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October 18, 2010

How I Saved Myself from an Abusive Boyfriend

Like Lindsey Wegner, women 16 to 24 years old are most at risk of suffering abuse at the hands of a lover. Would you know the signs?

lindsey wegner

Photo Credit: Maria Eugenia Miranda

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When Lindsey Wegner told her high school sweetheart that she had — before meeting him — hooked up with someone she hadn't dated, she never expected he'd react the way he did. They were driving to Lindsey's parents' house in suburban Indianapolis as she talked about her past, and he instantly became enraged. He started shouting, called her a slut and a whore, and turned the car around. He then sped off to a dangerous neighborhood because he said he wanted to get caught in the crossfire of a shooting. Just 19 years old at the time, Lindsey didn't know what to think — a feeling she had for the next several years.

Still, the fog of teenage love veiled the red flags.

"I knew that wasn't right. That kind of behavior is not okay, but I didn't know how to handle it," says Lindsey, who is now 26.

As she got in deeper with her boyfriend (who shall remain unnamed), more disturbing behavior cropped up. After an argument in her freshman-year dorm room at Indiana University, he kicked an ottoman across the room, prompting a neighbor to stop in to check on Lindsey. The resident assistant on her floor soon summoned her for a meeting to discuss the incident.

"When we did schedule a time to talk, he insisted on being there," says Lindsey. "This was supposed to be a conversation between the RA and myself, and he dominated the entire thing." He manipulated the meeting and was beginning to control other aspects of Lindsey's life. She stopped hanging out with her male friends because he didn't want her getting attention from other men, and she became estranged from her best friend Ashley because he didn't get along with her, either.

All of these were warning signs of what would become an abusive relationship, but Lindsey was too inexperienced with love to pick up on any of them. Women 16 to 24 years old are most at risk for domestic violence, according to U.S. Department of Justice data. Just in the last 18 months, 32 percent of teens reported emotional abuse or physical violence in a relationship.

"While love is a real powerful barrier and has a huge impact on people at any age, for young people, it's very new," says Stephanie Nilva, executive director of Day One, an organization in New York City that combats dating violence. "They don't have a lot of experience with relationships, and they don't have the framework to say that they're going to do better."

No Place to Run
Lindsey endured name-calling and insults from her boyfriend — but avoided talking to her family and friends about it because she was embarrassed and ashamed. "I was a strong person, and I just became very insecure as a result of him talking about me and calling me names," says Lindsey. "So I cared even more about what people saw."

On top of a lack of perspective on her relationship, not having the resources to identify her situation fueled the fire. "People just ended up turning their backs on [me] instead of reaching out because it was something that … people don't understand. And there weren't a lot of resources on campus about that. Indiana University's a huge school — 36,000 students — and the awareness isn't really there." Most schools don't have the support system or infrastructure set up to identify dating violence, says Katie Gentile, Ph.D., an associate professor of counseling and gender studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. It's a chronic problem across the country.

When Lindsey's sophomore year rolled around, her boyfriend talked her into moving in together. The first night they were in their new apartment was also the first night he struck her. He was angry over some trivial argument, and he pushed her to the ground and started to punch her. "You don't want to believe that that person doesn't love you … that they want to hurt you," she says. "You always remember the good times when you're going through it."

He continued to hit her the rest of the semester. Isolated from her friends and family, Lindsey felt so hopeless she started to think ending her life was the only way out.

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