The warning signs and how they can feel like the butterflies

My experience being in an abusive relationship

“Love” was always one of those nasty, profane four-letter words that were to go unspoken around me growing up, the reason being that I hated anything to do with romance ever since I was little and for good reason. The house I was brought up in was incredibly cramped and crowded with its three bedrooms, one bathroom and multiple families living in it. I shared a room with my mother and younger brother and with little room for privacy or separation from the rest, I had the unfortunate front-row view of my family’s romantic lives.

Both my mother and aunt found themselves in abusive relationships and I watched them get into violent and explosive domestic disputes with their partners and each other. At a young age, I feared love because loving someone meant that you could trust them and they could take that trust and break your nose enough to the point that your blood is on their hands and it splatters on your wall and ceiling, only to stay there years later.  

That fear of love grew to become a burning hate for it and if there was one thing I was sure of it was that I was never going to fall in love and that I was better than everyone else because I wouldn’t be weak enough to do so. That lasted until I was about 17 years old when I met my former best friend and now ex-boyfriend, who I will call “Johnny Boy.” 

He and I were friends since we were 15 after we both took, and failed, our sophomore math class. But it wasn’t until the summer of my junior year that I started to realize that my daydreams of kissing him, the uncontainable excitement whenever we were alone and in close proximity to one another indicated feelings that were actually not friendly at all, which then I had to come to the horrifying realization that I was in fact, in love. 

So then my standards for myself changed: I was allowed to be in love and I was allowed to date, but under no circumstance was I to be “as dumb” as my family members and date someone who would abuse me and make me question my self-worth. 

If that were the case, this article would end with that statement but unfortunately, I did exactly what I feared and looked down on my family for. I was in an abusive relationship and even more concerning, I let it continue on for almost two years. 

My story of abuse is unique to me but not unique to our greater society, yet I still find it important to talk about what I endured all in an effort to bring awareness to the topics of domestic and dating violence. Here’s when to realize that those are warning signs you’re feeling in your stomach, not butterflies.

Depiction of abuse that doesn’t require physical action. Via thelampnyc/Open Verse.

Types of abuse

Firstly, it would be beneficial to talk about what constitutes “abuse.” When it comes to the idea of abuse, there is a commonly held idea that abuse is purely a physical act, meaning that in order for someone to be a victim of abuse they’ve had to have been physically assaulted in some way – commonly in the form of actions like being punched, kicked or slapped by their romantic partner. The belief that someone has to be hit in order to be “abused” is entirely incorrect. There are multiple different types of abuse and not all of them revolve around physical aggression. 

Physical abuse

This type of abuse is probably the easiest to identify and is again the type that most often 

comes to mind in the discussion of how someone can be abused in a relationship. In a 

physically abusive relationship, there are threats and/or acts of physical violence. This is done 

intentionally to hold power over a partner and results in injury and/or physical suffering. 

An average of almost 20 people per minute throughout the day experience an act of physical violence from their partner.

Sexual abuse

Contrary to popular belief, just because you are in a relationship and have sex with your partner does not mean that your partner can take advantage of you in a sexual sense. When a partner tries to control sex in a way that includes forcing sexual acts, denying contraception or protection, unconsented degradation or cheating, sexual abuse is occurring. Sexual abuse in relationships revolves around abusers putting their partner in sexual situations that their partner didn’t consent to by coercing them for the abuser’s own personal gain and sexual gratification. If a partner makes one feels obligated to have sex or makes one feels like sexual intimacy is owed, it is sexual abuse.

Reproductive abuse/coercion

Outside of just sexual acts alone, another form of abuse that deals with sexual activity in a relationship is reproductive abuse, which is also referred to as reproductive coercion. This type of abuse occurs when a person exercises control over their partner’s choices regarding reproductive and sexual health. 

Financial abuse

Financial abuse is when an abuser takes over their partner’s finances. The abuser is able to control the money the partner spends and receives to the point that they are closely monitoring their bank account in an effort to limit financial freedom. With that they are able to make their partner financially insecure and dependent on the abuser, giving the abuser the upper hand as their victim is now afraid of not having the proper means to live so they stay with the abuser to survive. This type of abuse is so common that between 94-99% of abusive relationships include financial abuse.

