My worst ex-boyfriend isn’t the one who took me to a kebab house with all of his pals on Valentine’s Day, and then forgot his wallet. He’s not the one who took me to my favourite pub, the one I could see from my bedroom window, and told me that he was leaving me because he was in love with his housemate. He’s not the one who referred to my menses as “your female illness”. He’s the one who constantly, consistently, called me crazy.
Every single one of our arguments followed exactly the same script. I would tell him that I wished he would stop cancelling our plans at the last minute, or that he be more affectionate, or that I really hated it when I woke up to him watching porn in bed, on my laptop. He would always answer with a question. “Why are you so needy?” “Why do you hate yourself so much?” “Why don’t you see a professional who can help you with all of your problems?” I was the problem and, for a long time, I believed that if I fixed myself, I could be the perfect girlfriend and we could have the perfect relationship.
Yesterday, the actress Rebecca Humphries published a statement about the breakdown of her relationship with the comedian Seann Walsh. It sounded eerily familiar. Walsh, a Strictly contestant, was photographed kissing his dance partner, Katya Jones. Humphries wrote that she “told him, not for the first time, that his actions over the past three weeks had led me to believe something inappropriate was going on. He aggressively, and repeatedly, called me a psycho/nuts/mental. As he has done countless times throughout our relationship when I’ve questioned his inappropriate, hurtful behaviour.”
Gaslighting – manipulating someone by psychological means into doubting their own sanity – is a tool that is often used by abusers. This summer, Women’s Aid (as well as retweeting Humphries’ statement today) released a statement advising that “a partner questioning your memory of events, trivialising your thoughts or feelings and turning things around to blame you can be part of a pattern of gaslighting and emotional abuse”, following Love Island contestant Adam Collard’s treatment of Rosie Williams, in which he told her that she was overreacting when he flirted with another contestant. I don’t know a woman who hasn’t been in a relationship with someone who hasn’t, at the very least, minimised her feelings. Calling a woman “crazy” is an extremely efficient way of silencing her. In a world where a man’s words are valued over a woman’s, it’s better to be bad than mad. When the person closest to you tells you that your experiences and reactions aren’t valid because they’re not real, your universe becomes a melting Dalí painting, and you start to question everything from your memory to your sense of self-worth.
Brilliantly, her statement ends: ‘I’m not sorry I took the cat, though.’ Neither are we
This autumn, we’ve watched Christine Blasey Ford courageously recount the harrowing details of what I am still legally obliged to refer to as an alleged assault. We’ve seen people publicly dismissing her experience with their deeds and words. Many of us grow up hearing stories with clear moral outcomes. We know who is good and who is bad, and when the latter behaves in a way that hurts the former, there are consequences. There is justice. In 2018, politically and personally, we keep finding ourselves in situations where the baddies claim that we’re the villains. It’s one thing to be abusive. It’s quite another to attempt to shift another person’s moral centre and make them feel that complaining about it is worse than the abuse itself.
Parts of Humphries’ statement read like a valedictorian speech. It’s a masterclass in holding on to your power and a moving, rousing call to arms for women everywhere. “I have a voice and will use it by saying this to any woman out there who deep down feels worthless and trapped with a man they love: believe in yourself and your instincts.” How often are we told not to believe in our instincts? How frequently do our guts get gendered and dismissed, and we get told that we’re emotional, vague and nebulous by people who claim that their gender makes them quantitative, dispassionate and full of fact? And how many times have we doubted our initial reactions, only to realise that we got it right the first time?
Humphries adds: “It’s more than lying. It’s controlling.” It can be unbearably painful when a partner is unfaithful. It shatters your sense of trust and intimacy, and it can taint the life that you’ve built together. Still, it can happen, and a relationship can survive it. However, as Humphries’ statement clarifies, the act of cheating itself isn’t necessarily deliberately abusive – it’s the intention of the lies that accompany it and the way a cheater can compromise their partner’s emotional wellbeing just to keep a secret. I think that so much of Humphries’ strength lies in the fact that she recognises her ex’s vulnerabilities. She explains: “I think it’s important also to recognise that in these situations those who hold power over you are insecure and fragile.” Bullies attack in order to mask their own weaknesses and they’re terrified that we’ll discover our strength as soon as we start to walk away. Humphries absolutely has. Brilliantly, her statement ends: “I’m not sorry I took the cat, though.” Neither are we.