I am an Oxford University graduate, and I was in an abusive relationship with a narcissist
Sophie* and I arrange to meet in a busy cafe in the middle of town. I’m nervous to meet her, even though I’ve met her once before. We are meeting to share our stories, stories which we hope will bring us both some degree of closure, having already pieced together fragments of lives with Liam* that just didn’t add up by text. She buys a coffee and sits down across from me. Her fingernails and the surrounding nail beds are bloodied and raw, like mine. We’ve both been dreading this meeting; we know it is necessary if we are to move on with our lives, but we’re both worried that it will call everything we believed to be true about the past two years into question. I start to speak.
I matched with Liam on Tinder a few months after breaking up with the boyfriend I’d come to university with. I’d been on a string of awful dates and I was just about to give up on the apps altogether when my phone vibrated: It’s a match! Liam made it clear from the get-go that he was into polyamory, and had a long-term girlfriend — Sophie — who was also polyamorous. While his open-relationship status would’ve undoubtedly been an immediate red flag to some, I didn’t care. I’d just got out of a long-term relationship, I wasn’t looking for anything serious, plus I was intrigued by the concept of ethical non-monogamy, having read about it online.
It took about three weeks of texting before we finally met — a combination of bad timing and illness on my part. In the meantime, we had been exchanging insanely long Whatsapp messages that read like essays: dense walls of text that covered the conversational minutiae of everyday life to grand philosophical questions about the meaning of life. He put so much care and attention into his messages, I’d never met anyone who seemed so keenly interested in my life before. Given the lengths of our messages, I felt like I already knew him pretty well by the time we had our first date.
He was as fiercely charming in real life, and even more good looking than his dating app photos — always a pleasant surprise. He was an enigma, though: his social presence was severely lacking, so I only had what he told me about himself to go on. He refused to tell me when his birthday was (although I knew he was 25), but would freely divulge intimate details about former sexual conquests. He was funny and entertaining, and I laughed along as he regaled me with story after story about the people he’d dated. Our date extended into the small hours of the morning, and the last thing I remember is being in the bar. The next morning I wake, with no recollection of what happened the night before, embarrassed. He assures me that we hadn’t slept together, because I was on my period. Sure enough, I look at his sheets which are spotted with blood. I apologise profusely, mortified. He brushes it off and says his Mum will clean the sheets when she does his washing later that week, it is no big deal. He was twenty-five years old, and his Mum still did his washing even though she didn’t live in the same city. At the time, I just laughed and called him a spoiled brat.
I tell Sophie about snapshot memories from our relationship that look so different in retrospect. I am in the kitchen, cooking dinner, as usual. He’s laughing at something I said when making small talk with his housemate, mocking the way I fold my arms and sway slightly from side to side when I am feeling anxious, insecure. I laugh along with him, parroting the silly voice he puts on when he impersonates my ridiculous northern accent. I am so silly, I think, such a silly anxious little 19-year-old girl.
We are spending the weekend at his ex-girlfriend’s house, with his brother — a situation which is weird in and of itself (they’re ‘family friends’ apparently), but gets ten times weirder when I walk in on his brother and his ex-girlfriend kissing. I tell Liam about it, expecting him to fly off the handle. He shrugs and says he knows, and that it’s been happening for a few months. He refuses to accept there is anything weird about the situation, insinuating that I am being a prude for not accepting his brother’s unconventional dynamic with his ex-girlfriend.
Liam’s Dad is an alcoholic, and is extremely rude to waiting staff. I agree with Liam’s assessment that he is a prick. His Mum, however, is lovely. She’s a tiny woman, devoted to caring for her elderly Mum. I like her, but my conversations with her are few and far between, often punctuated by Liam demanding to know why she hasn’t cleaned the tracksuit bottoms he wanted for football this week. He tells me sometimes he fantasises about killing his grandmother because of the burden she has become on their family. I laugh, thinking he’s being hyperbolic, but judging by the glint in his eye I start to think he shouldn’t be left alone with her, just in case.
When spending time with my family, he makes subtle comments that gradually chip away at the rapport I have with my sister. He quips about how she is immature, egotistic, selfish, shallow. I defend her to begin with, but over time I start to think some of the horrible things he is saying about her are true. Every time I joke at her expense, I am rewarded by his attention. The amount I text her dwindles, and each time we meet in person at family gatherings our interactions are strained by the mutual awareness that she really doesn’t like Liam, and I — for some reason — do.
Indulging his whims, wants and desires has become something I am accustomed to. Whatever he wants, he gets; even if that something makes me tense up with fear. He’s got a new way of getting around my rigidity though, he just plies me with alcohol and waits until I’m sad and vulnerable enough to do anything he says. That’s how I find myself gripping my headboard one night. I said yes, I think, I definitely agreed to this. I must have done. But then again it’s so hard to know what you’ve said when your drink is always full to the brim, with no spirit measures in sight. He’s good at measuring by eye, he tells you, as he gives you an extra slug of vodka for good luck. The next day it hurts, and you scrub at your skin extra hard in the shower, as if trying to wash away the feeling that something wasn’t quite right about the night before.
After one more night that I can’t remember, my uni housemates confront me. Liam’s brother strangled me at a party the night before, but I have no memory of the incident. He apparently choked me so hard that I ended up having a fit — and so I spin my housemates a lie about being on some medication that made me react that way. I reassure them that everything is fine, that they don’t need to worry and that it was probably just Liam’s brother goofing around. I cover up the bruises on my neck with concealer, and accept Liam’s defence of his brother’s behaviour as the only possible version of events. Of course it was my fault. I can’t remember what happened — it must have been something I said or did that made him react that way. I stop spending time with my housemates — it’s easier than facing their probing questions about how Liam and his brother treat me.
