When I was in my bad romance in high school (the one my new young adult novel, Bad Romance, is based on), it was hard for me to be honest with my friends and family about what was really going down in my relationship. For one, when your partner is a master of manipulation, it can be hard to know what exactly is going on in the first place. I can’t tell you how many arguments began with me accusing my boyfriend of something, only to end with me apologizing to him. Teen Dating Violence isn’t just physical or sexual abuse: it is often mental, verbal, and emotional.
Manipulation and an unbalanced power dynamic are key to an abusive partner retaining control in the relationship. There were so many conversations I rehearsed before they happened—some of them attempts to break up with my boyfriend. But once they were underway in real life, I felt like someone had put a blindfold over my eyes, turned me around three times, then threw me into a labyrinth I couldn’t find my way out of. My boyfriend always had the perfect argument or accusation or put-down. The next day, I didn’t even know how to talk about it with my friends because I wasn’t even sure what had happened. Was I right? Was I wrong? Was I the worst girlfriend in the world?
Shame also plays a huge factor. Abusive partners are often professionals at cutting down your self-esteem and making you feel really, really small and gross and bad. Jealousy plays a huge role here. If your boyfriend or girlfriend is super jealous, they’ll likely make you feel like you’re acting or dressing inappropriately. These accusations really mess with your head and what they often result in is a feeling of shame. Maybe I am a slut, you think. Why did I decide to wear that dress? Shame also comes in when you know you need to leave your partner, but you just can’t. You’re embarrassed: you feel weak, like a door mat, and you know your friends are going to be frustrated that you won’t get out. You hate who you’ve become and talking about it when you know you’re not going to leave your partner only makes it worse. By the end of my bad romance, I was suicidal. I felt so trapped and alone and ashamed and it took me sitting on the floor of my kitchen with a knife to finally call my best friend and tell her just how bad things had gotten.
And then there’s fear—the biggie. Sometimes the fear is related to your safety: perhaps your partner has threatened you or the people you care about. This could be physical, but it could also be threats to spread rumors about you on social media, or share intimate photos or tell secrets. But the fear can also simply be a fear of loneliness. No matter how bad your partner is, maybe they feel better than the alternative. I had a tough home situation and, as awful as my boyfriend made me feel, he got me out of the house. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.
There’s also the issue of being really co-dependent. The idea of not sharing your life with this person can be terrifying. You’re so close, so connected. They are a part of so much of your life. The thought of not going to your places together, not having your rituals and traditions, not having them there waiting for you after class…being together, staying together, can be important enough to deal with almost anything. Throw an unsafe home environment on top of that, and you’re in a really dangerous situation. There were times in my relationship when I’d lost sight of myself entirely. I was willing to give up some of my biggest dreams just to make a relationship I wasn’t even happy in work. That’s some serious co-dependency. When you’re in this little bubble with your person, it’s hard to invite other people in. Your relationship is private, and you can feel like you’re betraying your partner if you tell friends or family about an argument, or a new rule your partner created, or something they said that hurt you. But this is your life, and you have every right to let whoever you want into it. Sometimes that’s just hard to see when you’re in that bubble.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the reasons it can be hard for people in relationships like these is that the people they are trying to reach out to end up not really holding space for them. I didn’t want a lecture or to see how frustrated and disappointed my friends were with me. I just wanted to know they were there, that I was being heard, and that they had my back no matter what. I absolutely credit my friends for helping me get out of my bad romance. I know it was so, so painful for them to see what I was going through. My best friend actually wrote an amazing post about being the friend in this situation, which I highly recommend you check out. But it took two and half years for me to get out, which required a LOT of patience on their part (don’t give up on your friend in their bad romance!).
The big takeaway? Don’t be afraid to talk to people you trust about your bad romance. It’s not a betrayal of your partner. You’re not being a “bad” girlfriend or boyfriend. If something is hurting you, then you have to talk it through with someone who is not your partner. Feel free to set up your boundaries ahead of time. Sometimes I would say, I just want to tell you what happened, but I’m not looking for advice right now. That’s okay. The more you let people you trust in, the easier it will be to see your way out of the claustrophobia and fear in your bad romance. And once you get that breath of fresh air, you’ll be surprised at the strength you discover inside you.
When Heather Demetrios isn’t traipsing around the world or spending time in imaginary places, she lives with her husband in New York City. Heather has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a recipient of the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award for her debut novel, Something Real. Her critically acclaimed novels include I’ll Meet You There, Bad Romance, and the Dark Caravan trilogy (Exquisite Captive, Blood Passage, Freedom’s Slave). She is the editor of the forthcoming anthology of epistolary essays, Dear Heartbreak: YA Authors and Teens on the Dark Side of Love, which features letters from real teens. Find out more at www.heatherdemetrios.com. Tweet to @HDemetrios.