Emotional abuse: ‘My fiance seemed perfect - but he wanted to control me’
When Anna, an actress, fell in love with an older and more successful actor he seemed like the perfect man. They quickly became engaged - but then he began to change. It took time for her to realise that her fairytale romance had become an abusive relationship.
People think that emotional abuse isn't as bad as physical abuse, but, I can tell you, it leaves scars.
My relationship with Thom felt like a fairy tale, the kind you only ever see in films. We met just before my 30th birthday, when I was freaking out about where I was in life: still single, no kids, and no home of my own.
I was working in a play at the time, and one of the other actresses told me that he was coming to see us perform that night. She'd known him for 14 years, and had worked with him on a previous job. I'd just broken up with someone else, thought he was quite cute, and she hinted he may be good for a rebound.
We swapped numbers straight away. It turned out he'd already followed me on Twitter after seeing me in a show - I later discovered this was his first move with anyone he was attracted to.
A few days later, we ended up meeting for a coffee, and he was lovely. I remember thinking, "Wow, this is so amazing." And then the texting began, which, looking back, should have been a huge red flag. I'd receive 50-100 messages a day, long ones. At one point he said to me, "I send you really long messages and I only get one sentence back." I was pretty busy with my play and other things and I think anyone would have struggled to keep up with the volume.
He used to say that after our second lunch he'd realised he was in love with me. He came to see me perform, took me out for dinner and took a massive interest in my life, my childhood, and my family. I thought he was so different from the guys I'd been out with before.
Two weeks after we met, it was my birthday. I invited him to my party, but he said he wouldn't come, that I should spend time with my friends. He seemed so respectful of my personal space.
In the brief time I'd known him he'd been ticking off the qualities I'd always wanted in a person that I was dating. He was being kind and thoughtful without any prompting - doing the things I'd always done for my ex-boyfriends but which had never been reciprocated.
Controlling or coercive behaviour in a relationship
In 2015 the Serious Crime Act - England and Wales - was changed to recognise controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship.
Controlling behaviour: A range of acts making a person subordinate and/or dependent on their abuser. These include isolating them from sources of support, depriving them of means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.
Coercive behaviour: A pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.
On reflection, this was him drawing me in, creating a world that I would never want to leave. Like the first time you take drugs and you get a high, then once you're addicted you're always chasing that first high but it's never the same. He was like that. By the end, I felt like an addict, hoping that our relationship would return to how it was at the beginning, when it was so fun and too good to be true.
Two days after my birthday, I stayed over at his house, and we slept together for the first time. There had been a couple of opportunities before then, but he hadn't pressured me - which also made me think he was great.
He asked me to be his girlfriend the morning after. I said yes. The same day he gave me a whole talk about how now I was with him, the press were going to be interested in me, and how people were going to say bad things about him to me because of who he was.
Then he asked me if I'd read his Wikipedia, because I hadn't ever seen his work and he said that I should get to know what he'd done. I said, "You're sitting right in front of me, I'll get to know what you've done from you."
A couple of days later, he told me that he'd been thinking a lot and was getting really jealous about my ex-boyfriends and my past. He told me that he needed time to work on himself and would really appreciate it if I didn't talk about them.
He seemed like he was trying to be open and honest, so I agreed.
Sitting in the park the next day, before I had to go to work, he said how much he wished I was going back to his that night. I said I felt the same way, and that's when he asked me to move in with him. Three weeks after we first met.
I said yes.
At the beginning he'd bring me coffee in bed with pastries and flowers, leave me notes in the morning when he left for work, and come and meet me if we were crossing paths, even if it was only for five minutes, just to say "hi" to each other. He was showing me this perfect man.
But around that time, a friend of mine told me that years before Thom had sent abusive emails to a friend of his. He warned me to be cautious, telling me that he'd heard this guy wasn't good news. I remember thinking that just didn't sound like the person I knew.
Where to get help
Domestic violence, also called domestic abuse, includes physical, emotional and sexual abuse in couple relationships or between family members. It can happen to women and men and anybody can be an abuser.
