Defending yourself is a waste of energy.

Do you remember your first time? I'm not talking about that first time - although maybe I should in a future post. I'm talking about the first time your partner showed his true nature to you.

It would have been a subtle thing, a slip on his part, quickly made-up for with flowers and an apology. Something that felt wrong to you at the time, but was dismissed as serious because it was out of character, because it hadn’t yet turned into a pattern.

Mine happened at home. We’d been dating two weeks so it wasn’t the first time he’d been over, but it was maybe only the second or third. I lived with my best friend at the time - for free I might add, just to give a shout-out to her generosity - in the converted attack of her adorable 1928 bungalow. The house was small, as all 1928 bungalows are, and packed full to the brim with antiques given to her from her grandparents. Cool, right?

But because it was full to the brim with antiques, there was not a lot of room for her other things - things like jackets and boots and bicycles - besides the floor and the arms of chairs. To an outsider I suppose her house would have looked messy. To me, her most devoted fan, her house just looked, well, like her.

He and I were in the living room, cuddling on the sofa and watching television when he asked for a glass of water. Happy to attend to my new boyfriend, I padded into the kitchen to retrieve it for him. He followed me.

And when I went to the kitchen sink to fill the glass, he came up behind me and peered over my shoulder. “I can’t believe you’re SUCH A SLOB!” He yelled. “What?” I thought, totally caught off guard. I looked down into the sink. There was a knife - one knife - and it had peanut butter and jam on it. I’d never specifically noticed before, but I’m guessing there was always a knife like that in the sink because peanut butter is my best friend’s favorite food.

I tried to explain that it was her knife not mine, and that it was her house not mine, and if he wanted to judge my cleanliness he should go up to my room. You know what he did instead? He left. He actually left the house - stormed out of it actually. Maybe I’m embellishing here but I swear he didn’t even stop to tie his shoe laces.

We didn’t talk the next day, Sunday, but on Monday afternoon at work I received a bouquet of flowers with a note, “Sorry about the jam.” I joked that they were “apology flowers” with my coworkers. If only I’d known… “Slob" was the first of many unfair labels I received from him.

I tried that first time, as I did every subsequent time, to reason with him - to prove with example after example that I don't have the deficiency “SUCH A SLOB.” (I wish I could show you a picture of how spotless our house was. It was the first thing guests commented on when they came to visit.) In fact, right up to the end of our relationship I always responded to his insults and accusations by defending myself. It’s the natural response to an attack, after all.

But as you know, once an abusive partner makes up his or her mind about you, there is nothing you can say or do to change it. My ex must have called me filthy, stupid, forgetful, or oblivious hundreds of times over the course of our relationship. And hundreds of times I presented mountains of evidence to the contrary. But do you know how many times I successfully changed his mind? Zero.

One of the first things I realized after I got "out" is that I had confused sticking up for myself with defending myself. In an emotionally abusive relationship, sticking up for yourself is more subtle: it means conserving your energy for the real task of leaving.

So save your breath, and stop defending yourself. Your partner? His or her opinion of you doesn’t matter anymore because as far as your relationship goes, you two are emotionally donesies. And that thing your partner accuses you of being? Stupid, oblivious, forgetful, crazy, ill, unfit father, not a family man, etc. You know you're not that thing. And that's enough for now. (By the way, I also know you're not that thing so that makes two people.) 

Next time your partner does his or her "thing", rather than launch a defense, see how quickly you can end or change the conversation. Experiment with different responses. Get creative.

“No I’m not and here’s why…” might turn into, “That’s not okay with me so unless you have anything else to say I'm going to go start dinner." or "Ouch, that stung. Hey - did you need anything from the store? I'm going to pick up some milk.” Bonus points if you can simply just laugh in his face. (I never could.)

If you find something that "disconnects" you from your abusive partner's attack, post it as a comment for others to see and try. It'll be one more subtle way in which we're sticking up for ourselves.