When Sarah Van Zanten, of Palo Alto, Calif., was 15, she met a guy at the back-to-school dance who made her heart do a two-step. “I had never met him before, but it [turned] out he lived right around the corner and was a football player for my school,” Van Zanten, now 19, says. They started dating, and everything was great. “The typical cute, perfect, adorable relationship is what everyone saw,” Van Zanten says.
However, that “typical” relationship came to a crashing end eight months later. “We went to a party, and he got completely drunk and out of control,” Van Zanten says. “At the party, he lifted his leg up and swung it at me for no reason, hitting me right in the ribs.” He kicked Van Zanten so hard that she hit her head on the wall and was knocked unconscious. When she came to, she had two bruised ribs, a concussion, and a broken heart.
Last year, dating violence among young people came out of the shadows when singer Chris Brown, now 20, assaulted his girlfriend, 21-year-old singer Rihanna. Somewhat lost in the media hype was the fact that one in three teens will experience physical, verbal, emotional, or sexual abuse in a dating relationship. The altercation between Brown and Rihanna sparked rumors and heated opinions about what happened and why. It’s clear there’s a lot of misinformation out there about dating violence. Here, we aim to give you the real deal on relationship abuse.
TRUE. “A relationship is never going to just be all sunshine and happiness,” says Candice Hopkins, director of the teen dating-abuse organization Love Is Respect. “Arguments do happen, but in positive and healthy relationships neither party should ever use physical force to get what they want,” she says.
In healthy relationships, “fighting” means having a disagreement, giving each other time to cool off, and then working through the issue.
Abuse doesn’t have to be physical.
TRUE. “Generally, in abusive relationships, the abuse happens in a pattern,” says Colleen Gallopin, policy and technical assistance manager at Break the Cycle, another group that works on teen dating-abuse issues. Usually, it starts with emotional and verbal abuse. Then, over time, it can escalate and lead to physical abuse. People sometimes think verbal and emotional abuse aren’t significant, but they’re often warning signs of more severe abuse to come, Gallopin says.
And they hurt just as much as physical abuse. “Tearing down one’s self-esteem and [causing] feelings of isolation and worthlessness are often some of the most powerful tools some body can use when trying to control a dating partner,” Gallopin says. So whether the abuse is physical (hitting, shoving, throwing things), verbal (name-calling, bad-mouthing your family and friends), emotional (constant criticism, telling you how to act or dress, embarrassing you in front of others), or sexual (forcing you to do things you don’t want to do), it’s wrong.
You can tell whether someone will be abusive.
TRUE AND FALSE. Anyone can be an abuser–even the captain of the football team, the quiet student in the chess club, or the class president. “It’s not something you can tell by how someone looks, where they come from, where they grew up, how they grew up, or what they wear,” Gallopin says.
And you can’t assume that only guys are abusers. Girls can be abusive, and guys can be victims. If a girl calls her boyfriend nasty names because he went to baseball practice instead of hanging out with her, it’s verbal abuse. If you see a friend getting slapped and hit because his girlfriend is angry with him, it’s physical abuse. If your friend has a girlfriend who ruins all of his social time with others by calling him excessively or showing up unannounced to check up on him, that’s emotional abuse.
Whether you’re a guy or a girl–dating someone of the opposite sex or the same sex–there are some warning signs that a dating partner may become abusive. (See “Healthy or Unhealthy?”)
If you see red flags, definitely don’t ignore them. When Melinda Bryant, * now 21, of Washington, D.C., was a teen, she dated a guy despite his reputation for having a violent streak and being involved in fighting. Eventually, Bryant’s boyfriend punched her, sexually abused her, and threatened her life.
Only stupid people stay in abusive relationships.
FALSE. There are many reasons people stay in abusive relationships–and it doesn’t mean they’re stupid. Bryant stayed because she feared her boyfriend would follow through on his threats.
