Child Abuse and the Path to Teen Dating Violence

Child Abuse and the Path to Teen Dating Violence

I was born in Boston and grew up in a suburb just north of the city, the youngest girl in a family of 6 kids. My mom only wanted 3 kids, but she had 6. I was the only girl in the group of 3 unwanted pregnancies. Mom was frazzled and bitter and she took out her frustrations on me. She told me I was a mistake and she labeled me “the bad seed”.

Mom also instilled in me her resentment for having been born female. She was the oldest of 4, the only girl, and she bore the responsibility of caring for 3 little brothers. She wasn’t allowed to go to college because she was female, and she suffered in silence watching her brothers grow up to be doctors and MIT scholars. 

Mom was raped by her uncle when she was 12 years old. When she told her mother, she was punished and shamed and told never to speak of it again. So she swallowed her trauma which manifested in a nervous tic and major anxiety issues. As an adult, she was forced to have her rapist over for Thanksgiving and Christmas every year. She was fucked up and bitter and full of rage because of it. Mom’s oppression and reaction to it were on display all my life, but I didn’t understand the enormity of it. 

I grew up thinking I was cursed to be born with the wrong genitals. Mom reinforced that fact by treating my brothers well, but in essence blaming me for being born. My older sisters, on the other hand, were nurtured and well-adjusted. I was constantly compared to them and left feeling inadequate. They were much older than me and were raised by the younger, more energetic version while I experienced the haggard, frustrated, angry mom who didn’t want 6 kids. Mom’s anger toward me made my childhood difficult. When she raged at me, I’d shut down and usually retreat to my bedroom. Mom scared me.

When I was 16, I met my abuser. He was aggressive about his interest in me and the love-bombing began. I liked him but he intimidated me. At 6’4”, he towered over me and his demeanor was overwhelming. I was definitely attracted to him, he was tall, muscular and extremely good looking. But I just wanted to be friends. My abuser followed me everywhere, in school, at play rehearsals, to parties, saying he’d never give up because he had to have me. I was flattered by the attention and I felt special. I remember thinking “wow, he really cares about me.”

After months of pressure, I agreed to date my abuser. He was triumphant about having “won” me like a prize. I wish at 16 years old that I could have recognized the red flags. But I was ignorant about toxic masculinity and I was in for a rude awakening.

In the first week of our relationship, my abuser told me he was going to marry me. He said “I used to watch you walk by my classroom and I knew I was going to marry the girl with the amazing tits”. No one had ever spoken to me in such an overtly sexual way and I felt very uncomfortable. 

From the get-go, my abuser made it very clear that I belonged to him. He was controlling and extremely jealous. He kept tabs on my whereabouts 24/7. He started beating on boys in my class if they showed the slightest interest in me. And he was always pissed off about something. He’d throw things, destroy things, get into brawls or scream profanities at anyone who set him off. And if I said anything about his behavior he’d turn his anger on me. He told me that he had a “redheaded temper” and that I shouldn’t piss him off. He also had a knack for twisting my words to make it seem that I was the aggressor and he was the victim and I believed him. I was no match for his tactics.

He was menacing and unreasonable and his anger frightened the shit out of me. But that was the way mom made me feel too. I accepted both of their toxic personalities as normal behavior and I assumed I deserved to be treated that way. So like I did with mom, I started to freeze and put up a wall of silence when my abuser verbally attacked. And this would make him angrier, so our fights continued to escalate.

It seemed whenever he gave me something, like a necklace for my birthday, he’d end up ripping it off my neck in a rage and destroying it. Other times, he would threaten to kill us both by driving us off a cliff or into a brick wall, anything to scare me into submission. My abuser would block my exit if I tried to leave. He kicked down doors, grabbed and shoved me. He had a huge chip on his shoulder, was always life’s number one victim and considered everyone a threat, especially boys who talked to me. 

One of my girlfriends labeled our fights “nuclear wars” because of the magnitude of my abuser’s destructive and violent outbursts. She warned me to be careful, but I told her everything was fine because he loved me.

As our relationship continued to evolve, my abuser’s jealousy and control became so menacing that I gave up all of my interests. I stopped participating in school and community theater. I stopped singing. I stopped playing guitar and flute and I stopped seeing my friends. I lived every day for my abuser, with my abuser and in fear of my abuser. There were times I tried to break up with him, but he’d threaten to kill himself and sometimes both of us if I went through with it. In spite of the enormous red flags, I was ignorant and I stayed. I felt safer with my abuser than trying to leave him.

My family also witnessed his temper and overall toxic behavior, but they never said a thing about the obvious red flags that were there, right under our big Italian noses. For years, we were all willfully ignorant about the abuse.

The more intense my relationship with my abuser became, the rockier my relationship grew with my mom. The tug-of-war between each of them for control over me became a constant source of stress. My abuser promised to love me forever while mom made it clear she couldn’t wait till I moved out of her house. Mom was verbally and emotionally abusive and wanted me out. He was verbally and emotionally abusive and promised to always love me. So just like my big sister, I married my high school sweetheart.

Years later, after my abuser set my home on fire, I started trauma therapy. This is when I began my education about coercive control and teen dating violence. This is when I realized I had spent my life in an abusive relationship. This is when I learned that I was a domestic violence survivor. My family still has a lot to learn about domestic violence and more specifically victim-blaming. Unfortunately, I believe they’re a lost cause.

But the domestic violence center where I work runs an extensive teen program to help educate kids in the community about healthy relationships. I’m very proud of the work my employer does and I’m thrilled to be directly involved in making positive changes for future generations. Love shouldn’t hurt.

If you’re a parent, talk to your teen about healthy relationships and ask for help if you’re unsure what to say. Support is always just a phone call away. I believe that in order to change the culture of intimate partner violence, we need to focus on educating our children.

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