First date. First butterflies. First kiss.
First punch to the stomach.
“That was the first time I’d ever been punched. It took my breath away,” Tonya Rapley, 34, remembers, not fondly, when she thinks back to her relationship with an abusive boyfriend during her last two years of college in 2007.
The assault came six months after she started dating him. Yet, like many survivors of domestic violence, Rapley wrote off her boyfriend’s attack as a fluke incident. Things just got heated. It wouldn’t happen again. She wasn’t being abused.
After all, it was his aggressiveness that initially attracted Rapley. Confidence can be sexy. Violence, on the other hand….
The next time her boyfriend got angry, she found his hands around her throat. Rapley fought back and he let go before she could lose consciousness.
Abusers often escalate their violence over time, and Rapley’s boyfriend fit that pattern to a T.
“I guess he got his courage then,” she says.
The next time, he pulled a gun on her in order to intimidate her. It worked. Yet, she stayed. The two were living together now. Her boyfriend had moved them to Texas, even though Rapley was going to college in Miami. She continued her education online to be with him.
“I had to appease him and graduate a semester late,” she says. But, it felt worth it to her at the time.
Coming to Grips With the Abuse
But it was when she found herself in the ER getting stitches in her eyebrow after he head-butted her—she told medical staff she had taken a bar to the forehead in the weight room—that she says she admitted to herself, “Oh, you’re being abused, sweetheart.”
She tried to distance herself from him, tried to put up clearer boundaries and stand up for herself. The next time he tried to break her wrist, she checked herself into a hotel.
“It was the first time I took myself out of the situation and left him,” she says.
But abusers are slick, manipulative, cunning. He convinced Rapley to come back.
“I believed in him more than I believed in myself. I wanted to fix him. I wanted to make him happy.”
Then, the isolation attempts began.
“He had me disliking other women. He’d say, ‘That woman tried to hit on me,’ in order to make me feel like I needed to be at the top of my game.”
He told Rapley’s friends things she’d told him in confidence in an attempt to break up her relationships.
“He would tell them I didn’t want to talk to them anymore. Or, that I was bad-mouthing them. My friends stopped talking to me after that.”
It was a series of highs and lows that drove Rapley crazy. She said his demons started to consume her. She became someone she didn’t recognize—stressed, unhappy, fearful.
She soon found out she was pregnant, a move she thinks he orchestrated in order to get Rapley to stay with him, possibly forever.
The final straw, she says, was when Rapley, who had been supporting her boyfriend financially since they moved, found out he had been stealing money from her bank account in order to buy drugs. She called her parents in North Carolina and asked them to help her escape.
“I knew if there was anywhere I would be safe, it’d be at my mom’s and dad’s. He wouldn’t mess with them. I promised him we’d get back together after I got some stuff together for the baby.”
But Rapley had no intention of returning, and ultimately decided to terminate the pregnancy. She changed her phone number, all her online passwords. He tried to threaten her to come back.
“There was a lot of verbal abuse,” she says, before he began apologizing.
“I never responded.”
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It Took Seven Years to Get Back on Her Feet
Though she escaped with her life, Rapley was financially ruined. Her boyfriend had driven her credit score into the ground, run up credit card debt in her name and stolen her savings account. It took her almost seven years to pay everything off and begin to repair her financial history.
In that time, she moved to New York and began working with a domestic violence nonprofit. Not surprisingly, she learned many survivors stay with abusers because they’re not able to support themselves financially on their own.
Passing Her Wisdom on to Others
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An idea was born. In 2013, she began My Fab Finance, an online resource teaching financial empowerment, providing guidance on paying down debt, repairing credit, saving for the future and making smart financial decisions in a relationship.
“Deprivation is not a viable strategy. I’m teaching them to save,” she explains. By 2015, Rapley became one of the foremost experts in finance, turned her site into a six-figure business with a staff of four and became an author (The Money Manual was published last May) and was named the “New Face of Wealth Building” by Black Enterprise Magazine.
To those who want to be in control of their own finances, Rapley, who offers her services free of charge to fellow survivors, offers this advice: “Choose one goal to work towards instead of repairing your entire financial life. And, take advantage of the library. I got my first financial freedom book from the library!”
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