They say you never forget your first real boyfriend or girlfriend, and I certainly never forgot mine.
However, unlike most, I remember mine for some pretty negative reasons. Specifically, he was an abusive person who for nearly two years engaged in repeated emotional and even physical abuse towards me, my friends—even my pets.
Unlike most abusive relationships where there are at least one or two concerned parties who realize that something isn’t right and try to intervene, this was not true in my situation. Rather, the adults closest to us (parents, teachers, etc.) were either blind or in denial to the signs that this relationship was not a “typical” teenaged romance.
While people often think of domestic abuse existing only in mature adult relationships, the truth is that domestic violence amongst teenagers and young adults is not uncommon.
In fact, girls and women between the ages of 16 and 24 experience the highest rates of domestic violence. (In my case, I was abused from the ages of 15 to almost 17 years old.)
For years, I thought little about my experience and tried my best to forget it until the Spring of 2010 when my community of Charlottesville, VA, and the nation was rocked by the murder of University of Virginia coed, Yardley Love, who was killed by her on-again, off-again boyfriend, George Huguely. Although they weren’t teenagers at the time (both were 22 at the time of the murder), they nonetheless had been very young when they started dating and many around them dismissed the signs that this was an abusive relationship.
Indeed, some even continued to do so even after Love died. As more details about Huguely’s obsessive, abusive behavior emerged including that Hughely once put his arm around her neck during an argument and sent her an email saying he “should have killed [her]” for hooking up with another guy. More than a few people I know dismissed it as one of those “normal, stupid young relationships.” As one (male) acquaintance put it, “We all do stupid things in our early 20s.”
However, while there is no denying that teens and young adults generally tend to be more emotional than their more mature counterparts, there is never any excuse for abuse.
Dismissing abuse as “teenaged or young person angst” or attempting to downplay it by saying, “We all do stupid things when we are young!” not only leads to preventable tragedies like the Love murder, but also sends the message to young people that abuse is okay, if not downright normal. (I don’t think it was coincidence that a few years later at college, I became involved with another abuser.)
As parents, aunts, uncles, concerned neighbors, etc., it is important to look for the signs that many teen and young adult abusers exhibit. Drawing on my own experience, here are four that should immediately be seen as red flags:
(Note: while abusers can be either either sex and include couples in same-sex relationships, for the sake of this piece, I am referring to a relationship where the abuser is male and the victim is female as these still make up the majority of incidents.)
1. He wants to spend every spare moment with her and discourages her or berates her for hanging out with friends.
While many teens and young people seem to want to spend all their time together, there is a difference when one party is pushing for it more than the other.
In my case, my then-boyfriend would go crazy if I went to a sleepover at a friend’s house or even wanted to attend after-school meetings for clubs that I had joined well before I had met him. In the case of the latter, he would insist on being there or waiting outside the door of the classrooms where the meetings were held.
While I thought that was sweet at first, it soon became clear he was doing so to make sure I didn’t meet much less talk to anyone else of the opposite sex. This leads me to #2.
2. He insists on checking up on her, asks to read text messages, emails, etc. or prove she isn’t cheating on him.
This is another big one especially if he is already taking up most of her spare time. While teenagers (just like adults) can and do cheat on their boyfriends and girlfriends, constantly accusing of them of doing so or demanding proof of loyalty is not normal. In most cases, the demand to see personal stuff like emails, texts, etc. isn’t really about them needing or wanting proof of their girlfriend’s fidelity but rather the abuser obtaining more control over her. (One of the classic trademarks of abusers is that they thrive on control.)
3. There is physical violence-including self-harm-or threats of it.
Any act of physical violence including shoving, hitting, choking, slapping or threats of any of these things should be an immediate sign that the relationship is abusive and needs to be ended.
I include self-harm as well or asking someone to harm themselves in the name of “love.” (One of the most memorable and disturbing experiences that I can recall during my time with my abuser was a time when he dug his nails into his chest, drawing blood, and demanded that I do the same thing, too, in order to “prove my love” to him.)
While teenagers have a reputation for being emotional and flying off the handle at times, violent behavior is never normal and should never be tolerated-period.
If you suspect that the teen in your life is being abused and she comes home with odd bruises, abrasions, etc., ask how they happened. If they say something like, “I fell” or “I hit it on something” press to know exactly how they fell and how or what they hit it on. Don’t just accept any answer and move on.
4. Her teenaged friends say something is wrong with the relationship.
Sometimes, it’s other teenagers who are better at identifying abusive teen relationships than the adults around them. In my case, it was two (male) friends of mine who were the first to point out to me that my boyfriend’s behavior wasn’t cute at all but downright abusive. (My first friend told me he no longer felt comfortable hanging out together because my boyfriend made him “uncomfortable,” whereas another one was more blunt and said, “He’s f*cking crazy and acts you like he owns you!”)
Therefore, if you hear her friends expressing concerns over the relationship, take them seriously and see if they will share exactly what it is that concerns them.
In conclusion, domestic violence will remain a problem as long as people are unaware or in denial that teenagers can and do become involved in abusive relationships. The most important thing we can do is learn to recognize the signs in order to help them get out the relationship as quickly as possible.
Lastly, if your teen or a teen you care about has been abused, let them know that they are not alone and help is out there. While I would never suggest that there is anything good about being in abusive relationship, getting out of one and learning about healthy ones can be a way to find a silver lining even in the darkest cloud.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Alix de Chalain/Pixoto