Do You Know How to Identify Abuse? (I Didn't.)

by Kate Axelrod
Originally Published: 

I met Ben the summer before my sixteenth birthday. We spent the month of July at a writing workshop for high school students, and I was struck by him from the very first day: his thick mop of blond hair, how his whole body shook when he laughed, the decisive way he spoke about the stories we read. I had braces and chunky highlights in my hair, and my contributions to the workshop were punctuated with phrases like I don’t really know what I’m talking about but or Maybe I’m wrong, but I think…

By the time we started dating a few months later, my braces were gone, but I still held my hand over my mouth when I smiled. I fell in love with him for many ineffable reasons, but there were also the tangible things about him. I thought he was beautiful and brilliant, thoughtful and kind. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of music and got a 5 on his AP Physics exam, the top score, even though he had barely studied. And what he really wanted to do was write poetry, to spend time thinking about the economy of words on a page. At 16, this really appealed to my romantic, angst-y sensibility. What I did not yet know was that within Ben was also a well of rage and despair that he couldn’t easily contain. It would rush out of him at times, the way an unlocked fire hydrant unleashes a surge of water on a hot and humid day.

Ben was my first real boyfriend, and everything about the beginning of our relationship was novel to me. The simple act of sitting beside him while we both read silently brimmed with romance. He, though, had already fallen in and out love before. His ex-girlfriend, Jessa (whom I constantly compared myself to), was a painter and the captain of her school’s dance team. One night, not long before they had broken up, Ben grew so angry with her that he threw his cordless phone at the wall and cracked it in half. Despite myself, I felt a twinge of jealousy when he told me this story. What was it about Jessa that she could evoke so much feeling from him? Would he ever feel that way about me?

It became clear that Ben’s anger was not about Jessa, nor was it about me.

Quickly, though, it became clear that Ben’s anger was not about Jessa, nor was it about me. We went to different high schools, and for a while he asked that I come home directly after school and talk to him on the phone for the 15 minutes he had between school and his job at a used record store in the neighboring town. If I didn’t come home from school during that allotted period of time, then he believed that I must not really love him. And if I did not really love him, he promised me, he would stab himself with the knife that he was holding right there in his hand. This was before video chat or Skype, so I had no way of knowing if it was true, and perhaps these were empty threats, but I instinctively believed him. And anything seemed possible with Ben—once I’d seen him shatter a windowpane with his forehead in one swift, deliberate motion. So I made sure to go home, to sit in my room and talk to him no matter what. And I never dared to answer call waiting, because if I did, he would erupt with anger; the idea that someone else mattered almost as much as he did was not something he could tolerate.

One Saturday night in December, when we’d been together for almost a year, I was feeling exhausted and depressed. Ben and I fought constantly, and I expended so much energy just trying to placate him, to avoid his wrath. We went to a party at the apartment of a girl I knew from school. It’s strange the things I remember about that night. I remember she had a white Persian cat who crept around lazily and that the soap in her bathroom was in the shape of a seahorse. I remember that Ben was in a terrible mood and wanted to leave, but I wanted to stay with my friends, because lately I’d been doing whatever he wanted.

Eventually we all left and lingered on the sidewalk outside the Lexington Avenue subway. Some of my friends wanted to go to another party but Ben wanted to go home. It was misty outside and starting to rain, and when I told Ben that I’d like to hang out a little longer, maybe go to this other party, he told me to go fuck myself. He walked hurriedly down the street, hands buried deep into his pockets, stomping away like a petulant child. But then he stopped at the corner and turned around, and he began slamming his fists repeatedly into the side of a brick building. I ran down the street to stop him, to grab hold of his skinned and bloody hands.

“Ben, stop. Please stop,” I said. “Let’s just go home and everything will be okay.”

“Get the fuck away from me,” he screamed. “You’re a worthless piece of shit.”

I remember the heat that crept up my back, the shame and embarrassment of knowing that my friends were watching.

“Come on,” I pleaded, “we can just go back to my house and watch a movie. It’ll be okay.”

But Ben kept on screaming. His face was contorted and ugly with rage, his voice switched octaves impossibly fast; the words bitch and fuck you stretched out, long and loud.

I stayed still, my face uncomfortably close to Ben’s, and I thought, please, please, please hit me. If he would just slap me, if he would just slam me against the wall, it would count as “real” violence and I could turn around and walk away and never speak to him again. Because I knew that hitting a woman was unequivocally, irrefutably wrong, that I would never, ever stand for it.

But Ben never hit me. Not that night or any of the other nights we spent together in the many months that followed. Ben’s violence and attempts to control me were amorphous, and would take shape whenever the feeling struck him; sometimes he would monitor my behavior like a strict parent, enforcing a curfew for the nights we weren’t together. If I wasn’t in the mood to have sex with him, he would grow furious and berate me, then push his fist through drywall.

Signs of emotional abuse are often extremely difficult to detect because there is no standardized definition of what exactly constitutes this type of abuse.

At 17, I was too insecure and frightened to stand up to him, and there were many, complicated reasons (guilt and fear, among them) that I didn’t break up with him sooner. That night, standing beside the train station on Lexington Avenue, I tried to will him to hurt me because I truly believed that this was necessary to distinguish what was happening as abuse.

That was 11 years ago, and it has taken so much of that time for me to understand this: the way Ben treated me was destructive and toxic even though I did not have a swollen eyelid or a fractured jaw. That he didn’t put his hands on me didn’t, in fact, mean there was no damage.

Signs of emotional abuse are often extremely difficult to detect, and because there is no standardized definition of what exactly constitutes this type of abuse, there is little framework on how to address it. This lack of clarity is what makes it so hard for young men and women to understand how to navigate the relationship. Studies show that one in three adolescents in the United States is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a romantic partner. It is imperative that young people begin to have conversations surrounding all different types of abuse, because patterns of violence that begin in adolescence are often predictors of further and continued abuse long into adulthood.

I look back on my relationship with Ben and can still appreciate its nuances; I remember the reasons I loved him and found him so compelling, and why it felt so hard to leave. But mostly when I think about that time, I wish I could tell my 17-year-old self that I deserved so much better, that I was not weak, and that his treatment of me was not, in fact, ambiguous. In the years that have passed, many things have come into focus for me—that one never needs a “reason” to break up with someone, violent or not, and that a survivor of abuse need not bear physical scars in order for it to be real.

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