Since it is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I thought it would be worthwhile to share my personal experience in regards to this area of relationships. When most of us think of domestic violence, we think of physical abuse between a husband and a wife. Turns out, domestic violence covers a whole range of emotionally and physically inappropriate behaviors, many of which can be present in teenage and young adult relationships. Domestic violence can affect anyone at any age; it does not discriminate by gender or relationship. Growing up, I was raised in a Christian environment, where there was not an open dialogue about relationship conduct. When dating was discussed there was a big emphasis on unconditional love, dating for marriage and sexual purity. Nobody really talked about what it meant to be in a healthy relationship, or how to protect yourself from unhealthy situations. This combination of a lack of both open discussion and information put me in a vulnerable place, which is where my experience with domestic violence began.
To be clear, I was never hit or anything like that, but my life slowly began to change for the worse due to my relationship with another person. It started out with little things, such as complaining to me about my friends and telling me I should spend less time with them. Soon, the only people I was spending time with were people they liked, and the only activities I was participating in were things that this person wanted me to do so that we could spend more time together. Then there were negative comments about what I would wear and what I do, making me feel very insecure about my self-identity and self-worth. My view of myself became tied to what they thought of me. While they tore down my self-esteem, they were also using my desire for their approval to their advantage by coercing me to do things I didn’t want to do. This caused an inherent power imbalance in the relationship, which is a marker for interpersonal violence. A wedge formed between my family and I, and I felt disconnected and angry at them for not seeing what was going on. All the while, I was silent about what was occurring because there was no way for me to open up about my experiences without facing backlash from my parents and my community. I thought it was safer to endure the emotional abuse than deal with the consequences of people examining my relationship.
I started to become aware that something was wrong when my partner was directly opposing my relationship with my closest friend, which was something they had never done before. This was the wake-up call that I needed to actually be able to look at what I had been experiencing and identify that it was emotionally abusive and coercive. I was finally able to step back and evaluate how I was being treated. You want to believe that someone who you love isn’t using you, so it’s hard to come to the realization that you are not in a safe situation.
In the aftermath of that relationship, I was left with some hard, unanswered questions. Why me? What did I do to deserve this kind of treatment? How can I trust people in relational settings without questioning their motives at every turn? But in spite of that, I left that relationship with an understanding of how I deserve to be treated and what it looks like when things are unhealthy in a relationship, which are two things that I would not have if I had not had those experiences. I know I will carry the scars of emotional abuse into every other relationship I will ever have, but I also know that I am the person I am today because of the experiences that I have had, and I love who I am now.
I know that I am just one person and there are many others with experiences that are worse and different from mine. I share my experience not to invalidate the experiences of others, but to provide a concrete example of what domestic violence is in the context of emotional abuse. If what I have been through can be a wake-up call for even just one other person, then my story is worth sharing. Going forward, I would challenge members of the Hope College community to examine their own relationships and how they treat the people around them. It is only through self-awareness and self-love that we can create real change in the way we relate to those around us.