- Women can call 0808 2000 247, the free 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline run in partnership between Women's Aid and Refuge
- Men can call the Men's Advice Line free on 0808 801 0327 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm), or ManKind on 01823 334 244
- Galop provides support to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people experiencing domestic violence
- Anyone who needs confidential help with their own abusive behaviour can contact Respect on their free helpline on 0808 802 4040
- In an emergency, call 999
When I asked him about this, he swore and then changed the subject really quickly. He started blaming me for causing him to neglect his family. He said that because he'd been focusing all his energy on our relationship, he'd missed really important things at home. I panicked and apologised. But looking back, it's clear this was just a way of diverting attention from the abusive emails.
Gifts were a big thing with Thom, though they'd never be things that I actually wanted - they'd be something he'd want me to wear, always fairly expensive. It was almost like he wanted to create the perfect idea of what he had in his head about what his girlfriend would look like.
There were so many red flags that I just let pass at the time. He wasn't only jealous about my exes. If I talked about an experience that had made me happy, he told me that he was jealous that he hadn't been there. He was always trying to control what I talked about.
The contact when we weren't together became overwhelming. I felt like I had to respond to his messages really quickly. It was as though he didn't want to leave any space for me to think about anything other than him.
The arguments began about two months into our relationship. Everything had been so perfect up to then, it was completely unexpected. But suddenly it seemed as though if I was in a good mood, or things were good between us, he would instigate a fight - two or three times a week. It was really horrible and draining, and to begin with I was in shock.
Despite this, three months after we first met, he got down on one knee and proposed. I was overwhelmed with excitement. We talked about our future and children and everything just felt natural and wonderful and right.
It was at this moment, however, when I had made a promise to marry him and was living in his home, that our perfect world began to disintegrate.
He had the engagement ring made based on one he'd seen five years earlier - before we'd even met. I hated it. It was made with his favourite stone, and it felt like I was fitting the ring, this perfect image in his head once again, rather than the ring being picked for me.
I had been struggling with work and it upset me to find that he was patronising and dismissive of my career. He would talk to me as though I didn't know what I was doing. But actually I've been in the industry for years and done well - I just haven't had his commercial success.
On the night of our engagement party, he didn't make an effort with my friends at all. Afterwards, when everyone had gone home and we were opening our cards, I said, "Thanks for being so cool about Robbie being there" - Robbie was a friend I'd had a brief fling with in the past.
Thom had had a glass of champagne on the day we got engaged, but otherwise this was the first time he'd really drunk alcohol around me. He was steaming drunk, and he just flipped. He picked up a book he'd bought about jealousy and threw it across the room in my direction. He threw a marble ornament off the balcony and started screaming and swearing at me. He called me a slut, and told me to take my ring off and get out of his house.
I should have left, but I didn't feel like I could. I didn't want to believe that this was really him - it was the alcohol or something else. It didn't make sense to leave when we had just been celebrating our decision to marry - to be with one another forever.
Signs of emotional abuse
"Emotional abuse is domestic abuse, and it's crucial that we all learn the early warning signs and call out controlling and coercive behaviour when we see it. Classic warning signs include:
- love bombing (when your new partner is excessively attentive and keen to rush through the early stages of a new relationship)
- extreme jealousy
- misogynistic name-calling
- smashing up property
- blaming you for things you haven't done
- belittling your achievements
"If you find yourself walking on eggshells, or changing your behaviour (eg isolating yourself from family and friends) to keep him happy, then you may be in an abusive relationship. Healthy relationships are built on mutual trust and respect, not power and control."
Adina Claire, Co-Chief Executive of Women's Aid
One day the following week he came home from work and said that I made him want to kill himself. He talked about going to hospital, but didn't because he was working the next day. This already wasn't completely unexpected. Whenever we had an argument he'd begin by being aggressive and abusive, tearing me down piece by piece, then he would turn on the tears. In his eyes, he would always be the victim.
I wasn't ready to leave him at that point but I began to be scared of him. It started to affect me physically, and I stopped eating. I told one friend what had happened, but I was too embarrassed to tell anyone else. This man was my fiancé and I didn't want anyone to think badly of him.
