Whether a relationship is good, bad, or ugly, the message is always the same: love is respect. However, in an abusive relationship, the line between love and respect is often blurred.

When this happens, victims like myself are left feeling alone, confused, and conflicted within their reality and place in the relationship. As many as nearly one in three college women say they’ve been in an abusive relationship, and the numbers are even greater for women of colour. These things aren’t talked about much within our communities and leave many women vulnerable to overlooking red flags. A few years ago, I disregarded them all to be loved by someone.

I met my ex-boyfriend during my junior year of college. My previous relationship had left me desperate to find someone who would accept me. I wanted to be seen and loved, and from the first few interactions we had, he reeled me right in. It was simple for him. He had charisma and the gift of smooth conversation. He connected with me through my interests and hobbies. He understood me and what made me tick. And with time, he used every tool he could gather to manipulate, control, and abuse me.

Most days I wouldn’t know what to expect — if we would be happy or fighting. I always worried that my actions or lack thereof would cause an issue. Fights about the dishes would turn into reasons why my parents didn’t love me. A disagreement about what movie to watch would shift into why I have no friends. The problems would rise and fall like the tides, and I was always left to either sink or swim while he dangled a life jacket in front of me.

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For a long time, I let him do it. I let him mistake my kindness and sensitivity for weakness. But after a while, I understood that being with him wasn’t love. I deserved better and I needed to leave. And as easy as coming to that conclusion may sound, it wasn’t at all straightforward. There were some difficult truths I had to face within myself before I found the strength to distance myself from him for good. Here’s what I learned.

1. Love Really Is Respect

Aretha Franklin knew what she was talking about. Aside from the spelling lesson, she reminded us that we must demand that other people treat us a certain way. Abusers tend to gravitate to kind and compassionate people. They know it will be easier for their partners to look at their self-defeating beliefs or painful pasts and feel sorry for them. As a result, many people try to heal the abusers, often neglecting their own needs in the process. And that’s exactly what they want: control.

My ex was sly about the way he would abuse me. He wouldn’t yell — his voice would just “be raised and genuflect with emphasis.” That’s actually what he’d say when he’d call me a b*tch or talk down to me over something as small as not asking him if he needed something from the store on my way home. And the guilt trips would be unbearable. My good deeds would never go unpunished, and there were never enough good deeds. God forbid I didn’t acknowledge his and show gratitude. Attacks on my character would ensue, and I’d almost always end up being forced to sleep on the couch. I know now that this isn’t respect, nor is it love. It’s wrong.

2. External Support Is Necessary

I understand there’s a level of privacy that’s important for the healthy relationship, but abusive relationships take privacy to another level. There’s secrecy, denial, scapegoating, and gaslighting. Being in a state of constant confusion and drama can lead a person to question their sense of identity within the relationship and within themselves. Therefore, having someone on the outside as a means of support is imperative to the survival of an ongoing sufferer of abuse.

My partner and I depended on each other. It was a big reason he was able to keep me around for as long as he did. He filled my need to be wanted and needed by someone else. When I would try to leave, I’d fear of a life without him, believing no one would see me the way he did. That dependability isolated me from my friends. And he always found ways to sabotage my time with them, whether it be starting a fight or creating a false emergency that drew me away. He also found ways to control my money. I had nothing of my own.

It was my girlfriends that finally made me realize I wasn’t the bad guy in our relationship. When we’d have bad disagreements, I’d run to them with my problems, sobbing about the failures of not being the woman I was supposed to be. They’d comfort me and warn me of the destructive nature of my relationship, but of course, I didn’t listen. It wasn’t until he became physically violent that I finally took heed of their words.

They were the ones who gave me the strength to explore why I was staying with someone so cruel. They were the ones who opened my eyes to the fact that I deserved better. And when sh*t hit the fan, they were the ones who gave me a game plan and got me out. My friends helped save my life.

3. You Need to Reconnect With Yourself

When someone chips away at you, day after day, you lose yourself. The compliments they give you no longer make you feel beautiful, and you begin to feel like a shell of the person you once were. I was so proud of my interests in writing and the arts before meeting him, and I lost all of that. When I finally left, I had to rediscover myself and what it is that brings me joy.

4. Choose You

It took a lot of time and strength to finally be able to leave him because in a way, I did love him. I wanted the best for him. The problem was that I was so willing to put his needs before my own. I allowed someone who didn’t respect me to take up space in my mind, body, and heart. I carelessly let him take advantage of my empathy and open-mindedness, hoping he would one day have the same. I had to understand that I can’t change people — I can only change myself. So, instead of choosing someone that would never love me the way I deserved, I chose me.