It’s taken me a long time to share my story because I come from a very conservative family and society. A lot of people will ask me why I’m talking about this publicly, and that’s the problem. In our culture, you’re made to feel ashamed for speaking up about this; you’re made to feel like it is a failure on your part. As a result, so many women are afraid to talk or to share their story.
One thing I’m adamant about is never using the word “victim”. To me, a victim is someone who has been defeated, and the women (and in some cases even men) who are in a similar situation or who’ve made it out, which is not easy, shouldn’t be considered as such. They are heroes – and heroes to themselves more than anything.
I was in an abusive relationship for three years, but as you often hear people in this situation say, I wasn’t aware that I was in an abusive relationship. For the rest of the world, ours was painted as a very loving, supportive marriage, but the people closest to me could tell that something wasn’t right, just by observing our dynamic. The thing about abusive relationships is that they’re hard to identify if you’re in one. Even when people tried to point it out, I couldn’t see it. It took so long for me to realize that this wasn’t the supportive environment that I should be in.
One thing I’m adamant about is never using the word “victim”.
The way the abuse manifested itself was through constant criticism and contempt. I was manipulated by my husband at the time into thinking that he was the best thing that ever happened to me. His opinion was the only thing that mattered, so when it was always negative, it would drag me down. It was all so twisted because, every so often, he would show such intense love and use key words that would just trigger me and would make me feel so valued and loved. I would feel validated when he would give me the smallest compliment and I craved that validation so badly. The fact that I would sometimes get it kept me going. I would say things like, “When it’s good, it’s amazing, but when it’s bad, it’s really bad.” And I would hold on to the good. There was no gray area – it was always black or white.
That was the cycle – the cycle of someone verbally and emotionally abusing you all the time. And, when they decide they want to show you love, you come running for it. It’s a constant rollercoaster. They know how to manipulate you.
Growing up, I never struggled with self-esteem issues. I was always someone who was very comfortable in her own skin and enjoyed rising to the challenge. During my marriage, however, I lost any confidence I had in myself. The constant need for his validation had me on edge and questioning everything I did all the time. I went from being the woman who walked into a room with her head held high to someone who would always be looking down. He took away any confidence I had.
I didn’t want to go to work or be in public for that matter because, when we were going through a dark time, he would constantly talk negatively about me to people around us. He would do it in front of me, so that I could hear him. We worked in the same gym and everyone in our workplace knew everything about us. I couldn’t even lift my head up in public. And then, when we were good, he was all love. He would make me feel incredible because of the way he would talk to me in front of everyone.
It completely changed me, even when it came to my friends and family. They noticed it, but I wouldn’t admit it. I was always making excuses for us and defending him to people. I stayed because I was very young and I was very in love. I couldn’t even fathom the idea of leaving. I didn’t want to admit defeat or failure, or admit that something had gone wrong in my relationship. I was holding on to the smallest rays of light and the rare good moments. In retrospect, there were signs all along – even before we got married – but I couldn’t really understand them. Even when I started to, I didn’t want to believe them. You start believing that this is what you deserve. That’s the wickedness of it.
“You are nothing without me.”
“I built you.”
“No one is going to care about you.”
“Everybody’s going to take my side.”
Those are the things he would often say to me, but slowly but surely, I started to realize that I didn’t come from a family where people talked to each other like that. I started to realize that something was very, very wrong.
I can’t sit here today and say that I acted blamelessly in our marriage, but in this kind of relationship, there is no trust, so you end up doubting the person you’re with and being in each other’s face all the time.
It was so hard to get out of this situation. It’s hard for people who haven’t gone through it to understand. When you’re in a relationship like that, you feel like it really is the best that you can do, or you feel like you won’t survive without that person. You’re also afraid of what they would do to you if you left.
Everything that he had threatened to do, he did.
I had to stop asking, “Why is this happening to me?” because there is no reasoning with people like that. I kept thinking I could help him, that I would be the one to fix him, but I needed to realize that this wasn’t my job and, most importantly, that it wasn’t my fault. I also had to overcome this fear of being alone – of not being with the person who validated my existence.
