Last week marked a major milestone for me. On Oct. 28, 2013, I broke up with my abusive ex-boyfriend for good. We were together for three and a half years. Those were some of the worst years of my life, but I didnít realize it until the relationship ended.
Regular readers of this column know my story. I was an 18-year-old college freshman. He was a 22-year-old college senior. He groomed me for abuse from the very start, but he didnít have to try too hard. I wanted to be loved. I wanted to fit in. He was good at making me feel like I fit in with him, even though he only saw me as an extension of himself. I wish I had realized that then.
Hindsight can be a real jerk sometimes. Looking back, I see the signs so clearly. He belittled me, alienated me from my family and told his friends I was crazy. Somehow, he even made me think I was crazy. The first three years of my college experience are intrinsically tied to him. He knew exactly where I was at all times, often ďsurprisingĒ me at the places Iíd go to be alone.
One time, we got into a fight and he called me a bunch of names I wonít repeat here. Nobody should ever be called those names. Upset and confused, I drove to the movie theater. I didnít really want to see a movie, but I thought Iíd be safe there. I was wrong. He tracked my car down and searched each movie showing until he found me. I was alone in the theater as he told me he didnít mean to hurt me and I shouldnít have been so combative with him. It was terrifying. And I was so accustomed to being terrified that it felt normal.
Thatís the scariest thing about abuse. Often, it feels normal. Abusers know how to manipulate and control people so well that even their victims feel like thatís how love is supposed to feel. Itís not. Love doesnít control you. Love doesnít hurt you. Love doesnít call you names and follow you everywhere you go. Unfortunately, that relationship was my first experience with romantic love. Today I understand it wasnít real love at all, but being treated that way for nearly four years absolutely warped my idea of how love feels.
For years after the relationship ended, I felt like I owed my partner time, attention and anything else heíd ask for. I was lucky to find a partner who showed me real love. Gideon and I married three years ago and our relationship has only gotten better with time. He doesnít yell at me or call me names. He doesnít physically hurt me or threaten to physically hurt himself. These are all acts of abuse, but I didnít understand that until I left my abusive ex-boyfriend and started researching abuse.
Like I said, I thought it was normal. Iím not alone in that. Every abusive relationship starts with conditioning the victim to accept abuse. Abusers are charismatic and loving at first. If my ex-boyfriend had started out hitting me, I probably would have figured out what was happening a lot sooner. But he knew better than to do that.
Over the past six years, I have learned what abuse looks like and how to forgive myself for not seeing it for so long. Forgiving myself is the hardest part. Most of my friends and family understand what was happening but thatís not true for everyone. Some people would rather I keep quiet ĖĖ telling my story disturbs the peace for those living in blissful ignorance. Itís not just my story, though. Itís the story of every person who has ever been lured into an abusive relationship. Not everyone gets out like I did. Not everyone moves on to live a safe life with a supportive partner. I am lucky. I am free and it is my mission to help others find that same freedom.
If this column resonates with you, I hope you know there are people who can help. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-7233 and our local domestic violence resource center, The Purple Flower, can be reached by calling 479-981-1676.