Surviving an Abusive Relationship on Campus

This resource is part of our Campus Dating Violence Project, written by survivor activists based on their own experiences.

Surviving intimate partner violence, or relationship abuse, is hard. It’s especially difficult when you go to the same school as your abuser and have no choice but to eat in the same dining hall, study at the same library, attend the same classes, or participate in the same extracurricular activities. Know that you have the right to be safe, and that your school has a legal obligation under Title IX to ensure that you can safely continue your education. As a survivor of dating violence, you have the same rights as survivors of other forms of gender-based violence on campus; you can learn more about them here.

Below we’ve compiled some common questions we hear from survivors of abusive relationships, with responses from those of us who have been there. Are we missing something? Email us at knowyourIX [at] gmail [dot] com.

How do I know if what I’m experiencing is intimate partner violence?

Fast answer: If it’s the sort of treatment you wouldn’t tolerate for one second directed at a friend, it’s probably not healthy and might be abusive.

Of course, this sort of black-and-white logic can be hard to apply to your own intimate relationships. If you find yourself censoring your partner’s behavior when recounting it for friends or family, this might be a sign that some part of you realizes your partner’s behavior is “wrong.” If you find yourself policing your own behavior when with your partner out of fear that they will be “upset” or “disappointed” with you for failing to live up to their (often ill-defined or volatile) expectations, this might help you identify ways in which the power balance in your relationship is unhealthy and skewed. Below are examples of common behavior patterns abusers use.

Does your partner…

  • put you down, make fun of you, insult you, or humiliate you, either in public or private
  • feel entitled to your body and express this entitlement by: criticizing what you wear; touching you without your consent; using pressure, guilt, manipulation, and/or physical force to make you have sex when you don’t want to want to, including by shaming, bullying, or guilting you into saying “yes” when you don’t want to
  • frequently criticize and belittle you, or laugh at you and make you feel disrespected or small
  • withdraw emotional support periodically to make you feel like you did something “wrong”
  • blame their behavior on you, deny or “forget” their previous bad actions, make you feel crazy, or trivialize your needs and feelings (e.g., telling you you’re “too sensitive”); this is gaslighting
  • act jealous or possessive often (e.g., read your texts, forbid you from talking to certain people, monitor your social media interactions)
  • become angry when you bring up problems in the relationship
  • make you feel guilty by crying, threatening suicide or self-harm, or displacing blame on others (e.g., “my parents are getting a divorce right now” or “I’m going through a really hard time”)

Here are some other common signs of an abusive dating relationship.

DSC09455Remember: abuse can be emotional, psychological, financial, sexual or physical. Abuse isn’t less serious or real because it doesn’t manifest in the ways our society typically considers “abusive” (e.g., hitting or raping a partner). Any upswing in worry or anxiety that you realize is tied to your interactions with your partner could mean that you are victim to non-physical forms of abuse. Any physical abuse whatsoever (unless desired and agreed upon by both partners, e.g., with a “safe word”) is completely and totally unacceptable. Sober or drunk, there’s no excuse.

Sometimes I’m so sure that what my partner is doing is wrong but other times I feel a lot of self-doubt. How do I know that what I experienced really “counts”?


Abuse isn’t always physical. Image credit: the Advocacy Center

There are many reasons why you may be led to doubt yourself. On one hand, there is the gut instinct to provide someone we care about with “the benefit of the doubt.” It’s when you start second-guessing this impulse, when you start doubting the benefits you’re providing, that the warning bells may start going off. At the same time, abusers try to plant seeds of doubt in us to extend their control. They want to deny the abuse in any way possible. There also may be people in your life who try to downplay your experience, which makes it more difficult for you to trust your gut feelings.


Know that the technical definition or perceived validity of your experience matter so much less than your feelings and reactions to the abuse. You can use whatever language you feel comfortable with to name or describe your experience; just know that your feelings are legitimate and valid, and that that’s what matters. When you doubt yourself, know that there are people who believe you and who are on your side.

