Sarah's Health Notes: When Love Turns Toxic

Sarah's Health Notes: When Love Turns Toxic

Emma Davey is 32, beautiful, nice and clever but for four years she was the victim of emotional abuse by her partner, which latterly became physically violent. Now a counselor, Emma has launched a support group to help other sufferers.

Listening to Emma’s story is heart rending and also quite astonishing. Why, I kept thinking silently, did she keep going back? Like many people I understood the concept of coercive control – which dominated The Archers storyline for months in 2016 – but I had little understanding of the reality of living with it.

Emma terms the situation ‘narcissistic abuse’ because the perpetrator is someone with a narcissistic personality disorder. ‘Coercive control is what’s happening but the abuser is a narcissist or sociopath.’ She wants to talk about her experience because ‘people need to be aware of what narcissistic abuse looks like and when they should remove themselves’. (Scroll down for more on the profile of perpetrators.) Since she set up her private support group, over 6,500 people have applied to join via her website

Emma’s relationship with her abuser started when she was 21. ‘He was 42; not bad looking with a big personality and everyone liked him. He started talking to me as if he was really interested and cared. It was really nice.’

He organized extravagant treats, ‘like going out to really nice restaurants. Within the first week he said he had never loved anyone like me. I couldn't wait for him to message me. He made me feel so alive.’

There was an early red flag. ‘I found out that, after two failed marriages, he was actually engaged to someone else. But he said he felt trapped and was so thankful to have found me. He asked me if I would be with him if he left her. I was so naïve that I thought everything he said was true.’  

Despite having a one-year old baby with his fiancée, ‘Cliff’ (his name and some other details have been changed for legal reasons) rented a property with Emma. ‘His fiancée found out but he would go back to her for the day while I worked. I met her and she was like a robot, just completely emotionless, no anger even when she found out about me. He had complete control over both of us. He must have felt like Hugh Hefner.’

Shortly after, the woman and her baby moved out of that property and Emma and Cliff moved in. Looking back, Emma, now a trained counselor, says that’s when the abuse cycle really started. 

Persuading the victim to withdraw from friends is a frequent feature of emotional abuse. ‘He was so manipulative. He started questioning who I was friends with on Facebook and made me get to the point of coming off it in order to make him happy.’

Cliff’s heavy drinking became apparent around this time. ‘I hadn’t realized he was an alcoholic. When he was drunk, he would completely put me down and make me feel worthless – as if I had to compete with his ex all the time. Then he would tell me I should be grateful because he had left her and the baby.’

As Cliff’s drinking spiraled out of control, Emma did summon up the courage to tell him to stop. ‘I thought if he could get the alcohol out of the way he would go back to being the amazing person I first met.’ Some time later, he went into rehab for 28 days and stopped drinking. But the abuse did not stop.

‘Among our friends, he would make up stories about me, saying I was a gold digger. Then he would tell me that everyone thought I was a gold digger. He would create this friction and sit back and watch it all happen. He used to say “I own you, you are mine and you will do exactly what I tell you”.’

There were affairs with other women. ‘He could literally charm the pants off anyone.’ He told Emma she dressed like tat and looked liked a slag. She started to self-harm. ‘I was exhausted treading on eggshells, trying to make sure whatever I did made him happy. I completely changed who I was and became a robot like his ex.  One day I just picked up the scissors and began to cut myself.’

Two years after rehab, Cliff started drinking again. Terrified, Emma agreed to see a counselor with him. ‘I was at breaking point, hoping she would be supportive of me but he sat there and acted charming. She believed him and ended up telling me I should trust him to drink.’

Looking back, Emma realises she was being ‘gaslighted’ on a daily basis. Gaslighting is where the victim is manipulated and led to question their own recollection of events. ‘When I saw the counselor accept his version of events, I thought maybe I was mad.’

A holiday abroad led to continual drinking on Cliff’s part and physical violence. ‘He grabbed my hair, spat in my face, clenched his fist and said he wanted to smash my face in. I didn't know what I’d done.’ Cliff smashed up their room and tried to fight other guests. The police were called, and Emma was left alone and traumatised. Still she went back to Cliff. ‘The trauma bond kicked in. I missed him,’ she explains.

Over the next year, Emma recounts a cycle of vicious abuse, both emotional and physical, with two suicide attempts on her part. But no matter what Cliff did, she still returned. ‘He hoovered me back in,’ she says.

Her 25th birthday proved a turning point. ‘I played the video of my life with him in my brain. I thought “How the hell am I here?”  I couldn't believe the person I was at 21 and the one I had become. I decided I had to get away.’

Training as a counselor proved Emma’s salvation. ‘I realised that my addiction was the promise of love. This person gave me so much love, admiration and the affection I was yearning for that I was prepared to put myself through anything to get it back. It was my drug.’

Emma’s website offers counseling and recovery coaching for sufferers of narcissistic abuse. Below, she outlines a typical pattern of narcissistic abuse: [I have used ‘you’ simply to represent the victim.]

  1. The person will present as charming, affectionate and sincerely interested. They will likely shower the victim with compliments. They will mirror everything you like and are attracted to. They will promise you an amazing future. 
  2. You will think you have met your soul mate and become hooked.
  3. The narcissist will push your boundaries, discover the people who have most impact in your life (friends, family, colleagues etc) and pull you away. They want sole control over you and your thoughts; other people are a threat so they will aim to isolate you.
  4. Although the victim feels vulnerable, you keep holding on to the dream. You are caught in the net.
  5. However, the perpetrator knows that not everyone is susceptible to manipulation so they will put out feelers to several possible victims; thus multiple relationships may be going on, as with Emma and Cliff.

Although the most usual form of abuse is between partners, it’s important to remember that emotional abuse does not always come from an intimate partner. A narcissistic abuser could also be a parent, family member, boss, colleague or so-called friend.

From 2015, the Serious Crime Act made ‘coercive and controlling abuse’ illegal. According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales year ending March 2020, an estimated 5.5% of adults aged 16-74 years (2.3 million) experienced domestic abuse in the preceding year. However, the figures are not separated into emotional versus physical abuse and, as in Emma’s case, there may be an overlap.

According to recent research, police training to raise awareness of the complex nature of domestic abuse has increased the number of arrests for controlling or coercive behavior in England and Wales. It’s particularly significant in the context of the pandemic when crime data recorded by police shows an increase in domestic abuse offences and in the demand for support services.

Some police forces have launched proactive campaigns such as Dorset Police ‘Cut Your Strings’ initiative, which is well worth checking out for help and support.

Helpful contacts nationwide:


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