I was in college the first time I remember anyone mentioning patterns of domestic violent behavior to me. We had a guest speaker give a presentation about her personal experience of becoming involved in an abusive relationship where control dynamics were the central player. She described in retrospective reflection the early days of her relationship. She mentioned her partner ordering for her at a restaurant.
“That’s sweet.” I thought. I did not recognize the early signs of control she was foreshadowing.
Later in a Health and Wellness class, I learned about the warning signs of an abusive relationship:
- Extreme jealousy and distrust
- Constant belittling and putdowns
- Explosive temper
- Isolation from friends and family
- Emotional manipulation
In bewilderment, I realized my boyfriend at the time checked every item on the list. But I continued to deny the harm in his actions, explaining them away and reframing them with justifications. I was not able to acknowledge our unhealthy relationship until conditions became severe enough that I was forced to.
It is important to note that these warning signs alone do not predict an abusive relationship. We all, at one time or another, may be guilty of being manipulative, self-serving, or any other less than virtuous quality. Likewise, just because you order for your partner at a restaurant does not indicate you are an abuser. The distinction lies in the harm that is incurred, the response given when that behavior is challenged, and the repetitive pattern of behavior that escalates over time.
The reasons individuals engage in domestic violence behavior are many and complex. Abuse, of any kind, is known for its cyclical nature, often inflicting its pain on generation after generation until someone turns on the light of awareness to their patterns of behavior and breaks the cycle.
While I would not say it was my fault that I eventually found myself in an abusive relationship, there were certain aspects of my personality at the time that made me susceptible to this type of abuse. These are common traits that emotional manipulators will prey on:
- Low self-esteem or unclear sense of identity
- People pleasing behavior
- Non-confrontational, discomfort with conflict, lack of assertiveness
- Immaturity or naivety
- Lack of independence, low self-reliance or resiliency
It is not a coincidence that adolescents are at significant risk of abuse from a partner, because it is during this phase of development that concepts like self-esteem, identity, confidence, maturity, and assertiveness are being challenged and worked out. According to loveisrespect.org, one in three teenagers will experience some type of abuse from a romantic partner. Because abuse has a tendency to escalate, if they have experienced one type of abuse, it is also likely they will encounter other types, with more severity, in the future.
How do we not see this coming? Why is our awareness so low? One reason is because abuse does not begin outright in extreme ways. Abusers understand that they must first gain trust and emotional power to avoid detection. In the beginning of the relationship, an abuser is on his or her best behavior.
Over time, an imbalance of power is created by the abuser typically in three phases:
- Gaining trust and understanding the weaknesses of the victim
- Using those weaknesses to gain power and control
- Reassuring the victim of trustworthiness and repeating the cycle
Gaslighting is a common strategy used by abusers to confuse their victim and deny their claims. If a victim begins to suspect harm in his or her partner’s actions and confronts their partner about it, an abuser will go to great lengths to dissuade the victim. For victims without a strong sense of identity, self-esteem, or other voices of support like friends and family, they are more likely to be talked out of their own perception.
Empowering our adolescents to avoid abusive dynamics is two-fold: Early education on the warning signs and common justifications of abuse AND strengthening the resources and support for our teenagers to develop a strong sense of self-esteem, identity, and positive assertiveness, reducing their susceptibility to abusive dynamics.
Equipping our youth with tools for protecting themselves from abuse is more important now than ever, as social media continues to grow in relevance to our society, further exposing our teens to a variety of threats that go beyond their own peers and classrooms.