Emotional abuse

One of the lesser-understood types of abuse is emotional abuse. This type of abuse is mostly non-physical, meaning that the abuser doesn’t need to inflict bodily harm on their victim to hurt them. It is also known as psychological abuse, this type of harm involves the abuser humiliating and frightening their partner that leads to psychological trauma and becomes unsure of their own thoughts and opinions, making the abuser seem like a trustworthy and praisable moral compass in a sense.

Statistics around abuse

The statement “my story of abuse is unique to me but not unique to our greater society,” rings true because unfortunately, abuse is not a new societal issue and/nor is it one that is uncommon. 

According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, dating violence affects more than 12 million people a year including both men and women. 

Of those people, the majority of victims are women. A quarter of women around the world experience abuse in their lifetime and the most common demographic is women in their early to mid-20s. 

When it comes to the opposite sex, men make up around 24% of abuse victims and those men are more likely to be emotionally abused by a partner than physically abused. 

Abuse can come at a heavy price. The possibility of it becoming life-threatening causes thousands of women dying every year and victims of abuse have a high rates of suicidal behavior.

What did the abuse look like?

The first holiday I ever celebrated with a partner was Easter. He was many firsts for me. (Delila Grubaugh)

It started off with me being ecstatic enough to finally date my best friend of several years after finally graduating high school and finally understanding why people want to be in love. As you can tell from the wording I’m using, a common theme/feeling was “finally.” It was a big “finally” moment because for once I felt like love wasn’t something I was incapable of receiving or something I should be disgusted with; I was able to meet that “person” one could only ever dream of coming across. It was “finally” in a way of relief that I was human because I was capable to love something and love something so confidently. 

It started off with pure excitement and hormonal bliss, a period I now know as “the honeymoon phase.” But soon, I found myself questioning who I was really dating and who I was ever friends with.

As a friend, Johnny Boy was incredibly sweet and an unintentional romantic. He would buy me gifts “just because,” we’d make sure we talked every single day, we’d go on little outings when time allowed it, he would console me when I cried and he would remember even the smallest of things, like how I grab my ears when I’m nervous or that I like to suck on butterscotch candies when my blood sugar was low. He never failed to compliment me or tell me how much he loved me, so when I hit a terrible depressive episode at 19 years old, he was the person I confided in – the matching yin and yang necklace he gave me as a reminder that “we are one” helped me believe it was a good idea.

He was even kind to me when we first slept together, he was gentle and at the time I couldn’t have imagined losing my virginity to anyone else, but it was after that night that I struggled to ever see that version of Johnny Boy again – he had got what he wanted and now it was time to see a more honest version of himself. 

Shortly after he had successfully taken my virginity and told me that he loved me, he called me to tell me that he was in love with another girl – I’ll call her Bree – and that he wanted nothing more than to have her as a girlfriend. In the weeks leading up to this point, he had led me to believe that we were already a couple. He was previously telling me that he loved me and that he always did and that he fantasized about us being together since we first met in that sophomore math class. He called me pet names and when we continued to sleep together, he’d hold me afterward and tell me that he couldn’t ever imagine a life without me. He referred to me as “his” and I never thought that I’d be so giddy at the idea that I belonged to someone. So to go from being “his” to being told that he likes, not loves, another girl all within a few weeks made me feel like my life at 19 had come to a screeching halt. 

On Oct. 5, 2021, he professed his love for Bree in a phone call. I ended up in a psychiatric institution for a suicide attempt a day after. I felt so dirty, like I was used for sexual gratification and I felt like I had been betrayed. He convinced me that he was the safest person to have around and that there was no one better suited for the job of loving me or fucking me than him, but he foregone the truth behind his intentions to get what he wanted, which was having sex with me. As someone with a previous history of being sexually assaulted, such a level of intimate betrayal caused me to hit a dangerously low downward spiral. 

