Dating violence is a pattern of behavior where one person uses threats of—or actually uses—physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional abuse, to control his or her dating partner. Although teen dating violence is not a new problem, it has only recently been recognized and identified. It is a silent and hidden crime that crosses all economic, racial, age, religious, and class barriers.
The Issue is Power and Control
Many people believe that dating violence begins with the first hit. However, the abuse begins much earlier. Dating violence involves a range of coercive and abusive behaviors, including threats, intimidation, isolation, and manipulation. The purpose of the abuse is to establish and maintain control over the other person and the relationship. By the time physical abuse is present, a pattern of verbal, emotional, and sexual abuse has already been established.
Emotional abuse may be difficult to identify because it is often disguised as acts of kindness and concern. Because it is so subtle, and it comes from someone the victim trusts, it is extremely manipulative and causes the victim to feel responsible for any problems in the relationship. Common examples include telling the victim how to think, feel, dress, or act to “help” them “better themselves” or forcing them to limit contact with family and friends to show how much they care about the abusive partner. Emotional abuse also involves ignoring the victim, withholding affection, convincing the victim they said things they didn’t say, monitoring their movements or communications, or breaking promises.
Verbal abuse is characterized by put-downs, name-calling, accusations, humiliation, bossing the victim around, or threats. The purpose of verbal abuse is to belittle the victim and make them feel powerless. This allows the abuser to convince them that they are stupid and worthless, and that they could not survive without the abusive partner. They will use any mistake the victim makes (for example, getting a bad grade or being five minutes late for a date) to justify this point and humiliate them.
Sexual abuse can occur in many forms in a relationship. Like other forms of abuse, sexual abuse occurs in a continuum of verbal, emotional, and physical assaults. Examples include: pressuring or coercing a person to have a sexual relationship; accusing them of being a prude, frigid, or unfaithful; bragging about the sexual relationship to peers in order to embarrass the person; threatening a harmed or ruined image if the person does not engage in a sexual relationship; not allowing the use of condoms to prevent pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases; physically forcing the person to perform sexual acts; or rape.
Physical abuse is any type of physical control over another person. Examples include: restraining someone from leaving; abandoning someone in a dangerous place; hitting—both directly and in the vicinity of the person (such as hitting the locker next to the person's head); pulling hair; throwing objects at or near the person; driving too fast or recklessly; or shoving, slapping, biting, punching, burning, or stabbing. Physical abuse can and does become lethal in some abusive relationships. The myth that “they only hit me once, it will never happen again” is untrue and dangerous. The abuse will continue to increase in frequency and severity without intervention.
Students, parents, and school officials may easily identify physical abuse as violence, but fail to identify controlling another person through emotional, verbal, or sexual coercion as being abusive. The victim, too, may have difficulty recognizing abuse until after the first assault.
If you are concerned that a teen you know may be experiencing dating violence, you can contact your local domestic violence/sexual assault program for information and supportive services.