As it turns out, relationship abuse does not discriminate. Domestic violence can happen to any woman of any race, religion, education level, income, or age. A victim of relationship abuse can look like anyone — even a Miss New Jersey USA.
In high school, I was introduced to a boy a few years older than me and we clicked instantly. Our relationship started off fairly quickly, and it was seemingly normal at first. He told me he loved me just two weeks after knowing each other, but at such a young age I didn't know any better. I believed him.
Our fairytale relationship was almost too good to be true. We grew closer and our bond became stronger, but over time our relationship along with his behaviors started to escalate in ways I hadn't seen prior. Later that year, our dynamic shifted and new behaviors that he hadn't previously displayed became more apparent: extreme jealousy, manipulation, and attempts of isolating me from the people I loved became a reality for me in many different forms.
I soon learned that we'd be attending the same college in the following months. I had always dreamt that college would be the place I would forge my own path, experience new things, and live on my own to truly get to know myself. However, being away from home only increased the unhealthy behaviors in the relationship. He had manipulated me into moving into his apartment, even though I had my own dorm. He then completely isolated me from meeting anyone new. I didn't know how to spot the red flags; I had never been educated on them. So I stayed — hoping things would change or that I could change him.
Our fairytale relationship was almost too good to be true. We grew closer and our bond became stronger, but over time our relationship along with his behaviors started to escalate in ways I hadn't seen prior.
Like many other women who experience relationship abuse, my relationship started with extreme adoration and intense infatuation, but over time became one of manipulation, control, and eventually violence. There were nights I spent locked in the bathroom while he was out at bars with his friends, times my phone was broken in half because a male classmate asked me for the homework, evidence of cheating that he covered with excuses that I didn't give him enough attention. I was called just about every name in the book, and the neighbors were ignoring the screaming matches between the two of us. At that point, I had picked up my things to leave a few times, however, I was always met with suicidal threats if I did. "Everyone always leaves. If you leave I have nothing left to live for," are the words I distinctly remember. He would belittle and sabotage me all while simultaneously stating that he loved me.
After months of feeling isolated, completely defeated, and still waiting for things to change, I decided to join a sorority to feel a sense of belonging. I had no new friends, and any friends I had before he either convinced me they were not good for me or had tactically chased them away. I was lucky enough to get a bid from my top choice sorority and started filling my schedule with sisterly duties. Like any good sorority member, I attended all the mandatory events, raised money for issues close to the hearts of my fellow sisters, and memorized every creed and prayer imaginable. One afternoon I was informed of a mandatory event last minute and broke a sweat to hustle after my English class from one side of campus to the other to make it on time. I chose a seat in the back row of the room and waited for the event to start. I had no idea this mandatory workshop would save my life and I thank God every day that I rushed over that afternoon.
There were nights I spent locked in the bathroom while he was out at bars with his friends, times my phone was broken in half because a male classmate asked me for the homework, evidence of cheating that he covered with excuses that I didn't give him enough attention.
The workshop that afternoon was hosted by the One Love Foundation. One Love was founded by Sharon Love in honor of her daughter, Yeardley Love. Yeardley's life was taken from her by her boyfriend just a few weeks before she was set to graduate college. Her death was a complete shock to her family, but they truly believed that her death could have been prevented had she been educated to recognize the signs of unhealthy relationships.
One Love created a workshop to educate young people about what these unhealthy relationship signs look like and how to recognize them early on in a relationship before they escalate into domestic abuse. The parallels between our stories were unfathomable, and I realized that was the path I was headed down if I didn't get help soon. I realized I didn't want to be that phone call to my mom telling her I wouldn't be coming home, and I didn't want to be another one of the three women that are killed every single day from domestic violence.
The education, encouragement, and community of One Love helped me to get out of my abusive relationship safely, which is something that I will always be grateful for. Intensity, isolation, volatility, manipulation, and guilting were all unhealthy aspects of my relationship that I had been experiencing, but before One Love I was unable to recognize them. I now teach the One Love workshop that changed, and possibly saved, my life to high school and college students to educate them on the unhealthy signs I once did not see.
After months of feeling isolated, completely defeated, and still waiting for things to change, I decided to join a sorority to feel a sense of belonging.
When we think of domestic violence, many of us immediately think of physical abuse. But abuse shows up in many forms — physically, emotionally, and even financially. This makes abuse harder to recognize for many people who were only ever taught about one kind, but doesn't mean that it isn't present or significant. By teaching others how to recognize these signs, I hope to be contributing to reducing the statistics of relationship abuse.
I am just one example of the one in three women that will experience relationship abuse in their lifetime. But by sharing my story, I am opening up the conversation that needs to be had with our young, vulnerable people to help recognize the signs of relationship abuse before they escalate. By taking power back and owning my experiences I have the ability to show that this can happen to anyone, even a Miss New Jersey USA titleholder. But I also want people to know that you can come out on the other side and be okay; there is no shame in the experiences survivors have endured.
As Miss New Jersey USA, I serve as an example that relationship abuse doesn't define you or make you less of a strong woman.
And those who experience it are never alone. We are all worthy of a healthy love. But we need to be educated on the many forms of relationship abuse, so we can eventually find that healthy love. We are taught many things in life — how to drive a car, how to make grandma's favorite recipe, and even how to excel in your dream job interview. Unfortunately, we are not taught exactly how to love; there is no recipe or playbook for how to achieve a healthy relationship. But it's imperative to keep an eye out for unhealthy signs in your relationship and to take immediate action as they can ultimately lead to abuse.
If you or someone you love is experiencing relationship abuse, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE
WRITTEN BYGina Mellish