He was everything – older, strong, devoted. This must be love, right?

For 16-year-old *Shauna, dating an 18-year-old U.S. Marine was ideal. He was not like the boys who occupied her high school hallways. He had a job, and a respectable job at that. Being a Marine, he was also physically strong and disciplined. He was out of high school and in the enticing world of adulthood. Any young girl would feel lucky to catch his interest, and that’s exactly how Shauna felt.

Their relationship started over long distance. As such, it was limited to mostly texting and phone calls. Her boyfriend took an active interest in her life – where she was, with whom and when. She didn’t realize then that his active interest was, in fact, actually controlling and possessive. At the time, she easily mistook his unhealthy behavior for masculinity and love.

Trouble on the Home Front

When he came home from his military assignment, the relationship troubles only worsened. He started wanting to dictate the clothing Shauna wore. If ever he got angry, he hit her.

He never accepted responsibility for his outbursts but instead projected blame onto her. Not knowing what else to think, she believed him and sought to justify his behavior. “He is just stressed,” she told herself. “Maybe I really am the one in the wrong.”

This persisted for about six months.

Then, one day, they were doing what many typical young couples do: watching movies at his parents’ house. She’d waited so long for this time together while he was away, but it soon became evident he had more in mind than quality time. At some point during the movie, he moved to kiss her. She told him no, that she wasn’t ready for that. But he pushed for more.

But instead of respecting her boundaries, he raped her.

Despite the attack, Shauna continued dating the guy, and the two eventually ended it eighteen months later.

Wake-Up Call

In February of 2014, Shauna went to a Campus Life church event where the counselors were teaching a series on love. As they were teaching, they referenced 1 Corinthians 13 to define love:

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, endures all things.”

As each piece of this description washed over her, Shauna began to realize that the way her old boyfriend treated her wasn’t love at all. It was abuse.

The shock and anger that came with this realization stayed with her. When she wasn’t angry, she was overwhelmed with a feeling of unworthiness and shame over what happened to her. She felt she couldn’t trust herself or anyone else, to the point that she resisted being emotionally vulnerable with anyone. Abuse and sexual assault robbed her of her former innocence and joy, and it didn’t seem there would ever be a way back.

Real Love

Later that year, Shauna participated in a church retreat in Panama City, Florida. There, she was part of a small group for discussion and relationship building. But the new, closed-off Shauna wasn’t interested. Trusting new people just leads to hurt, she reasoned, and she’d had enough of that.

Even though she was giving every indication she didn’t want to be friends with anyone, her small group leaders saw through it. They saw a girl who really needed to be loved. Shauna says they cared for her and pursued friendship until she eventually let them in.

For Shauna, trust had been horribly abused and misused in the past, but these mentors demonstrated for her that trusting others can be safe. It was incredibly therapeutic and healing. But more than that, trusting them showed her how God also loves her and pursues a relationship with her. It helped her know, deep in her soul, the sweetness of being loved and feeling special instead of feeling shame and unworthiness.

And she made the decision to trust God and be baptized.

Loved and Worthy

Now, when Shauna thinks of the scarring season of abuse and sexual assault, she is comforted in seeing how the evil actions of her abuser were useful in leading her to ultimately accept the unconditional love of Jesus (Genesis 50:20a). Before, she felt unworthy of love, but now she enjoys the incredible worth given to her by Christ.

His love makes her feel like a princess, beautiful and special.

Because God displayed his love for Shauna, she is now able to give and receive love in her healthy marriage of two years. Additionally, she is able to better serve and counsel women who are currently in similar situations of abuse.

If she could share anything from her experience, it would be God’s grace and forgiveness. She knows deep suffering firsthand, both from abuse and the sense of shame that follows, and she wishes no one else would ever feel that way. To fellow survivors of sexual assault, she wants them to know God’s love is worth everything because it’s unconditional, selfless, generous, healing love.

That’s what real love is.

*Survivor’s name changed per her request