I’ve written many times on this blog about my experiences with domestic abuse and some of the larger societal patterns they fall into. A topic that does not get discussed very often though is what happens when the abuse is coming from a friend, rather than a romantic partner. Partner violence is often centered in these conversations, when truthfully leaving an abusive friendship can be just as hard. Eleni Stephanides is back to talk about her experiences with that.
CN: extensive discussion of emotional abuse and bullying in the context of friendship; some discussion of physical abuse and trauma.
Names changed to protect confidentiality.
“Come on Denise, open the door,” my 14-year-old self insisted.
Minutes earlier, the three of us had been hanging out, outside my friend Denise’s house— Denise, her friend Josh, and me. They’d made it back inside before me, then closed the door in my face before I could follow.
I knocked to be let in. Neither of them opened. Hearing both their chuckles and whispered voices from behind the door, I knocked harder.
“I’m sorry, I’m afraid I can’t let you in,” I heard Denise say—her voice higher-pitched than normal, and tinged with sarcasm.
“All my stuff’s in there,” I argued. “I mean it, D. I’m not in the mood for this.”
I heard the window to the upper left side of my line of vision opening, then watched as Denise stuck her head out of it.
“Come through here to get them,” she commanded, her voice now back to its usual brusque tone.
I eyed the area under the window, apparently absent of any stairs or ladder. Shrubs, dirt, and plants—some with thorns—sprouted from beneath a narrow and precarious ledge that looked to be the only foothold.
As I made my way up, the thorny plants cut against my legs. I watched Denise’s friend Josh grab my backpack, zip it open, and leaf through its contents. After locating my diary, he busted it open and began reading it aloud. The two of them laughed while I continued to climb, feeling powerless to stop my secrets from pouring into the murky landing pads of their hearts and minds— where I knew they’d be anything but safe.
“I wasn’t okay with that,” I said, by the time I’d made it up and in.
Denise rolled her eyes in response, mumbling to Josh: “Here comes Dr. Phil.”
I’d grown used to comparisons between me and this particular 60-something talk show host; Denise made them any time I told her I didn’t like how I’d been treated.
Denise and I had been friends for a few months by that point. Initially, I’d admired Denise’s energy and lively spirit. Normally quiet, I talked and laughed more when in her presence; she helped bring me out of my shell. Our friendship included talking in accents, arm-wrestling, and sending care packages when away at summer camp.
The two of us would ride the white water rapids at Six Flags twenty times in a row; sing so loudly from the rolled-down windows of her mom’s car that everyone on the street could hear; and her consistent interjection of funny commentary made seeing movies in theaters endlessly more entertaining.
Things began to take a turn when the two of us were walking home from school one day. We were having, from what I remember, a normal conversation—when suddenly Denise shoved me hard into a bush.
When I got up I told her I didn’t like that; she told me to stop being so sensitive.
A few days later it happened again.
I started noticing other things too—like how I was paying for things far more often than Denise was. When I resisted, she would tell me, straight-faced, that I was being selfish. After coming over, she’d leave messes that I’d later have to clean.
Denise would peer-pressure me into giving more than I was comfortable with; publicly shame me for failing to hide my gay crushes convincingly enough; and dismiss me (with an eye roll) any time I tried to voice how these actions made me feel.
I remember saying something at our school’s homecoming dance that must have annoyed her. And then suddenly, I felt her hands pressing firmly against my chest, and my body in my navy-blue sequined dress landing against the hard gym floor. I remember most of all her face when I got up, seething with disdain and contempt.
It took almost a year to finally pull the plug on that friendship. By then I’d fought back, making my own contributions to what I realized in retrospect was an introduction to the world of toxic dynamics.
Abuse, harm, and toxicity— we hear about them happening in romantic partnerships far more often, but they can occur in other relationships as well, including between siblings and friends. These other forms just aren’t talked about as often.
I often wondered why it took me so long to walk away.
