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When Dating Becomes Dangerous: A Parent's Guide to Preventing Relationship Abuse

Two experts in domestic violence outline the patterns often present in abusive relationships among teens and young adults, including the cycle of breaking up and getting back together which can be frustrating for parents trying to help their teen escape the situation.

Dynamics of Abusive Relationships

"One small disagreement would lead to another. It would build to a crescendo, which always ended with Mike's violence. Then the storm would clear, and we would make up passionately and be blissfully happy for days or weeks until the next storm started to build."
--Marge, 18

When Dating Becomes DangerousYou may have noticed that there is a pattern in an abusive relationship. Abusers seem like two different people: loving some of the time and cruel some of the time. Their behavior and moods fluctuate in repeated cycles. In some relationships, the two people fight, exploding in anger, yelling or being physically aggressive with one another when they have a conflict. They are evenly matched, and either one may start a fight that turns aggressive. This is often called "situational violence."

We are describing a different sort of abusive relationship, however, in which one person uses intimidation, isolation, domination, manipulation, and threats of violence to control the other person. The pattern is often called coercive control. For some couples, it is a cycle that is repeated: Tension builds to an explosion that is then followed by remorse, apologies, and making up . . . until the tension builds again. For other couples, the tension rises and falls without following a cycle. In either case, the abuser instills a great deal of fear in the victim throughout the normal activities and on a daily basis. It doesn't always appear that abuse or violence is going on at any particular moment, but victims experience the abuser constantly undermining them and attacking their ability to make decisions, take care of themselves, and feel good about themselves. The coercive dynamic is continually present.

Victims of coercive control often find that what is actually done to them doesn't have as powerful an effect on them as what their partners prevent them from doing for themselves. Abusers gradually take over their victims' lives, undermining their relationships with family and friends, making it impossible to have any privacy, and depriving them of self-respect and autonomy. Partners who are coercive and controlling use many tactics to accomplish this.

Sometimes an abuser will control his victim by threatening to break up with her if she doesn't do what he wants. He could threaten her for a variety of reasons: for example, to have sex with him, use drugs or alcohol with him, or to commit a crime with him.

Victims often find themselves trying to stay safe by focusing the majority of their time and energy on their abusive partner's moods and needs. Victims are always trying to avoid conflict because they are afraid of what will happen if they challenge, resist, or don't comply with their partner's demands. But the "rules" about what will keep the abusive partner happy are continually changing and impossible to predict, so the victim pays more and more attention to any little changes in her partner. Because abusers know their intimate partner's vulnerabilities so well, they can target their attacks and efforts to undermine their victims in a very personal way. Manipulation and control are embedded in everyday life. The abusers' behavior appears "normal," and for some teens it may seem like a sign of love. For example, many teens believe that jealousy and not "allowing" them to do things with friends is romantic: "He loves me so much, he can't stand to be without me, even for an hour!" The message is powerful: "No one can have you but me."

Not only are victims afraid of getting hit or injured, but they also often question their own sanity, because what is "normal" or "sane" keeps changing. There is no aspect of the victims' lives that the abusers do not scrutinize and try to control. This can make it frightening for the victims to make even the most minor decisions. Unbearable anxiety can be triggered by such trivial choices as what to wear, what to buy, or whether to talk to a family member or friend after church.

The victim becomes increasingly isolated. Friendships are regulated, for example, when the abusive partner insists they go everywhere together, makes rules for how the victim must behave, and interrogates the victim after any contact with someone outside the relationship. Some victims manage their anxiety by shutting down their emotions, so they seem to be unaffected by or not remember what others readily see as the atrocious or frightening behavior of the abuser. In his book Coercive Control, Evan Stark describes what he calls "perspecticide": the abuse-related incapacity to "know what you know" as a result of isolation. A victim might find herself believing that she is worthless or stupid until later, sometimes after talking to someone outside of the relationship, when she is able to get her own perspective of the truth. Often the validity of what she really knows to be true is impossible for her to see for a long time, because she has been so undermined for so long that it is too difficult to maintain her own perspectives, boundaries, and values.

