Just a few months into her new life in a new state with her boyfriend of three years, Lauren was nearing the breaking point.
A diary of toxic love
She Gchatted a different friend to say her boyfriend had called her at work to complain that a box of her crafting supplies had fallen off the kitchen table and dented the floor. She devised a move-out plan: She would return to her hometown for a while and find a new job. She had invested so much time. Being single again would leave her adrift. So, she stayed. She now says the relationship made her doubt her worth as a person and scarred her emotionally for years. To Lauren, her years with her ex now reverberate with the telltale notes of emotional abuse.
Lauren might seem an unlikely target of emotional manipulation. She grew up with happily married, supportive parents. She has an Ivy-League education, a black belt in tae kwon do, and experience working with domestic-violence survivors. She was financially independent. Lauren believes she fell prey to a common cycle: Abuse shatters self-esteem, and poor self-esteem keeps people in toxic relationships.
To try to understand this phenomenon, I interviewed Lauren, her ex, and several of their friends, and I reviewed extensive transcripts of Google chats between Lauren and her friends at the time she and her ex were dating.
Lauren hopes her story can help others avoid similar pain. For privacy, she asked The Atlantic not to use her full name, and her ex asked not to be named at all.
They met when Lauren, her middle name, was in her mids and her ex was nearly He was her first serious boyfriend. They had run in the same circles for years, but when he moved to New York for work, they reconnected.
He was of medium height, and balding, but cute. With degrees from prestigious universities, he looked great on paper.
10 s of an emotionally-abusive relationship
Lauren was fresh off a string of disastrous dates. He made a move; she went with it. At first, he made Lauren laugh and impressed her friends. He even planned a romantic weekend at the beach and took Lauren to Costa Rica. Her ex denied this. What was to come, according to Lauren, was a gauntlet of near-daily put-downs about everything from her appearance to the way she poured water into the sink. As her self-confidence evaporated, she found herself wondering if she could do any better.
Lauren thought if she just worked harder, she could fix the relationship. Relatively early on, the couple was clashing over trivial things, like gifts.
When he won an award, Lauren coordinated a surprise party for him. To her ex, it was thoughtless, she said. Another time, Lauren ed up for dance lessons to surprise him. Damn independent streak of mine. For their second anniversary, Lauren devised a game in which they would each say what they loved about the other person. Her ex said he loved that Lauren was always trying to improve herself.
Her ex had a controlling streak, according to Lauren.
She remembers him as highly critical even of her efforts to better herself. Over the years, she gained about 25 pounds that she pins on the stress of the relationship.
Her ex would pester her to eat healthier. They were both trying to lose weight, he says. But he loved ordering take-out, she said, and he would sulk if Lauren microwaved a low-calorie frozen dinner for herself instead. Lauren has a history with bulimia, and one night she relapsed, purging after they ate at a tempura restaurant. When he did find out, Lauren says he reacted coldly, chiding her for not telling him sooner. Lauren got a call from her boss one evening asking her to come back to the office to finish a project. Then he hung up. He felt Lauren looked to him primarily for praise, but to him, there was a philosophical difference: Romantic partners should also offer honest, frank commentary.
A perfect start
He said he loved Lauren, physically and intellectually, and he thought they had a good relationship. The certainty gap only worsened their dynamic. Lauren set about trying to improve the relationship, starting with asking her boyfriend to give her more compliments. According to Lauren, her ex told the therapist Lauren should lose weight, and the therapist appeared to side with him. To her ex, a different incident stands out from the counseling. It was cold out, so she packed the meal in a basket and laid out a blanket on the floor of the apartment.
She thought it would be cute.
Somehow, Lauren ended up apologizing. Lauren suggested they take a two-week break to think things over. He blew up. Her ex remembers little about this conversation but said it was probably a bad time of day for a serious talk. Their break was cut short. Her ex persuaded Lauren to come over, she said. Lauren realizes her choice to stick with him might seem incomprehensible. But was every altercation really that bad? Gradually, Lauren found herself wondering what minute misstep would trigger the next clash.
He would eventually invite Lauren to move with him.
But to Lauren, the offer was bittersweet: He had already put a deposit down on a condo without consulting her, she said. Her ex remembers discussing it My boyfriend verbally emotionally abusive her, and he claimed she did make him feel rushed. There was already friction over the new apartment—specifically, the floor. Some contractors dinged it while they were repairing the kitchen island. Lauren, who knew almost no one in the city, wandered around outside in the dark that evening. It would have been nice for her to be more cognizant of what was going on in the apartment.
Things deteriorated further from there. In a chat with a friend, Lauren confessed she was concerned her boyfriend was avoiding sex with her. When Lauren made him dinner, he complained that the kitchen smelled like an armpit, according to the chat logs. They fought about her new hobby, making crafts—her ex said it was expensive.
After a few glasses of wine, she called her boyfriend to ask if she could bring the group back to their apartment. Her ex said that while he might not have wanted people over that particular night, he did support Lauren emotionally later on, when her entire company went under and Lauren lost her job as well. And he was astonished that Lauren would, even with her own money, order expensive crafting supplies without talking with him first. It had taken her so long to find a boyfriend.
The fact that the relationship had lasted this long made it feel meant to be.
11 common patterns of verbal abuse
Shortly after the layoffs, Lauren and her ex were out with a friend who had recently broken up with her longtime partner. She looked at him, dumbfounded. Lauren thought a weekend away together might clarify things.
As they sat on a sailboat, Lauren asked her ex to criticize her less. He agreed to criticize her more gently, she said. At this point, other things were clicking into place. A few days later, the couple had dinner with a friend who had three kids and was going through a difficult divorce.
Lauren realized she did not want this to be her future. The next day was a Friday. Lauren went to work and shut her office door. She spent the day calling and Gchatting her friends and family.