For Van Zanten, the party incident was the second instance of abuse. The first time, her boyfriend slammed her into a locker at school. “I’d never seen anything like an abusive boyfriend before. I didn’t know how to handle it,” Van Zanten says. “He apologized, bought me flowers, and said it was because he was drunk and it would never happen again,” she says. Van Zanten believed him. But he wasn’t telling the truth. Teens may stay with abusers because they’re just learning how relationships work. They believe the abuse won’t happen again, or they hope the partner will change.
Isolation is another reason teens stay. One of the tactics abusers use is either literally keeping a person away from his or her family and friends or emotionally isolating him or her. That makes the person feel as if he or she doesn’t have anyone to turn to, Gallopin says.
Then there are the emotions. “There’s often good and bad in the relationship, so it’s like, ‘Well, he’s mean to me then but sweet to me a good portion of the time,'” Hopkins says. Because the abused person may still have deep feelings for the abuser, that’s often enough to keep him or her involved.
The victim must have done something to set the other person off.
FALSE. After Brown’s assault on Rihanna, rumors spread about what she may have done to cause the abuse. Van Zanten faced the same backlash. “Some people said I hurt myself, that I had done the wrong thing [by telling],” she says. “My house got egged four weekends in a row, and his best friend threatened my life,” she says.
Regardless of what a partner has or hasn’t done, the abused person is never at fault for the abuse; only the abuser is responsible, Hopkins says. There are many reasons people are abusive. Problems expressing anger appropriately, low self-esteem, insecurity, and the thrill of causing fear are just a few. Also, “we know growing up in a home with violence increases the likelihood someone [will] either be abusive or abused in [his or her] adult relationships,” Hopkins says.
FALSE. Even if abusers try to make their victims believe otherwise, people suffering from abuse are never alone. After the party, Van Zanten turned to her parents, and her ex-boyfriend was sent to a rehabilitation program.
If victims are uncomfortable talking with their parents, they can turn to other relatives, friends, teachers, school counselors, and other trusted adults. If they feel there’s no one in “real” life they can turn to, there are many online sources and telephone hotlines available for help. See “Help Is Here” for a list.
Love is supposed to hurt.
FALSE. Although love can hurt if it’s unrequited or you’re dumped, in healthy relationships, love itself isn’t painful. “People who love you don’t hurt you,” Bryant says. “They don’t hit you. They don’t call you names. They don’t do anything to you that will harm you. All they do is show you love. And love doesn’t hurt.”
Determining whether a relationship is healthy or unhealthy can sometimes be difficult. Candice Hopkins, director of Love Is Respect, a group fighting teen dating abuse, says this list can help you tell the difference.
[check] There is mutual respect.
[check] Your partner Is supportive.
[check] You feel he or she is a positive part of your life.
[check] Your family and friends like the person,
[check] Both partners are free to have their own activities and friends.
[check] You feel happy when you’re together.
[check] Your partner has called you names you don’t like.
[check] He or she is controlling.
[check] Your partner wants to know where you are all the time.
[check] He or she wants you to spend less time with friends or family.
[check] Your partner threatens to hurt you, or himself or herself, if something doesn’t go right.
[check] You feel unhappy, stressed, or fearful when with your partner.
These organizations can help people who are caught up in dating violence.
Break the Cycle: www.breakthecycle.org
Experience Project: www.experienceproject.com
Love Is Not Abuse: www.loveisnotabuse.com
Love Is Respect: www.loveisrespect.org
The Safe Space: www.thesafespace.org
National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline: 1-866-331-9474
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE
Some people criticized Rihanna for initially taking Chris Brown back after he assaulted her. Were they right? Why or why not?
1. It’s healthy for romantic partners to argue, but not to engage in physical, verbal, or emotional abuse.
2. Anyone can be abusive in a relationship, but warning signs can help teens avoid those people.
3. Victims of dating abuse are never at fault; the abusers are always to blame.
4. Teens who experience dating abuse can get help from reidtires, people in their school, other trusted adults, and commnity support resources.
Some people criticized Rihanna for initially taking Chris Brown back after he assaulted her. Do you think going back to Brown was a bad idea? Why or why not?
Have students research dating abuse facts and local resources. As a class, create a brochure that the school health office can give out.