The hospital band I had to wear in the psych ward after being put there due to depression and ongoing struggle with suicide. (Delila Grubaugh)

I’m convinced that even rock bottom wasn’t low enough to describe how awful I felt; I was truthfully in the depths of hell and I was burning alive. Me being in a psychiatric hospital on suicide watch for almost a full week felt like the lowest point in my life, but sadly enough, this was only the beginning. 

Due to the length of my stay in the psych ward, I missed an entire week of schooling around the time of midterm season, and I knew that there was going to be almost no way that I could save my fall semester. This meant that I wouldn’t be able to graduate that year. I was heartbroken and humiliated. These were feelings that I would become all too familiar with in the duration of our relationship. 

Bree had broken up with him after about two or three months of them dating, but despite her being the one to have initiated the breakup, Johnny Boy blamed me and resented me. 

He became more distant, to the point that when he was upset, he would cease all contact and communication with me with no warning for days, weeks or even months at a time. He’d abandon the relationship only to come back after I begged him to return and begged for him to tell me what I did wrong so that I could fix it. It would be then that he’d say he never left and that I was “overreacting” to the situation. 

I constantly questioned if I was being abused, so I’d often Google “how to know when you’re in an abusive relationship.” (Delila Grubaugh)

After he’d get back into contact with me, he’d promise to come over to kiss the wounds he caused, so we’d visit each other in the late hours of the night, even when we lived around 45 minutes from each other, and I’d cry myself to sleep with him holding me. 

Soon, his consolations stopped too. I’d cry myself to sleep in my bedroom in the middle of the day and wake up just to cry again throughout the night, hardly getting sleep from all the rough sobbing, all while he found himself spending hours on a video game, telling me once again that I was “overreacting.” 

Unbeknownst to me then, his constant insistence that I was overreacting any time I voiced that I felt uncomfortable with things he’d do was him gaslighting me. Claims like “You’re making things up,” “It’s not a big deal” and “That never happened” would flow freely from his mouth. His efforts in gaslighting me were successful enough to the point which I would rely on and only believe his iterations of stories. To me, his words were the gospel. Soon gaslighting became so frequent that I would have psychotic episodes

He was unfaithful in our time together but swore that I was the only one he loved and he told me that I was “imagining” the photos of those naked girls we knew on his phone; he told me that he wasn’t he was able to convince me to stay with him by promising to marry me one day and telling me that I was “better than all those other girls.” Those same “girls” were the ones that he had received and sent back nude photos to. 

Much like a pet would with its owner, I’d look to him to figure out which way I should “behave” in order to avoid punishment and be rewarded. It got to a point where I’d sleep on the floor of my own bedroom if I was “bad” and I would beg for forgiveness at his feet, and I mean this literally, with my head bowed down. 

This photo was taken shortly before I found out I was being cheated on. (Delila Grubaugh)

Being in an abusive relationship looked like knowing once I talked to him on the phone after he got off of work, we would get into a fight and an ugly one at that, so I would have to take phone calls with him in my car in the middle of the night to prevent my family from hearing him yell at me and avoid being seen or heard crying. Those phone calls would go on for hours, which meant that I’d be sobbing for just as long. I started falling asleep in my car most nights because of how exhausted I’d be after crying for such a prolonged period of time. 

I did this partially in an effort so that my family would remain clueless about his aggressive side. I never wanted my family to think of him in such a negative way, after all, I fully believed that I loved him, but he found no issue with degrading me in front of his own family. At family parties he’d often leave me alone to go join “the boys club” which was his uncles, father and cousins. He’d allow them to make sexual jokes and comments about me and sometimes he’d even join in. He knew how uncomfortable it made me feel to be objectified in that way. He never found it important to defend me, especially when it came to his mother. The same mother who I held when she cried to me about how concerned she was about Johnny Boy’s behavior and told me in detail about how his father used to abuse her, then developed a vendetta against me when she learned that I was dating her son. 

It became clear to me he was abusing me in similar ways that other men in his family had abused their partners. The most shocking thing about that was how often and passionately he’d complain about the mistreatment his mother faced and how toxic his stepfather was and how he started to bear a resemblance to the toxic and abusive men in his life. 

