Editor’s note: February is National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month. The CDC reports that one in four women first experienced intimate partner violence prior to the age of 18.
Trigger / Content Warning: This article discusses domestic violence, abuse, suicide, mental health, and other related topics. This article uses mature language.
Abuse isn’t pretty. We know this. But the realities for victims of domestic violence rarely fit into any given box. An outside perspective could never understand the true horrors, emotional exhaustion and mental torture that victims go through.
When I share stories of my past relationship (which I rarely do), the most common responses are always:
“Well, why would you let him do that?”
“Why didn’t you just leave?’
“Couldn’t you have told someone? Called the cops?”
But there are no simple answers in this maelstrom of an equation.
The slow decline from a “happy relationship” to toxic manipulation is rarely obvious to the victim. Depending on the relationship, this can happen over a period of years or even weeks. The one thing that stays the same, though, is that it happens over time.
You become the frog in the pot.
In most cases, the narcissistic abuser doesn’t abuse right from the start. They sweeten their tongue, falsify vulnerability and imitate love in whatever ways they know how. They do whatever they need to do to lure you in and trap you in their pot, then slowly start fanning the flame higher and higher, bit by bit.
Before you know it, you’re boiling. And you’ve lost the strength to jump out.
An extremely common tactic used by abusers is “testing the waters.” The manipulator will find one small way to cross a boundary with the victim.
If the victim reacts negatively: “It was such a small thing, babe. I can’t believe you’re making such a big deal about this.”
The next time around, the boundary gets pushed further and the line gets thinner.
This happens over and over again until the victim is so entrenched that it feels impossible to break the cycle.
[Related: “Understanding the Cycle of Abuse”]
I met my abuser when I was 13 years old. He was friends with all of my friends. I met his family. He met mine. We were kids. He was only one year older than me.
The first time things ever got physical between us was when I was a sophomore in high school. My abuser decided that he thought it was “unattractive” when girls cussed. He accused me of doing so only to impress the other boys we were friends with — an absolutely juvenile mindset, I know.
Through a laugh, I sarcastically told him to “fuck off” and, without warning, he used his nails to pinch a bit of my thigh skin as hard he could. I immediately burst into tears, less from the pain and more so from how unexpected it was. It was such a small action but I was completely taken aback. We were sitting in his car, idling in the high school parking lot during a lunch break.
He was the one that consoled me. Through hugs and reassurance, he brought me back to earth and out of my disbelief.
“I didn’t mean to do it that hard,” he said. “I was just messing around.”
I believed him and we talked it out. But somehow, by the end of that conversation, he convinced me to limit my inappropriate language.
That was the first boundary he ever crossed. The first “rule” that was ever placed upon me within that relationship. I accepted it with grace and moved on, thinking it was merely a hiccup, a spat between sweethearts.
After all, I wanted to be the best girlfriend I could be. I was sweet, empathetic and, clearly, very naive.
But, of course, this was just the beginning. From that day, it would be five more years of obsessive and controlling behavior that progressively got worse, week by week.
Through hundreds if not thousands of incidents similar to this one, I became a shell of a person. Through physical abuse, emotional manipulation, distance from my support system and a number of other psychologically draining tactics, I was programmed to respond and behave exactly how he wanted.
[Related: “How to Spot Narcissistic Abuse”]
By the time I was 20, I never cussed around him, I had no social media, I lost contact with all of my friends, I wasn’t allowed to hang out around other men, my contact with my family was limited, I was paying half of his bills and cleaning his house weekly.
The crazy part? I was happy to do this for the most part. Maintaining these things kept us on good terms. It kept him happy and subsequently kept me out of “trouble.”
On the bad days, though, I was physically assaulted, my phone was taken from me, I was kicked out of the car to walk home in the rain, among other various things.
In an attempt to avoid this, I kept a journal and a list on my phone of all the “rules” I was instructed to follow, all of which were proposed resolutions from previous fights that were treated like contingencies of continuing our relationship. It was what I had to do to keep my life bearable.
I developed severe anxiety, depression and eventually complex PTSD. I was physically unhealthy and regularly dissociative. I was suicidal and my abuser often encouraged me to act on these thoughts, as well as other forms of self-harm, if I was not living up to his expectations.
For years, this was my daily life. In and out of the highs and lows, specifically calculated by this obsessive narcissist to keep me in the exact position he wanted.
“This won’t last forever,” he said. “These rules are just placeholders until we’re older and you’re able to understand for yourself.”
I thought I was special. I thought that because he chose me, because he put so much thought and effort into the specifics of my life and our relationship, that it must mean something. He must care for me, above and beyond any other relationship I had ever seen, even in the movies.
I thought we were different — other people couldn’t understand and they never would.
That was until I heard of my abuser’s other partners (that he had while still “with me” as well as before and after me).
He left her out in the rain, too. He monitored her phone, too. One girl was even brave enough to go to the police, but the case was dropped because “this won’t last forever.” She thought they could work through it, too.
This realization hit me like a load of bricks. Yet, it was still an entire year after his initial arrest that I finally cut him off.
Unlike many other victims of domestic violence, I was lucky enough to escape with my life.
It’s been a little over three years since the last time I saw my abuser. For so long, I was so afraid to share my story. I was embarrassed.
But the more I slowly started to open up about my experiences, the less “special” and less embarrassed I felt. Other people had experiences on par with mine.
One of my friends was forced into drug and alcohol binges. Another was repeatedly locked in a closet for multiple hours at a time. Another was coerced into self-harm.
I now know people who were abused by partners, parents, siblings and even close friends.
Even if some situations were not as extreme as my own, I realized that the majority of women and queer people I knew had gone through some type of relationship-based abuse or emotional manipulation, at the very least.
Domestic violence doesn’t fit into a box. No matter how absurd or confusing your experiences might be to other people, you are not alone.
You are not responsible for what was done to you.
Most people will never understand. Hell, we might not even fully understand it ourselves. But one thing is for sure — you are not the only one.
At first, I was tempted to write this anonymously, simply in the interest of privacy. But that is not the message I want to send.
Victims and survivors are often terrified of sharing their experiences because they fear that others will look at them differently, take pity on them or judge them.
But we are not the ones who should be embarrassed or critiqued. At the end of the day, I tried to love someone unconditionally and fearlessly, and they took advantage of me.
I was a child, a teenager who didn’t know any better. And even as I grew older, it became exponentially harder to break the cycle because of so many years of conditioning.
I am still unlearning my shame and guilt surrounding those years, but please help normalize respecting and uplifting victims; and shaming and criticizing those that partake in any type of toxic, manipulative or abusive behavior, no matter their age.
I hate to be the one dreaming of the “what ifs” but I truly believe I would not have suffered for as long as I did if someone around me knew the whole of what was happening to me. Talk to your kids, family, friends, etc. about these issues. Teach your children to recognize warning signs of manipulation and demonstrate healthy relationships.
The more we talk about these issues, the more awareness we can bring to others. I don’t want to hide my past because I want others to be able to recognize the warning signs and acknowledge harm.
I am a survivor. And I am not alone.
To learn more about teen dating violence, visit the Love is Respect webpage.
Awareness, prevention and action are not just the responsibility of TDV victims, but that of parents, teachers, peers, and other adults in proximity to the victim and abuser.