Content warning: This article contains graphic depictions of abusive relationships, emotional abuse, physical and emotional violence and manipulation.
Bruises. Black eyes hidden under sunglasses. Beatings that result in hospitalizations.
When many think of abuse in dating relationships, this is what they picture. But there’s another kind of abuse that is often less noticeable, but just as devastating, and resulting in long-lasting emotional scars.
For Rachel, a senior who wished to remain anonymous using an alias, the emotional abuse began slowly. When it got out of hand, Rachel said she was already in too deep.
In the beginning of Rachel’s two-year-long relationship with her ex-boyfriend, she was completely in love with him. The two met at work, a grocery store in her hometown. But once Rachel moved to UNC, her ex’s behavior changed.
During fights, he would refuse to leave Rachel’s dorm and threatened suicide if she broke up with him. He accused Rachel of doing things she did not do and gaslighted her, saying nobody loved her except him and that she was a terrible person.
Minutes later, he would profess his love for her.
Rachel said she was very codependent on him and that she thought this was just a rough patch and that he would change.
In one instance, Rachel threw herself on the ground after her abuser called her names and yelled at her after she had asked him repeatedly to stop and he wouldn’t.
“I don’t know what happened, but I threw myself on the ground because I was so hysterical,” Rachel said. “I snapped out of it. I don’t know what mental space I was in, but I just threw myself on the ground, crying ‘please leave me alone,’ ‘stop it.’ He pinned me on the ground. He’s like telling me, ‘I love you, I love you, like I love you. I’m so sorry.’ I was like, what is going on right now?”
After the breakup, Rachel’s abuser, now also a UNC student, stalked her, often showing up at her favorite places on campus. But the harassment didn’t end there. He hacked into her social media accounts, changed settings to see her location and contacted many of her friends. Now, Rachel said there is a warrant out for a misdemeanor cyberstalking charge for her abuser and the UNC Office of Student Conduct is evaluating his status as a student.
Rachel’s story is just one of many who have experienced emotional abuse. Although Rachel was physically abused as well, she said awareness of emotional abuse is less prevalent because oftentimes, no one sees it.
This type of abuse, which constitutes name-calling, threats, humiliation, isolation, manipulation, gaslighting and other behaviors, persists in college dating circles at UNC and across the country.
“I felt really dumb,” Rachel said. “I felt like I couldn’t do anything right. I consider myself a pretty confident person and kind of high self-esteem, and I have a lot of faith in myself as an individual. All of that was gone. I didn’t even recognize who I was in terms of that, like I thought I was so ugly.”
Senior Rose Jackson said she has also felt the effects of an emotionally abusive relationship. After meeting on Tinder, Jackson found her ex-boyfriend incredibly charming. A few weeks into their relationship, Jackson noticed something was wrong. Within minor arguments, her ex began withholding affection, refusing to call and ignoring her texts. Jackson said he would refuse to talk to her and blame things that went wrong on her and her mental health issues.
“He said, ‘I just don’t feel like talking right now,” Jackson said. “'You’re just too much work. You’re too broken. You’re too damaged.'"
Melinda Manning, UNC Hospitals' Beacon Program director, works with victims of intimate partner violence. She said some people discount emotional abuse because there’s no physical or sexual element to it. Often, victims in emotionally abusive relationships may not recognize their own abuse, and as a friend of a victim, Manning said it is better to discuss the behaviors you notice and let them know you will not cut them off regardless of your opinion of the relationship.
“Very often, people are in a place of denial though and may not have a good reaction at first, but I think it’s important to let them know, 'Hey, I’m here if you ever want to talk,'” Manning said. “The door’s open. Sometimes it takes time. It may take them a while to see what’s happening for themselves before they get to a place where they’re willing to talk about it.”
Compass Center and the Orange County Rape Crisis Center are two resources available to UNC students, Manning said.
Today, months since Jackson’s relationship ended, she is still trying to heal and navigate the trust issues her past relationship left. Jackson found that when talking with some friends, they didn’t understand the difference in dealing with emotionally abusive relationships over a normal one, where communication may just be needed.
“I don’t think people understand with emotionally manipulative people, they don’t want to talk it out,” Jackson said. “They want to make you feel bad so they have a hold on you. I think what people don’t understand about emotionally manipulative people is that they’re not your partner. They don’t want to support you. They just want to feel good about themselves.”
For Rachel, her experience has allowed her greater understanding for other victims.
But negative effects remain even now. Rachel said she still avoids her favorite spots on campus, fearing he will be there. In a new relationship, Rachel said she has struggled with separating her emotions and trauma from reality.
When Rachel had an opportunity to break free of her abuser through an internship that separated them, she took it. She said she is still waiting to see how the University handles his misdemeanor warrant and no-contact order violations.
“I broke up with him when I left the state for an internship because I’d realized, I’m finally away from him,” Rachel said. “I’m not stuck there anymore. He can’t come find me. He can’t come be at my door knocking to let him in. I’m actually free.”
Manning said emotional abuse can affect partners long after the relationship ends. Some victims feel they will never be in another relationship because no one will want them after their abuser has repeatedly told them this, but healing is possible.
“It just really can be so incredibly damaging to one’s self esteem because their partner may just kind of criticize everything they do from their cooking to their exercise to their work to their academics,” Manning said. “It can be a long road for some people to kind of come back to themselves after that. But I think the important thing to note is that people do. People do heal, and people are able to enter in great relationships afterwards as well.”
To contact the Compass Center, visit the office at 210 Henderson St., call 919-968-4610 or call the 24-hour hotline at 919-929-7122. To contact the Orange County Rape Crisis Center, visit the office at 1506 E. Franklin St., Suite 200, or call at 919-968-4647.
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