“What!” exclaimed Pam, gaping at her friend Jessica from across the library table.
As several students turned around to look at their table, Jessica mouthed a sorry to them.
“Quiet, please, Pam,” she urged her irate friend, “or Mrs. Walker will throw us out again and I still need to finish my assignment.”
Pam shook her head, her ringlets bouncing around over her shoulders. “I cannot believe it. You’re ditching us again,” she whispered.
Jessica reached across the table and held her friend’s hand. “Look, I’m sorry. But if it wasn’t important, I’d still be coming with you.”
Pam bit her lower lip, looking away. “We made the plan weeks ago, Jess. Everyone is going to miss you.”
“I know. I wish there was a way...”
“There is a way. Tell him you can’t blow your friends off for him again. Just say no.”
“Pam, Adam needs my help.”
Pam took a deep breath. “He knew you had plans with your friends this weekend and he asked you to cancel them so that you could — what — help him finish his project? I mean we’ve all got projects to do. Why can’t he do his project like everyone else — on his own?”
“Hey, can you two please keep it down?”
A boy in a black hoodie was glaring at them from a nearby table.
“Yeah, some of us are trying to study here,” said the girl with the thick-rimmed glasses with a stack of books at her table.
“We’re very sorry,” said Jessica. “We’ll keep it down.”
As Pam buried her nose in her psychology book, Jessica turned to her assignment on the Animals of the Pelagic and Benthic Environment, her mind wandering.
It wasn’t the first time she had cancelled plans with her friends at Adam’s behest. Just last month, Adam had asked her to be with him on the weekend she had plans to stay at a beach bungalow with her friends. When she’d asked him to join them, he’d said that he couldn’t tolerate her best friend, Pam, because she always kept finding faults with him.
To an extent, it was true. Pam was outspoken and never shied away from a confrontation. But she was also warm, funny and intelligent.
Pam shut her book suddenly and leaned forward. “Is it because of Matt? Is Adam jealous?”
Jessica clicked her tongue but didn’t say anything.
“I knew it. Adam is an insecure, jealous...”
“Please stop it, Pam,” said Jessica, exasperated. “You know, I love him.”
“I know. You’re blinded by love, sweetheart. Tell me this — is Adam jealous of Matt? Has Adam asked you to stay away from him? Is that why you’re not coming with us?”
Matt was a classmate and a common friend, who Jessica had dated for a couple of months last year.
“Well,” said Jessica. “Adam thinks Matt still has feelings for me.”
“But he’s dating Ashley now.”
“Exactly! And I don’t have any feelings for Matt. He’s just a good friend.”
“Did you tell Adam that?”
“Of course. He just gets upset that I spend a lot of time around Matt when we have history between us.”
“So, what? You’re going to stop hanging out with us just because one of your friends is an ex?”
Jessica felt a stone drop in the pit of her stomach. It was a question she’d been grappling with for a while now. But each time she tried to talk to Adam about it, Adam would get upset. Recently, he’d started losing his cool with her, especially when they were alone. At six feet two inches, Adam towered over Jessica and when he’d be having one of his outbursts, she felt almost afraid of him. Not that he would ever hurt her — she was sure of that — but his body language indicated a definite threat.
Comply or else.
It was hard to admit even to herself, but it was true. Jessica was afraid of Adam.
“Adam loves me,” she said in a small voice. “He just loves me too much.”
Jessica looked down as her phone vibrated on the table. It was a message from Adam.
Where are you?
Library, she texted.
Can you meet me after classes? Need to talk.
Jessica exhaled. Adam knew she had to get home early today. Her brother was back for a couple of days and her family was hosting dinner for her aunt, uncle and cousins.
Sorry, I have to... she began typing and then stopped, her heart beating rapidly. She deleted the text and wrote, Sure, meet me at the cafeteria at five.
Five-thirty, he replied.
Jessica groaned inwardly but typed OK.
Another text from him: Don’t worry. You’re not going to be late to meet Chubby Pumpkin, followed by a winky emoji.
Jessica threw her phone into her bag. How many times had she told Adam she did not like it when he called her brother, Brian, Chubby Pumpkin? Yes, Brian was overweight, but he had bad knees. He couldn’t run or play sports, although he wanted to.
The uneasiness returned in the pit of her stomach, churning her stomach acids into something bitter.
“Everything okay?” said Pam.
“Yeah,” said Jessica, feigning a smile.
“Hey, why aren’t you wearing your glasses today?” said Pam, frowning.
“Um... I sat on them accidentally. Need to get a new frame,” said Jessica, feeling awful about lying to her best friend. How could she tell Pam that her glasses had broken when Adam had hurled her bag across the room on the opposite wall when she’d said during one of their recent arguments that she had never been so unhappy with anyone?
It was true, wasn’t it? She was miserable. And yet, she loved him. She was sure he loved her too. But why was it so damn difficult?
