“How this podcast helped me heal from a controlling relationship”

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This week, a writer explains how listening to the recent FKA twigs interview on Grounded With Louis Theroux helped her heal from a controlling relationship.

Please be aware that this article discusses domestic abuse in detail.

There is a trope I’ve seen depicted in literature, films, TV and even anecdotally, that abusive relationships don’t happen to a certain type of woman. 

Women who are confident, successful and intelligent with a strong network of friends and family are not who we picture, when we think of someone trapped in a controlling dynamic.

This is, of course, a lie. Any woman can become a victim of abuse – whether she has a high flying job or is fiercely independent. And it’s because of this lie that it can be hard to realise that this has happened to you.

When I ended a tumultuous relationship in December 2018, I knew that I’d been through something damaging. And yet, because I still couldn’t see myself as a ‘victim of abuse’, I didn’t believe that the emotional manipulation, aggressive behaviour and constant accusations of make-believe infidelity that I’d endured made me one of these women.

This is a subject FKA twigs broached recently with Louis Theroux on his podcast, Grounded With Louis Theroux, following her allegations and lawsuit against her ex-partner Shia LaBeouf for sexual battery, assault and infliction of emotional distress.

In the episode, twigs describes some of her experiences with LaBeouf in a level of detail unusual for a celebrity interview, offering intimate examples of her own life to give visibility to what an abusive relationship can look like. 

Speaking to Theroux, twigs recalls: “He would wake me up in the night and accuse me of all sorts of things. He would accuse me of staring at the ceiling and thinking of ways to leave him or wanting to be with someone else. It would always be between four or seven in the morning.”

I wasn’t prepared, as I plodded around my usual lunchtime walking route, to listen to details of twigs’ relationship and realise that they mirrored some of my own. It was an eye-opening moment as I heard her describe how, allegedly, LaBeouf had shouted at her for speaking politely to waiters and started arguments which seemed designed to exhaust her, dragging on for days and throughout nights; something I’ve experienced, too.

Although it is alleged that LaBeouf did physically harm twigs, these are not the details that she chose to focus on the most in her conversation with Theroux.

Woman sitting alone on a beach

Instead, she depicted the insidious nature of coercive control through mental manipulation, in which her abuser made her believe that his controlling and disturbing behaviour was normal and that she deserved it.

It was bizarre, actually, to hear that someone else’s partner had started up long, exhausting arguments over something so simple as speaking politely and looking into the eyes of a stranger. 

Or, that refusing to let someone sleep could be a form of abuse. Up until this point,  I genuinely thought that a) these things had only happened to me and b) that because I had never been physically hurt, they must not count as abuse.

Listening to twigs made me finally see in plain sight what I had been through and look at why the relationship had taken me much longer than others to heal from. It also helped me understand that many of the types of behaviour I experienced are really common and can be recognised again. 

If something seems too good to be true at the start, there’s a chance it is

You may have heard of the term ‘love bombing’. I had, vaguely, but I didn’t really understand what it meant. I met Andrew* in the summer of 2017 and immediately our relationship took off. As twigs describes, he love bombed me right from the start.

He would meet me from work with surprise bottles of wine and flowers, buy me gifts and read poetry to me. He reinforced positive affirmation about the way I looked using lots of compliments and compared me favourably to other relationships he had been in.

While this was lovely in one sense, it did seem a bit over-the-top sometimes. Within four weeks he had told me he loved me and animatedly insisted that he had never felt like this before and I was the person he wanted to marry. I ignored my instincts and became addicted to the attention. I liked feeling so loved and special.

FKA twigs references this intense honeymoon phase when talking to Theroux and explained how love bombing sets the bar for how good things could be. “A sign of abuse, in my experience, can be an intense honeymoon period in the beginning,” she says.

