Dr. Noelle Nelson

Violence in Teen Relationships

Not long ago, a 21-year-old man killed his former girlfriend, a 16-year-old high school student, and then killed himself. Accounts indicate that the girl recently broke off the relationship because the man had been hitting her. While the incident is horrifying, it should not be surprising.

National statistics show that as many as one-third of all teens experience physical violence in dating relationships. Teen dating violence has become “one of the fastest growing types of domestic abuse in the nation," according to Rhea Mallett, executive director of the NY Mayor's Commission to Combat Family Violence. Nothing is more threatening to an abuser than the loss of control, and the break-up meant the boyfriend no longer had control over his ex-girlfriend. By murdering her, the boyfriend asserted his ultimate control over ex-girlfriend, his life the willing price.

Domestic violence doesn't just happen to adults. Domestic violence develops out of a type of relationship, regardless of age, gender or sexual preference, that fosters the development and occurrence of abuse. Domestic violence is such a tragedy, not only in the obvious loss of human life and happiness, but doubly so because it is so very preventable.

Domestic violence does not erupt out of a void. In my many years of working with victims of domestic violence both as a trial consultant and psychotherapist, I've noticed a distinct pattern in many of these violent relationships. The violence that erupts comes out of a larger pattern of abusive behaviors, such as hurtful words and demeaning comments, the abuser's indifference to the partner's needs, blaming the partner for everything that goes wrong, being extremely possessive, going from being adoring to highly critical in a matter of seconds, and seeking to control every aspect of the partner's life, down to the most minute details.

These behaviors are recognizable and predictable, but because they don't involve direct threat to life or limb, the partner generally does not recognize them for what they are: preludes to violence. To boot, abusive individuals are, at first, often very charming, taking care to present the side of themselves they know is most alluring. Because of this, their potential for violence can be easily missed. However, if one looks at the nature of the relationship, at the interplay between the partners, the warning signs of domestic violence, even during the first few months, are clear and virtually unmistakable.

For example, in the intense beginnings of the relationship, an abuser will press for commitments of various types almost right away: sexual commitment, spending all your time only with them. If the partner is uncomfortable with committing so much so soon, an abuser will just keep pushing, usually with a heady display of attention and affection

(flowers, words of love, phone calls, buying sprees), until the partner gives in. The partner fails to realize that their discomfort was ignored. It was never taken into account, never even considered as relevant. Only the abuser's needs and desires were considered. Well, failure to take into account the rights and feelings of others is a pattern.

Failing to take into account your discomfort with being sexual so early in the relationship becomes not caring about breaking your jaw later down the line. Yet all too often, until the beating actually begins, the partner is only too willing to excuse the abuser's behavior, not wanting to rock the boat, for fear of losing what is still good in the relationship. And so the abusive behavior grows, like a noxious plant, unchecked, until one day the violence explodes.

Teens are especially vulnerable to abuse because they are at an age where their need for acceptance and to "fit in" clouds their decision-making process. They stay in abusive relationships because their boyfriend may be popular at school, or having a boyfriend is expected in their peer group--even if he hits.

Although some domestic violence does come "out of the blue," the vast majority does not. The warning signs are there, right from the whirlwind beginnings of such relationships. And therein lies the rub. People, and especially teens, rarely recognize the potential for danger in their relationships. How could they? We are not taught "the anatomy of a violent domestic relationship" in school. We are largely unaware of how a relationship develops in which violence is possible. We are thus unable to respond in a healthy and successful manner to the nonviolent beginnings of such a relationship. No wonder people feel so helpless and hopeless in the face of domestic violence! Yet the predictability of an abuser's behavior is what makes domestic violence, to a large degree, preventable. There are warning signs, all along the way.

Because stopping the violence is difficult, if not often impossible, once it starts, learning to identify the warning signs of a potentially violent domestic relationship and how to deal with the situation appropriately and immediately is critical to our future health and well-being in relationships. For example, learning the difference between normal jealousy, and the type of jealousy which is controlling and therefore likely to lead to abuse. Or wanting you "all to themselves" all the time, or understanding the "unspoken contract" which underlies an abusive relationship which demands the partner always approve of, agree with and obey the abuser.

If we can reach teens early and teach them how to identify the characteristics of violence, we can help them avoid the agony of trying to free themselves of life-threatening abuse.

Check out Dangerous Relationships: How to Stop Domestic Violence Before It Stops You


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