Long Reads

“Why you should never date the guy who tells you not to order dessert”

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Kelly Brook’s recent comments about her boyfriend have triggered alarm bells for some.

This week, Kelly Brook admitted that her boyfriend of three years, Jeremy Parisi, has made a point of “parenting” her throughout their relationship.

“It was his birthday at the weekend,” she revealed during a recent episode of ITV’s Loose Women.

“I said, ‘Oh, do you want to go out? We could get some people together and go for some drinks?’ and he said, ‘No, you’re working on Monday.’”

As the audience began to laugh, Brook continued: “I’m always the one to find an excuse to have a drink, have a dessert – I’m always wanting to celebrate life.

“He’s the really sensible one; he says, ‘You had dessert last night – you don’t need it tonight.’”

It was at this point that the atmosphere in the studio changed: eyebrows were raised, and people began tittering, whispering, giggling nervously. Watching the scene unfold on screen, I also had a sinking feeling in my stomach – one of sick recognition. Because, while I know nothing about Brook and Parisi’s relationship, I do know that there is a fine line between someone keeping you on the right side of healthy, and someone gearing up to control, undermine, and gaslight you.

Has Parisi crossed this line? Obviously, it’s impossible for anyone but Brook to say – and she has stressed time and time again that she’s the “happiest” she’s ever been with a man. However, I’d hate for anyone to see her comments and apply them, incorrectly, to their own relationship. To convince themselves that their own partner’s chronic criticism of them is somehow not just warranted, but normal. To rationalise things, and show them that it’s not such a big deal that he or she doesn’t like the way they dress, speak, eat or conduct themselves. To help them believe their partner is just trying to help them become a better person. 

I can tell you, from experience, that abuse is sometimes extremely subtle. It is often insidious. You go from believing you’ve found The One, that fairy-tales are real, that true love really does exist, to wondering why all of the “problems” in your relationship are your fault – with no real understanding of how you got from A to B. And this is because abuse begins slowly. It’s a seemingly flyaway comment about your outfit (“that skirt is a bit short, isn’t it?”), or an off-the-cuff remark about the size of your dinner (“I’m just saying it because I’m worried about your health”), or a not-so-funny joke about your weight/looks/intelligence/friends. These instances are so small you barely notice them: you brush them off, ignore them and lock them down tight into that tiny blackbox inside your head.

When it comes to abusers, though, these sly little digs are just the first front in their long war against your agency.

For me, it began when my ex told me I was “too pretty” to wear skirts. Next, tight trousers were for “slutty” girls. Then I found out that anything low-cut would give other guys the “wrong idea”. But, because I loved him – at least, I thought I loved him, I really did – I started dressing the way he wanted me to dress, and my body was soon hidden underneath baggy, shapeless clothes.

It was just the first of many compromises I found myself making. Small at first, all of them, until suddenly they weren’t anymore. Somehow, he convinced me to stop spending time with friends and family. I wasn’t allowed to speak to men full-stop and, if he ever caught me doing so, he’d sing a few bars of Atlantic Starr’s Secret Lovers, a smile painted on his face as he did so. People found it funny, found him charming. That song, though, would always make me feel sick to my stomach: I knew it signalled a night of fighting, screaming, crying, pleading. And, eventually, I folded: instead of going out in the evenings, I would phone him as soon as I got home each day, remaining on the line until I was asleep, just so that he knew I was alone. Then I started going to his house every night even when he wasn’t there, just so that he had proof that I was where I said I was.

On weekends, the rules were stricter: I had to get there before he woke up and sit quietly in the bedroom as he slept. I’d act as a human alarm clock, rousing him at an acceptable time (and in an acceptable way) before he’d go out and leave me there, sat on his bed, until he came back. Sometimes he would be gone for hours, the entire day, but it gave me time to read, to watch TV, to, above all else, think about all the little mistakes I’d made – and all the awful things I’d made him do to me. Because they were my fault, all of them. The bruises on my arms, legs and neck were mine, and no one else’s. When I did something stupid, like change the channel without permission, of course he would get angry and throw a remote control at my head. Of course he would. If I wanted to spend hours moaning about my shellfish allergy, I deserved to have my dinner laced with the stuff. And if I dared suggest otherwise, I knew in my heart that it would end in him lashing out, spitting in my face.

It seemed the worst punishment of all, though, was when he would burst into loud, noisy tears. His eyes wet, he would tell me he was sorry, that I’d driven him to do whatever he’d done to me that day, that the only solution was for him to kill himself. I can’t count how many times he dangled himself from the upstairs window, promising me that he would let go, send himself plummeting onto the concrete below, if I didn’t forgive him. 

Things got worse – a lot worse – before they got better. The sort of worse that makes you a different person, a more guarded person, a less-sure-of-yourself person. But they did get better, and I don’t want to dwell on past horrors. What I do want to do is tell you that, no matter how individually small a criticism seems, if it’s part of a constant dynamic within your relationship, it indicates that you are not being accepted for who you are. If every little thing you do could use improvement in your partner’s eyes, then how are you being valued as a true equal, let alone loved unconditionally? And if you’re frightened and worried and feel like you have to give up on the things that are important to you in order to make your partner OK, and to avoid his bad behaviour, that’s where the line is.

Once again, I’d like to stress that I don’t know anything about Brook’s relationship – only that which she herself has made public. “He’s the sensible one,” she reassured the Loose Women panel. “He just keeps me on the straight and narrow and keeps me focused, otherwise I’d be forever eating and drinking and having a good time.”

That’s right: without Parasi in her life, Brook would be forever having a good time – and who wants that in a relationship, eh?

Recognising the signs of emotional abuse

There’s a growing awareness around the signs of coercive control and emotional abuse. In 2015, a new UK law was introduced to target perpetrators who submit partners, spouses, or other family members to serious psychological and emotional torment, but stop short of violence – and they can now face up to five years in prison.

However, while people are more aware of the issue, it often remains difficult for people trapped in toxic relationships to spot the warning signs.

These can include (but are not limited to) the following:

• Your partner constantly criticises, humiliates or belittles you

• Your partner checks up on you or follows you

• Your partner tries to keep you from seeing your friends or family

• Your partner has prevented you or made it hard for you to continue studying or going to work

• Your partner unjustly accuses you of flirting or having affairs with others

• Your partner has forced you to do something that you really did not want to do

• Your partner has deliberately destroyed any of your possessions

• You have changed your behaviour because you are afraid of what your partner might do or say to you

• Your partner controls your finances

• Your partner talks down to you

• Your partner has strong opinions on what you should wear and your appearance

• Your partner has tried to prevent you from leaving your house

• Your partner has forced you or harassed you into performing a sexual act

• Your partner has threatened to reveal or publish private information

• Your partner threatens to hurt him or herself if you leave them

• Your partner witholds medication from you

• Your partner makes you feel guilty all the time

• Your partner blames you for their bad moods and outbursts

• You are afraid of your partner

Emotional abuse, essentially, sees your partner bully and berate you as they slowly chip away at your self-esteem. To others, they may seem charming – but, behind closed doors, it’s a very different story. And, all the while, they work hard to cut you off from the people you love and who might be able to recognise your relationship for what it is; toxic.

If you are worried that you might be the victim of emotional abuse, it’s quite likely that you are. If these signs of an abusive relationship sound all too familiar to you, then get out of that situation as soon as possible.

If you have suffered from domestic abuse of any kind, contact Woman’s Aid here, or call the free National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247. You can also contact Refuge by clicking here

Image: Getty