The impact of coercive control accumulates over time, through constant undermining, isolation, and intimidation, with physical violence and threats of physical violence interspersed with daily routines. Evan Stark writes, "Intimidation instills fear, secrecy, dependence, compliance, loyalty, and shame, through threats, surveillance, and degradation. Intimidation relies heavily on what a woman's past experience tells her a partner is likely to do and what she imagines he might do or is capable of doing."

These relationships are often very intense. The demands of the abuser keep the targeted teen in a hyper-alert mode, and the breakups, getting back together, the "fights," and making up afterward are dramatic and emotional.

Teens and parents often believe that breaking up with an abusive partner will end the violence, abuse, and attempts to control. However, the abuse often continues after the relationship has ended. Abusers develop new tactics when they don't have easy access to the targets of their control, and continue to use their familiarity with the victim's vulnerabilities to try to get her back.

These dynamics are difficult to understand, because relationship abuse is not simply about being hit, but is very complex. Parents must be aware of this complexity to be effective in dealing with it.

The following story about Dana and Jason will provide insight about how the cycle of violence and coercive control often take place.

Dana and Jason
Dana and Jason are both sixteen years old and have been going together for eight months. Their experience is typical of abusive dating relationships for teens.

When things are good, they get along really well. They're happy and enjoy hanging out together. Their friends say they're the "perfect couple."

However, Jason can be temperamental, edgy, and critical. He blows up easily. He constantly criticizes Dana. He "punishes" her for her "mistakes," anything he feels is wrong--no matter what she does. Jason is also jealous and possessive. He accuses Dana of dressing too sexy, or flirting, or having sex with other guys. He texts her constantly to find out where she is--or to make sure she doesn't go anywhere. Dana is aware that she can't do anything separately from him, like hang out with her best friend, and that he hurts her feelings by teasing her.

Sometimes Dana thinks Jason's demands seem to prove his love. She knows she is important to him. But she has become more and more afraid of doing something that will trigger his temper. To keep the peace, she tries to please him. When he wants to know where she's been, she attempts to tell him the truth. When he barrages her with questions, she tells him what she thinks he wants to hear. Sometimes she realizes it doesn't matter what she says. Jason twists whatever she says and just gets angrier and angrier. His anger keeps building and the tension increases.

In the beginning, sex with Jason felt special, and she enjoyed it. Recently, he has been rough with her. So she becomes quiet just to get it over with.

Jason has slapped Dana and punched her. Each time, he felt sorry afterward and was afraid that she would leave him, so he apologized and promised he wouldn't do it again.

Dana is usually a happy person, full of energy, but when the tension between her and Jason gets bad, she becomes withdrawn and depressed. She has become tense and nervous. She gets terrible stomachaches; her doctor thinks she is developing an ulcer.

Dana has broken up with Jason a couple of times, after really bad incidents ("fights" she calls them). Dana's mom, Peggy, notices the changes in her daughter's behavior. She sees that Dana doesn't care about school or her appearance. She used to spend hours in front of the bathroom mirror. She notices that Dana is jumpy, quick to answer the phone and reply to text messages, and ready to drop anything if Jason insists. She also sees Dana apologizing for everything and criticizing herself a lot. When Peggy asks Dana what is wrong, Dana either says "nothing" or jumps all over her ("Why do you always think something is wrong?").

Jason's mom, Celeste, can also feel the tension when Jason is around. She overhears Jason talking with Dana and being cruel to her and critical of her. When Celeste comments to Jason that he isn't being nice to Dana, Jason yells at her to mind her own business. Celeste cautions him, "Be careful, you'll lose Dana. You know what a bad temper you have."

As Jason's anger builds, he stops trying to cool off. Dana tries to get away from Jason each time she senses the tension building up; sometimes she can, and other times she can't. Jason stops containing his rage, and lashes out at Dana. He calls her names, hits her, forces her to have sex, and won't let her get away from him. He justifies his rageful behavior, usually over some insult or emotional injury that becomes hugely important in his mind, and Dana struggles to figure out what happened. When he is like this, he wants to humiliate and hurt her.

After he calls her names, verbally lashes out, or hits her, his rage subsides and he feels relieved--until the next time. Afterward, he often feels sorry and is afraid that Dana will leave him. He has given her bruises, which even he can't ignore. She can't stand him touching her. When he sees how he has hurt her, he cries and begs her to forgive him. Dana realizes that she has been fooling herself by thinking (again) that Jason will ever stop his violence. It's a relief for her too when the violence subsides, but it also makes her angry. No matter what she does, Jason hurts her. Like a number of times before, she breaks up with him following the attack.