Jessica looked up, realizing Pam was still giving her a curious look. She smiled and turned to her assignment.
“Oh, shoot!” said Pam suddenly, glancing at her watch. “I’m late for class. Can you do me a favour?” she said, scribbling something on a piece of paper. “Please get this book. Here’s my library card. I’ll pick it up from your place tonight, okay?”
“Sure,” said Jessica, somewhat relieved that she would no longer be subjected to scrutiny.
As Pam grabbed her things and limped out of the library, Jessica remembered with a flash of horror the words Adam had said about Pam’s disability. It wasn’t something she could bring herself to repeat, even in her mind. When she objected, Adam had put his arms around her and told her that he was only joking and he didn’t mean anything by those words. The absence of an apology or even a shred of remorse had been especially jarring and when Jessica had expressed her feelings, Adam had told her that she was behaving like a five-year-old and had stormed out of the room. The next day, he had met her in college and behaved like nothing had happened. Afraid of another outburst, Jessica had swallowed her feelings and said nothing on the subject.
“Hey! Can I sit here?”
Jessica looked up to see a boy with jet black hair and red lips giving her a lop-sided smile. It was Connor Woolf, the college debating champion.
“Yeah, sure,” said Jessica self-consciously. She kept her gaze on her assignment as he took the chair opposite her.
“You’re in Marine Biology, right?” he asked, retrieving his books from his bag.
“I’ll finish my Masters in Biochemistry this year.”
“That’s great... uh, excuse me.” Jessica reached into her bag and grabbed her vibrating mobile. It was a text from Adam.
Where are you?
Dreading a situation that would involve Adam walking into the library and accusing her of flirting with Connor, Jessica gathered her things and waved goodbye to the college debating champion.
As she headed down the library aisle looking for the book Pam wanted, Jessica’s mind wandered to her impending meeting with Adam. She texted him that she was still in the library and would see him in the cafeteria at five-thirty. What did he want to talk about? His texts sounded angry, Jessica thought irrationally. Had she done something to upset him again?
With Adam, it was hard to tell. Sometimes, even a late reply to his message upset him — late by his standard was more than thirty minutes. He was annoyed when her male friends even casually touched her, like a high-five or a pat on the arm. Hugging a boy or a man who was not her family member was not allowed, he had explicitly told her. And being friends with an ex especially infuriated him, as was the case with Matt.
It’s because I love you so much, he would say. I just can’t bear to see you with anyone else.
A price had to be paid for a committed relationship, thought Jessica. Adam had hinted several times that he would be lucky to marry a girl like her. Next week, she was going to meet his family for the first time. Jessica could see their families getting along well with each other. Adam was good-looking, intelligent and hard-working. They made fireworks in the bedroom and when they walked down the street, people turned to look at them. Adam was her ideal match and she knew they could make cute babies. But then, why did her heart swell with dread each time his name flashed on her mobile?
Hardly paying attention to her actions or her environment, Jessica retrieved the book from the shelf and borrowed it on Pam’s card, hurrying to the cafeteria. Over the past few months, Jessica had realized that caffeine helped her deal better with difficult scenarios and a meeting with Adam could turn unpleasant at the drop of a hat. Not wanting to have to deal with cute boys approaching her again, Jessica took her Caffè Mocha to a corner table and glanced at her watch. She still had thirty minutes to kill. As she was grabbing her phone from her bag, the title of the book she borrowed from the library for Pam caught her attention.
Jessica opened the book and took a sip of her coffee.
Are you always walking on eggshells to avoid disappointing, upsetting or infuriating your partner?
Is your partner always monitoring and controlling your behaviour, such as who you spend time with and where you spend your money?
Is your partner isolating you from your friends and family?
Is your partner extremely jealous, possessive and paranoid?
Are you subjected to harsh criticism and ridicule, sometimes merely for expressing your thoughts?
Are your feelings being constantly dismissed and has your partner claimed that you are “too sensitive”?
Are you afraid of your partner even though he or she has never physically hurt you?
Jessica inhaled slowly, realizing she’d been holding her breath. Adam was all of those things and more. She continued to read.
Emotional or psychological abuse is a pattern of behaviour in which the abuser humiliates, shames, insults and instils fear in an individual in order to control and manipulate them. Such behaviour can occur in a wide range of interpersonal relationships, such as parental, romantic or professional.
Emotional abuse can be as damaging, or sometimes more damaging, than physical violence. Physical abuse is easily recognized and usually occasional, but emotional abuse is constant and often subtle.
Jessica stopped reading for a moment, struck by the words in the book. How many times had Adam trivialized her feelings of hurt by telling her she was behaving like a baby? How many times had he expressed jealousy over even casual conversations with boys? How many times had he distanced her from her friends and family, forcing her to spend time with him instead? How many times a day he messaged her asking where she was and with whom? How many times had he picked up her phone and casually scrolled through her messages and call history? How many times had he ridiculed her choice of past boyfriends? How many times had he mocked her friends and family?
