Forget the typical post-breakup protocol, the healing process from an unhealthy relationship is a long and complicated road. Many victims of relationship abuse suffer in silence. Women can endure consistent, steady patterns of abuse within the walls of their homes, but bravely present a strong, put-together exterior for the world to see.
Outsiders often wonder why victims deny abuse or choose to stay in unhealthy relationships. The answer often has to do with fearing how we may be looked at or treated. For me, I felt silenced by stigma and a strong sense of denial that I could fit the mold of a victim. It wasn’t until I found a community of survivors that I felt brave enough to share my story, educate others, and lead by example to show that relationship abuse doesn’t define you. 
For me, I felt silenced by stigma and a strong sense of denial that I could fit the mold of a victim.
At just 19 years old after being in an unhealthy relationship for about 3 years, I was enduring a multitude of emotions. Both socially and culturally, I was sensitive to potential judgment; I feared from the outside world. Intimate partner violence more often than not relies on the isolation of the victim, weakening their relationships with family and friends, which in turn makes it extremely hard to seek help and support.
Even with a support system, it can be hard to rescue yourself from an unhealthy relationship when you have been told by your partner you belong there. Toxic relationships stain your self-worth, sap your energy, and call for a super-sized dose of self-love before you can be fully ready to take the leap and leave.
At the time, I had to keep reminding myself that I was worthy and deserving of healthy love, happiness, and a caring partner. I knew that leaving successfully would be complicated but not impossible. So I gave myself an extra shot of forgiveness, found joy in small things, didn’t rationalize the poor behavior of my partner, and more importantly, I found support through community. 
Finding a community within the One Love Foundation completely changed my view on the cultural stigma often placed on victims of relationship abuse. I realized that, in fact, I wasn’t a victim, I was a survivor. The One Love Foundation is made up of survivors, educators, ambassadors, and genuine people who are focused on spreading the story of Yeardley Love—the inspiration behind the organization—who was taken from the world by her ex-boyfriend during her senior year of college.
I realized that, in fact, I wasn’t a victim, I was a survivor. 
At its core, One Love believes that we can all work towards healthier relationships and learning to love better by learning what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like and practicing those skills in our daily lives.
With the help of One Love, I became a trained workshop facilitator to spread their message and my story throughout the community. I started hosting healthy relationship workshops to high school and college students in person, over Zoom, through phone calls, and basically to anyone who would lend an ear. I became determined to ensure that our next generation of women understand the signs of unhealthy relationships that I, Yeardley Love and so many others have missed.
One Love gave me a home and a purpose, but it was through the pageant community that I truly gained my voice. The Miss Universe Organization is an incredible platform of leadership that gives women the opportunity to make impactful change in the lives of others and advocate for causes they are most passionate about. There have been hundreds of women that paved the road for me to vulnerably yet powerfully share my story as Miss New Jersey USA.
However, there was a distinct moment in pageant history that helped give me wings to fly. I vividly remember watching Miss Universe 2017 on the couch in my college apartment. I was clutching a hot mug full of Sleepy Time tea, anxiously waiting to see who would wear the crown next. Miss South Africa, Demi Leigh Nel-Peters, who would go on that night to be the next Miss Universe, shared her experience with gender-based violence during a carjacking. She later developed the “Unbreakable” initiative where she worked to empower young women with the knowledge necessary if ever a victim of a violent attack and provided a safe space for women to share their stories.
This moment in Miss Universe history was also a turning point in my heart. She was breaking the stigma that so many of us face, and I wanted to do the same. Little did I know at that moment that I would soon be the driving force for so many other young women to come forward and share their stories with intimate partner violence, much like Demi Leigh encouraged me to do.
This moment in Miss Universe history was also a turning point in my heart.
One in three women will experience relationship abuse in their lifetime. Although this statistic is one of the most common and shocking, (mental illness diagnosis occurs in every one of five people in America), it is not talked about nearly enough to normalize the conversation, break the stigma, or educate young women on the red flags. This often leaves women fearful to come forward or discuss it openly. However, I am working to change that.
By publicly sharing my story with relationship abuse as Miss New Jersey USA, I hope to pave the road for more women to come forward with strength knowing they are not alone. By continuing to teach my healthy relationship workshops, I am educating and empowering young women to identify and avoid abuse in their future relationships, but also teaching them how to love better in their current ones.
When survivors know that they have support, they feel safer seeking help and are more likely to allow themselves to heal. Through social media, I have built a community-led movement combining relationship education with my experience in order to evoke positive change. One Love truly believed that one conversation, one action, and one person can make a difference and even save a life. With community awareness and continual education, we can break the perceptions of the stigma that cause so many women to suffer in silence and encourage them to heal.


Gina Mellish