A title I have seen often recently, whether that be the Huffington Post or while perusing what’s trending on Facebook, has been what I have focused on this piece: “they didn’t hit me, but it was still abuse.” I have read multiple stories of individuals coming forward to speak out against the psychological and emotional abuse and turmoil that they have experienced from their domestic partners. And with each new story I read, the more I came to a realization: this happened to me.
What I find to be so interesting (and, maybe that isn’t the best word) is how psychological and emotional abuse is so often overlooked and underestimated. In many cases that I’ve read, or even just through personal experience, I think that society has taught us that physical symptoms are the main indicators of abuse. And, in a sense, part of this is true, because bruises and broken bones are more obvious than the gradual chipping of a self-esteem and possessive behaviors. But what we fail to recognize is that someone doesn’t have to hit you in order for them to be abusing you. And this is what I have learned as I look back on my relationship with my first boyfriend in high school.
I was sixteen years old. All I ever wanted was for someone (particularly a boy) to love me and for someone to care about me. This particular boy had been in my class since the 7th grade. When we got to high school, we had nearly every class together, because we were both in honors courses and high-achieving students. Before we started dating, he had always picked on me. I didn’t have high self-esteem when I was in high school, so I took it much harder than most people might. I remember vividly in 9th grade Health class that I was the only girl who didn’t want to practice putting a condom on. He laughed at me and made fun of me the whole class period until my Health teacher told him to stop. I would sometimes go home crying because of what he would say to me. One day, in our Algebra 2 class, he and some of the other boys in my class made a list about me and all of my flaws, and laughed at me the whole entire class period. When I went home to tell my parents about some of the things he was doing and saying at school, I remember being told it was because he probably liked me. I didn’t understand.
When it was almost the end of our sophomore year, he had started paying more attention to me, and we began texting. Over our spring break, he asked me out to the movies. I was excited. It was my first real date. We were sixteen. He drove a mini-van. I thought it was a scene out of a movie. This couldn’t really be happening to me, could it? A guy who had ripped on me for two years was asking me out on a date? He was cute, and like I said, I wanted nothing more than to be cared about and to be liked by a boy. So, we went. And we had fun. About a month later, he asked me to be his girlfriend. I said yes. I thought it was the beginning of something amazing. Finally, everything I had ever wanted was coming to fruition. Everything I had ever wanted was finally coming true.
That’s when, I now realize, the subtle put-downs and emotional abuse began. He would make comments, like you look so much better with your hair straight, you should wear this, and the like. I was constantly vigilant of what I looked like, and thought I needed be this representation of what he wanted in order for him to care about me. He was my first boyfriend. I was terrified of being abandoned and left alone. And he knew that. He was the first person I had been really intimate with. That was hard enough for me, because of my history as a survivor of sexual abuse. He was also the first boy I had ever told about my sexual abuse. And he used my intense vulnerability and this information to get me to do things that I did not want to do. As this title suggests, he never physically forced me to do anything, but he would emotionally manipulate me into doing sexual things that I did not want to do. All I wanted was to make him happy and keep him pleased, and he was always aware of this. So aware, that when I confronted him about his manipulation, his response was, “so what?” I didn’t realize that this was a person who did not care about me at all, because all I wanted was to be cared about.
These slow chips at my self-esteem continued. And the indifference for my situation and my obvious pain only increased. While we were dating, I struggled with panic attacks and high anxiety. I had entered therapy to deal with it all and to discuss the fact that it stemmed from my sexual abuse that occurred when I was young. This made it hard to be intimate, although he insisted almost every time that we were together if I didn’t want to. One night when I was at his house, I began to have a panic attack while we were kissing. He didn’t understand it. He got mad and walked out of the room. He came back while I was entrenched in my anxiety and asked, “Are you done?” I will never forget the look of disgust and irritation on his face. I have never felt so terrible about myself. It felt like it was my fault, that if I could just control my anxiety, then he would be nice to me and he would care about me. That just wasn’t the case. He wanted to use me for what he wanted. And I was just too blind to see.
Eventually, he grew tired of me, and decided to break up with me. I assumed it was because he cared more about himself and smoking weed than he ever had about me. I was heartbroken. I couldn’t believe that someone I had done so much for and cared so much about could just leave me like this. I felt utterly alone, and it felt horrible having to go back to school and see him in all of my classes, smug as ever, and thoroughly pleased with himself. It felt like betrayal. Someone I had trusted so much, with so much of myself, had left me alone. And I didn’t know what to do.
So, what is even the point of explaining this? At first glance, this looks like the ramblings of a sixteen year old in her diary, bitter at her ex-boyfriend for breaking up with her. People break up all the time, it should be easy to just get over it, right? But if you look deeper, as I have with reading all of these tellings of emotional abuse that are similar to mine, you will see something far more sinister. A boy who slowly picked away at a girl until there was nothing left but her anxiety and her insecurity. And I almost let it eat me alive. To this day, I still struggle with my self-esteem and with pleasing the men that I date, because I am so scared that what happened to me then will happen again. It’s true, that physical abuse and domestic violence are real (and serious) issues facing partners in romantic relationships today. But some scars run deeper than those on the surface, and it’s about time we took a look and realized that those are just as real as those that are visible.