On Valentine’s Day 2008, with a clarity that was long overdue, I left an abusive relationship. The hearts, the flowers, Barry White on the radio – they all brought things into sharp focus. For three years I’d been paralyzed with doubt. That’s the insidiousness of it. By degrees, like a frog being boiled – before you know it, you’re soup.

When it’s good, he’s charming: holds your hand in public, and lets you share his sweets in the cinema. When it’s bad: the constant criticism, the sulks, the explosive rages, the intimidation, the isolation – it’s so relentless, lonely and bewildering, you start to doubt reality. “Maybe it is me?” you think. You say sorry. Try harder.

It took time to see how scared I was, to realize how my sense of self had disappeared. The shame was awful. I lost my high-flying job due to “stress”; and worse, I lost my confidence. I was financially dependent, utterly confused. “Couples therapy” turned into two against one. I’m not sure what was more traumatic: being shouted at by the therapist, or the huge rows that ensued when we got home.

“Why doesn’t she just leave?” is an ignorant question. There is a pattern to abuse: how it starts, escalates, and how it messes with your mind. My ex never hit me (threatened to, yes), but abuse is not just physical violence. According to Refuge, it is, “the repeated, random and habitual use of intimidation to control a partner … If you are forced to alter your behavior because you are frightened … you are being abused.”

In the UK, the police receive a domestic violence call every minute; every three days, a woman is murdered. Maybe you work with one of these women, or say hi at the school gate; maybe she’s your friend.

My friend’s worst beating was with her newborn baby in her arms. Thrown down the stairs, her head bounced off the patio doors, her nose exploded from the force of his boot. She now helps other survivors (she helped me more than she knows), and is happily engaged to a good man. Her ex still threatens her, using access to his son to harass her. She logs everything with a solicitor; she has taken her power back.

Here’s what I’ve learned since I left:

Constant anxiety is not because you are neurotic, it’s called FEAR – listen to it.

Telling yourself that “all men are bastards” will keep you with the bastard you’re with – “all” men are decidedly not bastards, most are decent, some are really special.

Minimising his outrageous behaviour with: “all relationships have their ups and downs” will keep you in the shitty relationship you are in.

Charm is integral, look out for red flags – coming on too strong; using words like “always” and “forever”; calling all the time; turning up unannounced; keeping you so busy with romantic surprises that you don’t see your friends; bombarding you with presents; buying you a new phone (to check where you are, or even to track the GPS); picking out your clothes. We’re conditioned to see this as romance, but it’s control.

There will be one significant, early red flag, so at odds with the nice man you thought you were dating, it won’t compute. Mine? He sent me a barrage of abusive texts late at night in fluent Spanish (I don’t speak Spanish). By the time I got up the next morning, his apology was already in my inbox. Anyone telling you to “detach with love” and “work on your boundaries” or to “stop playing the victim” is not your friend. You are being victimised. I’m all for boundaries, but they are futile against a bulldozer.

Many people, including professionals, will collude with his excuses. But he’s not doing it because he’s drunk, stressed, insecure, had a terrible cheating ex, is mentally ill, or because his mother dropped him on his head when he was a baby. He’s doing it because he feels he has a right to do it. This is because he has certain beliefs about women which are fully supported by our culture. He’s a misogynist – simple. Millions of men are stressed, heartbroken, insecure, bonkers, and addicted, some even have really awful girlfriends, and they don’t abuse people or hate women.

Your real friends won’t tell you until it’s really bad; they will listen to you endlessly complain, agonise, and cry. They will watch in dismay as you smooth it over, or worse, get engaged. If you are extremely lucky, one of them might eventually say, “you sound like a battered wife” (do I?) and blast you out of your paralysis.

All those fears you have that you’re unlovable, stupid, useless, ugly, fat, unemployable, and too sensitive are not true. They are the consequences of living with a woman-hating wazzock who will only resort to violence when his other tactics start to fail. Many men never use their fists; they don’t need to.

You are not alone. According to a poll, 33% of women go through this – it’s nothing to do with your background, your socioeconomic group, or your religion: it’s because you are a woman. Being a woman is not a crime, unlike domestic abuse. Remember that leaving is the most dangerous time; he’s likely to up the ante. Get support. Many men are extremely persuasive after you’ve gone; be prepared for promises and threats, for the friends he’s enlisted to tell you they’ve “never seen anyone so cut up, he really does love you”. You need a plan.

It’s called a “breakup” because it’s broken. The beautiful, liberating, wonderful day is coming when you’ll have him out of your system; you will wake up one morning and feel happy and free.

I still don’t know what love is, but I know it’s not warm and fuzzy feelings – it’s actions, it’s what you do. I still like men, I love male company, I have some great friends. I still want to love and be loved. There have been new relationships since I left, but men scare me a little. It’s going to be a special guy who takes my guard down – who will be patient as I flap about in the big blue yonder, and panic. I hope I meet him. But I’m not a half, looking for my whole. I don’t need looking after. But to lean in a little, we all need that. The way I see it, any man worth my time is already a feminist; he may not think of it that way, but he is. Decent men respect women, have got that whole macho v masculine thing figured out. I take heart from my favorite Maya Angelou quote: “I’ve been female for a long time now. I’d be stupid not to be on my own side.”


Originally appeared on Theguardian