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Recognizing Signs Of Abusive Dating Among Teenagers

Feb 25, 2013

I wish February had been Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month when I was growing up. I might have realized that in the era before e-mails or cellphones, my boyfriend’s demand that we speak on the telephone every night was unreasonable. I was in college and my life revolved around those phone calls.

At 18, I thought his behavior demonstrated intense love for me. Young and inexperienced, it never occurred to me that he wanted to control me. In my mind, this was love and love always hurts, doesn’t it? All I had to do was listen to a pop song or watch a soap opera to see that a love worth having was often portrayed as painful, or at the very least, something mostly difficult to endure.

My partner’s extreme jealousy was not a sign of love, but a warning — one that many teenagers in dating relationships mistake as caring or even flattery. Domestic abuse among teenagers is a phenomenon not readily understood within an adult framework. And confusing possessiveness with love is among the most common teenage mistakes leading to dating violence.

In the past few years, domestic abuse in teenage relationships has been recognized as a public health issue. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a page on its Web site dedicated to underscoring the seriousness of teenage dating violence, which it defines “as the physical, sexual or psychological emotional violence within a dating relationship, as well as stalking. It can occur in person or electronically and may occur between a current or former dating partner.” According to the C.D.C., almost 10 percent of high school students report being hit, slapped or physically hurt on purpose by a boyfriend or girlfriend. Add to this the emotional and verbal abuse that can occur in teenage relationships and the rate is even higher.

The hallmark of an abusive teenage relationship is always isolation — an isolation that becomes increasingly unhealthy until it is dangerous. I mistook my own teenage isolation as romantic. I thought I had been singled out as the object of my partner’s affection. Not only did I decline other social invitations, I spent much of my time figuring out how I would pay for train trips down to his college. My schoolwork suffered and I turned down opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities like taking a semester abroad. Instead I went as an exchange student to his college in an unglamorous city. I used to joke that I was majoring in my boyfriend.

Thirty years later and in a happy marriage, I still remember that time as one that inhibited my physical and emotional growth. When I recently read through the New York City mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence’s Web site on the dangers of teenage dating abuse, I was shocked to realize how much of my development had been disrupted and my confidence shaken by trying to please my boyfriend. My identity became enmeshed with his until I, an English major, thought that his application to medical school represented our future together. He once told me that he resented my lack of direction while at the same time he expected me to bide my time taking care of him. It was also my fault that we weren’t happy as a couple, he said.

I finally broke away from this boy in my senior year. Along the way, I had miraculously collected a supportive group of friends who coaxed me into going out on Saturday nights. After all, it was my last year of college and it was time to enjoy myself. My peers were my salvation.

TeenSafe, a Boston-based program run under the auspices of the Jewish Family and Children’s Services, bases its teenage relationship abuse prevention program on those all-important peers. High school students are trained to recognize signs of dating abuse and act as peer counselors. They also learn to make presentations to parents and educators.

Elizabeth Schon Vainer, program director of TeenSafe and Journey to Safety, the group’s response to domestic abuse, says they’ve found that the majority of teenagers would far rather talk to a peer about an abusive relationship than to an adult. Peer influence is also at the core of Start Strong, the largest national initiative aimed at preventing relationship violence and abuse among young people. A number of public health agencies across the country have promoted the program whose mission is to “stop teen dating abuse before it starts by using older teens to educate pre-teens.”

I was lucky in many ways. I didn’t drop out of school, and I didn’t experience the physical abuse that sometimes happens in abusive teen relationships. But I missed opportunities, and I gave up a part of myself for a time, and those are things I don’t want for any teenager. I’m thankful that my daughter and her friends are growing up in a time when there is growing awareness of domestic abuse as a bona fide public health issue. I hope that Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month does for February what Breast Cancer Awareness Month has done for October — that it puts domestic abuse on everyone’s radar and makes our children aware that healthy relationships are paramount to having a fair start in life.

Looking for a way to talk to your teen about abusive dating? Find advice at loveisnotabuse.com.