Content warning: This article contains themes of domestic abuse. If you are affected by anything in this story please follow the links for support.
I was told never talk to strangers online, and certainly never meet up with anyone. I knew to be careful, I never went on a first date without telling friends and sharing my location, and I stuck to busy places.
I spent so much time worrying what strangers could do, and keeping myself safe, that I never even questioned that it would be someone I thought I loved that could hurt me.
Lockdown came along and the whole world went online. Like many I passed the time with Tik Tok dances, baking banana bread and online quizzes.
But then likes and messages started pouring in from him.
I admit, he caught my attention. He was good looking, funny and charming.
The first message came and I left it unread. I didn’t want to seem too keen.
A few more followed, so I gave in and messaged him back. Once we started messaging we never stopped.
We spoke for three months online before I agreed to meet him. The date went perfectly, he was exactly who he said he was online, and we became inseparable. We lived four hours away from each other and tried to see each other as much as possible.
After a few weeks of dating, I lost my job due to the pandemic. He suggested I move in with him, and help him with his business until I found something else.
Looking back now I wish I could say I saw the red flags, and told myself I was moving too fast.
But I didn’t. My 22-year-old self packed her bags, said see you soon to my friends and family, and moved miles away.
I share this experience with hindsight. I didn’t notice anything was wrong, and I laughed off my friends’ concerns and got annoyed whenever they’d make a comment.
I spent hours of my day helping him at work, and he promised he would pay me a salary, but I never saw a penny. There was a day I asked for some money to put petrol in my car to go and see my mum, but he just called me spoilt. He claimed I was lucky that he paid rent and bills, and told me I should be grateful.
I started to apply for jobs, but any time I tried, he told me I should stop as I already had a job with him. That’s what I did.
I’d moved to a county where I was hours away from my friends and family. I stopped speaking to people because I didn’t want to hear what they would say.
I was stuck in a house that didn’t feel like home.
But I didn’t question any of that at the time because he was perfect.
There wasn’t a definitive change in his behaviour. It was slow changes, barely noticeable.
He made me feel safe. Until he didn’t.
He’d already taken my job, so I had no money and he had full financial control. In doing so, he prevented me from being able to go back home to see my friends and family.
He controlled my eating. Restricting what food was in the house, counting things like biscuits and he’d know if I’d eaten one. He knew I couldn’t go out and buy anything, and my weight plummeted from a healthy size 10 to a size six.
The compliments turned to criticisms. He wouldn’t be directly nasty, but say just enough to wear me down. ‘That dress looks nice, it’s a shame you can see your cellulite’.
He’d check my phone, read my messages, and constantly question who I was speaking to and why.
He controlled what I posted on social media. Happy loving photos were shared all over my account, but I wasn’t allowed to tag him and he never once posted about me.
Yet, I couldn’t leave the relationship. I was too embarrassed to speak to anyone. I couldn’t admit what was happening because I didn’t understand how it happened.
Surely no one would believe me, because he never physically hurt me.
I thought if I spoke to anyone, they would see me as a failure, look down on me because I couldn’t keep my job, my relationship, or anything.
Everyone around me was doing so well, good jobs, engagements, university. But here I was – empty.
He built me up, knocked me down and left me feeling worthless, empty and shattered.
A year after walking away I started therapy for my anxiety and confidence, and it was only then someone explained to me what coercive control and gaslighting was.
This relationship was not the first time I let someone gaslight me into believing I was the issue. These behaviours are normalised for many guys I’ve met, but together we have to change that and question them. Control is not love.
If you were affected by this blog, remember there is support available.
We have a dedicated domestic abuse team – Emerald – who are always on hand to support.
Mental health crisis support for all ages is available 24 hours a day every day across Bedfordshire and Luton by contacting NHS 111 (option 2) or the Samaritans on 116 123 (freephone).
If you have concerns about your partner you might be eligible to ask the police about their past through the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme, also known as Clare’s Law. Read more and submit an application.