In relationships, abuse is more widespread than you might think. One in 10 high school students has been purposefully hit, slapped or physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend. But it doesn’t have to be violence to be abuse. Using words to hurt someone is abuse too, and so is being pressured or forced into being physical and having sex. A lot of times, unhealthy dynamics are about power and control, and controlling behavior becomes abusive. It doesn’t have to be this way. In your relationship, you are in control of your choices, and you are in control of your body. If the person you are with isn’t listening to you, won’t respect your boundaries, or doesn’t stop when you say stop, that’s a big red flag. It’s important to take those signs and behaviors seriously, because it can lead to serious problems.
These are excerpts from interviews with real people who experienced abusive relationships. Their names have been changed to protect them. If you, or anyone you know, is experiencing abuse of any kind talk to an adult you trust. You can also find help at the following hotlines. You are not alone.
Love is Respect: National Dating Abuse Helpline
1-866-331-9474 | 1-866-331-8453 TTY
National Domestic Violence Hotline
1-800-799-SAFE (7233) | 1-800-787-3224 (TTY)
National Sexual Assault Hotline
Jenny was 14 when she met her first boyfriend, Jorge.
“He was super nice, funny, fun to hang out with. He was just, like, a normal teenage boy. At first it was really good. We hung out every day, and we became best friends.
Three or four months into the relationship, he started getting super controlling. If I wore a dress that he thought was too short, he would call me a slut or a whore and make me feel bad about it. He was always looking at my phone to see if I was talking to other guys. At lunch, he would tell me not to hang out with my friends.
From there, it started getting more serious. If I would talk to someone in class, he would call me and be screaming on the phone. Then he started being physically abusive… At that time, I didn’t tell my mom. I was scared of what she would think and I thought it was my fault I was getting hit. I hid it. I played soccer, so if I had bruises or scratches, I said it happened in soccer. The relationship lasted a year and a half.”
It took a long time before Jenny finally told her mom about the abuse, but when she finally did, she was relieved. Her mom was understanding and wanted to help.
“After that, she signed me up for therapy. I still go to this day…I think that an unhealthy relationship is about being controlling, not being able to communicate well if you are having problems, not talking.
Now I am in a healthy relationship. We have been together nine months. It’s been steady and good. He hasn’t called me a bad name, and if I get mad, I get myself out of the situation.”
Mandy was a sophomore in college when she met Sarah through a mutual friend. It was her first relationship.
“It got really serious really quickly. I was living in the dorms. She was living in an apartment, and she started to want to spend a lot of time with me. I was excited because it was new to me and I didn’t know how relationships worked. Within a few weeks I started sleeping over at her house every night.
I could tell that she had an aggressive side to her, she would sometimes drink and be physically and verbally aggressive — not abusive, just aggressive — and I didn’t like it. But the next day she would always be really nice…
We were together about 9 months. It grew into a really deep relationship, but looking back, there were a lot of things that were really unhealthy… If I was out with family or friends, she would text me a lot and I would have to be answering her the whole time or it would make her sad.”
Things got so unhealthy that eventually, Mandy broke up with Sarah. But it didn’t end there, because Sarah wouldn’t leave Mandy alone. She would show up at Mandy’s house trying to get back together with her.
“One time, I was trying to drive away and she laid down in front of the car tires so that I couldn’t leave. I felt forced to have her in my life even though I said I don’t want this…
Then she started texting me references to conversations I was having with people online. I probably saved my passwords on her computer, but she had been monitoring my email, Facebook, dating sites, everything. That’s when I contacted the police for a restraining order. I thought that they would laugh at me that a girl needed protection from another girl, but the detective I met with was very respectful.
I started keeping a log of all the messages and emails she sent me, every time she would show up at my house and bang on the door. Then I changed my phone number and I moved and I kept all that information private. Then finally, after nine months of trying to get her out of my life, she started to leave me alone. It’s been almost three years to the date now.”
Rachel and John got together the summer between 8th grade and high school. After two weeks he told her he loved her. They were together all the way through high school.
“It was inconsistent, but when it was on it was intense. He was my first kiss, my first everything. As the years went on, he used this idea of us falling for each other so young as this special thing. He said, ‘not everyone has this.’
My senior year in high school, I broke up with him… I missed him in college. It was hard for me to date other people because I was still very hung up on him. After the end of my first year, we got back in touch and that’s when things started to change. He started questioning my character, and those questions turned into attacks on my character. He would say, ‘I don’t trust you, you’re a slut, you’re a liar. What were you doing? Where did you go? Who did you talk to?’ There were lots of assumptions. He would just assume that I had been doing bad things…
I attempted to go back to school in the fall, but I dropped out. I was completely consumed by the relationship. That’s how he wanted it.”
After that, Rachel and John’s relationship spiraled out of control.
“That’s when he started to put his hands on me… Once it was unleashed, it didn’t stop. He did everything. Hit me, kicked me, bit me until it drew blood, put a lighter on my skin. He had pretty much gone crazy. He was obsessed with me cheating on him.”
One day, things got really scary and Rachel realized her life was in danger. She decided things had to change, and she told her parents what was going on.
“I think the support of my family, educating myself and finding out I am not the only person going through this really helped. It’s kind of a cliché but I am stronger because it happened. Just like anyone who has been through something traumatic, I have been to a really scary place, but I am good. I went back to school, and graduated. I’m in a wonderful relationship and he supports me being who I am. I’m engaged, and I’ll be married next May.
In a healthy relationship, there is respect. You listen and encourage your partner to express themself. You want them to be who they are and you celebrate the differences. You trust the other person. A relationship isn’t going to consume you when it’s healthy. It’s going to be a source of safety. We all deserve to be in healthy relationships.“