Jessica returned to the book once again.
Emotional abuse often precedes physical violence, although the two may not always co-occur. An emotionally abusive person may turn to physical abuse if the emotional assault tactics fail to control a person’s behaviour.
Often intelligent people fall victims to emotional or psychological abuse. This is because the abusers only display subtle signs of abuse at the beginning of a relationship and gradually escalate the level of abuse. Early warning signs to look out for include entitlement, superiority, pettiness, sarcasm, resentfulness, deceit and pushing boundaries by asking a partner to move too fast while ignoring their comfort level.
Those suffering emotional abuse may not recognize the harmful patterns. Abusers are often skilled manipulators and lead the victims to believe that they are to blame for the problems in the relationship. Victims may struggle with anxiety, depression and low self-esteem.
Leaving an emotionally abusive relationship is difficult but completely possible. Victims must recognize that the abuser may never change and reasoning with him is not effective. Support from friends, family, or a therapist can be especially helpful. For some people, the fear becomes so overwhelming that they reach a breaking point and leave. People with children often leave in order to protect the children from witnessing abuse or being abused themselves.
Jessica looked up instinctively and closed the book just as Adam swaggered into the cafeteria. He waved at her, smiling in a charming way.
“Hey, babe!” he said, planting a kiss on her cheek and dropping into a chair.
Jessica quickly stuffed the book in her bag, afraid of what Adam might say or accuse her of on reading the book title.
“I see you had your coffee,” said Adam, fixing her with a piercing gaze. “Did you have company?”
“No,” said Jessica.
“Man, I’ll have to go stand in the queue for my coffee. I wish you’d got one for me too.”
“It would have turned cold by now. I bought my coffee half an hour ago.”
“So you’ve been sitting here alone for thirty minutes,” he said.
As Adam folded his arms across his chest, he flexed his biceps — deliberately, thought Jessica. He was always showing off. Or was he trying to intimidate her?
“Listen, I need to leave,” said Jessica.
A scowl creased Adam’s face. “Why? I just got here.”
“I know, but I told you I need to be home early today.”
“And I told you I need to talk to you after classes,” said Adam, leaning forward on the table.
Jessica took a deep breath, her heart bouncing around in her chest. “I can’t stay.”
Adam glared at her for what seemed like an eternity. “You’re never there for me. You’re a shitty girlfriend, you know that, Jess? Always off with your friends or family for one thing or the other. No wonder all your past relationships sucked! No wonder you were cheated on and called a bitch!” he spat out.
Jessica closed her eyes, bracing for the tsunami of grief to submerge her, but all she felt was a trickle of pain. She realized now what Adam was trying to do, what he always did when things didn’t go his way — blame, criticize and shame her. It was always her fault. Voicing her opinions was a crime, having other people in her life was an abomination and saying no was blasphemy according to Adam’s book of relationship rules.
Jessica pocketed her phone, grabbed her bag and got up to leave.
Adam sprang from his chair and clutched her wrist. “Have I upset you, darling?”
“Leave me,” said Jessica.
“I got carried away. Your ex-boyfriends were fools,” said Adam, tightening his grip on her arm.
Even in the crowded cafeteria, Jessica felt the same rush of fear she experienced when they were alone. Adam was standing so close to her and on his face, she could see the veiled fury, ready to erupt any moment if she did not comply.
“Is there a problem?”
It was Connor Woolf, standing nearby holding a tray of sandwiches.
“There’s no problem. Mind your own business,” growled Adam.
“Leave my hand, Adam,” said Jessica.
“Are you okay?” asked Connor.
“Didn’t you hear what I said?” shouted Adam. He turned to Jessica. “Babe, let’s get out of here. I’ll drop you home.”
“No!” said Jessica.
Now there were a number of students looking their way.
“Let me go, Adam,” said Jessica.
“Come with me, please babe,” said Adam as he began dragging her towards the cafeteria exit.
“Let go of my fucking hand!” cried Jessica.
Stunned, Adam released her wrist, his face a mask of indignation. “I’m your boyfriend. You can’t talk to me this way in front of all these people.”
Jessica closed her eyes, struggling to stay afloat amidst a deluge of emotions. She loved Adam. She loved him deeply. Yes, there were problems, but she had never felt so deeply about anyone. The happy memories of the past year...
She remembered everything Pam had told her about positivity bias — the tendency to remember past events more favourably than they actually were.
Jessica opened her eyes.
All the people in the cafeteria seemed to be looking at Adam and her.
“Adam,” she said softly, “it’s over.”
Adam scoffed, shaking his head in disbelief. “What? Are you crazy? Are you going to break up over this?”
“Don’t try to contact me again.”
Even though Jessica’s heart was breaking into a million pieces, the weight over her chest lifted as she left the cafeteria and started the long walk home.