Heather Demetrios is the author of books including Freedom’s Slave (out this month!) and B&N Teen favorite I’ll Meet You There. Her latest, Bad Romance, hits shelves in June, and tracks the damaging relationship between a girl hungry for escape from a crappy home life and the boy who seems perfect, but is anything but. She shared her own experience as a teen in an abusive relationship in this month’s YA Open Mic, and now, in honor of Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, she talks about how to recognize abusive relationships (and great ones), and how to break the patterns that can keep you or your loved ones trapped.
If you’re tired of reading sappy Valentine’s posts and articles, rest assured this is not one of them. This one’s for the girls (and boys) who wake up every morning and think, This is the day I’ll break up with him. I promise. I’ll really do it this time (but then they don’t). This one’s for the friends who watch their bestie slip away from them, her life revolving around a boy who treats her like crap and convinces her she’s nothing without him. This is for the sister who watches her brother come home from dates with his boyfriend with tears in his eyes and bruises that weren’t there before he left the house. Because there’s another side to love that Valentine’s Day doesn’t really like to get into, isn’t there? Smiling Cupids and roses and teddy bears are so much easier to put on cards than girls with battered hearts, bloody lips, and crumbling self-esteem. There aren’t conversation hearts that say things like boy ‘bye. But there should be. If we’re going to have a month dedicated to love, then let’s be real about it. Love has a dark side—and the people who see it day in and day out are often silenced, too scared or ashamed or confused to speak out.
That’s why February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. We actually need an entire month of the year, every year, to talk about this because dating violence affects one in three young adults*. I was one of them. Maybe you—or your best friend—is one of them, too. This violence could be physical, but it’s often emotional abuse that has the longest lasting effects, and it’s usually harder to spot. Being in love screws with your head, and when you’re in an abusive relationship, it becomes all too easy to mistake controlling behavior or manipulation for love. Over the past year, I’ve been reliving the worst part of my life so that I could write my next contemporary YA, which comes out in June. Bad Romance is fiction, but it’s inspired by my own bad romance. I spent months rereading my journals from high school, reliving every cruel word, every violation, every moment of self-hatred brought on by someone I thought loved me. And this made me mad as hell—at the boy I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with, at myself for putting up with so much. How could I have let him treat me like that?
When I was 16, the king of our drama department fell in love with me. The year before, I’d been a lowly freshman, a total nobody painting sets while watching him rehearse as one of the leads. He was hilarious and cute and crazy talented. I could never have imagined a real life scenario in which this same boy I was mooning over would describe himself as obsessed with me. But he was. And I was just as obsessed with him. What at first seemed like a dream whirlwind romance soon turned into a living nightmare. Just a few months before our two-and-a-half year relationship ended, I was sitting on the floor of my kitchen with a knife, seriously thinking about killing myself.
At first he was a dream boyfriend: unexpected presents, serenading me outside my house, and whoa did he know how to kiss a girl. I don’t know when the shift happened, but it didn’t take long for his jealousy to start creeping up on us. Why were you talking to that guy? Are you cheating on me? Then the put-downs that turned me into a self-conscious wreck, terrified of disappointing him. The manipulation—so much and so often that I had no idea which way was up: maybe I was being flirty with the cashier at Wendy’s. Maybe it’s okay that he said I shouldn’t have guy friends—I mean, he should be enough. Maybe he’s right: this shirt/skirt/top is slutty. Of course I was being selfish for wanting to spend a night with my friends instead of him—I’m the worst girlfriend in the history of girlfriends.
Everybody—I mean everybody—told me I should break up with him. My best friend begged me not to get with him in the first place. She was close with his ex-girlfriend and had heard the stories: manipulation, mind games, paranoid jealousy. Did I listen to her? Nope. I told myself she just didn’t understand and I ignored her even when a quiet voice inside me was getting louder: Break up with him, break up with him. Besties: don’t give up on your girl. Mine didn’t and that unflinching loyalty, shoulder to cry on, and support pretty much saved my life. Here’s the thing: your best friend won’t listen to you. You can’t give up on her. You have to keep pointing out the shady stuff her man is pulling. You need to understand that when someone’s in an abusive relationship, they can’t see outside of it at all because their girlfriend or boyfriend controls every aspect of their life. They are in a psychological prison. Let them know you love them, that you’re there, and that you’ve got their back. There are so many online resources that can help. You can check out the Bad Romance website for a list of these places, as well as take an online quiz to see if you’re in a healthy relationship. There are hotlines you can call or text, people who know what’s up and want to help you get woke about what’s going down in your love life. Don’t be afraid to talk to people who love you and that you trust and listen to what they have to say.
I wish I’d had some of the YA books that have become my favorites over the past few years to get me through 27 months with He Who Shall Not Be Named. Would I have stayed in my bad romance if I’d had a chance to read Fangirl and meet the wonder that is Levi? I mean, would Levi ever in a million years call Cath a slut? I couldn’t possibly have chosen to give up my dream school after reading about how supportive Sean was of Puck in The Scorpio Races. And there’s no way I would have been okay with my boyfriend pressuring me to do all manner of things after watching Joe gently court Lennie in The Sky is Everywhere. Don’t get me started on couples: Dash and Lily, Eleanor and Park, Lola and Cricket (or Anna and Etienne!). All of these relationships have two people who support and inspire one another. They have boyfriends who encourage their girls to pursue their passions and be independent and are not the least bit threatened when said girlfriend has friends who are dudes. These are relationships that are built on trust—however rocky their beginnings—and have respect and friendship at their cores. If I’d had these books, there’s no way I would have been able to put up with my boyfriend’s put-downs and rules and paranoid spying. All I’d have to do is see Levi’s line “Read to me, sweetheart,” and I’d have broken up with my guy two seconds later.
Teen dating abuse is a real thing. You don’t need bruises or fat lips to prove it’s happening to you or your friend. Don’t be afraid to take the next step and get the help you need. You deserve to have a real boyfriend who is just as awesome as your book boyfriend.
You deserve your own happy ending.