Peggy and her husband, Don, are frightened when they see the bruises, and they now realize that Jason has really hurt their daughter. Until now, they had not known that he's been hitting her. They are afraid Dana will make excuses for him, forgive him, and get back together with him. Peggy and Don talk with Dana about getting away from Jason and getting her life together without him. Peggy is also worried about Don. He is furious with Jason, and threatens to "take matters into his own hands." Peggy and Dana are afraid Don will get hurt or make things worse. They file a police report and try to convince Don to let the police handle Jason. Everyone is relieved that Dana is no longer covering up for Jason.

Celeste knows that Jason has a real problem, but she can't believe that her son would hurt Dana so badly without provocation. When Jason says that Dana pushed him, and that it was her fault, Celeste wants to believe him. She feels powerless to do anything about Jason's violence and hopes that the police report will have some effect on him.

After his rage and attack on Dana, Jason is apologetic, romantic, and passionate. He promises he will change and never hurt her again. Dana still feels afraid and vulnerable, and she wants to get away from him. But he is so much like his old self, and he feels so bad, that she begins to remember the things she loves about him when he is not violent. She knows he loves her and needs her. They get back together, and Jason is not as tense. He is fun to be with again. Dana feels better, relieved, and her energy is restored. Jason doesn't feel so easily irritated and jealous, even though he continues to twist anything Dana says or does. They go to their special places and enjoy their time together. However, Dana is also aware that she once again can't do anything separately from him, like hang out with her best friend, and that he hurts her feelings by teasing her.

They both find excuses for his hurtful, mean behavior--his unhappy childhood, his failures in school, her failure to keep him happy. They may even think that his violence was justified or her bruises deserved. They deny the fact that the violence is Jason's problem. They both begin to believe that the violence was a "misunderstanding" and won't happen again . . . until Jason is tense and mean again when Dana doesn't immediately respond to his needs.

Peggy and Don feel helpless as Dana avoids them and spends all of her time with Jason again. They can't believe that Dana has forgotten her bruises so quickly and that she seems to think he won't be violent again. When they talk to her about Jason, she defends him, makes excuses for him, and gets angry with them for trying to interfere in the one thing in her life that makes her happy. They also know that Dana does not let them know about her problems with Jason until they get really bad. Jason and Dana seem bonded to each other again, and Peggy and Don are very tense and worried.

Celeste, Jason's mom, keeps hoping that this time Jason will realize his violence causes serious problems. She is relieved that he is his old self again, but she worries about Dana, because she keeps going back to him.

Excerpted from When Dating Becomes Dangerous: A Parent's Guide to Preventing Relationship Abuse by Patti Occhiuzzo Giggans, MA, and Barrie Levy, MSW. Giggans is the executive director of Peace Over Violence, a sexual and domestic violence, stalking, child abuse, and youth violence prevention center headquartered in Los Angeles. Levy is the author of In Love and In Danger and the editor of Dating Violence.

When Dating Becomes DangerousWhen Dating Becomes Dangerous: A Parent's Guide to Preventing Relationship Abuse
Softcover, 272 pages

Send your teenager out into the dating world equipped with the knowledge, strength, and communication skills to walk away from relationships that are abusive--and to develop healthy ones.

As our kids grow older and start asserting their independence, we worry about their safety and well-being. And when it comes to dating and intimacy, it is hard to know how to protect them when a would-be gentle relationship turns violent, be it verbally or physically. The fact is that as many as one in four high school and college-aged youths are affected by an abusive relationship. Relationship violence can affect anyone, regardless of race or background. So, how do we protect our kids from becoming another statistic? And how do we give them the self-assurance to leave a dangerous situation?

In this informative guide for parents, Patti Occhiuzzo Giggans and Barrie Levy, both experts in the field of relationship violence, draw on their professional experience to provide advice for getting through the relationship challenges that kids, both gay and straight, face today. Here you'll discover:

List Price: $14.95
Online Price: $13.45

Recovery Matters, March 2014

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