One thing that I want to be clear about from the very start is this – in many cases, relationship/domestic abuse typically happens slowly, over time, and it can be so gradual that the signs are not recognized before it’s too late.
If it was obvious from the beginning, you wouldn’t stay – if someone shoved, or hit or punched you right at the start you would leave immediately and possibly press charges. But what do you do when you’re deeply invested in what started as a loving, trusting relationship and it slowly, ever so slowly, in tiny steps, turns into something harmful? Would you see the signs in your friend’s, loved one’s or coworker’s relationship or in your own?
I’m sharing my experience in the hope that reaches someone who needs to hear it to have the strength to leave or someone who is concerned about a daughter, a sister, a friend, a coworker will recognize the signs and find a way to help. Our daughters and sons need to know the signs before they are in a serious relationship.
When you asked, “Are you going to wear that?” as we were leaving for the party, my feelings were hurt but you softened it with “It’s just that you look so pretty in that blue shirt I love. Why don’t you put that on instead?” In my teenage brain it sounded like love and attention. I heard the compliment that was squeezed in there and tuned out the rest.
It didn’t feel like control or manipulation, well maybe a tiny bit, but mostly I heard the word “pretty,” so I changed my shirt, we left, and you were happy. If only I knew then that this very moment was the start of a very dangerous pattern. One that would lead to some places I never imagined I’d go. Controlling behavior is not love!
Months later when a guy from one of my classes came up to talk to me and said something that made me laugh, your reaction startled me. “Why did that guy come over to talk to you?! I saw the way you were flirting with him!” This was out of character for you, and it felt like an accusation. You could tell that your reaction stung me, so again you used “love” to soften it – “I’m only jealous because I love you. I just want to protect you.” What I know now is - jealousy is not love!
You convinced me that I should be grateful that you cared so much. And going forward, I was careful not to draw attention to myself or talk to people you didn’t know. I was afraid of what your reaction would be – my heart was so twisted up I couldn’t see that this was wrong – very wrong. "Why did you have to make me so mad?" - you made me feel like it was my fault whenever you were furious. What I didn’t recognize then was that I was afraid of you. Being afraid is not love!
Over time you repeatedly told me “No one will ever love you like I do” & “I’m the best thing that will ever happen to you” and I started to believe you. I don’t know if you intended this to be brainwashing but that’s what it was. I started isolating myself from my friends and listening only to what you wanted – I sought your approval for everything – large and small. I completely lost my perspective.
This really messed with my head – my self-confidence, self-worth were so tarnished, and made it very hard to leave you (and very easy to stay with you even when things turned ugly). I didn’t value my own opinion or listen to my instincts or anyone else’s cautions because I now believed that you knew what was best for me.
Besides, I would tell myself, you hadn’t actually hit me - so I justified my staying by telling myself it wasn’t actually abuse. Not true - not true at all. It's absolutely abuse on every level. Oh, if I had only known how damaging all those non-physical blows were – the scars, the bruises, the cuts to my inner core took much longer to heal. Belittling, shoving, and so much rage – NOT love!
It took hearing a friend defend her boyfriend’s clearly volatile and abusive actions to see a glimpse of my future and to bring me back around. And I was done! Seeing my future, gave me the strength I needed to make a clean break and never look back.
Such clear vision – I told myself – THIS – all of this – this is not love!
When you called years later to apologize saying "I think I have a problem - it's me - it never was your fault," it meant nothing to me. Words I'd longed to hear when it was happening, meant absolutely nothing to me anymore. I told you you should see someone and get professional help but there was no feeling behind those words - I really had moved on.
Leaving was the easy part…
It took years to undo this messaging – he was right – no one ever did “love” me like he did again – because I didn’t let them! Instead, I found people who love me for me, who want me to shine, and love me unconditionally – healthy relationships that are not rooted in control and manipulation but in caring and kindness. Something we all deserve. THIS IS LOVE!
Looking back…Why didn’t I tell anyone? My parents wouldn’t have judged me – but I was judging myself and couldn’t let them know that their strong daughter who always stood up for herself was in this situation. My friends would have believed me – but I was so brainwashed I didn’t believe it myself sometimes. Plus, everyone liked him – he was the life of the party and could be so funny and kind – it would have been so much easier if he was a raging monster all the time because leaving long ago would have been so easy.
Unhealthy relationships are rooted in control and insecurity, manipulation and fear -
This. Is. Not. Love.
It might wear the mask of love, but it never was love - it will however grow into abuse.
Looking back, this experience influenced every relationship I’ve had ever since – I learned so much – what love is, what boundaries are, how to trust myself and others again.
Hard lessons at a young age – but then again, I’m so grateful that we weren’t married and didn’t have children. I could leave and never look back. I know that it’s not that simple for so many.
It is my hope that someone who needs this (or knows someone who does) will read this, and they will recognize these subtle signs in their relationship, and that they will realize they are in an unhealthy and potentially harmful situation and ask for help and get out.
We all know that abuse does not discriminate and many times it’s kept hidden. So, please share this even if you don’t think you know anyone who is being abused because chances are you might, and you can help by getting these warning signs out. And maybe by sharing this, you will save someone else. This is not a male/female issue – it can happen to anyone.
Love does not try to control, intimidate or manipulate you. You should not ever be afraid of love. Love supports, comforts and encourages you. THIS IS LOVE!
I wished I’d known long ago what I know now, and I hope that by sharing my story people will recognize the signs and get out before it’s too late.
Here’s what I’ve learned – the subtle signs…
If someone always looks to their partner before making any decision – even small ones like what to wear out – be alert, it’s the start of controlling behavior.
If you witness jealousy – things are progressing to dangerous territory because jealousy is very threatening and whatever has made them jealous will not be tolerated.
If you see someone you love scaling back significantly on time with their friends and family to be with their partner or checking in constantly with their partner when they are with friends and family – be very concerned because once they have this type of control, things have gotten bad. Isolation makes this situation all the more difficult to leave.
Be compassionate with them – they need kindness. And whatever you do, please, don’t judge.
Encourage them to ask for help and be there for them.
And please, show them the unconditional love they deserve!
Please share this with those you love - you never know who you might help...
National Domestic Violence Hotline 1−800−799−SAFE (7233) https://www.acf.hhs.gov/fysb/programs/family-violence-prevention-services/programs/ndvh