I am not a teen, nor have I been for a very long time. But when I was seventeen, my relationship with a boyfriend turned abusive, and the effects of the abuse are still present, even over a decade since the relationship ended.
What I want you to know is that teen dating abuse is far too common. I was one of the lucky ones who got out of the relationship before it turned violent. What I want you to know is that some forms of abuse, such as emotional abuse, are not easily identifiable and that people who have been abused may not realize it until after the relationship has ended, and that teenagers, in particular, are vulnerable because they have not yet had the experience to be able to compare an abusive relationship to a healthy one. What I want you to know is that abusers themselves are not easily identifiable. Mine was “the nice guy.”
We started out as friends. We were the only freshman in our high school math class, so we would sit next to each other and share notes. He was super smart, a little nerdy, and overweight. He was funny and harmless. Through my sophomore and junior years, we remained friends, and while I knew he always had a crush on me, I didn’t see him as more than a friend, and he stood on the sidelines as I dated other guys at school – the popular guys, the athletes. At the beginning of my senior year, I found myself single, and for the first time, noticed him. The superficial things about him had changed. He was taller. He had lost a lot of weight over the summer and could bench an impressive amount. He had a cool car. But he was still the nice guy. We started studying together after school and at night, and eventually, we were together. For the first few months, I thought I had found my knight in shining armor. He was chivalrous and romantic. He swore up and down that even though he fell in love with me, we would always remain friends at the core. He took great care of me, always giving me rides to wherever I needed to go, bringing me dinner when I worked at my part-time job, and buying me thoughtful presents. He was protective of me, and the fact that he was big guy made me feel safe.
As we became more serious, little red flags appeared – red flags that I didn’t see as red flags at the time. He would buy me clothes. The clothes were expensive, and I thought it was sweet even though I didn’t prefer the ultra-conservative style of the clothes. He wrote his college essay about me, calling me his angel. He told me that he didn’t apply to certain colleges because he didn’t want to have to go if he had gotten into a better school, which would mean we’d be apart, and he didn’t want to do that to me. I thought that was romantic. He would get jealous when I talked to other guys. I thought that was just a sign of love. He would make little comments about my body or appearance. I thought that was normal. He would, without fail, drive me to work and pick me up. I thought that was being a good boyfriend. Then those little red flags got more serious. When we fought and he realized he was at fault, he starting using a swiss army knife to cut gashes into his forearm, each mark and scar a sign of how sorry he was. He would show me those painful-looking bloody gashes when he apologized, and I would go right back to loving him for loving me so much.
One day at school, he found out that an ex-boyfriend of mine had written me a letter, and he got angry. He didn’t hit or yell. Instead told me to get in the car and drove me to a trashy motel in another city, and in the motel room, he made me apologize in the way that he knew hurt me the most: having sex. I felt like a cheap whore.
I blamed myself. When he and I first got together, I was more experienced than he. I had lost my virginity at fifteen but realized that I was not emotionally ready for having sex. He had trouble with that. I think it wasn’t so much that he wanted to have sex but that he felt insecure that I had slept with someone else but didn’t want to with him. He was insecure. And he also used it as a form of control because he knew that making me have sex in that manner humiliated me.
Motel visits happened a couple more times that year, but beyond those “punishments,” nights we went out would end with him emotionally manipulating me into sleeping with him. To be clear, he was never violent. Instead, he would make me feel guilty. He would get angry. I would cry and plead. I just wanted him to take me home. But I didn’t want him to be angry with me and he wore me down, so I would just let it happen. The more it happened, the more ashamed I felt, and the more ashamed I felt, the more I wanted to be with him because in my twisted mind, I had to stay with him because no one else would want me. After all, I was a cheap whore.
My family had no idea. My friends had no idea. He was the nice guy. We studied together. We both got good grades and were going to good colleges. We lived in a pristine, safe suburb where everything was happy.
The next fall, we started at the same college. I elected to live in an all-female dorm so as to not be around other guys. Starting a new phase in my life hundreds of miles away from home and in a new environment surrounded by smart, ambitious college students should have been a time filled with great memories, but starting college in an unhealthy relationship wasn’t a great situation. My boyfriend’s jealousy got worse. I found myself without friends and spending almost every waking minute outside of class with him. One time he found out that I had spent time with some people from our high school and the jealousy flared. He told me he was breaking up with me. I begged him to take me back, which he did, but I never made that mistake again, and as the months passed, I became more and more isolated. My entire first year of college, I didn’t make a single friend. Whenever we fought, he would threaten to end our relationship, and I found myself completely immersed in pleasing him. And the coercing me into having sex didn’t stop. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night with him undressing me. One night, I found myself in a car in an empty parking lot with him again. As usual, I knew what pulling into the lot meant, but this time, for whatever reason, I told him no and tried to push him off of me. He didn’t stop, but in my mind, it wasn’t rape because it didn’t fit the definition of rape. He was my boyfriend, and he wasn’t violent. And I told myself that I didn’t say no loudly enough. I could have pushed him harder so he knew no meant no.
