What I Learned From an Abusive Relationship in College

It’s been over 20 years since I last saw the person who abused me, and it still twists my stomach in a knot to sit down and write about it. It happened when I was in college, and I’ve gone on to have a happy, successful marriage to an amazing person, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t still affect me to this day. Adversity presents an opportunity, though, and I want to share what I’ve learned in the hopes it might help someone else.  

Parents, whatever you do, do NOT tell your kids you will “take care of” anyone who hurts them…even in jest. My dad always told me that kind of thing, and I believed him.  I know he loves me and would do anything to protect me. I have never questioned that. There’s value in that sense of security when it’s just an abstract promise to keep you safe. But when you end up in a situation where you experience abuse, it’s not abstract anymore. 

Relationship abuse can sneak up on you. (Twenty20 @sanefive)

Instead, I found myself believing that if I told my parents what was happening, my dad would end up in jail. Since I love my dad and would never want to sacrifice him for myself, guess what? I hid what was happening to me. 

Do I know I would have handled it differently if my dad going to jail (or worse) wasn’t part of the equation? I’ll never know that. But I do know how powerful that fear was in keeping me quiet. 

So, what’s a parent to say? I tell my child that they can tell me if anyone hurts them, and I will do everything in my power to protect them. But I promise them I will not do anything that would separate me from them, assuring them that I am smart and savvy enough to do just that.  

Relationship abuse can sneak up on you

Abuse sneaks up on you. No one ever taught me that, which is probably pretty typical. How to avoid abusive relationships isn’t really something we teach our kids. If we haven’t experienced it, we don’t even realize it needs to be said.

Remember the fable about the frog who was put into a tepid pot of water, and he didn’t realize he was being boiled to death because the temperature of the water was raised ever so gradually? Scientific veracity of that aside, I learned through experience that abuse can be a lot like the water in that story and I, unfortunately, was a lot like the frog. 

I realize, in hindsight, there were warning signs in the first few months of my relationship.  I didn’t pick up on them, because I was young and inexperienced. I had led a pretty sheltered life to that point, so I was fairly clueless about how crappy people can be. 

As for those signs…

  • Proclaiming how amazing you are and how in love they are? Check. 
  • Frequent texts and calls? Check.
  • Wanting to hang out all the time? Check.
  • Wanting to know where you are and what you’re doing all the time? Check.
  • A little jealousy? Check.  

And here’s the really tricky part. As I write this list of behaviors, I realize how repellent they might be if you aren’t super into the person. But in the beginning of a relationship, when you’re really into someone, the warning signs can actually look and feel like a potent and heady mix of love, commitment, and devotion. They can make you feel damn good about yourself and the strength of your relationship. 

But just like the water temperature in our frog fable, the intensity of, and the ugliness behind, those behaviors increases little by little until you find yourself entwined with someone who scares the hell out of you.  

Abuse looks and sounds like a lot of different things, and it can happen to anyone regardless of socioeconomic status, race, sexual orientation, or religion. It does not discriminate.

Rather than try to provide an exhaustive list of abusive behaviors, I’ll share my personal experiences as examples of what abuse can look like.   

What relationship abuse looks like

Unfounded jealousy

This can be jealousy of friends, coworkers, or a stranger you cross paths with in the grocery store. I was accused of flirting and blamed if he thought someone was flirting with me. It was completely unfounded and it was often totally random.  Interacting with, or even mentioning someone, was like walking a minefield. 

Everything I said and did was met with suspicion. A lot of time this was accompanied with verbal abuse in the form of name calling and other belittling language that I remember to this day. The crazy part is that it happened so much that I started to question myself, like maybe I really was flirting with people. The self-doubt becomes insidious.    

Attempts to isolate you from the other people in your life

He would get so angry when I talked to my family on the phone, and angrier still when I wanted to spend time with friends. Related to the jealousy, these things invited suspicion. I never shut people completely out, because I didn’t want them to know something was going on, but I definitely pulled back and communicated less.  It felt like the path of least resistance at the time.

Stalking and harassment

I honestly believe this was one of the most damaging parts of what I experienced.  Having someone peer inside your windows, turn off the power to your home, follow you, or let the air out of your car tires really rattles your sense of safety. It scared me more than a direct threat, because it was so menacing and created this fear about what could happen.


Some of this involved him using my vulnerabilities or the things I cared about to hurt me and control me. He threatened to hurt me, my family, my dog, and he even threatened to kill himself. (Side note: There were times I wish he would kill himself, so I could feel safe again. I would feel bad about myself for feeling that way, and I shouldn’t have.) 

