Written by Heather Demetrios
Here’s a scary thing: one in three teens are affected by dating violence. One in three. I don’t know why this surprises me, since nearly every girl I talk to admits that she’s had an abusive boyfriend or knows someone who was in a bad romance. Maybe she’s with him now, or maybe they broke up ages ago after too much shouting and crying and hurting. Maybe he was emotionally or physically abusive. Maybe he was verbally abusive. Maybe he was just plain mean. Some of my guy friends have had abusive boyfriends or girlfriends, too. It’s kind of ridiculous, how much heartbreak so many of us are willing to put up with just so that we don’t have to be alone.
When I was sixteen, I fell for a conman. He seemed sweet and gentle, like he wouldn’t hurt me in all the ways other boys had, like he’d be better than my dad was with my mom. I bought his nice guy story hook, line, and sinker. We were happy for a while: what girl can resist a boy who composes love poems on the spot, who tells her he loves her more than anyone else, who promises to make the hurt go away? When he was jealous, I felt proud: this was a sign of his affection. When he spied on me at work to make sure I wasn’t flirting with other guys, I believed him when he said he just really missed me (cue butterflies in my stomach). I told myself he was over-protective when he started watching me sleep at night or that he just wanted to know the real me when he demanded to read my diary. I ignored my friends when they said he was bad news. I refused to listen to the little voice inside me that said break up with him. It took two and a half years to see that he didn’t love me at all—what he felt for me was poison, romantic arsenic that had led me to such a dark place inside myself that I was scared. I had conversations with kitchen knives (How much would it hurt to slice you across my wrists?) and bottles of pills (Will I pass out or will you make me feel every second of my dying?).
Eventually I got out. My best friends were there to pick up the pieces and I spent the summer after graduation healing and hoping. Two months after I got out of my bad romance, I met the boy who would one day become my husband. We’re living happily ever after—and I want you to have that, too. If you think that you or a friend might be in a bad romance, keep reading. Below are some things to watch out for, and some strategies for saying boy ‘bye—and meaning it.
1. Recognize that he’s not the only person who loves you.
My life at home was hard—brutally unkind stepfather, a combative relationship with my mom, and embarrassing poverty. When my bad romance came along, I felt worthless, like nobody wanted me, like I didn’t fit anywhere. When my boyfriend said no one could love me as much as he did, I believed him, even though I had amazing friends who were willing to walk through fire for me. At the time, I didn’t realize that what he was really saying was this: you aren’t worthy of being loved any better. Screw that. I promise that even though it might feel like he or she really does love you best, if they’re making you cry yourself to sleep at night, they probably don’t.
2. Love yourself. (Really. It will save you.)
I tell my readers to #chooseyou because that’s what saved me in the end: I made a conscious choice to choose my happiness, my sanity, my dreams, my health, and my life over a boy who had done nothing but break me down word by word, argument by argument. Don’t wait as long as I did: by the time I wizened up, I’d already given up my dream school, a wonderful boy who promised to be everything my bad romance was not, and I almost lost my friendships. You’ve got skin in the game—your skin. Play for keeps. Play for yourself. You’re not being selfish when you take care of your heart—you’re being smart.
3. Listen to your friends.
When you’re in love, and especially when you’re in an abusive relationship, it can be really hard to see outside of the bubble you and your partner live in. When your friends point out that he’s not treating you right, don’t ignore them. Force yourself to hear them out and to give what they have to say real consideration. Don’t get immediately defensive. If it hadn’t been for my friends, I might still be in my bad romance—they saw all the ugly I couldn’t because I was wearing rose-colored glasses I was too scared to take off.
4. Don’t ignore that niggling feeling.
Your boyfriend says something cutting and your stomach twists. He crosses lines you’ve drawn again and again. He wants you to stop hanging out with your friends. He pushes you against a wall, pressures you to have sex, puts you down when you’re not Perfect Girlfriend. Each time, you can’t breathe, your heart scrunches up, but you ignore the feeling and tell yourself he really is sorry, he really didn’t mean it, he really does love you. Don’t ignore that feeling. It’s your gut sending out an SOS: listen to it.
5. Set boundaries—and keep them.
These are the ground rules: your body is yours and yours alone. It is not his to do with as he pleases. You don’t have to have sex or do anything with him in order to prove that you love him. You are not obligated, he is not owed. You are allowed to have secrets and private thoughts. No, he can’t check your email or scroll through your texts—put a passcode on your phone. No, you’re not going to ditch your friends every time he calls, or cancel plans just because his have suddenly changed. And when you say no, it always always always means NO. Real love is about give and take, about a healthy balance.
6. Don’t make your boyfriend or girlfriend your world.
The best way to ruin a relationship is to have no life outside of it. Be passionate about something other than your partner. Get a life. When you give yourself a little bit of space, it’s so much easier to see all those hurtful words and actions for what they really are: power plays that attempt to control you. Be a girl boss and don’t fall for manipulation, jealous ultimatums, or the phrase “if you really loved me you would_________.” Join the soccer team, get a part-time job, start a study group or geek out over a new fantasy series. Have a sleepover, go to a party without him. If you feel free, if you feel happier whenever you’re not with him or her, chances are it’s time to walk out of this relationship without looking back.
7. Don’t make excuses for him.
When your boyfriend puts you down, don’t let him off the hook by saying he’s just in a bad mood. When he freaks out with jealousy every time you talk to another guy, don’t tell your friends “he didn’t mean it” or say he’s only doing that because his last girlfriend cheated on him. When he turns every argument around so it’s your fault, don’t assume he doesn’t realize what he’s doing. Create a list of all the things you want in a relationship and the kind of character traits you want to see in the person you’re with. How many of these things does your partner have today, right now?
8. Pay attention to the warning signs.
Abusive relationships are characterized by jealousy, manipulation, control, and verbal, physical, or emotional abuse. You can check out this list of warning signs that you might in an abusive relationship. Are a lot of these things on your list? Then it’s time to create an exit strategy. Go into battle mode and figure out how you can get out of this relationship safely. Don’t be afraid to ask for help: your friends, school counselor, a teacher, someone in your family…don’ the ashamed to say I can’t do this alone. There are free hotlines you can call or text and organizations that will help you. Find out all about them at www.badromancebook.tumblr.com/thehelp.
9. Have hope.
Believe that you are worthy of real, good, true love. Know that as impossible as your situation may seem right now, it’s not going to last forever. You have the power to choose who you love. You have the strength to get out of this bad romance and start being able to breathe again. It will hurt, but the hurt won’t last forever. Your future self will thank 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.