I had been dating my boyfriend, Jason, for only a couple of months when he suggested we move across the country to Albuquerque, where we knew no one, so I could write a novel while he worked to support us. “That’s the most romantic thing anyone’s ever said to me,” I told him. I was 22, and he was 19.
Jason loved me. His charisma was like a bright, shining light, and I felt lucky to feel its warmth. With thousands of dollars I had been saving to go back to college, we rented a truck and paid the security deposit on an apartment.
I ignored the fact that he’d been fired from every job he’d had in Illinois and told myself things would be different in Albuquerque. He had promised to teach me how to drive his stick-shift car when we got there, and when he didn’t, I persuaded myself not to worry about it. As my savings ran out and he lost his first job, I started waiting tables at a diner within walking distance of our apartment. When he made me shower twice a day, so I wouldn’t smell like French fries after work, and so that I could shave my entire body, or else he wouldn’t touch me, I did what he said. When he told me I was the smartest girl he’d ever met, but I wasn’t sexy and it was time to open up our relationship so he could sleep with other women, I tried to see things from his point of view.
If I reacted with any emotion, it made things worse. “It isn’t sexy when you cry,” he liked to point out.
At the diner, one of the other waitresses used to come in with bruises on her upper arm in the shape of a grip. She couldn’t leave her boyfriend, she told us, or he would kill her. When I looked at this young woman, I saw someone who lived on another planet — she was in an abusive relationship, and I was not. If I’d looked closer, I would have recognized that the only difference between us was that the evidence of her abuse was visible, while mine was hidden. And I didn’t know what to name what I couldn’t see.
At 22, I misread the signs of abuse in my relationship with Jason as evidence that this was my one true love. I felt like I was in a movie — how quickly we moved in together and isolated ourselves from friends and family, because all we needed was each other — but really I was in a playbook of common abuser tactics that are easily mistaken by victims for romance, and often misunderstood by others, who equate abuse with hitting. Although psychological abuse may never escalate to physical violence in a relationship, there is rarely a physically violent relationship that does not begin with psychological abuse, and its effects can linger longer than a broken limb.
The only problem with our relationship, he said, was that I needed to go back on antidepressants so I would stop acting so “crazy.” I remember visiting a clinic in Albuquerque to get Zoloft and Ativan and looking at a poster in the restroom about domestic violence. The woman on the poster looked nothing like me, and she was holding a baby. I had no baby. In the exam room, when I lightly referenced some relationship problems, the male general practitioner told me that my boyfriend was just a young guy and I should “give him a break.”
Today when I tell someone my story, whether a stranger or a friend who didn’t know me in my early 20s, I always get the same question: “Was he physical?” I wonder if they are imagining what my face would look like black and blue. I know they are asking for proof that my relationship was, by popular definition, abusive, and then they want to know why I stayed. The truth is that the few times he was physical with me were tiny blips on a long timeline of subtle manipulation, public humiliation, controlling behavior and gaslighting.
The World Health Organization recognizes four types of intimate-partner violence: physical, sexual, emotional or psychological, and controlling behavior. These often coexist, and verbal aggression early in a relationship frequently precedes violence. Some studies have shown that abuse in the form of degradation, fear and humiliation is more psychologically debilitating in the long term than physical violence; psychological abuse can in fact sustain the relationship, as the victim becomes consumed with self-doubt, depression and low self-esteem. Lenore E. Walker, a psychologist who first identified the “cycle of abuse,” has compared the psychological effects to the torture of prisoners of war: isolation, followed by manipulation of perception, humiliation, the administration of drugs and alcohol, and occasional, random indulgences that “keep hope alive that the torture will cease.”
Robert Eckstein, a senior lecturer in psychology and justice studies at the University of New Hampshire, says it’s well understood by those working in the field that emotional abuse can be just as traumatic as physical abuse. But the public may not be aware of this, perhaps in part because of how relationship abuse is portrayed in the media. “Unfortunately, for something to cross the threshold of being newsworthy,” Eckstein says, “it has to be sensational.” Chris Brown’s battering of Rihanna in 2009 made headlines because his victim was equally famous — and because there were photos.
The wounds of emotional abuse are more difficult to capture. A 2008 study of articles about domestic violence in five major newspapers found not a single story during a three-month period mentioned emotional or psychological abuse. The exclusion of non-physical forms of abuse is a disservice to victims who don’t see their experiences represented, argues the study’s author, Christy-Dale Sims.
Research has shown that intimate-partner violence can increase depressive symptoms in victims. Those people who have experienced depression are also more likely to become victims of intimate-partner violence.
I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety since the age of 13, but I was off antidepressants when I met Jason, at an audition for a community college production of “Medea.” (The tragic stakes in our relationship were always high.) In the medicine cabinet at his apartment on our second date, I found pills used to treat bipolar disorder and thought this meant it would be safe to open up to him about my history. But over time, my mental health became a weapon in his arsenal. If I cried because he wanted to sleep with other women, it was because I needed to be medicated. If I had anxiety over him losing yet another job, he told me to pop a benzo. When I tried to curb my drinking, he told me he missed how “fun” I used to be.
I would like to tell you I left Jason in Albuquerque and closed that chapter of my life, but I would be lying. There was one night when I did leave: I took a cab to the airport while he was at a party and flew home to my parents’ house in Chicago. For a few hours, I felt like a dark hood had been lifted from my head, and I could see clearly that I deserved better. But I still wasn’t ready to leave for good. One day later, I was right back where I started, after he threatened to take all my books out to the parking lot and burn them. And he promised to change.
We only dated for a year, but for the next three years, there were many late-night phone calls about what could or should have been, and we slept together whenever we were in the same city. What kind of woman did that make me, if I would hook up with my abusive ex-boyfriend? My denial stemmed from fear: if I admitted that our relationship was abusive that would mean I couldn’t see him anymore, and if I couldn’t see him anymore, I would lose the electric charge I felt when we were together. When I was 26, he stayed in my apartment for a week, and we got drunk and high and fought in the rain and he went home with the bartender. I saw that the only one of us who was ever going to change was me. For the first time, I felt strong enough to stop answering his phone calls. Six weeks later, my phone rang from an unknown number. It was his brother. Jason had died in a motorcycle accident.
Only in the aftermath of his death have I been forced to face the reality of what our relationship was.
My story isn’t a harrowing example of domestic violence. I wasn’t kidnapped or held in sexual slavery; I didn’t escape a murder attempt. But my story matters because it is just one example of what is happening to people all over the country, especially young people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that first occurrences of rape, intimate-partner violence or stalking mostly occur before age 25. And women aren’t the only targets of abuse; they are most likely to be the victims of physical violence in heterosexual relationships, but the CDC found that men experience “psychological aggression” from an intimate partner at a rate (48.8 percent) slightly higher than women (48.4 percent) do.
Today I’m 31. I’ve been with my current boyfriend for five years. One night when we had first started dating, I accidentally broke a few of his dishes. I froze in the kitchen, preparing to be yelled at. But he just got a dustpan to clean the mess up, like it was no big deal, and I went into another room and cried. At 22, I thought what was happening to me was nothing compared with the other waitress’s life, but all I had to compare was her hurt against mine. I didn’t know yet what was on the other side.