At the end of my first year in college, on a whim, I applied for a leadership position in an academic club on campus and was selected. Just like that, my isolation ended. As part of my initiation into the position, I had to spend several weeks away from my boyfriend on a leadership retreat, and the students in this club quickly became my friends. After the retreat ended, I returned to campus to start my sophomore year, and there was a moment when the fog lifted and I realized that I needed to leave him. That I could leave him. I realized that “normal” wasn’t what I was experiencing. I realized I had friends. I realized that there was a whole other bright, happy world out there. I remember that moment like it was yesterday. I still remember the scene, the weather, the sounds, the smell of that day. I ended the relationship. Despite his best attempts and his threats (“I’m watching you”), I managed to stay strong.
I am one of the lucky ones. It was never violent, and I left before things got violent. I am alive.
For years after the relationship ended, I had nightmares about being raped, and I didn’t know why because I couldn’t consciously acknowledge what I had experienced. In fact, for several years afterwards, I blocked out many of the bad memories. It was only three years later, when I met a man who loved me with no reservations and who did not judge me for my past that all the memories came flooding back. And since then, I’ve slowly started healing. Now, so many years later, I still have trouble putting a name to what I experienced. I think a lot about the “A” word (abuse), and the “R” word (rape) and most of the time, I still can’t get myself to admit to it. In my head, I make any number of excuses. “He didn’t know he was abusing me.” “He never got violent, so it really wasn’t abuse.” “It’s not abuse if I didn’t say no.” “All teenage relationships are full of angst and drama. This is normal.”
A year ago, after more than 10 years of zero contact, he sent me a one-line Facebook message that said “hey, your husband looks pretty suave” (my profile picture was of me and my husband). That small, belittling comment was enough to send me into a panic, and my mind went right back to the motel room, right back to his car parked in the empty lot. I had trouble breathing. I broke out in a sweat. And shaking, I immediately deleted the message, went into my Facebook settings, and selected the option that only lets friends message me.
The nightmares have subsided over time, and the episodes of panic have, as well. But when they creep up once in a while, the hurt, fear, and shame are still very real and vivid. I don’t think I’ll ever fully heal. All my relationships with men since then have been affected by my experience. Certain things that people say or do are triggers that bring it all rushing back. I avoid places that remind me of what happened. Sometimes I feel self-destructive, wanting to drink myself numb or act promiscuously in order to punish myself. Luckily, what keeps me from such actions now is knowing what I have to lose – a wonderful husband and son and great friends. To this day, very few people know anything about the abuse. Not a single person, including my husband, knows that whole story. Early on, I tried telling a friend – a mutual friend of mine and this boyfriend – about it, but she stared at me blankly. She didn’t believe me. She didn’t understand what I was talking about. She knew him and could not think that he could be that person. He was “the nice guy.” And from that point on, I kept it to myself.
I have read so many stories about intimate partner abuse and teen dating abuse, searching for a story similar to mine. Some are, but the fact that there aren’t many (most of the stories are about survivors of violence), I start to question my experience. During my moments of strength, I am able to name my experience and feel somewhat at peace; but inevitably, I start doubting myself and downplaying my experience, and eventually, I’m back at the beginning, not knowing what to do with the emotions I feel. Feeling ashamed and stupid and crazy.
What I want you to know is that abuse in my teenage years affected me when I was at an emotionally vulnerable age. I wasn’t even that young. Seventeen, almost an adult. But I had very little idea of what was normal. I didn’t know better. I didn’t have the coping skills or emotional maturity.
What I want you to know is that abuse comes in all forms and happens to all types of people. I was an honor student, on student council, volunteered in my community, and had a happy home life. I didn’t party, drink, or do drugs. You probably wouldn’t get any sense of my past if you met me today.
What I want you to know is that teen dating abuse is common. I found out that two other girls I was close to were being physically abused. I recently read that 1 in 4 teens in Orange County, CA (where I am from) have been victims of physical violence, and that 40% of teenage girls say they know someone their age who has been hit by a boyfriend. I am not part of that statistic (since my abuse wasn’t violent), so it scares me to think what the true statistic is when it comes to teen dating abuse.
What I want you to know is that there is something we can do for our kids. Although my son is very young, I already worry about how I am going to raise him to respect women, but not only that, how I am going to educate him on what consent means and what a healthy dating relationship looks like. I’m pretty sure that my abuser would not label the relationship we had as abusive because how would he have known? In my research, I learned about the Date Safe Project, which gives 6th – 12th grade students how-to skills for building healthier relationships. It seems that in the last decade, there has been more acknowledgement of how common teen dating abuse is, and colleges and universities have been vocally educating their students for years, but what I want you to know is that intimate relationships are happening at an increasingly younger age, and that if it’s not openly discussed early enough, it may be too late.