As a 22-year-old woman, I often look back to seven years ago, when a 15-year-old version of myself met a boy, and quickly became trapped in his manipulation. As a young and impressionable soul, hungry for what my friends called “love,” the dreamy boy who was two years older than me – who had devastatingly creamy skin and a blinding white smile, who told me he “loved” me – was all I needed to consider myself the luckiest girl in the world. It turns out I was horribly mistaken.
When I think back to this time, I get angry at myself for not “catching the warning signs fast enough,” and there were, indeed, plenty of warning signs. He became jealous, manipulative, controlling. He was a compulsive liar, and would lie his way out of anything. When we fought, he was never wrong, and I always ended up apologizing and begging for him to forgive me. He relentlessly accused me of cheating on him. He told me sex was the way for me to earn his trust .
Now, as an adult, I look at those behavioral patterns and wonder how I could have been so grossly naïve and completely ignorant of the red flags when he would wave them in my face. Of course, I now have the benefit of hindsight, I now know what I didn’t know then – what he would ultimately do to me, to my body, to my family, to my life. I didn’t know then that the relationship I was in would eventually come to define my entire existence. All I saw then was mildly abusive and manipulative behavior, but what it turned into was months and months of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Much later, it even turned into him going to prison.
He hit me, strangled me, slapped me and left bruises on my neck beginning around five months into our relationship. By eight months in, he was raping me nightly. After 11 months I was finally able to break up with him, only to find that he wasn’t done with me just yet. He broke into my house twice and stalked me relentlessly. Ultimately, he found himself in the hands of very capable and motivated police officers and district attorneys, and was given a plea deal of 2 years in prison, just after he had turned 18.
What happened to me was clearly abuse, and clearly crossed a line. It was also clearly illegal, and a judge knew that and put him in prison. All of that really helped me decide that I do identify with the word “survivor.” When people hear my story, they don’t question that I’m a survivor. It’s pretty obvious, because it was so extreme.
But, I wonder, had it not been that extreme, would I still think it was clearly abuse? I know now that what my ex did to me, starting from just the first week of us dating, was abuse, but the reason I know that is because of how it all ended so horribly. If it had never gotten so extreme, it would have still been abuse, but I don’t know if I would be able to be as sure about that as I am now. The reason for this is that our society draws a blurry, unclear, inconsistent line for what abuse really is. The line is more like a smudge of ink, and actions that actually are abuse seem to get justified because they are stuck in the smudge-y parts, so no one can be sure that they actually are abuse. Millions, probably billions, of women have had relationships that fall in the smudge, and so many of them justify what happened by saying, “W ell , it wasn’t that bad, so I just let it go. ” Society doesn’t draw the line well enough, or soon enough, and it leaves the door open for abusers to do what they do.
So, what I want to do is draw the line. I want to define what abuse means . I want to clear up the gray area. I want to tell young girls loud and clear what is okay and what isn’t okay. I want to tell you that actually, it isn’t fuzzy. It isn’t complicated. It isn’t nuanced, it isn’t confusing, and it isn’t unclear. Abuse is abuse.
Had I known where to draw the line, I would have seen the warning signs and I would have done something about it. For me, the line was so fuzzy, I didn’t know what to put up with and what was actually abusive. I would see these warning signs and then make excuses for them. I’d let these actions slide, and he would just keep pushing and pushing until he had very clearly crossed the line, but by that time it was too late for me.
The more we can define the line, the more we can teach girls how to react when they experience these red flags. I don’t think that being a young girl means you’re so naïve that you actually don’t see the warning signs – we aren’t blind. We aren’t stupid. We see what’s happening. We just don’t know that what is happening is actually abuse. We haven’t been taught. We don’t know where to draw the line.
Leah Zeiger is a survivor of relationship abuse and founder of The Sunflower Project, which promotes survivor healing through the art of dance. You can follow Leah’s work at towardsthesun.org .