Ice water flooded my veins. In making myself available to a friend who’d seemed off for a while, I’d turned a key, and opened a lock to a buried life. A secret that I, as a close friend, should have noticed. But I’d missed the subtle signs.
She’d been on top of the world when she fell for him. Popular. Smart. But something in her was ripe for the taking. He had swagger. She found him irresistible and all he had to do was cock his head at her and grin.
He wanted to know where she was at all times. He told her what to wear. He told her how to walk. He slowly stripped her of what made her attractive and shiny to others. Soon, she had no time for me because he needed her. She liked that their relationship was “special” and “intense” because it meant that they shared a love for the ages.
But it wasn’t long before the intensity became something else. He didn’t like when she “made mistakes.” He reacted swiftly and violently when she wasn’t where she said she’d be, or she said the wrong thing, or made any movement or gesture he didn’t like. He jerked her arm. He pulled her hair. Pinched her. Kicked her. It became easier and easier to set him off.
And it became easier for her to accept. It was like walking down a path where you’ve been before, even when it was a rocky one, or especially when it was rocky. You get a feel for the things that trip you up. You learn to avoid. Suddenly, her whole life was about avoiding. She closed her herself off from me. She was always on edge. She was always with him, so there was no room, or time, to think.
And the insults—he took that part of her soul that was insecure and he toyed with it, twisted it, and handed it back to her, damaged. When she came to me, she was a whisper of her former self. The friend I’d known had been replaced with a nervous, grasping girl that I didn’t recognize. She didn’t even remember how to breathe properly. She didn’t want to disturb the air that much.
The feeling that welled up in my soul finally crossed my vocal chords by the grace of God. I said, “I’m afraid for you.” She said, “You are?” Her surprise broke my heart. That was a turning point. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t quick, but she did, finally, make a clean break. And he got help.
Maybe you, like me, believed that because girls and women in America are more empowered than ever, abuse is declining. But it’s on the rise, thanks, in part, to new technologies that enable obsessions that otherwise might have stayed latent. We’re all available 24/7 now. We can be tracked, followed, and found. It’s paradise for a controlling boyfriend.
Here are the latest numbers—four women are killed every day by their partners; two in ten teen girls admit to being physically or sexually abused in relationships; and, one in ten teen boys admits to being abusive. Smart girls, girls like you, can get caught up in unhealthy relationships and they’re not sure how it happened. A combination of low self-esteem, an “I can handle it” attitude, and the belief that their relationship is special triggers the storm of abuse.
Researchers have looked into the brain activity of women who are in unhealthy relationships. It’s a fact that physical and psychological abuse changes the brain in the same way the stress of war does. Victims talk about living in a haze, forgetting simple tasks or lists, losing themselves. Once abuse has taken hold of a young woman, something biological occurs. It’s not weakness that makes them stay, it’s the fading ability to think critically and rationally.
I believe our society sets up girls for unhealthy relationships. We tell them they can handle anything. We tell them they’re independent. We encourage self-reliance, strength and common sense. But we also tell them to be good girls and to not make waves. And the most popular book series and movies hold up an image of love that’s unrealistic. The alpha male, who protects and loves to obsession, is celebrated. Think Edward, who won’t even let Bella walk on her own two feet.
What media tells girls flies in the face of what we, as parents, try to teach. While having a boyfriend who is involved in every detail of our lives might look romantic on paper or on the big screen, the reality of that is stifling, at best, and could lead to unhealthy and dangerous situations. Don’t believe the hidden message that only the special people get to experience love this passionate, this consuming, this real. Because it’s not real, and you run the risk of losing yourself.
So what are some ways to guard against unhealthy relationships?
Female friendship is the number one line of defense against abuse. There’s your power, girls. Make good friends, keep good friends, and be accountable to one another. If your friend tells you she’s afraid for you, don’t ignore her. If you feel like your friend is in over her head, tell her.
Know the warning signs. These unhealthy reactions often begin slowly, but once the pattern is established, they hurtle toward the red zone. Read through this list with your relationship in mind, but also, consider the relationships of your friends.
• Constantly keep track of your time?
• Act jealous and possessive?
• Accuse you of being unfaithful or flirting?
• Discourage your relationships with friends and family
• Prevent or discourage you from working, interacting with friends or attending school?
• Constantly criticize or belittle you?
• Humiliate you in front of others? (Including “jokes” at your expense.)
• Destroy or take your personal property or sentimental items?
• Cheat on you?
• Threaten to hurt you? Threaten to use a weapon?
• Push, hit, slap, punch, kick, or bite you?
• Demand a physical relationship that you don’t want?
Know the right way. There’s a list called “Ten Ways to Love” circulating on the Internet right now that even has its own Facebook community. Here, girls, is love brought to you by inspired scripture. If your relationship doesn’t stand up to God’s list, then it’s not right for you.
Ten Ways to Love:
- Listen without interrupting. (Proverbs 18)
- Speak without accusing. (James 1:19)
- Give without sparing. (Proverbs 21:26)
- Pray without ceasing. (Colossians 1:9)
- Answer without arguing. (Proverbs 17:1)
- Share without pretending. (Ephesians 4:15)
- Enjoy without complaint. (Philippians 2:14)
- Trust without wavering. (1 Corinthians 13:7)
- Forgive without punishing. (Colossians 3:13)
- Promise without forgetting. (Proverbs 13:12)
There are lines of support out there if you’re in an unhealthy relationship. My favorite is Love is Respect. Your mother, your sisters, your friends, adult women at your church or school, neighborhood women you trust—they’re all looking out for your best interests and would move the world to make sure you’re safe. Speak up. Learn to say, “I am afraid for you,” and learn to hear it, too.