Illustration by Maxine Crump.

Illustration by Maxine Crump.

Hey. So, I’ve recently come to notice that my girlfriend is kinda, well, emotionally manipulative and toxic to be around. Whenever I’m around her, she makes me feel so bad and she doesn’t really like me having other friends and stuff. My mum thinks we are just close friends (part of the joy of being in the closet), and all my friends think I’m really happy with my relationship with her. I feel so guilty just writing this because I really do love her, but she just makes me want to cry most days, and I don’t think that’s what love is meant to be about. Sorry about all this. I just didn’t know what else to do… —Anna, 15

Dear Anna,

Please, please don’t be sorry for writing! I am so glad that you did. The very first thing I want to say to you is that your feelings are valid. Trust your gut. If you are feeling emotionally manipulated, then that is what is happening. Period. You are also 100 percent correct: What you’ve described is not what love is meant to be about. A partner should make you laugh, make you feel awesome about yourself. Sure, every once in a while you are going to disagree or argue, but it is definitely not healthy if the person you are with is making you feel like crying most days. You do NOT deserve that.

Even though you didn’t mention a lot of specifics, the two things you did say—that your girlfriend makes you feel like crying most days, and that she doesn’t like you having other friends—raise red flags. I was in a relationship like that myself at 15. It started with cutting remarks from my boyfriend about things like my clothes and the thoughts, feelings, and opinions I expressed. He made me feel like my interests weren’t important, like I was dumb or crazy, and when I got upset about it, he behaved like I was overreacting, and told me he was “just joking” and that I needed to “lighten up.” He also had negative things to say about all of my friends and attempted to exclude and push them out of my life. I felt really isolated, and things escalated from there. I wrote about that relationship here. In that piece, I talk about how a diagram called the Duluth Model Power and Control Wheel helped me recognize that what was happening to me was definitely NOT OK. (The Duluth Model version of the Power and Control Wheel was developed in the ’80s and focuses on cis/hetero relationships. There’s an update of the wheel—inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans relationships—available here.)

While looking at the diagram, you might be thinking, Oh, what I am dealing with is bad, but it’s not as bad as this, maybe I’m blowing this out of proportion. I’ve reacted to my experiences with emotional manipulation the same way. Again, I want to repeat: If you feel that you are being emotionally manipulated, you are. Maybe it could be worse, but you should not be manipulated, period. You do not deserve this. And unhealthy dynamics such as the ones you described may lead to other kinds of manipulation such as gaslighting or abuse.

I also want to tell you that feeling guilty about questioning your partner’s behavior is not unusual. You love her. You don’t want this to be an unhealthy relationship. From my experience, people who are emotionally manipulative are incredibly charismatic. There is a lot to love about them. They don’t act terribly all the time. If they did, and if they weren’t loveable, they wouldn’t be able to be manipulative. This love and sense of guilt is absolutely one of the hardest things to work through. Believe me, I know, and I’ve written about that, too. Loving someone and recognizing that they are hurting you are not mutually exclusive things. However, if someone is manipulative, you should not feel guilty for ending a relationship with them. Yes, you love them, but please: Love yourself more.

That is way easier said than done, I know. This is so scary, so painful, and so hard, but you took a very important first step by talking about it here. I can tell you from experience that talking about it helps you find solutions. Talk to someone you trust first—someone who will support and believe you. Sometimes that means going outside your immediate circle. The first people I told about my abusive relationship were actually on a feminist listserv I was on. I knew that they would believe me and have advice, but also I didn’t have to see them in person. If you have any communities like that to reach out to, awesome (and actually, by writing this letter, you did that in a way, right?). Another great place for you to start is with this website, which offers resources on ending and preventing abusive relationships, including online and text support from advocates who are your age. The Northwest Network also offers support specifically for abuse in LGBT relationships.

Maybe after reading this or talking to a counselor through one of those sites, you will feel ready to talk to your friends. I know that is hard, too. When your friends have a “good” perception of your relationship, it kind of feels like you failed or that something is wrong with you when you have to admit, “No, actually, my relationship is not healthy.” That’s another feeling I know all too well, but again: This is not your fault. You haven’t failed, and if you can open up to one and eventually more of your friends, you may get more support than you ever expected. You will probably find out that some things aren’t what they seem for them, too.

It sounds like it could be particularly hard for you to tell your mum about what’s going on with your girlfriend because you are in the closet. Maybe there are some aspects of that you can talk about without outing yourself? If not, I hope that this is something you will eventually be able to safely open up to her about down the line.

The absolute hardest person to talk to will likely be your girlfriend. I mention her last because I urge you to speak with an advocate and/or trusted friend or family member first. I say this for two reasons: One is that I don’t know many of the details of your situation, but an advocate who does know those details will be better able to advise you about whether bringing this up with your girlfriend is something you can do in person, whether you should ask someone accompany you, et cetera. (If you think your girlfriend might respond in such a way that will endanger you, do not broach this topic with her when you’re alone with her.) The second reason is that, because your girlfriend has been manipulative, you need an ally—someone who can either accompany you to talk to her or help you process it after.

It is hard to say how she may react to this. I never faced my abuser without a friend. I didn’t confront him about the abuse until after we broke up, and I wrote a letter to do so because that was the best way for me to explain myself without fear of being manipulated in the process. After, he called me and I chose to answer, but only because I had backup: My best friend was on the other line so I could click over and repeat everything he said, and she could remind me of the reality of the situation. Even then, my ex tried to twist everything I said and make me feel like I was crazy.

Without knowing you or your girlfriend, it’s my belief that you need to break up with her. Maybe if she acknowledges that what she is doing is manipulative and makes a genuine effort to change—in other words, seeks help such as therapy—you can have some sort of relationship in the future. For now, it is in your best interest to get out and take care of you. Talk to an advocate and/or someone you trust, make a plan, and get some space. Know that you cannot control how your girlfriend responds, and that it may be disappointing and hurtful.

I want to say to you once more: Your feelings are valid. Love should not hurt like this. You have nothing to apologize for. You deserve love that feels good, the way it is supposed to.

All my love,
Stephanie

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