On a somewhat lighter note, he also destroyed gifts my family or I had given him. It was kind of ridiculous on his part, but it was effective in that it really did hurt.  

Physical harm

This is what I did not experience as much as many others do. I’m grateful for that, because things didn’t escalate to serious injury or death when they really could have. I’ve picked gravel out of my hands after being shoved to the ground in a parking lot, and I’ve missed being hit by a car after being pushed into oncoming traffic merely because my reflexes were just quick enough to save me. I don’t minimize what I did experience, but it’s not lost on me that it could have been so much worse.    

It’s hard to leave, and the reasons may be complicated

Before I was in an abusive relationship, I know I heard stories of abused women and naively and patronizingly wondered why they didn’t just leave their abuser. I’m certain I had heard that said by others many times. 

I can’t speak for why people don’t leave at the first signs of trouble (or ever), but I can tell you what I experienced. By the time the full force of how bad it was really hit me, I already loved this person. I had seen the good sides of him. He could be so funny and just nice to hang out with. He was also very good at apologizing and promising to change.  

Not only did I love him, but I felt sorry for him 

I had a pretty idyllic childhood, and I had two amazing parents in my life. He had been raised by parents who did not provide a nurturing home. His father was emotionally absent on his best day, and abusive on his worst, and his mother had severe mental illness that made life unbearable for her child at times. 

I did not want to hurt this person further. I wanted to be the kind of person who could stick with someone through the hard times and help them grow and get better. I wanted to be the good, compassionate person I had been raised to be. I hadn’t learned yet that it’s rare you can be the one to truly heal your significant other. I remember the first Christmas after I left, and I cried thinking about him all alone while I was surrounded by love with my family.  

The underbelly of this, especially in the later months of the relationship, is that I was scared to death of what would happen if I left him. I hit a point where I absolutely knew I had to figure out a safe way to extricate myself from the nightmare. I knew I couldn’t live my life like that. I yearned to know peace again. 

But when I was present in the relationship, I also felt like I had some semblance of control and an ability to manage the situation so I could be as safe as possible. I knew once I left, I would have no idea what could happen. What makes that so hard with abusive relationships is that everything that has happened to you makes you more afraid of the unknown than you’ve ever been before. It’s not just because there is a literal threat to your safety. It’s because you have learned firsthand how fragile life is, and your sense of safety with anything is gone. Your whole world is shaken off its foundation.  

I was terrified he would come after me with a gun, or worse, that he would harm my parents. And I was maybe even more terrified that he would stalk me instead, destroying any chance I had at learning how to feel safe again. 

How I left the relationship  

In the end, I finally left. I fabricated a story about why I had to move back home to another city, and I did it in a way that I hoped would make him leave me alone. He made contact a few times, so I finally decided to tell my parents what happened.  Not the details, because I couldn’t bear to hurt them more than I had to, but enough to know that they would keep their eyes open and stay safe. I just couldn’t leave them in the dark and vulnerable to being harmed if he came to their house. 

We changed our phone numbers, but I never really knew if he would show up in person. I got lucky. He never did. I’ll never know why he decided to leave me alone, but I’ve always believed that when it came down to it he was afraid to cross my family. It doesn’t change my mind about the downside of my dad threatening to hurt anyone who hurt me, but maybe that saved me in a roundabout way.  

I’d like to be able to say it was a simple process to move on from that point, but that would be far from the truth. It probably goes without saying, but it is really hard to trust your own judgment and to trust anyone else after being in this kind of relationship. 

I needed counseling to undo the damage

What helped me was going to counseling and then trying to undo the damage year after year. I still battle issues of feeling safe, and I can get pretty hyper-vigilant as a way to feel like I’m protecting myself. This, of course, does not actually keep me safe, and it can be really stressful. It’s something I continue to work on.  

Here’s the beautiful part of this story. I am stronger and smarter than I ever would have been had I not experienced this. And I have a keen sense of justice and fairness that I get to use to help others. I wouldn’t wish an abusive situation on anyone, but I wouldn’t undo my own if I could. 

I’ve come too far and gained so much to have any regrets. I can only hope that this small piece of my story might help someone else.    

The author of this post wishes to remain anonymous.


If you want more information on how you can help someone in an unhealthy or abusive relationship, consult some of these real-time resources or call the National Domestic Violence hotline at 1-800-799-7233 to get help or advice.

One Love is a nonprofit organization that helps educate people about healthy and unhealthy relationships.

More to Read:

This Is Why I Chose To Tell My Teen I Was Sexually Abused

About Grown and Flown

Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan are the co-founders of Grown and Flown the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. They are writers (Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author), moms, wives and friends. They started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and are co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

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