TRIGGER WARNING: sexual assault, dating abuse
The sad truth is that toxic relationships are far too common. If you have not experienced a toxic relationship, someone you know likely has. These relationships have become so mainstream that women often fail to realize they are in the midst of one. Some of you might leave this article feeling different about your current relationship. If this happens, I want you to know that you didn’t do anything wrong and your feelings are valid.
Because relationships are so complex and diverse, I’ve asked three college women to share their experiences. You will see that their experiences are all unique and similar at the same time.
1. What were the first signs that you were in a toxic relationship (even if you did not realize they were red flags at the time)?
Woman 1: Looking back, I think the first red flag appeared the first time we hung out. I met my high school boyfriend when I was 15. I had not even had my first kiss yet, if that tells you anything. The first time we hung out in person, he sexually violated me. I didn’t realize it at the moment; I thought it was part of growing up. But I know underneath, I was scared, uncomfortable and wanted it to stop.
Woman 2: First, other people that I valued did not get along with him. He frequently made inappropriate comments, such as commenting on my friends’ weight or imitating people in a racist way. He also pushed me to do things I did not want to do. For example, he encouraged me to disobey my parents. He also continuously asked me to have sex with him even when I explained that I was not ready. Lastly, he really did not make me feel special. He did not post pictures of me on his social media, take me on dates, or even compliment me.
Woman 3: From the start, he did not want to commit to me. He was determined to talk to other girls through dating apps even though we were clearly dating. I felt unimportant to him.
2. What did the highs and lows of your relationship look like?
Woman 1: The lows were beyond awful, but the highs were just high enough to cloud my judgement within the relationship. I justified staying with him for 3 years because of the happiness and faux love I felt in those high periods.
Woman 2: The highs were when we would hang out alone and he would be very nice to me. It seemed like what a healthy relationship would look like. The lows meant feeling horrible about myself because of something he had said. He also gaslit me into thinking I did something wrong. Lastly, I felt like I couldn’t reach out to him for anything.
Woman 3: The highs were during the summer time. He wasn’t as depressed, so he acknowledged me and our relationship during this time. The lows were when I could not handle his depression on top of my own. He would push me away which only led me to a darker headspace. The lowest lows were during his manipulative episodes. He frequently threatened to harm himself if I left him.
3. How did your relationship evolve?
Woman 1: In the beginning, I was forgiving and intoxicated by his “love.” Over time, I was worn down by the damage he had done. Every time he hurt me I would get overwhelmingly sad. He isolated and estranged me from my friends and family until he was the only person I felt I had left. As time went on, my sadness from his abuse turned into justified anger. I grew sick of the cycle and frustrated his empty promises of change.
Woman 2: It evolved into a really confusing relationship. It was going really great at first. He was very kind, very loving, and acted like a gentleman. After a while, he started teasing me in a way I was uncomfortable with, pointing out my flaws, and getting upset at me a lot. He then began coercing me into sexual acts by threatening a punishment if I did not do it or just would not take no for an answer until I obliged. At the end he ignored me for weeks on end and did not want to talk or hang out anymore. I was constantly feeling like I did something wrong and I was very lost.
Woman 3: In the beginning, I was trying to fix him. The middle of our relationship was better because I had convinced him to go to therapy. I felt like I accomplished my goal. The end of our relationship came when he decided to quit therapy. The relationship only revolved around his mental health and needs from then on.
4. How did you finally realize this was not a healthy relationship?
Woman 1: It took almost losing my relationship with my mom to realize how much he had torn my life apart. He drove a stake between my mom and I, who was and is my best friend and rock. Seeing the effect of how he treated me was causing my mom so much pain made me step back and evaluate whether he was worth it.
Woman 2: I knew it when he did not wish me happy birthday or see me at all on my birthday. He actually got mad at me when I reached out to him to tell him how excited I was to get my permit. I don’t know if I truly realized the emotional toll it took on me until I was out of the relationship though.
Woman 3: When he broke up with me for the last time, I began to take time for myself. This alone time allowed me to really reflect. I decided to not go back to him because I realized how happy I was when I was not talking to him.
5. Do you feel like you still see remnants of this past relationship in your current life?
Woman 1: Absolutely. I am currently in a relationship with an incredible guy who loves me in a way I did not think was real and did not think I deserved. However, especially in the beginning of the relationship, it was so difficult for me to trust him because of what I had been through. He has been incredibly understanding, though, and has been so patient with me as I learn how to function in a healthy relationship.
Woman 2: I definitely think it affected a huge part of my life. I fell into a depression after we broke up because he had isolated me and made me lose a lot of confidence. I had not fallen into that deep of a depression since middle school and I’ve been struggling on and off with depression since then, so it definitely kicked off a lot of mental health issues. This relationship also was very prevalent in the relationship I had after. I had to be reassured a lot. I felt scared to say no to sex out of fear of him coercing me. I felt like I had to censor myself at first because I was worried I would be made fun of, like my ex had done when I opened up. I also am worried to talk to men about how I feel towards them or if I have an issue with them because I am scared that they will turn it onto me and blame it on me. After this relationship, it took me a while to feel comfortable with myself.
Woman 3: I still feel as though trust is really hard for me. I am scared of people leaving me or threatening me after an argument. I just feel as though I can never fully connect with people because I don’t want to face abandonment.
6. What did you learn from the relationship?
Woman 1: I learned how to stick up for myself. Unfortunately, this did not come until the end of our relationship, but it saved me. I learned what love does not look like. I learned how scarily comfortable toxic relationships are. I now understand and empathize with others who are stuck in similar situations
Woman 2: I learned everything I do not want in a relationship. I also realized the type of person I do not get along with and that it is okay to not talk to everyone that is interested in me. I also realized what it felt like to be gaslit, emotionally rundown/abused, and sexually coerced. Now, I know what to look out for in my next relationship.
Woman 3: I learned that you should not get into a relationship when you are struggling with your own mental health. It is not healthy to battle your own demons along with someone else’s. I really learned what an unbalanced relationship looks like.
If you relate to any of these stores, I hope you know that you are not alone. Your story matters.
There is so much more to you than a relationship. If you are fortunate enough to not have experience with a toxic relationship, I hope these women’s stories have shown you what to look out for in your next relationship. You are all deserving of the best, ladies.
For more information: https://www.womenshealth.gov/relationships-and-safety/get-help