A photo of me I took in the Motel 6 where I planned to end my life. (Delila Grubaugh)

Throughout the relationship, I was also constantly losing weight and dropped to the lowest weight I’ve ever been in my adult life. Because the relationship took such a toll on me, not eating became common and not at all hard to do. I was also incredibly anxious that he would be angry with me and so I vomited stomach bile every single day for several months. The vomiting became so bad I had to be prescribed an antiemetic that is commonly given to cancer patients dealing with terrible nausea they endure during chemotherapy and radiation. 

It started to become clearer to me that the relationship was something to be concerned about when my physical health started to decline. Not only was I vomiting constantly and losing weight rapidly, I also started to have panic attacks that were bad enough I was convinced that I was having a heart attack at only 19 years old, which would then lead me to feel faint and experience fainting spells. The emergency room became a place I was at frequently, and in every instance, I was given Xanax and underwent several tests, only to be told that it was anxiety. 

He had made multiple social media accounts in order to talk to women without me knowing.

My suicidal tendencies only increased tenfold that year, leaving me subject to multiple wellness check visits and assessments both at school and my home. The way in which we interacted led me to feel like I was worthless and incapable of ever being loved. All that led me to visit psychiatric wards in the emergency room and psychiatric hospitals multiple times that year. 

The abuse looked like me standing on the highest floor in a building at my college, gripping the bars behind me and preparing myself to jump and break my neck on the concrete stairs below. It only stopped when I got an email from my professor; I felt guilty thinking about the possibility of her being the one to discover my body, so I stepped down and went home. 

The whole year he was going back and forth between loving me and loving other girls; there was always another girl. I wasn’t good enough for him. 

I would have rather died or caused bodily harm to myself than continue to suffer from his mean words and harmful actions – that is an abusive relationship. 

The aftermath

We finally broke up for good in August 2022, and we met up once more on his birthday so that I could return all his things. He proceeded to tell me that during our breakup, he would be having sex with any girl that offered. He kindly advised me to kill myself and told me to never speak to him again, but at the same time reassured me that he would be at my college graduation.  

It was in September of the same year that we finally went no contact and although I felt like absolute death, I am still here today. It took me quite some time to realize it, but we were not meant to be. It was not “the right person at the wrong time,” it was “the right persuader and the wrong kind.” It was unlikely that he was ever going to be a good partner to me and there was a chance that he never truly loved me, that he only said he did in order to get me wrapped around his finger. 

It took me a long time to be able to see that our relationship wasn’t Petrarchan dramatic love – it was just plain abuse and toxicity, and there is a reason for this. Abusers don’t explicitly show their abusive side to you until they are first able to convince you that they were the love of your life by being charmingly sweet to you in the beginning stages of your relationship. It is only once they’ve realized that you’ve begun to attach yourself to them that they start to show who they truly are and that their intentions are not at all pure. 

I am proud of the accomplishments I’ve had despite the trauma I faced. (Carlos Romero)

Being abused changed my life for the worst, I will admit that and I am not at all thankful for it, however, I am able to realize that I was undeserving of the pain but not stupid for being in the relationship and that I can continue on with my life. As the Romans said, “vita mutatur, non tollitur,” which translates to “life is changed, not taken away.” I find that statement to be true. While the abuse did act as a particular driver of major depressive episodes and violence in my life, an unexpected side effect it had was making me reflect on myself and deeply think about what I wanted in life. I still get nightmares thinking about the events that unfolded and I get anxious thinking about ever seeing him again, but I am still trying to remain hopeful in spite of the hopelessness I once felt. 

Purple ribbons are often used to symbolize awareness for domestic violence and intimate partner violence. Via Waka Jawaka/Open Verse.

I continue to go to therapy for the incident a full year later and truthfully, I think it will take several years for me to truly heal from it, but in the meantime, I hope to make other people who have experienced intimate partner violence feel less alone by sharing my story. It’s now that I understand just by actively making an effort to break the cycle of  “the abused becomes the abuser,” I am making great steps forward in my journey in recovery. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse from a romantic partner, help is available. Please utilize resources like National Domestic Violence Hotline, Strong Hearts Native Helpline, National Dating Abuse Helpline,  National Deaf Domestic Violence Hotline and local domestic violence shelters.