“It is a signifier of how brilliant things can be. It sets the benchmark for if you behave well and meet the requirements of the abuser, that the relationship can be great. [I experienced] lots of big gestures, love words, happy times, great dates,. It’s being told you’re amazing and put on a pedestal. That’s very common in the beginning of an abusive relationship.”

Woman alone with her thoughts

Control takes hold slowly so that you become normalised to it

While recording his podcast, Theroux asked twigs the big question: “Why didn’t you leave?” “It’s a fair question for you to ask that,” she replied. “But this is something I want to tackle. Why are we asking women why they didn’t leave, instead of asking abusers why they kept someone captive?”

The woman I spoke about at the beginning of this article doesn’t exist. There is no abuse-proof woman with a glittering life and while there are people with helpful support networks who might notice red flags in a relationship, the way an abuser often slips through the net is because their behaviour develops very, very slowly.

Looking back now I can’t believe that I didn’t leave the first time we had an argument and he started punching the wall next to my head. Or, the time that I asked him how work was and he twisted my words into an accusation of his unfaithfulness, causing him to scream, shout, cry and actually lie on the floor of a restaurant, shouting: “You don’t love me!” Then there was the time I complimented a woman’s dress and he wouldn’t speak to me all evening, claiming that I was flirting with her.

But, by the time he had started reacting in this ridiculous, unfathomable, disturbing way, I already believed myself to be in love. And, because these times were interspersed with euphoric highs, I put them down to a passionate character or him just needing more reassurance.

I now realise that manipulative behaviour can be drip fed into a relationship. Twigs explains: “It’s hard to understand what’s going on when you’re being controlled and coerced by an abuser because it happens very slowly.”

Just because someone isn’t physically hurting you, doesn’t mean they aren’t abusive

Every time huge, billowing red flags appeared in my head about my relationship, I fell back on the idea that if he didn’t raise a hand to me it would be melodramatic to think of him as abusive.

One of the examples twigs uses of being abused that stuck with me most was being woken up in the middle of the night by her ex-partner. They say sleep deprivation is a form of torture and being endlessly berated when you’re isolated from others, disoriented and tired is a calculated move designed to wear down the other person. 

I know this because my ex-partner used to wait until I was almost asleep to start an argument. We worked in different industries, him in a bar in the evening and me at an office job which started at 9am. He never had to worry about getting up for work in the morning and would fabricate arguments to keep me awake all night. I would beg him to let me go to sleep, which would result in accusations that I didn’t care enough about him to discuss our relationship. 

In the morning, I’d be groggy and demoralised. As I got ready to go to work he sometimes he sometimes challenged me, saying that by leaving him to go to the office, I wasn’t really committed. Once, as I gathered my work bag and coat, he screamed and cried that if I left I should never return, before leaping out of bed and following me into the street, throwing himself on the floor, naked, demanding that I stay. 

He used a lack of sleep to try and wear me down and eventually, to try and stop me going into work. If he had succeeded I could have become dependent on him, isolated from friends and colleagues and have lost confidence in myself and my career. I realise now that these mind games, while not physical, are incredibly dangerous.

Listening to FKA twigs talk about her experiences with such specificity and openness felt eye-opening and I think because of this she’s already achieved a lot in her goal of creating awareness around the patterns of abuse. 

For me, it felt like a big deal to realise that these patterns and behaviours are used by abusers again and again, and that they may not mean physical harm. Understanding that even to be deprived of sleep is a form of abuse helped me to understand my own experiences and look back on that time with a new appreciation for why I felt so low and confused.

If you’ve been in, or are in, a relationship that you suspect is abusive, listening to someone else speak so candidly and sensitively about how it feels may help you to feel less alone. Grounded with Louis Theroux is available to listen through BBC Radio 4, although listeners should note that only the second half of the interview concerns twig’s previous relationship.

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For help and support in a difficult relationship, you can also seek confidential support with Relate or contact Refuge for help and guidance with control issues. Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline is free to call and available 24/7 on 0808 2000 247.

Images: Getty Images

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