When I decided it was time to end our marriage, I tried many times to get out and, every time I did, he would threaten me. I come from a conservative family and I didn’t want to expose them to a person like that. He would use that against me and blackmail me. But I finally did it; we got a divorce and my family stood by my side.
It didn’t end there, however. He tried to get me back in the same emotional way he had done many times before, which was always so intense – and which, until now, had worked. There would be a lot of crying and banging on my door and screaming that he couldn’t live without me. Around that time, my friend shared an article with me about narcissistic people and, the more I read, the more I started to recognize in him all of the signs. It felt like someone had put our relationship on paper. After that point, something changed in me and I never looked back.
When I didn’t give into his threats and his pleas, he turned my life into a complete nightmare. When he realized that I was actually doing okay and had started to rebuild my life without him, he couldn’t comprehend it. He started a social-media campaign against me, spreading lies, creating fake accounts, and trying to do as much damage to my reputation as possible. He even dragged my family into this. There were threats and harassments and he just wouldn’t stop. Everything that he had threatened to do, he did.
You start believing that this is what you deserve. That’s the wickedness of it.
Right after the divorce, I was challenged by a friend to hike Kilimanjaro, which is something I normally wouldn’t have done. It was the first time I had travelled on my own, I knew no one, and I didn’t even have my phone with me. I was fully aware of what was happening back home, of the campaign he was leading on Instagram and everywhere he went, but I just didn’t care. I completely disconnected. These seven days of hiking changed my life, and I realized at that time that I could do whatever I wanted, that I could accomplish whatever I set my mind to.
That’s when I decided that enough was enough and I had to take action. When I came back home, I went to the authorities and got a restraining order against him. When we were still together, he would often threaten me with the idea that this was a man’s country and that, if I did try anything, the authorities would side with him. He couldn’t have been more wrong.
Honestly, I never thought that I would be able to get out of the hole that I was in at that time. I was so embarrassed. Just knowing that everyone knew every intimate detail about my life made me retreat even further inside, but my family and friends stayed by my side and worked on rebuilding my confidence little by little.
At first, I had to fight the urge to stay home by myself. I didn’t want to talk about it. I wouldn’t even say his name. But being around friends and family all the time, in a loving environment, really helped me through this. Working, reading, being active, and just doing things that made me feel happy and good about myself was crucial.
I stopped caring about people and what they thought of me. I started thinking about myself and, once I did that, I finally started realizing what my potential in life was and that I was someone worthy. That was a really important shift from me because I was coming from a relationship where I had been made to believe that the most important opinion was that of other people and not my own.
I had to start from scratch, even in terms of business, because he was also my business partner. He was actually the one who got me into fitness. As fate would have it, though, I was approached by a friend at that time to join her in a new venture, a ladies-only fitness program called GetFitChick. I took the leap and, since then, our program has grown from strength to strength.
The most eye-opening thing has been the number of messages I received on social media from women who had watched what was happening – because he had made it so public – and could understand the signs. So many of them started to share their own stories of abuse and low self-esteem. They were inspired to turn to fitness as a way to regain control of their lives and feel a sense of accomplishment, and that really inspired GetFitChick. This program is not just about losing weight; it’s about loving yourself.
One thing I noticed was how, once I changed my own mindset and started to value and believe in myself, good things just started to come my way. Today, I have so much support from people who didn’t even know what was going on. Once you open yourself up to that positivity, so many great things start to happen in your life.
Looking back, I don’t regret anything I’ve been through.
Looking back, I don’t regret anything I’ve been through. I feel like I’ve learnt so much about myself, I have so much appreciation for who I am, and I will carry these lessons with me for the rest of my life.
If I could share anything with women around the world, and it’s something I wish I had known back then, it’s this: Pay attention to the signs and don’t be in denial. Don’t be ashamed to go talk to somebody. I kept it all to myself for a very long time because I was in denial and didn’t want people to know that I might have made the wrong decision. It’s okay to make the wrong decisions, and it’s okay to admit that maybe you didn’t do the right thing. It’s not failure, and it’s not the end of the world.
Sara (named changed) is a personal trainer and fitness personality living in Dubai.