arguing is actually beneficial in romantic relationships. It allows for differing opinions to be heard and felt until a happy negotiation is met. Although it’s not the sort of thing loved-up couples tend to mention about their private lives willingly (that being that they occasionally bicker), it means that the pair in question are at least good at communicating and taking, as he says, “emotional responsibility for their feelings.”
Being with Paul meant discovering that in the past, the abuse I experienced wasn’t the product of a petty argument between lovers. In fact, it was entirely different. What I underwent was an extensive and considered attempt by somebody else to make me feel small, unworthy and inadequate. Rather than arguing about what film to watch, our disputes were far broader and much more personal. When he’d say “I’m not attracted to you”, or “I don’t think that you’re good at what you do”, he did so knowing that he was not inviting a constructive reply or a fair discussion. His claims were cruel attacks.
With Paul, the two of us acknowledge our humanness. We don’t blame the other for every occasional foul mood
A few months ago, Paul seemed particularly sulky. He hadn’t had enough sleep, was slightly hungover after a raucous night with a few colleagues, and it was time to take our dog for a walk. “You know,” he started. “When I’m like this, you don’t need to hide. Just tell me I’m being a grump. It’s okay.”
It was then that I realised how abuse manifests. According to my ex, every emotion he experienced—be it frustration, anger or scorn for me—was justified. It was my fault. I needed pulling in line, scolding and shaming. Whereas, with Paul, the two of us acknowledge our humanness. We don’t blame the other for every occasional foul mood. Instead, we point the finger at a disruptive night sleep, a petty argument with a family member, or something as trivial as running out of toilet paper.
For every bad mood or groggy nap, there will be more arguments. I know this. And with Paul I am able to tackle them head on, before laughing about them later. As long as we are undecided as to whether or not we cook, order in or head out for a good feed, there will be the occasional quarrel. But I know that I am safe and loved.
*Author's name has been changed.
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