In outlining why I stayed in this friendship, I hope to increase awareness of why others might as well. Though no two experiences are entirely alike, I think some of these explanations can apply to other trauma bond dynamics or dysfunctional/push-pull relationships.
1.) The relationship gives us energy. We remember the good and allow it to wipe away the bad.
I remember one day the CD in the car was turned loudly to an Ashlee Simpson song. Denise rolled the windows down, and we sang. Soon we were belting out the words for everyone on the street to hear. As pedestrians turned their heads to locate the source of the commotion, I felt my annoyance at being shoved to the ground the other day dissipating. I let the breeze carry it through the rolled-down window, thinking how good it felt to be Denise’s friend.
Holding on to resentment simply felt like it would take too much mental energy, I decided. And in that moment, I just wanted to sing. I wanted to ride the high of living life unabashedly, in the presence of a person so seemingly fearless.
For all the ways the friendship harmed me, it also brought light, as moments like these showed me.
2.) The person hurting us makes us feel special.
Denise would tell me I was hilarious; that I was “So fun to be around,” “Different than most people our age,” “Cooler and more real.”
“You know you’re one of my best friends, right E?” she even said to me once. I hadn’t heard those words in a long time and didn’t think I would again after my sixth-grade friend group had dropped me as a friend. The words felt like a balm for my weary soul.
For those of us who have felt unseen, or like other people didn’t appreciate who we were or what we contributed, when we find a person who does see us (or at least says they do), it can feel harder to let them go.
Around Denise, I could be my unfiltered self. She unearthed my playful, fun, and joyous side. I’d leave our hangouts with cheek muscles aching from having laughed so much. This fully alive feeling lit up my being.
3.) Scarcity mindset.
Everyone in the town Denise and I lived in knew each other. Friend groups had already formed. Roles had been established. My role was the quiet girl: anonymous, depressed, and lacking in personality. On a core level, I believed I had little to offer and was lucky to have Denise as a friend— even if that meant putting up with behaviors I didn’t like. If she and I stopped hanging out, no one else would want me or connect with me in that way.
So, maybe her, at times, hurtful behavior was a small price to pay in exchange for connection, I reasoned.
What if you’d been taught to believe that your particular skills don’t lend themselves to winning people over or attracting friends? That who you were was strange, wrong, or too different? That you were lucky to have someone who at least put up with you?
Say you’re looking for connection. You haven’t found it elsewhere. At long last you do—or at least feel like you have. You (perhaps unconsciously) become reliant on it. And it’s only once you have it that what seemed like solace reveals itself to also be a source of pain. Give up the poison, and you give up the support as well. You’re alone again. Given the choice, it’s easier to stay with toxic or unsatisfying connection than to lose everything
4.) We like the person hurting us.
Fear and inertia weren’t the only things keeping me in the friendship; I also genuinely liked and felt attached to Denise.
I liked how she was no-nonsense and didn’t take crap from people, that she called out bullshit when she saw it. Given how repressed and inhibited I felt back then, these qualities were attractive to me in a friend. Her big bold presence alone was enough to encourage the emergence of my own fearless side too—which for years had remained untapped within me.
I knew that light existed within her too—and that at many moments in our friendship, hers had shone brightly. She had a rare and special ability to blow past people’s defenses, unearthing their inner child energy just by being unapologetically herself. There were moments when I sensed her big heart; I just knew that it also carried a lot of pain.
5.) Fear of retaliation.
I also regularly feared the consequences of getting on Denise’s black-list by leaving the friendship or confronting her again about the way her behavior made me feel. I specifically remember a day in my backyard when she was swinging from my swing set while drinking from a can of orange soda:
Denise swung forcefully, seeming to be daring even the wooden structure to challenge her; seeing how much it could take.
“You don’t ever want to get on my bad side,” I remember her stating. She sounded so matter-of-fact and sure of herself as she pulled the can away from her face to reveal an orange mustache that to me looked like a line of flames. “I can f*** your reputation up,” she warned our other friends and me.
There’s a scene from the movie The Witches where the Grand High Witch turns all her dissidents into mice. It played inside my head when Denise said this and lingered there as she continued to swing.
