So often, it takes a book to have the inner “a-ha!” moment. For me, that book was the anthology The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities (South End Press).
I reviewed the book for Ms. in the summer of 2011, years after ending a relationship with my alcoholic first love. And last August, I wrote about how I slept through the text message alerts on my phone and would wake up to find my roommate standing over the phone that was charging on the floor beside my bed, desperate to turn it off. I got used to being available to him at odd hours, then at all hours.
It wasn't until reading Shannon Perez-Darby's essay “The Secret Joy of Accountability: Self-accountability as a Building Block for Change" that I realized the connections between a controlling relationship and nonstop, all-hours texting. Her lines reached through years of denial and minimization:
Hardest to explain is how nothing was shocking: each insane reality made sense at the time. I loved getting his 2:00 a.m. text messages; it felt normal to be available to him any time day or night.
The essay stayed with me, and recently I began thinking about how common these types of relationships are. I spoke with Shannon over the phone about her experiences in her own relationship (which ended 10 years ago) and writing about it for The Revolution Starts at Home. Here’s what she had to say:
What was your relationship like before the constant texts began?
In the beginning and many times throughout, the relationship was really great. There were a lot of things that worked for me in that relationship. We had shared identities that felt important to us, and particularly, he was someone who was mixed and Latino and that experience overlapped with mine. People don’t stay in unhealthy relationships because things are all bad, all the time.
At what point did you notice that the texts from your partner were increasing in frequency?
It happened gradually. It wasn’t something I noticed overnight. It was something that took time for me to see the pattern around. The real problem became the content of the text messages and when they were sent. Having to review text messages in the middle of the night, being available to each other 24/7, all of that happened over the last six months of our year-and-a-half-long relationship.
The texting was part of the unrealistic expectation that we were constantly available to each other. It took me a really long time to unlearn the pattern and set reasonable communication expectations. I had gotten so used to being in that kind of contact with him. It was active work to reset my nervous system — everything that you do has an impact on your system. Being in constant contact with him had an activating affect and put me in a state of constant crisis. I was on alert and geared up for the next drama, the next crisis. When your body goes into the fight-or-flight mode, it has a really big impact on the immune system and nervous system when you live like this for long periods of time.
Did you have any mixed feelings about the texts?
Yeah, absolutely. An important part of my healing from that relationship was looking at my part of what the dynamic was and one of my parts was that I liked the attention. I liked how much attention he paid to me. I liked how it made me feel. I liked that he talked to me a lot.
My part of the dynamic was that I was more interested in the attention he was paying me than whether that was working for my sense of wellness and happiness in the long-term. I was willing to trade off my serenity for the attention and for the ways that him telling me nice things about myself made me feel.
How did the relationship end? Did the texts continue after you broke up?
We had broken up and gotten back together a number of times. The final time we broke up, he had started a relationship with someone else — very much overlapping our breakup. We stayed in regular contact for another six months. In many ways, the texts after our breakup were an extension of the texts before the break-up, the two of us reaching toward each other when either of us was feeling happy or sad.
What are some of the warning signs others should pay attention to if they suspect their partner is using texts as a means of keeping tabs and perpetuating emotional abuse?
What I talk to people about is how they can set realistic expectation for themselves. That’s obviously a very personal process for everyone. One of the things I had developed for myself as a result of the relationship is that I’m very clear with my loved ones that I’m not available 24/7. I turn off my phone when I go to sleep or I put my phone in a blocking mode between when I go to sleep and when I wake up in the morning. I try to be very present in my immediate life and sometimes that means I can’t respond right away to text messages or voicemails or emails.
Signs of emotional abuse would be quick involvement — someone who starts things out very serious, very fast. When someone doesn’t respect smaller limits and boundaries. Someone who tries to influence and control your relationship with others. Often what I tell people is that you could never just check everything off a list and abuse is part of a larger pattern of behaviors. I tell people to trust their instincts about whether or not the relationship is working for them. It’s okay to end a relationship that’s not working for you even if it’s not abusive.
What was the impact of publishing this essay? Have you had any encounters with readers who experienced similar dynamics in their past relationships?
Working on this essay was a real labor of love. It took a lot of work to put out there. I tend to be a pretty private person. It was asking, “How can I talk about this relationship in a way that is respectful to the other person, loving and true about my own experience?” One of the things that has been so amazing has been how loving and sweet the responses I’ve gotten — people who have been kind and generous in sharing their experiences and told me how reading the essay made them think about their own relationships.
I wrote the essay over the course of a year between when I was first invited to submit and the final rounds of edits. But the first draft took one month — pretty much all my waking hours that I was not working at my day job. Because it was emotionally heavy to write, it took work to figure out what it was I wanted to say.
What advice would you give to someone who is exhausted and frustrated from constant texting?
The number one thing that I tell people is — as much as possible — to stay connected to their family and friends. We know that isolation is such a common experience in abusive relationships. When friends and family and community are able to hold onto each other, it’s a really powerful tool in countering abuse. If people don’t have someone in their life they can talk to, I recommend calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline. They’re a great resource that can get you connected to a local program in your area.