There was one clear moment when I knew I had been in a psychologically abusive relationship.
It happened when I heard the soft *ding* coming from my phone beside me to let me know I had a text and my first instinct had been fear.
The fear was not that the text would be from him. It was fear at the announcement that I was being contacted, and what the implications of an announcement of that kind had often meant for me.
I had just changed all of my phone settings back the way I wanted them permanently so that I could see and hear any messages or contact made across any app from anyone in a manner that was convenient for me.
I had devised quite an elaborate ritual over the years based on some flow chart of criteria I was juggling in my head.
Although E-mails were usually okay because they were almost always formal or less immediate, notifications that I had messages or was being sent something from any social media app were always dangerous. For example, I never allowed any part of any message to appear on the display when it arrived– ever. Messages from some people would be muted during certain blocks of time. And some apps I would silence completely so that there were no flashing lights or cute noises indicating someone wanted to send me a picture or talk to me. Better just not to call attention to it. Sometimes I’d even just delete them temporarily because it was faster and less risky than thinking I’d shut off notifications and finding out I hadn’t eliminated all of them.
He used a lot of standard narcissistic controlling behavior and it had its effect on me, but my phone was a particular lightning rod.
I remember being in a panic sometimes during that thirty minute window when he would be on his way over, or I would be in an Uber on the way to his place, trying to go through that checklist in my mind and make sure everything was on the correct setting so that important things from friends and family members could still get through, but nothing that could seem suspect would. The price I would pay would be steep.
I don’t remember when I started doing it. I can think back and remember times he violated my privacy when I left the room. I would come back in and he would hold up my phone or tablet knowingly.
“You’re still E-mailing your ex,” he said, scrolling through a rather embarrassing E-mail exchange in which we had been discussing our breakup.
Incredulously, I told him to check the date. The exchange was a year old and had occurred before the two of us had even met much less started a relationship.
He never apologized for digging through my E-mail without cause, nor was he even reassured.
It wasn’t that I had something to hide, it was that he could make nothing into something.
Any text I received, he wanted to know who it was from. Any notification he learned about, he wanted to know what app it came in on. If I didn’t check when the notifications came in, that was suspect too.
I wasn’t allowed to get texts or messages or Snapchats or likes or any form of contact from guys.
By not allowed I mean I wasn’t allowed to get them without being punished in some way.
The punishments ranged from the withdrawal of his affection to verbal abuse and name-calling, from accusations that no amount of reassurance could deflect to threats from him that he would engage in whatever behavior he imagined in his head that I was doing.
He learned my lock screen swipe-codes, or picked my phone up to snoop in the seconds it would take me to go get a drink from the refrigerator before it could lock. If I gave him my phone to order pizza or play music, instead, in two minutes, he’d be in my Facebook messaging app scrolling through looking for conversations with men and questioning me about any he found. An evening could go from idyllic to nightmarish with one piercing glare that would make my stomach clench.
He asked me once if I had any hidden apps. I didn’t even know what hidden apps were much less have any. I found it to be an odd, random question, so I spent a couple of hours doing some online reading and was amazed find out all about what you could download and hide on your phone if you had an inclination.
It wasn’t long after that that I slowly started to realize the truth about his obsession with my phone. He was asking me if I had a hidden phone app because he had one. In fact, all the things he was accusing me of and tormenting me over were things that he was himself guilty of– and more.
His phone was his gateway to another world that he could use to entertain himself and still maintain his impression in the real world as faithful. Dating apps, Skype sex, cam girls, meeting and making dates with other women– you name it, he was doing it. This I found out later. He had an entire secret life on his phone that no one in his life would even suspect was going on… and if he was getting away with it, well, he thought I must be too.
* * * * *
Sometimes, I look back and I can’t believe how sick I was, how poisoned with his thoughts. My ability to function normally was so incapacitated that it’s amazing to me I was still able to go to work most days.
At some point after he’d been gone a while, it finally dawned on me that I could change my phone settings to whatever I wanted them to be.
It felt so empowering.
Until the first time I actually heard the text notification. For that split second, as my “fight or flight” response was triggered by the sound, I didn’t feel empowered at all. That’s how I knew how infected I had really been.