However, his drinking escalated, and the arguments and the control and the abuse continued. He used everything he'd so carefully found out about my family against me. He said that my brother was a drug addict, my dad abandoned me, and my mum wasn't a good mum. He said things he would later say he never remembered saying.
I'd tell myself that all couples argue, it's never going to be perfect. But then not all boyfriends call you a slut and tell you to get out of their house.
If I had a friend over, I'd be really nervous about when he was coming home. I didn't know what would happen, I didn't want other people to see his anger, and I didn't want to annoy Thom by having a friend there. It became a daily question: what is he going to do today? What landmines am I going to have to avoid? I had a ball of anxiety in my stomach.
If he was trying to isolate me from my friends, he was beginning to have some success. And for some reason, I began to feel I didn't want my family at my wedding. I still don't know how he got me to feel this way.
I made my career fit around his, and arranged any work around his schedule so I could go and visit him if he was away. After we got engaged, he told me to quit my side-job, which I enjoyed for its social side, and he said he'd put £2,000 in my bank account. I texted my friend about this, and she told me not to because I needed my independence. I didn't, but then two months later I did - he'd been drip-feeding me reasons and I complied. Looking back that makes me feel so crazy.
During one massive argument, I told him I felt like I was in a prison and I'd lost my sense of self. He asked what could be done to rectify that, and I said that I needed to spend time with a friend for a few days. He was so angry. He said, "I can't believe you're going to abandon this relationship."
To this day, in Thom's mind, I didn't leave him because he was abusing me, I abandoned him.
A few weeks later, I heard from a friend that Thom had sent an abusive email to an ex-girlfriend. I called him and asked him about it. He told me, "I said she was a C-Word because she needed to be told." I asked whether he was going to tell me he'd had contact with her, and he said no because he didn't think I'd find out. I asked if he would apologise and he said he had nothing to apologise for.
Seeing him abusing someone else made me realise that what he was doing to me was wrong. That's when I said, "You've lost me. I'm done. I can't do this any more. You need help." I think it was the only time I stood up for myself and truly lashed out at him.
I knew I had to leave before he came home, because if I came into contact with him face-to-face, he would convince me to stay. He'd tell me that we could work it out.
I don't think he thought I was going to go. From the day we met to the day I left, it wasn't even six months. But luckily I had amazing people around me who could see what was happening and dragged me out of it, even though it wasn't easy.
The hardest thing about getting out was trying to decipher what was the real him and what was the fake him - questioning whether this guy I met was just a character he was playing, to draw me in. I also had to come to terms with the fact that I'd been in an abusive relationship.
At the end, nothing felt like it was mine any more, not even my thoughts. I've spent a long time thinking about him from the day I met him. All the time, my thoughts drift back to him even now. I hate the fact that he had that hold over me.
Many people don't want to believe that someone can behave this way, especially someone they believe they know. Even my brother said to me, "It's normal how he treated you - you just have to put up with that - that's just a relationship."
But it needs to be spoken about. I remember Googling "Am I in an abusive relationship?" and reading the bullet points that came up, and saying, "Yeah, that happened to me." But many people assume that abuse can only be physical.
A few times during our relationship I wanted to call Women's Aid to speak to them about what was happening to me, but not feeling like I was worthy and it wasn't justified. The abuse wasn't "bad enough" because he didn't hit me.
But that's why they brought in the law on controlling or coercive behaviour - because emotional abuse is abuse.
In anger and the heat of the moment, I wanted to expose him publicly, for people to know that he is capable of hurting women in such a calculating and purposeful way. It can be so hard to see him celebrated in the media but secretly carry the truth of what he's really like. But I don't feel like I can speak publicly because of who he is; I have my career to think about. If I did, people would associate me with him forever. That's my fault because I was open about our relationship on social media, because I was happy.
Ultimately, I feel sad for him, I can't imagine what it must be like inside his head, living his life. But regardless, that is never an excuse to treat anyone the way he treated me, the women before me and I'm sure, women to come.
All names have been changed
Illustrations by Freya Lowy Clark
As told to Natasha Lipman
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