Trigger warning: This article discusses dating violence and abusive relationships. If you, or someone you know, needs help, visit The National Domestic Violence Hotline and LoveIsrespect for information, resources, and 24/7 live support.
In the United States, one in three adolescents is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional and/or verbal abuse from a romantic partner. That figure not only far exceeds other types of youth violence, according to Cameka Crawford, chief communications officer at The Hotline, but is even higher than the rate of dating violence experienced by adults (one in four women and one in seven men).
By the time women enter college, nearly half (43 percent) have experienced some form of dating abuse. "That's alarming," Crawford tells A Plus. "... The time is now to speak up. This is happening far too often in our country."
February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month (TDVAM), with its main event "Respect Week," taking place on February 12 to 16. The day before Valentine's Day, February 13, those interested in raising awareness can wear orange in solidarity with survivors of dating violence.
All these actions are part of The Hotline and LoveIsrespect's overall mission to give everyone, but young people in particular, the vocabulary to engage in open and honest conversations about their relationship experiences, as well as teach people what to say to help friends and loved ones who may be in an abusive or unhealthy relationships.
"It's really important to have this vocabulary so as you're negotiating your relationship, you know what to look for," Crawford explains. "... Because no one comes up to you and says, 'Hi, nice to meet you. I'm going to — in about a week's time — slowly start to break you down by calling you names, by keeping you away from your family, and eventually, I'm gonna hit you or push you, and then it's just gonna keep getting worse.'"
Crawford notes that one of the most delicate parts of talking to young people and teens about how abusive behavior shows up in relationships "is that, oftentimes, this feels like love." For example, going through personal messages on a partner's phone after they've left the room, might not automatically seem like a cause for alarm, but it's one of five early signs of dating violence.
According to Loveisrespect, a teen may be experiencing dating violence if their partner does these things:
1. Checks their phone or email without permission, or demands to know their password.
2. Forces them to become isolated and distant from family and friends.
3. Incessantly calls or texts them, demanding to know where they are at all times.
4. Makes them feel inferior, inadequate or calls them names.
5. Exhibits unhealthy jealousy.
"These are five common [behaviors], but there are several," Crawford notes.
Crawford explains that a common characteristic among abusive partners is a need to wield control over their significant other. This need is often rooted in the controlling partner's personal insecurity in the relationship. To try to alleviate that insecurity, they go through emails, text messages, social media, etc. to see who their partner is talking to. They may be looking for signs of infidelity or, Crawford notes, they may also read messages with friends and family members to see what their partner is saying about them. If they see something they don't like, they may confront their partner and ask questions about what they've seen on the phone. Additionally, the controlling partner may demand their S.O.'s email, social media, and phone passwords and, because they're already wielding so much control in the relationship, make the other person feel like they don't have the option to refuse.
"Technology is becoming increasingly more important. I think it's worth noting that you don't have to share passwords to your email, to your social media accounts, to your cell phone. You have the right to keep those things private," Crawford says. "One thing that we also talk about is that you have the right not to put all the details of your relationship on social media."
As important as it is to teach young people how to recognize unhealthy relationship behaviors, it's just as important to teach them healthy relationship behaviors. Though there's no one way to have a healthy relationship, open, honest, and safe communication is "a fundamental part," according to Crawford. "So that means you are able to speak up if there's something bothering you in that relationship," she explains.
Crawford stresses the importance of two more key ingredients to a healthy relationship: compromise and healthy conflict. "Disagreements are a natural part of any relationship," she says. "It's OK to have conflict, but it's all in the way that you have that conflict." Crawford encourages couples to find ways to compromise so they can solve conflicts together in a fair and rational way that feels good to both of them. Sometimes, that may not be possible in the moment of conflict. She wants couples to know that's it's OK if one person needs to say, "Hey, can we take a little time before we talk about this?" However, she adds, "It's important to come back and talk about it and not just hold it in."
Finally, a healthy relationship is characterized by a couple's support of each other. "So you're building each other up. You are supporting each other's activities. You're not tearing each other down." That support shouldn't be all-consuming, however, as healthy boundaries make for healthy relationships. "So it's OK to go out with your friends without your partner. It's OK to respect each other's privacy," Crawford adds. "Just because you're in a relationship doesn't mean you have to share absolutely everything with your partner or be with your partner all the time. It's OK to take that space, and it's OK to have some things to yourself."
Besides encouraging young people to recognize the behaviors that determine the health of their own romantic relationships, Crawford and her colleagues also teach them what to do if they're worried about possible signs of abuse in a loved one's relationship.
"Oftentimes, what is our first instinct may not necessarily be the safest for the person in the relationship," Crawford says."... Once you get a little bit more education, you can start a conversation by simply saying, 'Hey, I've noticed you're not around as much anymore' or 'I've noticed you started to change your style of dress. Is everything OK?'" noting that the conversation shouldn't occur in front of the partner. Crawford also advises against starting the conversation with a blunt statement like, "Hey, I think your partner's abusing you," because that can put them on the defense. When in doubt, a simple "Hey, is everything OK?" can be all it takes for them to open up.
"Keep in mind that they may say everything is OK, and even if you feel like everything's not OK, just say, 'OK, I'm here if you want to talk,'" Crawford further explains. "Now if they do say something like, 'Hey, I'm experiencing x,y,z,' then it's really important to listen without judgment." What that means is not automatically telling them what you think they need to do, or what you would've done in their position. "They really are the subject matter expert in their relationship, and they know what their partner will and won't do," Crawford notes. "... So the next step would be for you to work through some options with them." If you're unsure how to approach that, Loveisrespect and The Hotline are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year to help via phone, text, and online chat. Those who may feel uncomfortable directly communicating with someone can also get everything they need by reading the articles on Loveisrespect's website.
"If we think on the bigger, more global scale, it's important to empower people to understand relationship abuse and what signs to look for," Crawford says. "... Because the only way we're going to prevent and end domestic violence is by knowing what it is and being empowered to openly talk about it — not just in our relationships, but if we see something in other people's relationships."
That mission of empowerment is key to combatting the self-blame survivors of dating violence and domestic abuse often experience. "If someone is reading this and they're in an abusive relationship, I want to emphasize that there is nothing that you did to deserve to be abused or controlled. You deserve respect. You deserve a healthy relationship," Crawford says. "So often, especially with emotional abuse, people can be made to feel like this is their fault … You are not at fault."
And you are not alone. Those who need to seek help for themselves or someone else always can at LoveIsrespect and The Hotline. There is always someone there, doing whatever they can to make sure you're safe.