Taking a sip from my own soda can, I nodded faintly to acknowledge that I’d heard her.
Often the person instigating harm is charismatic; we might fear that speaking up will result in others in our group siding with them. Or that the hurtful person will use our vulnerabilities to turn people against us.
In my case, I knew I had no chance with Denise. Everyone in our friend group was eager to impress her. She was more “fun,” than me, and had higher status amongst them.
6.) We blame or gaslight ourselves.
By the time the negative moments had begun forming a pattern, I knew I didn’t like the way I was being treated. Still, many times I questioned whether I was doing something to deserve it. For instance, maybe my reserved disposition around people outside of our friend group frustrated her. I wondered if hanging out with me in groups felt like babysitting, due to how little I contributed conversationally. Maybe she wished my public self could align more closely with who I was when she and I hung out individually.
If I were different, maybe she wouldn’t treat me this way, was a conclusion my mind often settled on.
I’d already told Denise how some of her behaviors made me feel; she hadn’t listened. So maybe I just needed to take the good with the bad.
You’re not perfect either, I told myself.
7.) We empathize with the person causing harm.
About a year before we became friends, Denise had been a smaller, meeker girl, very different from the one I got to know later on. From a certain point on, that side of her almost never showed its face again. More often than not Bullying ‘Don’t Fuck With Me’ Denise or Joking Hilarious Denise took center stage, acting as Vulnerable Denise’s protectors and bodyguards.
But even as the friendship worsened, I still not only remembered the earlier version of her though, but felt connected to her. I even saw myself in her.
I hope that the people who ask “why didn’t you just leave?” might pause before repeating the question in the future; that they’ll have just a bit more understanding of the reasons why people get into, and then stay in, situations or relationships like these; that they’ll understand how disentanglement, once attached, isn’t so simple.
I try to understand what’s going through the heads of the people who ask it.
I imagine them thinking: Why don’t you know that you’re better than this?
But what if you didn’t feel it in your heart and bones that something better was waiting on the other side? What if instead you saw emptiness, loneliness, condemning glances and ostracization from all the people your former friend had turned against you?
Maybe some who ask this question do so because they imagine themselves trying to help someone see their worth, and it exhausts them. And they want to distance themselves from that depletion.
Maybe they feel compassion so deeply that contemplation of all the causes and circumstances worthy of grief burns them out.
Maybe they themselves are motivated by a scarcity mindset and they need to push the responsibility for others’ well-being away from themselves to conserve their own energy.
Maybe they are thinking:
We choose our friends. We teach people how to treat us. Something can only be a trauma if we had no control, no say in the matter. It’s a valid trauma if there was nothing you could have done to prevent it.
It’s just that maybe they could use that exhaustion, and likely their own pain they’ve experienced, not to distance themselves from the people they’re asking this question of—but to see that it may even be what they have in common.
A question I always like to ask when I catch myself saying, “I’d never do that,” is, What if you weren’t you? What if you were someone with a different brain, a different past, a different temperament, a different way of navigating the world?
Maybe you don’t actually know what you’d do, how you’d behave, or the decisions you’d make.
When it comes to addressing toxic dynamics in the future, I hope we can shift the question from “why do they stay?” to “how can we support people in understanding that they are worth more?”
About the Guest Blogger: Eleni Stephanides is a freelance writer and Spanish interpreter who enjoys writing about psychology, queerness, and social justice. Her work has been published in Them, Tiny Buddha, Peaceful Dumpling, The Mighty, The Gay and Lesbian Review, and Introvert Dear among others. You can follow her on IG @eleni_steph_writer and on Medium at https://medium.com/@
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Written in four parts, “Pet” explores what it means to lose the sense of self to the coercion of violence; the world-shattering revelation, grief, and uncertainty after the escape; the ache of hindsight; and the quiet strength found in healing. Kella Hanna Wayne’s debut collection of poems is a story of self-denial and self-discovery; A book of poetry to be read cover to cover, and then over again.