Some of us found it helpful to keep a diary of our experiences so we could identify patterns in our partners’ behaviors and our reactions. Others of us relied on in-person or anonymous online support spaces for victims; this helped us gauge others’ reactions, when we felt we needed a second (or third or fourth) opinion. You can also call a domestic violence hotline or text/chat the national dating violence hotline. If you’re worried about your partner monitoring your calls, try using your laptop (using a free phone service, such as Google’s) or borrowing a friend’s phone.

How do I decide whether to leave my partner or not?

Only you can know what’s best for you at any given moment. Statistically speaking, very few abusers stop being abusive. For some of us, leaving was a powerful way to regain control of our lives. For others, leaving can further complicate their situations. Our abusers often made terrifying threats to shut down the possibility of leaving (threatening self-harm or suicide, or threatening to hurt us or our loved ones). Social, economic, and political factors play significant roles as well: for instance, sharing a lease and other costs of living, depending on your partner as a caretaker, being undocumented, or sharing the same social circle all may make it near impossible to leave.

Know that whatever decision(s) you make about leaving are not binding — circumstances may prevent you from leaving in one moment, but that does not mean that opportunities to leave will not arise in the future (and vice versa). Know that leaving can be an option, even if it may not seem that way at times.

Repeat to yourself over and over that YOU are not responsible for your partner — not for his choices, her mistakes, or their abuse. You (and perhaps your abuser) may harbor hope that he can recover from addictions, depression, you-name-it. But your partner is ultimately responsible for making that happen, not you.

If I want to leave, how do I get out — and stay away?

Giving your abuser a heads-up about your intention to leave will give him/her the chance to manipulate you into staying. If you cohabit with your abuser, try to plan ahead of time exactly how you will leave, and do so when your abuser is not at home.

Abusers often react very intensely to being left. Some of our abusers began to stalk and harass us (or intensified their stalking and harassment), showing up to our dorms and calling us at all hours, in an attempt to regain control. Often they cried, cajoled and begged forgiveness from us, and promised to be better in the future. Some threatened self-harm. Some of us found it helpful to send them a text or email saying, “Do not contact me”; we documented this message for legal purposes, in case we ever needed to seek some legal recourse. You can also block your abuser on your phone and on social media. You may want to seek a civil protection order (a restraining order) — more info on that below.

Some of us found ourselves missing our abusers: often the “highs” in a volatile relationship felt romantic and idyllic, or we felt completely alone/empty without them. Eventually we came to recognize those “highs” as purposely orchestrated by our abusers to make up for past abuse and lull us back for future abuse. Some people call this the cycle of abuse. We were finally able to “break free” and you’re strong enough to do so too.

Try to find a support system that is understanding and that will be there for you. If you ask them, your support system can also hold you accountable to make sure that you commit to leaving your partner (and that you don’t return).

My abuser is still on campus. What can I do to feel safe?

Your college has a legal obligation under Title IX to act to keep you safe and in school.

  • If you share a dormitory, class, or extracurricular activity with your abuser and would like him/her to be removed, your university should do so (or, alternately, assist you in moving), even without you filing a formal complaint. Ask to have your lock changed, and insist that your address not be published in online directories without your consent.
  • At your request, your school should issue and enforce a no-contact order. Know, though, that many universities don’t actually enforce these or enforce them poorly, and some abusers will comply with no-contact orders out of fear of punishment while others may not. Your instinct will probably tell you better than anyone else how your abuser is likely to act.
  • Finally, you can file a disciplinary complaint against your abuser.

Some of us found a court-issued civil protection order (restraining order) to be more helpful (and better enforced) than a campus no-contact order. You can request that your protective order include a distance requirement, obligating your abuser to stay a certain distance away from you. For some abusers, having the police enforce a restraining order can compel them to leave you alone; for others, it can intensify the harassment or abuse. You’ll probably know better than anyone else which is more likely for your abuser. Do keep in mind that in some states you can receive a protection order following a one-time sexual assault; in other states you will be required to prove (often with evidence like texts, emails, and phone records) that your abuser presents a continuing threat to your safety due to sustained harassment, abuse, or unwanted, threatening contact.

