When I was sixteen, I was aware that domestic violence was a thing. I knew that it wasn’t okay for someone to be physically violent with you, no matter how much they said they loved you. But there were two important things I did not know:
The first thing I didn’t know is that Emotional Abuse exists and is extremely damaging. I had done sex and relationship education at school. And we talked (super duper briefly, in one lesson) about Domestic Violence. But we did not cover Emotional Abuse. So all I knew was that Physical Violence is bad and I should never tolerate it.
The second thing I didn’t know is that abuse can exist in friendships. I knew about relationships and about child abuse. But I did not know that the same damaging relationship dynamics in families or romantic partners can apply in platonic friendships.
And that I didn’t know these two things is a tragedy and a failure in the way we teach children about love and relationships and respect.
When I was fifteen and sixteen, I was an immensely lonely kid. I had a large group of friends, but I still felt isolated. I was bullied. I had zero body-confidence and little self esteem. I suffered from depression (and some weird other symptoms that now make much more sense in context of my bipolar diagnosis). I was anxious and I looked it. I was queer and I didn’t know that, because I thought Straight and Gay were the only options and I knew I wasn’t gay.
Anyway, I had this friend. He was a very charming, good looking young man. He was the kind of boy a lot of fifeen year old girls would fall in love with. And I was in love with him. He wasn’t in love with me and I knew that, but it was okay, because why would he be? The fact that he even spoke to me was a miracle, in my eyes. Because I saw myself as pretty worthless and unnattractive and boring and everything else I was told I was by bullies. So, I was excited just to be friends with this boy.
Our friendship confused me, though. Sometimes we would be friends and we could talk about anything. Sometimes he complimented me and my whole world was brighter. Sometimes he was really mean. One time, I called him and he denied knowing who I was or even knowing anyone with my name. That’s weird, right? It felt weird, even though I knew I wasn’t very memorable. I mean, we saw each other every day at school, and though it was school holidays, it still seemed odd he would forget me entirely, even with prompting.
Two weeks later, I saw him and he apologised for forgetting who I was and flirted with me for hours.
Now that I’m an adult and an angry feminist, I know about a thing called the Cycle of Abuse. My friendship with this boy followed the Cycle of Abuse exactly.
There would be a building tension. He would slowly increase the amount of bargaining I had to do to get his attention. He was aware I was in love with him and craved his attention, so he would strategically withhold and provide friendship based on arbitrary goalposts. One day he would be exceptionally delightful and the next he would be harsh and mean, and I would frantically alter my behaviour to try and figure out how to get the outcome I wanted. I tried being flirtier, less flirty, talking more, talking less, talking about him, talking about myself, talking about other things, complimenting him, being aloof, dressing one way, dressing another, sounding smart, sounding vague… But there was no connection between my behaviour and the amount of affection he showed me. I just ended up confused and stressed and desperate to figure out what I was doing wrong.
Then would come an incident. He was never physically violent, but some flagrant act of cruelty would occur. Something much worse than the everyday confidence-undermining remarks. That includes the time he pretended not to know who I was. There was also verbal abuse. There was mocking me. One of his favourites was unfavourably comparing me to other girls, sometimes at some length. He would deny we were friends. Horrible stuff you should never put up with from anyone, but never anything I would have described as violent. Or even as mean, because I thought I deserved it.
Next would be a reconciliation. He was deeply sorry he’d forgotten who I was, he didn’t know how he could have done that. Of course he didn’t mean what he’d said. It was only a joke. I was too sensitive. What was I talking about? I had misunderstood him. He hadn’t even spoken to me that day. I was crazy. Almost always, this would be gaslighting behaviour, meaning he denied my memory of the situation. This ranged from suggesting I had misunderstood to outright denial the incident had occurred. I was always willing to forgive.
Finally there would be calm. He was super nice to me for weeks on end. He was charming and delightful and I had every reason to be in love with him again. We were friends and it was fine. I must have been crazy to be so mad at him.
And then the cycle started over. And over and over.
Although no physical violence ever occurred, this was a form of Emotional Violence. He acted with deliberate intention to cause me emotional harm.
This kind of abuse is actually very common in a romantic relationship and parents also often do this to their children. It is a way to control the victim and exert power over them.
How do I know I wasn’t just a regular love-sick teenager being overdramatic? How do I know this behaviour was deliberate? How do I know my depression and anxiety aren’t colouring my perception of the situation?
Because he admitted to it. More than that, he proudly proclaimed it.
After a year of this, it ended. In one final incident, our relationship was effectively severed. It was painful, but at the time it just seemed like the kind of formative first heartbreak that many many teens go through. Sad, but no one was to blame, I thought. However, my pain was public and obvious. I cried for six straight hours, in a public setting. Everyone knew. Imagine that. Six straight hours of sobbing so hard I couldn’t speak and every one I knew was there to see it. They offered help, they offered condolences. But no one could help. An older girl, who had never met me before, sat with me and held my hand for over an hour and I was never even able to look up and see her face. That is some humiliating shit.
There’s one degree of separation in this town. Over the next year I made a new friend and so did he. The same friend, although neither of us realised for a while. Eventually, she made the connection. And he told her, proudly, that of course he knew me. He had broken my heart. It took a year, but the payoff was spectacular. She should have seen me crying. And words to that effect.
Being a decent human being, she lost her shit, told him what scum he was and very compassionately repeated to me what he had said, feeling I had the right to know.
I didn’t cry. I was angry. I don’t, to be perfectly honest, remember much about that period at all, except the crippling depression. I do remember my best friend and I revealing this appalling revelation to other so-called friends and hearing them reply “Oh, I knew that. He told me.”
When all this went down, I had recently had my first boyfriend, a relationship that lasted six weeks. I didn’t date again for eight years. I went through a period of extreme depression. My psychologist went through the experience with me at length, explaining that what I was feeling was actually a form of grief, and that I was totally entitled to take as long as I needed to process it.
It has been 13 years and I have not processed it yet. Although I no longer have contact with him or anyone who does, a mutual friend from those days once mentioned his name (this was about six or seven years later) and was horrified when I burst into tears. A week ago, I saw a photo of myself with him that someone had innocently uploaded to Facebook. I haven’t slept properly since. What happened the year I was 16 is the single most important, defining moment of my life. I cannot adequately stress how hurt I was by this person.
So, let’s talk about Abusive Friendships.
Because I want every kid to know that what happened to me was not okay. This was Abuse.
I didn’t know what to call it. He wasn’t my boyfriend, so it wasn’t domestic violence. He never so much as shoved me, so it wasn’t physical violence or anything I felt I could report to a teacher or adult. Yet the damage is still there, nearly 15 years later.
So, here’s what I’ve learned. Advice for everyone, from little kids through to grown adults. Abusive Friendships Exist:
If a person calls themselves your friend, but treats you in a way that makes you feel bad about yourself, it is okay to remove that person from your life.
If a friend treats you badly, puts you down, harms you physically, emotionally or sexually, ignores your boundaries, belittles you, treats you as inferior or in any way makes you concerned for your safety, it is okay to end that friendship.
If anyone treats you this way, it is not your fault. You do not deserve this treatment. You have a right to be sad, angry or scared.
Friendships are about positive interaction. They should make you feel good. If you find being friends with a person makes you feel bad (even if sometimes it seems good), then you go ahead and end that friendship.
Abusive Friendship is real. Spread the word.