Remember teenage love? All those wacky hormones and new feelings and butterflies that didn’t quit? For Alyssa, she remembers it was all of this, and more, when she was 16 and met Evan,* the stereotypical handsome high school football player. “It was notes and sweet voicemails. He was great in the romance department. It felt like everything was too good to be true.”
Now, at 35, she looks back on their young relationship and both the negative and positive effects surviving it had on her future. With fresh eyes she tries to recall the first red flag.
“I think it’s when I first saw how he treated his mother. He was very rude to her, and I thought that was really odd. One day, she made him meatloaf and he yelled at her. ‘You know I don’t f***ing like meatloaf!’ He didn’t treat his dad like that.”
Alyssa talked herself out of her worry. “He never spoke that way to me, so I thought it must just be something complicated with his mom.”
But there were other signs that raised an eyebrow for her, like Evan’s entitlement. “When he turned 16, he expected, and got, a car. He told me, ‘Your parents should be buying you a car.’”
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After graduation, the two went to colleges in different cities and Evan’s once-charming attribute of constant attentiveness to Alyssa took a more possessive turn. “He started calling me nonstop, wondering what I was doing and who I was with. I made the excuse that it was just because we were in a long-distance relationship.”
Yet, every time they were together, Evan seemed more aggressive in his jealousy. When Alyssa would go out with her girlfriends, he would try to dictate what she wore, telling her she was dressed like a slut. When Evan hung out with Alyssa’s friends, he didn’t speak. He was standoffish, distant. When she’d hug a friend goodbye, he’d get angry. She thought it was odd he didn’t have any close friends of his own.
“One of the big signs I remember was when we would be together and my mom would call. He told me, ‘If we get married, I’d like it if you only talked to your mom once a week.’” He also seemed surprised she still talked to her friends from high school. “He’d say, ‘You don’t think you’ll always talk to them, do you?’ I kept thinking, why does he care?” At 19, it didn’t occur to Alyssa that isolation was one of the main tactics abusers use to separate victims from their support systems. Another one is belittling, something Evan started to implement next.
“He would put me down any chance he could, saying things like I was really putting on weight and that he wasn’t attracted to me as much as he used to be. He never complimented me anymore. The guy who was so romantic and sweet in the beginning was gone.”
She began to think that maybe she was ugly and worthless, a thought that she didn’t disclose to anyone. Her self-esteem plummeted.
Alyssa’s intuition told her things were getting worse. She felt like his jealousy and possessiveness were about to boil over into something more physical. Her instincts were right. One afternoon, she attended a friend’s baby shower. After a few hours, she checked her cell phone and found more than 40 missed calls, all from him. She called him back, worried something bad had happened. When he answered, he was furious. “Where the f*** are you?” he yelled. He didn’t believe her when she told him. “I think you’re f***ing lying. You’re with someone,” she remembers him saying. “I hung up the phone and I knew I had to end this.”
She went to his house later that evening and asked him to come out on his driveway to talk to her. “I told him, ‘You’re not a kind man anymore and I don’t want to be in this relationship.’ Then, his arm went up to slap me across the face.” Alyssa was able to dodge the hit with her shoulder. She was too shocked to respond, but she remembers his final words to her: “No one’s going to love someone like you.”
“That was it,” she says, and she drove away.
Alyssa’s mom would tell her later that her biggest fear was that the two of them would get married. Even though she didn’t know what was going on, she had an inkling. Alyssa’s lack of disclosure hurts her as a mom of a daughter herself now. “It would break my heart to not be able to help my daughter through something like that.”
Does she feel like she narrowly escaped a violent future with Evan? “Absolutely. It would have only escalated and definitely would have gone physical. I think about his wife now and I fear for her and their child.”
Today, married and a mom of two, Alyssa says the experience has made her stronger. “Anyone who tried to put me down or control me after that, I wouldn’t allow it. I did have my guard up for a long time. I was very picky about my next relationship.”
She says she and her now-husband were friends first “for a very long time,” something she plans to advise her kids to do when they’re ready to date. “I want them to know it’s so important to be friends first, really get to know somebody, and not allow negative people into your life.”
But part of her knows, no matter how much you educate someone about abuse, it can still find anyone. “You hear stories like this and think, ‘I would never let that happen to me.’ That’s bull. You don’t realize it’s happening until you’re in it, because it happens so slowly.”
Teens: If you have any questions about dating abuse, or suspect your partner might be abusive, check out BreaktheCycle.org, a dating abuse nonprofit especially for individuals ages 12-24. You can also talk to someone with LoveisRespect.org, another nonprofit aimed at youth. You can call, text or chat online to a peer advocate about dating abuse and other topics.
*Names changed per interviewee’s request.
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