You can also press criminal charges. We have more info about reporting your abuser here.

Enlist your friends and/or community in supporting you and keeping you safe. For example, if you’re in a sorority, ask the sorority leadership to ban your abuser from entering the sorority house or to refuse to attend mixers with the fraternity to which your perpetrator belonged.

Remember that you don’t have to put up with so-called friends who are still friendly toward your abuser or who even just tolerate your abuser’s company. Prioritize your self-care and your safety — these people might talk to your abuser about you and jeopardize your privacy.

If you can, connect with other survivors whose abusers or perpetrators are on campus. They can be an important source of solidarity, strength and support from people who live it and really “get it.”

I’m struggling with still having feelings for my (former) partner. I feel so guilty for going back (or thinking about going back).

Shame and guilt are natural, valid feelings, but not ones you deserve. Having positive memories of your abuser, missing parts of what they were to you — even loving them — doesn’t mean you are wrong, and it doesn’t make what s/he did okay. These are natural feelings: you cared for your abuser (it’s why you stayed with him or her, and it’s why you put up with the abuse). Remember, though, that distorting your self-image is part of an abuser’s M.O. It’s how s/he traps you, makes you feel like being with him is the best thing you could ever hope for, or that you’ll never have as rich a relationship with anyone else again.

Speaking with a therapist, joining a survivor peer support group or online forum, pursuing a new hobby, and meeting new people can be helpful, as they give you the opportunity to build and strengthen other relationships (abusers often try to cut their victims off from their communities) and repair your sense of self-worth.

How to deal with friends and family that just don’t get it

It can be so hard, but don’t feel guilty for cutting people out of your life. When people blamed us for what happened or minimizes our experiences, sometimes we found it was best for us to spend less time or cut them out entirely from our lives, in order to avoid the pain of having people care about not understand. You might find our resources on unsupportive peers and parents helpful.

If there’s a survivor peer support group on you campus, consider joining (and, if there isn’t, consider starting one). Many of us formed close friendships with fellow survivors, who often intuitively understood what we were going through and how to support us.

If you are a friend of a dating violence survivor, check out our advice on how to support them here.

Dealing with administrators that don’t understand and/or victim-blame

Err on the side of caution and mistrust with administrators, especially those who give you bad vibes. Many administrators are simply more concerned with protecting the school’s image (which often includes protecting the abuser), than survivors. If this is true in your experience, know that it is okay for you to say, “I am being wronged.” Because you are. Your university is required under law to protect you from violence. Consider filing a complaint if administrators victim-blame or otherwise don’t help you enjoy your fundamental right to an education.

If it is legal in your state or if you ask for permission, record your meetings with them. (Your phone may have a tape recorder.) Ask a friend or advisor to accompany you to meetings with administrators. This can help put administrators on “best behavior” (or they may still be terrible).

Common concerns about reporting: what will happen if I do (or don’t) report to campus officials and/or the police

  • Know that whether or not to report is entirely up to you. You have time to make the decision if you’re not sure right away. If you choose not to report, you are NOT responsible for you abuser’s future actions. People might tell you that to pressure you into reporting to “save future people,” but your abuser’s actions were and never will be your fault. Do what is right for you.
  • You may be doubted, given the third-degree, pressured to “forgive and forget,” told there’s “nothing” that can be done. You probably WON’T be pointed in the direction of readily-available resources. Go in expecting the worst. Better to be pleasantly surprised than blindsided.
  • If your abuser is stalking you, keep a record of phone calls, text messages, and dates, times, and locations. If you decide to go to the police, ask to speak to a domestic violence specialist, if possible.

Additional resources and reading:

This resource was compiled by Kate Sim and Dana Bolger with contributions from Landen Gambill, Tucker Reed, and others who wish to remain unnamed. Thank you for your invaluable words, guidance and wisdom.