When Your Emotional Abuser is Your Best Guy Friend
I don't kiss a boy until my 19th birthday. When I finally do, I think it will be special because he’s my best guy friend and it’s my birthday and I think that means something. I’ve waited long enough for the right moment, the right person, someone who knows me and respects me. It starts out nice, the two of us sitting in my room, my heart beating fast because I’ve never done this before and my friend is looking at me intently, that dopey smile on his face that I’ve always harbored a soft spot for. Am I supposed to make the first move? My stomach flip flops.
“You finally get to kiss someone,” he says. “I bet your heart is racing.” He leans in and kisses me. It’s a quick kiss. Like ripping a band aid off. It just happens. Then, he kisses me some more. I feel his tongue in my mouth and his hands on my back. There’s a lot of spit. Too much spit.
"You're doing it wrong," he says. "You're lucky I can show you." I’m immediately embarrassed. I’m not sure what I’m doing wrong. He’s taking the lead; I’m just following. He’s the one initiating, and I’m pretty sure he was the one using too much tongue and that things are not supposed to feel this wet and sloppy and gross, but I don't say anything because he’s right. I haven't ever done this before and he's had a lot of girlfriends, and I guess I should be thankful, even if I don’t exactly like what’s happening.
When I finally decide to take some initiative, to do something I think he might enjoy, he shudders and I know I’ve done good. He breaks away and smiles. "Did so-and-so teach you to do that?"
I am surprised by that question. Why does he assume I hadn't just done this on my own? I’m not completely devoid of any sexual knowledge. And why does he bring up the name of my best female friend right now? Someone he's had a crush on for years. Has confided in me about time and time again? It makes me feel as though he isn't here with me at all in that moment. He’s with someone else, thinking about someone else, and I’m just a body. But surely I’m just overreacting. He tells me all the time I’m too sensitive.
“Should we keep going?” I say after a while. After all, this is just something we’ve sort of fallen into because it’s my birthday—kissing for the fun of it.
“This is your night,” he says. I decide to keep going because I’m in the moment and I’m learning new things and he’s excited, his body lets off warmth and energy.
We’ve been sitting on my bed. He’s taken his shirt off and his hands find my breasts. He squeezes and pumps like he was making orange juice and I wondered if I was supposed to enjoy this. But I make the same excuses again: I’ve never done this before and he’s slept with several girls, so he must know what he’s doing. I have to be the problem. Besides, he’s doing me a favor here. Making out with the girl no one else wanted to make out with. He reminded me tonight he was doing me a solid. I don’t want to hurt his feelings. He starts to kiss me more aggressively. He’s breathing heavier and I feel his hot breath on my neck, his teeth. Then, he bites my lip. I pull back a little, surprised.
“I have something you’ll really like,” he says.
“Okay.” I’m ready to move onto something different. I haven’t enjoyed anything so far, but I don’t want to admit this to myself because I’ve waited for so long for anything like this to happen, for someone to want to be intimate with me, that I don’t want to mess it up. I might not get another chance for a while. It’s a terrible attitude, dangerous even, but in the moment, in the excitement and the confusion, I just keep going along. Besides, he’s my best friend.
He pushes me back on the bed. Then, he’s on top of me, pulling up my shirt and my bra and before I know it my breast is in his mouth. He’s not gentle and it doesn’t feel good. He sucks and pulls and I flinch. Then, he bites. I’ve had enough. I pull him up and try to distract him with kisses. He start dry humping my leg. He holds me down. I feel pinned, trapped, as he grinds against me. This is too far.
“Get up,” I say.
“What?” He pushes up slightly.
“I need a break.” I force my way up into a seated position.
“I-I don’t think we should go any farther.”
He doesn’t say anything for a minute.
“Well, there isn’t really anything left for us to do then, is there?” He sounds angry. He picks his shirt up off the floor and puts it back on.
"We can kiss some more,” I say, because I don’t want him to be mad.
“It’s late,” he says, “I should go.”
I let him out. He doesn’t touch me again. Not even to hug me good night, which he always does. A few days later, we meet with a few friends for ice cream. When I try to bring up that night, he says “let’s pretend it never happened.” A week later, he sends a text to tell me he has a new girlfriend.
I’d like to say that this was the end of this relationship, but it isn’t. Our friendship continues as it always has, but things shift in our dynamic over the course of the spring and into the summer. A year after that night, we find ourselves having a conversation about dating. He’s in a low place, having made a few terrible decisions, and I’ve been there to help him pick up the pieces. We’ve had several long talks about how much we care for each other and want to be there for each other and we decide to give this relationship thing a try. But we’ve been friends for so long, it’s a hard transition. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself. That’s why he’s acting so strange about it. Why he doesn’t want to make it public, why he’s being so flaky about things. We’ve basically been spending the whole summer together alone, and in groups, but no one knows what’s really going on. I don’t even know what’s really going on. But he keeps telling me that he cares about me, he’s just so confused. He’s just messed up. And, I just want to help him. So, I stick around.
