Being a young woman can be a joyous experience. There’s Sunday brunch with girlfriends, the butterfly sensation during a first kiss and time for hobbies. The world can seem a sea of endless possibilities. For some young women, however, the world involves navigating a tumultuous, violent relationship– painfully, silently, and alone.
“I really just wanted to help him and love him,” Lacy Walker said.
Walker, a Lamar University alumna, said she married her husband at 21 and moved from Texas to San Diego. What she thought would be a time of happiness and excitement instead became a nightmare of verbal and physical abuse.
Walker’s situation is more common than often imagined: statistically speaking, there is likely a victim of intimate partner violence, or IPV, in every college classroom. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, women ages 16-24 have the highest per-capita rate of IPV.
The National Institute of Health says IPV encompasses “physical violence, verbal and emotional abuse, sexual assault, coercion and stalking.”
Abby, a University of St. Thomas student who asked to go by a pseudonym, said her first boyfriend subjected her to verbal and emotional abuse.
“He would make me feel really bad about myself,” Abby said. “He would constantly put me down if he was feeling down.”
Once Abby’s relationship with her abuser ended, she began going to therapy, where she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder from the emotional turmoil she endured.
“During the relationship I was just accepting of it all,” she said. “I just thought I must really suck. My self-esteem was at an all-time low, I was really depressed, and was having suicidal thoughts.”
Like Abby, Walker said her relationship had many classic red flags, which she overlooked and accepted.
“He did not like any of my friends who disagreed with anything he said,” she said. “If I tried to hang out with a girl that wasn’t married, he would pick a fight and accuse me of doing something sketchy. If I went to my parent’s house and stayed too long, he would ask for pictures proving I was there.”
Isolation is a key tactic for many abusers, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. By eliminating family and friends from their victim’s lives, abusers are able to gain control over their victims.
According to womenshealth.gov, gaslighting, a type of manipulation where the manipulator convinces a person to question their own memory or perception, is another form of emotional abuse often experienced by women in abusive relationships.
It’s a technique Walker remembers her husband using constantly.
“Everything was always my fault,” she said. “He would get angry and lash out, break something, get in my face and tell me how awful I was, or hit me.”
Yet, she said whenever he apologized he would never take responsibility for the argument and would blame her for his actions.
“When he would apologize later he would always say, ‘I’m sorry I did that, but I wouldn’t have if you didn’t do this,” she said.
Through isolation, gaslighting, and manipulation, victims are conditioned to feel as though they’re the cause of the relationship’s problems. From there, things often escalate.
After months of emotional and verbal abuse, and following the move to San Diego, away from her family, Walker said her relationship with her husband became physically violent.
During a night of arguing, Walker said her husband began saying awful things about her mother, whom she describes as “one of her best friends” and a “rock” in her life.
When her own words failed to hurt him the same way he hurt her, she says she grabbed a beer can and threw it at his head.
He proceeded to grab her and throw her to the ground.
After that, Walker says the relationship stayed violent for more than two years.
“He was a Marine who was trained on how to kill people with his hands, and I was a relatively small 21-year-old female,” she remembers.
Fortunately for Abby, her relationship never reached that level of physical violence, but said she did deal with what she believed were “life-or-death situations.”
At various times during their relationship, Abby’s boyfriend would tell her, “I’m going to kill myself, goodbye,” and not respond to her texts for several hours.
“He had me up at all hours of the night texting,” she said. “I was always scared he was going to off-himself.”
Abby said these situations took a toll on her mental health. Although he treated her badly, she said she always worried that if he did take his life, it would be her fault.
She said she reached out to numerous sources to get him help, but was eventually forced to call the police.
According to research from the University of Buffalo, the chronic emotional stress, fear, insecurities, and the lack of trust that come after surviving IPV can cause serious strain and issues in future relationships.
Abby and Walker both escaped their abusers, and both have had healthy relationships since, but they say the effects of the abuse still lingers.
“I struggle to trust people with my insecurities because I think they will use them as a weapon against me,” Walker said. “It has taken a lot of effort to trust and commit to another man.”
Abby, meanwhile, says she fears her previous relationship was not one of love, but rather lust. After breaking up, her boyfriend told her he never really loved her, and that he only “wanted her.” She said this led her to fear intimacy in later relationships.
Today, Walker’s advice for anyone in an abusive relationship is to open up to a close friend with whom you can share your experience, and to get out “as fast as you can.”
“Love is not walking on eggshells,” she said, “and love isn’t being afraid to try new things because he’s going to question you or make fun of you.”UST provides free and confidential on-campus counseling to UST students, according to the University’s website. Appointments can be made by phone, email or in the Counseling and Disabilities Services office on the second floor of Crooker Center. Additionally, the national Domestic Violence Hotline phone number is 713-528-2121.