Believe it or not, abusive relationships are all around us, and I don’t just mean the physical ones you see on Lifetime. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, domestic violence is “a pattern of behavior in any relationship that is used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner.” Strong, powerful women fall into these traps every day and although you may think that you are smart enough to realize when your relationship is going south, intelligence has nothing to do with it; anyone can be manipulated by a controlling partner, regardless of age, race, social status, or gender. One brave woman shares her story –and gives some advice on how to escape.
Rose Tillman* was a young high school graduate on the fast track to success. The popular church-goer graduated with honors and an overflow of extracurricular activities, so it was no surprise that she got into the college she always dreamed of going to. It was close enough to home so she could visit often, but far enough that she could start her own, independent life. Although she had worked her way through high school, college was totally different, but she made it work.
Luckily, Rose’s cousin, Sarah*, lived less than an hour away, so anytime she felt homesick or stressed, she could drive over and vent about the day. Then, on one weekend visit, Rose met a cute guy with an edge. James* “had that ‘bad boy’ vibe, but he seemed to open up to me,” Rose says. “He made me feel special because of that.” What Rose didn’t realize is that James was already beginning his manipulation. He knew vulnerability when he saw it, and he took his chance for another victim.
Rose was always the girl to go to when you needed help. She was there for anyone and everyone. “That’s why I wanted to be there for him,” Rose admits. “He needed help and I knew I could be the person to change him.” She continues, “James was a big player, but I thought that I could put a stop to that.”
Rose found herself visiting her cousin a lot more often—not only when she was down in the dumps, but also just when she had free time. James was always hanging out with Sarah’s boyfriend, so she knew she’d see him. He even started calling her when she was at school, and a relationship soon ensued. “He made me feel so special, but then the second anyone else gave me a compliment, he shot it down.” After a few weeks, compliments only felt real if they were from James. “He had this confidence that made you believe everything he said,” Rose recalls.
James didn’t just have the ‘bad boy’ image—he was a bad boy. “I found myself doing things that I would never normally do. I was always against that stuff my whole life. I even bailed him out of jail.” To Rose’s friends, it was clear that James was emotionally abusing her. She had changed, but she didn’t see it. “I wanted to be the one that changed him, so I stuck around.” Rose reveals. But it never seemed to be enough. “He would tell me he loves me one day, and then the next day I was stupid, over dramatic, and ugly.” The once outgoing and vibrant Rose was now self-conscious and passive.
The abuse continued throughout the entire relationship. “Every time I helped him, he was so nice to me, but as soon as he got what he wanted, he was right back to putting me down and telling me I wasn’t right for him.” James had Rose on a string and he knew it.
Since emotional abuse leaves no hard evidence, it can be hard to detect. But it is just as hurtful to its victims as physical abuse.
After over three years of torture, Rose had had enough. After James’ third trip to the county jail, Rose knew it was the end. “I was the only person who sent him money in jail and wrote to him,” says Rose. “He used the money to call me and he always wrote the sweetest things in his letters.” Rose thought he was finally changing. Maybe all he needed was a wakeup call like some jail time. She was wrong. “The day he got out, he broke up with me…for the hundredth time.” Rose couldn’t believe it at first, but she remembers, “I finally realized that things were never going to change. I completely put myself out there and tried to help him and he didn’t want it unless he had no one else.” Rose continues, “I always thought that since he never physically hit me, our relationship was OK. Now I know that abuse comes in many forms.”
About a month after James broke up with Rose, he came running back to Rose pleading for forgiveness. “He told me he needed me and couldn’t live without me.” Rose says, “I had heard it all before, but for some reason, I just didn’t care this time. I was over him.” Rose finally realized that he was never going to change. “He is still the same person today as he was then. And two years later, he still tries to reel me back in.” Rose blocked his number and changed hers to make sure he got the message. Cutting off communication is key when it comes to getting out of an abusive relationship.
Looking back, Rose still can’t believe how long she put up with his abuse. “He would build me up just to break me down,” she shares; “he would pull me in just to push me away.” James made Rose feel like she was nothing without him, and he couldn’t have been more wrong.
“I wanted to change him and see him grow and get better. We were raised differently; even if he did change, he wouldn’t be the right person for me,” Rose now realizes. “I strayed away from my religion, everything.” She offers some advice, “If you feel like you’re giving up lifelong morals and values, then he’s not the right one for you. If you think you need to change him, then you don’t need to be with him.”
James made Rose feel like she was never good enough, but the truth is, she was too good for him. He had to emotionally abuse her to bring her down to his level, but in the end, she was strong enough to get out and move on. “I learned a lot about myself and now I know I can make it through anything,” Rose says proudly.
If you or someone you know is a victim of abuse, please call 1-800-799-SAFE or visit www.thehotline.org.
*Names have been changed.
Previously published in JAYE magazine.