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I Was in an Abusive Relationship, and Here’s What I Learned

I never thought I’d find myself in an abusive relationship. I’d always considered myself too strong, too smart and too independent to be manipulated by anyone. I was certain that I could pinpoint the signs and eliminate that negativity from my life, before damage was done.

What I never considered is that abusers are just as cunning as I considered myself to be. They’re often excellent manipulators, compulsive liars and impressive actors. At first, they seem exceptionally caring, charming and enamored with you. They fabricate a perfect version of themselves, a skin that won’t be shed until you’re too invested to leave them.

They often elevate relationships as quickly as possible and rush into commitments, ensuring that victims can’t easily leave. Even as their string of lies are revealed, they lash out against you or they manipulate you into doing things you would otherwise never consider, you’re likely to cling to the goodness that you saw earlier, desperately wishing for those happy moments back.

Abusers justify their actions and expect victims to do the same. Often they’ll blame victims for the problems, make threats or find excuses. For me, this came in the form of suicide threats, every time I was too busy to talk or was unable to do something he’d asked of me.

Routinely, I found myself sobbing on the bathroom floor at work, obsessively trying to call him, terrified he was dead. Conveniently for him, I was afraid to contact his family or the police if the situation wasn’t dire, isolating me completely. I remember thinking that I was the single person in the world capable of keeping him alive.

Once he’d ignored me long enough, I’d sneak out of work and drive to his house. I found him completely fine every time, usually texting other girls while letting notifications of my panicked texts and phone calls pile up. I was too enamored – too relieved – that he was OK and too desperate to believe that he was a good person to notice how obviously wrong the situation was.

By the miracle of a good supervisor, I wasn’t fired. Instead, I was sent to a private meeting in which I was told that I was in an abusive relationship that needed to end. At home, my mother listened to me cry myself to sleep every night, unable to understand why her otherwise strong daughter had sacrificed her happiness for a boy and wishing she knew how to help.

I was exhausted at school; all of my energy was spent worrying about him, and I no longer had the strength to keep up with my friend’s conversations or my coursework. My grades, my friendships and my family connections all started slipping away.

This is a common strategy of abusers: to control you, they need to isolate you. This ensures that you’re dependent on the relationship and are available whenever they need you to be. Often, the abuser will say negative things about your loved ones and guilt you into spending much more time with them than your friends and family.

I was lucky enough to have an enormous support system trying to help. Even a professor who read a paper I wrote on the situation, one in which I actively changed excerpts to make him sound better, refused to let me leave her office until I’d taken numbers for suicide and abuse hotlines. I tried to deny the issues, parroting his excuses and bringing up the rare good things he’d done for me – but part of me started to realize that I was being mistreated.

This is the thing I’m most ashamed of*. I didn’t blindly listen to him. I saw every manipulative move. I heard every lie. My problem was that I naively believed the person he’d pretended to be when we met was real and that I could bring it back. He had plenty of excuses for his behavior. It was other girls, it was his home life, it was the stress of school, but none of them were true.

He claimed he didn’t mean to hurt me. Yet, the same problems persisted, the same solutions were proposed by me and accepted by him. Nothing changed. As hard as I tried, as hard as I wished for change, I couldn’t fix him, because he did not want to be fixed.

I remember walking across campus one day, silent tears falling from my face as I stared at a blank phone screen and thinking about how I’d feel if I watched a movie in where I was the heroine. I realized that I would have hated my character. I would have screamed at the screen, “why won’t you just leave him?!”

When it comes to abusive relationships, it’s never that simple. I had been so isolated from the people and things I loved, that I had become addicted to the high of his approval. Rare moments of kindness after a long string of cruelty felt like water in the desert. I knew I should leave, part of me even wanted to, but a much bigger part of me had become dependent on him for happiness. Despite my realization that the relationship was wrong, he was the one who ultimately ended it.

I regret not being the one to leave more than anything else. Not because I want a petty victory – something to hold over him and take pride in – but because I should have loved myself enough to take that action, and I should have done it much earlier. I constantly regret not saving myself the endless months of misery that tainted some of the most important years of my life.

At first, I was devastated. Although I knew it hadn’t been a good relationship, I was still stuck in the mentality that I could make it good, if I just tried harder or looked better or spoke funnier. Twelve hours and a few phone calls from elated friends later, I felt freer, lighter and more optimistic than I had in ages. I realized within the day how toxic it had been and how much better off I was going to be without him. I knew that even if it hurt now, it was the first step to me being the happy person I had been before him. In that moment, I cried, not for the loss of our relationship, but for the loss of myself – the bright girl that had once loved herself and her life.

Today, I am that happy girl again. I’ve been fortunate enough to have all of the people I turned away from welcome me back, and it feels like the threads of my life, which for so long had been tangled and lost, are back together.

Even in the wake of the break-up, I found I was crying less than I had in years. I overheard coworkers gossiping about how I seemed like my old self again, and I had the best summer of my life focusing on myself, my friends and the things that made me happy.

I know it can be one of the most difficult choices in the world, but if you’re in a situation like the one I found myself in and you feel safe leaving, I hope you can be stronger than I was. I hope you can leave. If you feel the way I did, and you’ve brought up the issues to your partner and have only seen a blatant disregard of emotion or concern, then you should leave. You deserve to.

I realize that that’s not an easy task. It feels like you’re quitting on someone you love. However, the person you love should be your partner, someone who wants to care for you as much as you care for them. You can’t give up on someone who quit long ago, and you can’t fix someone who wants to break you.

I’ve been to the other side, and it’s so much brighter and better. Since my revelation the day after the break-up, I’ve never wanted that relationship back. Happiness and your mental health are much more important things to reclaim as your own, but you’ll never find them in an abusive relationship.

The break-up will probably hurt, maybe for some time, but once it’s done, you’re officially moving towards something better. When you stay with someone who refuses to change, you’re trapped in purgatory, constantly waiting, constantly feeling alone and unfulfilled. It isn’t going to get better. The only way to break the cycle is if you can safely** leave.

If you, or someone you know, is in an abusive relationship, visit MSU Safe Place or the MSU Counseling Center for support and advocacy. The 24/7 National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at 1-800-787-3224.

*Editor’s Note: Feeling ashamed is a common emotion felt by victims of abusive relationships. However, feeling ashamed does not indicate that any part of the relationship is the victim’s fault. It is never appropriate to tell a victim of relationship violence that they should feel ashamed. Her Campus at MSU stands against victim-blaming culture in all forms.

**Editor’s Note: We are emphasizing the word “safely” because we recognize that even if a victim has plans to leave a relationship, their safety is the most important thing. If a victim does not feel safe ending their relationship, they should seek help and visit some of the resources we have listed.

My name is Rachel Cichon, I am a freshman majoring in political science at Michigan State University. If you've watched Parks and Recreation and know the character Leslie Knope, you essentially know me. I'm passionate about historical fiction,
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