This post dives into a topic that carries a bit of heaviness, but is SO important to talk about openly and honestly - especially as women finding our way in this world.
Life is all about connection. This is what makes the world go round, this is what we need and crave as humans as part of our happiness. But, what happens when there’s a relationship that, well, just isn’t so nourishing for you? You know, that relationship that doesn’t feel so good – it can be with a friend or your girlfriend/boyfriend. Sometimes we don’t even realize that this relationship is becoming toxic or unhealthy.
We’re rarely taught in school or even talk with friends about the warning signs of toxic or unhealthy relationships, let alone how to navigate our way through them if we become entangled in one. As someone who was in an extremely toxic and emotionally abusive relationship for about five years, over the course of that time, my soul knew that what was happening wasn’t good for me and knew something was wrong, but the abuser has a way of being so manipulative, that I didn’t REALLY know how bad things had gotten. A few months after I had finally mustered up the courage to leave him, still not even fully aware of the trauma I had gone through, I stumbled across a Facebook article that listed the warning signs of abusive relationships. Reading through this article, I began to feel the emotions stirring inside of me like a tidal wave – fear turned to anger, turned to humiliation, turned to sadness, turned to rage. Bullet point after bullet point, this article resonated with me and I sat there sobbing at my desk, feeling so alone and ashamed of myself.
Over the course of this abusive relationship, especially when things were becoming more extreme and painful, the times when I needed support the most, I began to isolate myself from my friends and my family. I was too embarrassed to let anyone know what was really happening, although people who were really close to me started to suspect that something wasn’t quite right. About a year before I ended the relationship, I had a group of close friends ask me to dinner over pizza AKA to have an “intervention” and tell me how worried they were about me. Well, I listened to what they had to say and then proceeded to shut them down pretty quickly, saying what I knew would get them off my back, things like, “He’s changed,” “We’re really happy,” and “You don’t really know him” - just as most victims do to cover up their feelings of being ashamed or trapped and in denial of what is really happening in their life – fearful about how much it has become out of their control and not knowing how to reach out for support.
Connection is such an important part of life, but boundaries are just as important. Getting to know yourself and what you will or will not accept in your relationships is critical to your own self-development. For me, this toxicity came with a romantic partner, but manipulative, emotional and verbal abuse can come in friendships too. It’s so important to learn how to distinguish the difference between what is nurturing for you and what feels hurtful and then how to use your own voice to express when something doesn’t feel safe or healthy for you. People who are abusive or manipulative are very good at shutting down the expression of YOUR feelings and in that process, making your own intuitive distinction between healthy and harmful blurry, so blurry in fact, that you start to mistrust yourself and your own judgment. You feel like you’re the one doing something wrong!
Oftentimes, we think that abuse is only physical, but it can take on many other forms. Emotional abuse is so tricky because you can’t see it, there’s nothing tangible there to know what’s really happening. It takes on this push and pull with the other – you want to be so close to them and they have a way of drawing you in, making it feel safe and then they do something that is so hurtful, you just can’t believe it, but then they turn around again and give the illusion that you are loved.
Lauren, GROW’s other co-founder experienced a form of manipulation and emotional abuse during her high school relationship. This kind of manipulation masqueraded in the beginning as concern and care from her then boyfriend. He would make sure to check up on her while she was out, sometimes several times in one night and made sure she made it home okay. At the time, she felt that her boyfriend was just an involved and caring person. It felt good to have someone who was thinking about her and wanting her to be safe. This behavior increased and evolved over time and began to take on more controlling and possessive qualities. He wanted to know who she was spending time with at parties and tried to limit which ones she went to. He wanted to have a say in her friend choices and the clothing choices she made when she was going out. This lead to him eventually isolating her from her other support systems which did not feel truly supportive or caring, but rather possessive and unhealthy. Behavior like this is NOT ok. These are big red flags that are important to be aware of AND to know how to take action around. (Read to the end for specifically how to identity additional abusive behaviors.)
This type of manipulation is confusing! My ex-boyfriend would say incredibly mean and cruel things to me and when I would start to cry or try to “explain” myself, he would apologize for hurting me, but always follow it up with a, “well, you made me do this” or “it’s your fault I got so angry.” When really, that outburst of his had absolutely NOTHING to do with me. I just became the punching bag for his own pain and anger he had accumulated over his lifetime and had never dealt with.
I’ve been out of this relationship for four years now – still working on healing my heart and especially my mind. Toxic relationships take a toll on our feeling of self-worth, especially our feelings of deserving love and trusting others. I’m lucky that I have incredibly supportive, loving and nurturing friends who have helped me through this healing process. They listen to my stories without judgment, cry with me and many of them share their own stories of being in similar relationships or having similar experiences. I’m learning to trust myself again and to realize that wounds can’t be extracted from our system, we have to take the time to heal them, to accept and forgive ourselves and continue to focus on the things we want to grow in our life.
If you’re going through something like this, it’s important to know that you’re not alone! The first step is to identify the warning signs and then ask for help, reach out to a trusted adult like your parents or school counselor. You will be ok. There are people who care and it is NOT your fault. And remember, these behaviors don’t just show up in romantic partnerships, they can also come from friends too.
Check out this super informative article, “22 Warning Signs of Emotional Abuse.”
To increase teen and adult awareness:
To increase teen awareness: