This piece was authored anonymously by a Kenyon student. Trigger warning: this piece confronts emotional abuse.
I can’t remember the first time I thought my sweet, charming, funny boyfriend might be abusing me, but I remember the last. I had locked myself in the bathroom while on a trip to visit him. Nothing about the situation was black or white, except the knowledge that I was being abused.
We’d met towards the beginning of my sophomore year. I remember my knee brushing up against his and wishing I hadn’t worn such baggy pants that day. Suddenly there he was, and nothing was the same. I felt at home with him in a bigger sense than I had ever known before; I hadn’t realized how inexplicably comforting that could be.
He could always make me laugh.
I thought we were normal; couples who loved as intensely as we did, fought as intensely too, right? If I loved him hard enough or was kind enough or could find the right thing to say, it would all work out. I am strong, I am smart, I am an SMA for goodness’ sake. How did I not see this?
In one study, 72% of battered women reported that their emotional abuse had a more severe impact than their physical abuse. Up to 35% of women – that’s over one in three – in the U.S. have been in emotionally abusive romantic relationships and such abuse was the greatest risk factor for and predictor of physical violence.*
I stayed in my relationship as long as I did because I loved him, and I had some of the best moments of my life with him. I mean that in a one-year out sort of way, looking at it and seeing my abuse but also seeing the rest of it. There was also a lot of laughter, and that means just as much. As a professor recently said to me, “He was a wolf in sheep’s clothing”; he called himself a feminist, phoning me, post-breakup, after the shootings at Isla Vista to discuss gender and violence. I couldn’t get over the irony.
If anything else, abuse is complicated. It’s incredibly isolating, it’s mentally and physically damaging, and it’s grey. It can seem okay and feel like it’s under control. My boyfriend abused me for two years. It very nearly killed me. It had very nearly killed his ex-girlfriend too.
You begin to think that it’s all in your head, that maybe you are blowing it out of proportion or being too critical, or maybe it really is your fault that they’re yelling or crying or that you feel so badly. So, you keep trying. And they keep making you laugh.
I remember the first time he broke one of my things; we’d been together a few months when he threw a tin of cookies my grandma had sent me on the concrete so hard it dented. Later that night, it was a packed suitcase thrown against the opposite wall. I remember him screaming, “You fucking slut,” just as well as I remember him, four drinks in, saying “It’s just a lowly drink. If it makes you uncomfortable, you don’t have to stay.” I remember the night I was roofied at a South campus party and, while he took me home, he denied that I was roofied; I didn’t tell anyone again until months later.
But this is only what it looked like for me.
I went through this on this campus, and there are others going through this right now. We presume that we know each other’s private lives due to proximity, and it’s rarely true. When the only reason someone hasn’t called the cops on your all-night screaming fight with your significant other is because we are on a college campus – there’s a problem. We can’t rely on the context of Kenyon to excuse our behaviors.
I wasn’t a blameless participant in my relationship. I thought I was an empowered feminist so I stood up for myself and fought back. I thought that in recognizing what he was saying to me, I could protect myself from what was happening; somehow, when we had these conversations, I always ended up apologizing. He never hit me. I was so sure he would stop if he only understood the pain he was causing me. It took me a while to realize that being left to cry on the floor or being kicked out of his apartment at 2a.m. in December because my crying is keeping him awake, wasn’t love. It took longer to see that even though I contributed to the fights, I was not to blame for my abuse. To feel physically threatened by a muscular, white male with whom you share a bed is a vulnerable position in which to be and one that he and I will never share. The traumas of our relationship are ingrained in my body, and he is responsible for that.
My abuse presented itself in denial and minimization rather than overt acts of control. I was looking for him to control my daily plans or outfit choices and when he didn’t, it blinded me from seeing how he controlled my very happiness and self-worth. The scary drunken outbursts gradually became scary sober outbursts and at that point, I was so far in love that it was hard to see how unhappy I was. Intellectually, I would have done anything to make it stop but, as writer Elizabeth Plank put it, “By the time he hurts you, you’re already convinced you need him to survive.”
I kept journals from that period. They’re hard to reread because of how much I still recognize myself in them, but what’s harder to reread are the good letters I wrote to him. The ones that ended, “You are my love, and I adore you.” Because, some days, I still want to be there to hold his face and scratch his back. I still want him to make me laugh. As much as I hate him for what he did to me, a part of me will always want the life that he promised me. And that’s the worst of it.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an abusive situation, there are resources for you. The Sexual Misconduct Advisors are a confidential resource here to support you. The author would be happy to talk to you; for their contact information, please contact Olivia Grabar Sage at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The following are free, 24/7, confidential hotlines where you can find support and learn about your options:
- National Sexual Assault Hotline – 800-656-HOPE
- National Domestic Violence Hotline – 800-799-7233
- Kenyon College Sexual Misconduct Hotline – 740-358-1544
*The statistics cited here were taken from Follingstad, D. R., Rutledge, I. L., Berg, B. J., Hause, E. S., & Polek, D. S. (1990). The role of emotional abuse in physically abusive relationships. Journal of Family Violence, 5, 107-120 and Statistics Canada, Family Violence in Canada: A Statistical Profile, 1998: 17.