When circuses acquire new elephants, they use a heavy chain to prevent them from escaping. The animal struggles against it until it figures out it can’t get away. That’s when the handler trades the metal chain for a thin rope. Now the animal can escape but doesn’t, purely because it believes it can’t.
That’s how psychological abuse derives its power. It’s not the times when he rages that bind you. It’s those endless peaceful days in between because that’s when your abuser’s control is put into action. Everything you do and say is preceded by a thousand “what ifs”:
What if she doesn’t want me to spend my bonus?
What if he gets angry about me visiting my sister?
What if she calls while my phone is off?
What if. What if. What if.
Rage and gaslighting are the heavy chains. “What if” is the thin rope. All you have to do is answer those ‘what ifs’ correctly to prevent his next sliver of outrage. If you predict everything your abuser will do in response to your most innocuous actions, you can avoid the next silent treatment. It must be possible to get it all right all the time.
And so your phone remains on, the friend he is jealous of is dropped, the cash bonus is never spent, and your family doesn’t hear from you for months. If they knew how vindictive he was they’d understand.
When you’re in an abusive relationship, every piece of minutiae about your day can cause a traumatic event, so even the banalest decisions feel potentially life-altering—because they are potentially life-altering. Anything you do could bring on his next abuse cycle so if you’d stop making so many fucking mistakes, he’d stop entirely and forever.
If you’d just do everything perfectly, you could stretch out her calm phases. The problem is that ‘perfect’ has a new definition: absolute obedience to a list of requirements that are rarely spoken and which change on an hourly basis. You have become a marionette to the most irrational puppeteer on planet earth—one who expects you to raise your right leg when she’s pulling the string attached to your left arm.
Of course you need to change. Look at how long you cried last time she tore you to shreds with her words. Why the fuck are you so damned sensitive? You need psychiatric help.
You put yourself into therapy.
You try your damnedest, hour upon hour, to fix every weakness you have.
You try to keep your emotions in check, even those your shrink calls ‘normal’.
Why do you have to be so fucking neurotic?
Why are you such a crazy bitch?
And that is how the thin rope turns into a cage. You now believe the problem is you, and everyone knows you can’t run away from yourself. If you were a better person he wouldn’t get so angry all the time. God, you hate yourself sometimes.