Updated: Feb 10, 2020
February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month 1 in 3 teens in the United States will experience violence of some sort from a dating partner. Young women between 16 and 24 will experience almost triple the national average of intimate partner violence. The reason teen dating violence is so important to be brought to light is because these patterns can carry over into their adult lives. Patterns of abuse are terribly familiar. I talked to a woman I will call A, about her own experience with teen dating violence. “I was in a relationship with an older man when I was 16. He was controlling and we were off and on for 6 years. He stalked me. When I was 18, on my own with him, it turned physical: slapping, telling me to meet him somewhere and then saying I was stalking him, chasing me with belts, biting me, et cetera… It was toxic. I thought it was love.”
Sadly, this is an all too familiar tale. Women and men are manipulated into relationships, which then turn toxic and violent. And unfortunately, 8 states in the US don’t consider a violent dating relationship domestic abuse. Therefore, teens can’t file for restraining orders or press charges.
I also interviewed a woman I will call S about her troubling first relationship. How did the relationship begin? Was it abusive right away? S: No, for a little while it was good. We were together about 5 months total, and the first 4-6 weeks were actually really nice. We had a lot of the same interests, a lot of the same friends, we spent a ridiculous amount of time together but we were always doing stuff with friends. He was my first actual relationship, so as far as I knew, everything was good.
So when was the turning point? Did he display violent behavior beforehand at all? Any foreshadowing of what was to come? S: Honestly, there wasn’t a moment. It just slowly started evolving. After the first month or so, he started constantly comparing me to his ex. And then he started making all these comments: putting me down, making fun of me, especially in front of our friends. He’d randomly ignore me and expected me to “earn” his attention. And then he wanted more sexually than I was willing to give him. He was my first kiss, and I wasn’t ready for much more, and he didn’t seem to care. My rule was “above the belt.” But he would pin me down, shove his hand up my skirt, force my hand down his pants, stuff like that. He acted like it was a game and I had to make him stop. And you know, Catholic school - that’s how they treat it, like boys are supposed to want it and girls are responsible for stopping them. So again, I thought it was normal; I thought that was how it was supposed to be. But because he never respected my initial boundaries, I never trusted him enough to go any further. He got angrier, and rougher. And then he started being rough all the time. Grabbing my arm and dragging me around, shaking me when we argued. He never outright hit me, but I constantly had bruises in the shape of his hands. He started getting jealous and paranoid. And then whenever he wasn’t happy with me, he started hinting that he might hurt himself. So no, there was never a specific turning point. There isn’t a moment I can really say “there it is, that’s when it went bad.” It’s more like a bathtub filling up. The water’s hot, but you can take a little bit of it, and eventually you get used to it. But it keeps filling up and getting hotter, and eventually you realize that you’re burnt and you didn’t even notice it was happening.
Did it affect your future relationships? S: Oh yeah, definitely. Probably in more ways than I’m currently aware of. But I still can’t be within arm’s reach of a man raising his voice. Even when someone jokes about me cheating, I panic. I don’t go to events related to my high school, because the one time I’ve seen him since we graduated was there. If I don’t know exactly where a bruise came from, I obsess over it, and I get really uneasy if there’s one on my arms or wrists (where he usually left them). I completely shut down during arguments, and I always feel the need to ask my partner before people come over (even though he’s constantly reassured me that I don’t need his permission, that he trusts me, that he’s good with me having friends of any gender). I honestly don’t know if it would have impacted me so much if it hadn’t been my first relationship. But as it stands, he had a big part in my view of relationships with men. Do you have any advice for anyone going through this? S: “Okay” isn’t a good enough reason to stay. You can learn to be “okay” in almost any crap situation, but the fact that you can handle it doesn’t mean you should. You deserve better than just surviving.
"Okay" is definitely never a good enough reason to stay, but unfortunately many people do. If you know someone going through this, please urge them to seek help. Be there for them, listen to them. If you’re a teacher and you notice bruises, ask your student where they come from, or direct them to someone who they might talk to. We need to make this issue more prevalent in our culture, not something we shove under the rug.
My coworker M also shared some advice. “Don’t put yourself in bad situations. Like, I never went to a fraternity party. Why would I put myself in that situation? I’m a fighter, but not all women are. Some are more timid or afraid. And once they’ve been hurt, they’re likely to be hurt again. That’s why I think women should take self defense classes. When you’re at the mall, park underneath the light and have your keys out. Lock the doors right away. Be aware.”
If you or someone you know finds themselves in an abusive relationship here are some helpful resources:
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)