We’re sitting on my couch together watching a movie. I cuddle up to him, take him by surprise, get a little too close, too fast, and he pushes me away. He breaks my glasses, pushing the frames into my face. It breaks the skin. Now, I can’t see and I’m bleeding just a little. I go into the bathroom and I blot at the spot on the side of my face with a Kleenex. Just a minor scratch, I try to tell myself. I brush it off.
“Why’d you do that?” he says.
Sorry,” I say. “Why’d you push me?”
“I didn’t push you,” he says. “I was just messing around.” Then he tickles me a little.
“I can’t see without my glasses,” I say. “We have to get some tape to fix them.”
We drive to Wal-Mart. We walk through the store together and find what we’re looking for. I can’t see very well and keep complaining. He finally takes my hand in the parking lot on the way out and walks me to his car. On the drive home, I say “Thanks for helping me find stuff.”
I get a little brave. “And for holding my hand in the parking lot.”
He’s quiet for a little while. “We have to talk about that.”
He’s quiet for a minute. “I’m embarrassed to be seen in public with you?”
I don’t know what to say. “What?”
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I can’t help it. I’m afraid of what people will think when they see us together.”
“I don’t understand,” I say. And then it dawns on me. This isn’t the first time he’s made comments. Just not so directly. “Because I’m fat?”
He shakes his head, like he’s the one this is hurting. “Yes.”
We don’t talk the rest of the way home.
I wish I could say this is the end of it, but it’s not. There are a few more of these conversations. He tells me that it’s humiliating for someone like him to be seen with someone like me. He tells me that he loves me but that he’s just not attracted to me. Beyond that, he makes me feel like I am repulsive, that the idea of being intimate with me is repulsive. He makes it clear that to be with me would mean he would be clearly lowering his standards and that I am asking a great deal of him to consider it but that he is a good guy because he is so conflicted about it. In the end, he decides we’re better as friends and wants to pretend none of this ever happened. I can’t do that and I cut him out of my life the best I can—the only time I’ve ever really done this to another human being.
It’s taken me years to come to terms with my experiences. Because for years I thought I deserved to be treated the way he treated me. That my body truly made me undesirable, unlovable, and that his expressed feelings toward me were natural, that they were not his fault. I’ve been bullied all my life for my appearance to various degrees, and to have someone I had trusted, someone I had bared my soul to, prey on my deepest vulnerabilities made it hard to accept that I didn’t in some way have it coming. But I started to replay that birthday of mine, the way he treated me like an object for his gratification, and then I look back on the conversations we had over the timespan of our complicated relationship that summer and I realize that none of this was ever about me. Not me personally. He never saw me as a person. I was an object, a whipping post, a place to take out his own anger, frustration, feelings of inadequacy. And, I could not let his emotional abuse torment me forever.
Because that’s what it was—it was abuse. I didn’t want to admit it. At first, I didn’t want to admit it because it felt minimizing to call my situation abuse when so many others have suffered much worse. But I look back at the years of our friendship, the humiliation and control, the manipulation and disregard, and that is most certainly what it was. These experiences were only the apex of a long and troubling pattern. How he would often slap my ass, despite my protestations, despite my discomfort, even in front of his girlfriends, because “it wasn’t like that, it was just a friend thing.” How, late one night, when we were watching a movie in my living room, he thought it would be funny to try and expose himself to me, despite the fact that I didn’t want to see his penis and I asked him repeatedly to stop. I ended up hiding under a blanket until he put himself away and sat back down on the couch, laughing. Years of what he portrayed as harmless fun, but was actually ways to diminish and humiliate me.
I also didn’t want to call any of this abuse because I didn’t want to admit to myself that I had stayed in this relationship for so long, for so many years, that I couldn’t see it before things got to this point. How did we stay friends after that night on my birthday? Why did I even want to begin a relationship in the first place? He perpetuated the idea for years that no one would want me, but that was okay, because he would always be there for me. And this gave him the right to treat me however he wanted. I look back at the girl that I was with him and I don’t understand what she was thinking, who she thought she saw when she looked at him. I’ve had to make peace with that part of my story as well.
I’ve found a new level of acceptance for my body. I’ve met men who respect and appreciate me. But I can’t say that I’ve totally overcome my experiences. Studies show that recovery from emotional abuse can last as long as from physical abuse. A study published in the The Journal of Family Medicine shows that 72% of women say ridicule from their partners has the greatest long term effect of any type of abuse. I certainly have not escaped these long term effects. I can’t totally get away from the idea that I’m undesirable or unwanted. My confidence is easily shaken. It doesn’t take much for me to go back into that headspace of self-loathing. I read the comments online trolls leave on body positive articles (I’ve received a few on my own work), and I’m right back in that Wal-Mart parking lot. I tried online dating but a few fat shaming messages were too triggering and I haven’t been able to put myself out there again. While I’ve come a long way, the scars are deep, and I don’t think the healing will ever be over.
Stephanie Harper received her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Fairfield University with an emphasis in fiction. Her debut poetry collection, Sermon Series, was published in September 2017 with Finishing Line Press. Her work can be found in The Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, HerStories, Feminine Collective, The Montreal Review, Poetry Quarterly, Midwest Literary Magazine, Haiku Journal, and Spry Literary Journal. She lives in Littleton, CO.