Undoubtedly the worst moment is Christmas 2016. Christmas at my family’s house is usually dedicated to board games and charades, but that year seems to become a game show called ‘How much can Beth humiliate herself’. Liam makes my drinks in the kitchen, while I sit in the living room with my family. He laughs at me with my siblings, enjoying my humiliation as I get drunker and drunker. The next day’s hangover is the worst I have ever experienced, but I don’t recall having that much to drink. When I am told about my behaviour the night before, I want to die. But I take it, admit responsibility — after all, I was the one who got blind drunk. Liam didn’t make me do anything, he just made my drinks.
I haven’t seen my friends or spent time with my housemates in a while. I feel sad that they don’t seem to want to spend time with me anymore. When I confide in Liam, telling him how lonely I feel he scoffs and tells me that I’m better off without them. They’re just a bunch of silly girls, he says. He calls himself a feminist in his dating app bios, but he has never once referred to any of the women I am friends with as anything other than girls. I barely notice.
At first, I enjoy the freedom our polyamorous relationship dynamic gives me to explore my bisexuality, as well as the intellectual stimulation (and occasionally physical stimulation) I get from meeting new people. But the rules grow more complex, and the list of people I am allowed to spend time with gets smaller and smaller, while his list seems to grow longer and longer. I call him out on his double standards, and he comes back with a cool, reasoned response that makes me feel like an idiot for ever doubting his affections towards me for a moment. I don’t know anything about polyamory or how this arrangement is meant to work — I need him to guide me, to put me back on the straight and narrow.
One day, like a tap being turned off, he stops being affectionate. I try to talk to him about the sudden change and he pulls me close, with a reassuring hug and a kiss. Just as I start to relax and think things are OK, he goes cold on me again — rolling over to the other side of the bed, ignoring me as my shoulders heave and I silently cry myself to sleep. Eventually, we stop having sex altogether. His mental health is bad. He makes a noose out of a tie and leaves it hanging on his wardrobe, a constant reminder that he is emotionally volatile and that I would do better than to make too many demands of him. He has difficulty maintaining an erection. I sympathise, I talk to him extensively about how he is feeling. I offer to go with him to the doctor. I sit as he texts Sophie, who he has broken up with due to the fact she has now graduated, but who can clearly provide better emotional support than I can because of her own complex mental health needs. As a cash-strapped student, I pay £100 for his therapy session after he misses it due to forgetting when driving up to see my family in Sheffield. I should have reminded him about the appointment. I do everything in my power to fix him, and yet there is a niggling feeling at the back of my mind that he is still capable of having sex; he just doesn’t want to have it with me anymore. After all, he is still going on dates, he is still meeting people.
My suspicions are confirmed one day when living at his house temporarily between tenancies, I finish work unexpectedly early and walk in on him masturbating. When I confront him, asking what is going on, he says he suddenly feels horny again, and forces me to give him a blowjob. It is rough, and he fucks my mouth like I am a human fleshlight — a vessel designed with the sole intent of pleasuring him. When he finishes, he grunts and rolls onto his side — making it clear that that is to be the end of the encounter. I lay on the bed next to him, staring into space, tears silently rolling down my cheeks.
After weeks, months of agonising — because I really, truly felt like I needed him — I broke up with him a few days before I was due to go to India for a month by myself. It was a cold, clean break but I think the fact I had somewhere I was physically going to be able to escape from him was what gave me the strength to do it in the first place. Sometimes, I wonder if I hadn’t booked that trip, if I would still be with him.
Sophie takes my trembling hands in hers, and begins to speak. Our stories are identical, save for a few inconsistencies that tell us both that we have been taken for a ride. While she was laying in a hospital room after major surgery, Liam was buying me flowers and cupcakes and celebrating the end of my exams. We are embarrassed that we didn’t think the fact a 25-year-old man’s Mum still did his washing was odd. We are ashamed we didn’t say no to doing things we didn’t want to do in the bedroom. We are mortified that we shrunk down into smaller, meeker versions of ourselves, so certain that we were wrong in every conversation, every discussion, every argument we’d had with Liam. We cringed recalling his mocking, sneering tone as he fixated on the aspects of ourselves he knew we were insecure about — because we had told him, baring our souls to him on that magical first date. We mourned the friends we lost, the relationships we had jeopardised, the time we had wasted. We hugged each other deeply, with the warmth and familiarity of two women who have the same, sad story to tell.
When reading FKA twig’s heartbreaking interview with ELLE today, I was struck by the aptness of the frog in hot water analogy: “If you put a frog in a boiling pot of water, that frog is going to jump out straightaway,” she says, attempting to explain the incremental and insidious nature of the abuse. “Whereas if you put a frog in cool water and heat it up slowly, that frog is going to boil to death. That was my experience being with [LaBeouf].”
That was my experience with Liam, too, and like twigs my understanding of what I’d been through was compounded by hearing another woman’s story. It’s so much easier to recognise abusive behaviours when you’re detached from the situation, when they’re not your memories. Realising that another intelligent woman had fallen prey to the same abuse tactics — the love bombing, the gaslighting, the social isolation, the coercive and non-consensual sex — was incredibly sad, but incredibly comforting to me. Meeting Sophie that day in that cafe set me on my path to healing; I’ve had therapy and I’ve experienced healthy adult relationships since. But like the incredibly moving interview twigs did with ELLE says, there are lots of people currently in abusive relationships whose circumstances are made worse by the isolating conditions of lockdown. I’m telling my story now, in the hope that I’ll reach just one such person, and they’ll finally find the strength and courage they need to leave.
*names have been changed for the sake of anonymity