Dating: What’s Healthy…and What’s Not
Originally Published: October 2, 2009
Revised: November 21, 2013
Rihanna: Pop star. Role model. Dating abuse survivor. Several months ago, that last statement would have seemed unbelievable and even outrageous. Yet after photos of Rihanna’s battered face surfaced on the Internet and Chris Brown pleaded guilty to assaulting her, it’s clear that dating abuse can happen to anyone.
Dating abuse, which includes physical, sexual, emotional or psychological abuse within a dating relationship, has an impact on millions of teens every day. Each year, 1 in 3 teens in the U.S. is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner, according to Loveisrespect.org. It doesn’t matter whether a girl and a guy are dating, two girls are dating or two guys are dating—abuse can happen in any kind of relationship.
In a survey of 2,800 Sexetc.org teen users, 33 percent reported being in an abusive relationship, either as the victim or abuser. (The good news is that half say they have never been involved in such situations.) But what really stood out was that 11 percent responded with “I think so, but I’m not really sure,” when asked if they’d ever been in an abusive dating relationship. This means that some of us aren’t sure what a healthy relationship is supposed to look like and might not be able to tell if we are in an abusive one.
As teens, we are just beginning to learn about relationships—and it’s all too easy to become involved in an abusive situation where you’re not quite sure if what’s happening is healthy or not.
“It’s not always easy for people to know that they are in an abusive relationship. They may know that what is happening is not good, but they don’t identify what is happening as ‘abuse,’” says Chris Johnson, prevention and education coordinator at the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center in Washington State.
The only way you can turn over a new leaf in a relationship is if you are clear about what is or isn’t healthy in it. So, how do you know what’s healthy and what isn’t?
The warning signs of relationship abuse can be recognized, and relationship abuse can be stopped.
Healthy or Unhealthy?
Each of these scenarios describes different characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships. Notice if you recognize healthy and unhealthy behaviors in each scenario.
1. Deshawn and Ana
Deshawn and Ana have been going out since freshman year, and everyone thinks they’re “the perfect couple.” But recently, Deshawn has been pressuring Ana to have sex, even though she doesn’t feel ready yet. At first, Deshawn tried guilt-tripping her with lines like, “If you really loved me, then you would have sex with me.” When that didn’t work, he threatened to find a new girlfriend who would have sex with him. Finally, after weeks of pressure, Ana reluctantly gave in.
By using threats and guilt to persistently pressure Ana to have sex, Deshawn is abusing her emotionally and sexually. As her boyfriend, he needs to understand and respect her decision to wait. Meanwhile, Ana should never compromise her values, morals and emotions by giving in to doing something against her will. She deserves to be in a relationship where she feels safe and free to choose to have sex only if and when she’s ready. Deshawn should seek help to put an end to this abusive behavior.
2. Sarah and Caitlin
After hours of strenuous workouts throughout the summer, Sarah finally makes the varsity soccer team. She excitedly calls her girlfriend Caitlin to tell her all about the coach, players and drills. Even though Caitlin has no interest in soccer, she animatedly talks and listens throughout the entire conversation, because she knows how much the team means to Sarah. Since they always feel safe and comfortable around each other, it is very easy to talk openly about their different interests, friends and family together.
Good communication and mutual trust are key characteristics of a healthy relationship. By opening up to each other, Sarah and Caitlin are building strong bonds through clear conversation and listening. Chris of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center stresses how important it is for partners to “take interest in one another’s life.”
3. Jerome and Amanda
Jerome just had a huge fight with his girlfriend, Amanda. As they were arguing, Jerome felt so mad that he grabbed her by the arms to get her to listen to him and then threw his cell phone across the room, smashing it to pieces. Jerome promises this will never happen again. He insists it was all an accident, because he didn’t mean to hurt anyone. He just couldn’t control his sudden outburst of anger and frustration.
Many red flags are present here—physical violence, explosive anger and phony excuses. While fights may happen in a relationship, physical force should never be involved. Jerome needs to accept responsibility for his actions, instead of making excuses for his “uncontrollable” temper, and seek help immediately. Even if this just happens once, Amanda needs to acknowledge these warning signs and understand that she deserves love and respect. If not, this violent behavior will only continue and become worse.
4. Kat and Zach
For the homecoming dance, Kat buys a sexy, strapless party dress, hoping to impress her boyfriend, Zach. Instead, he gets angry and calls Kat a “whore” for buying such a revealing outfit. Zach doesn’t want any other guys checking out his girlfriend, so he tells her to return the dress immediately. Kat calls Zach’s names, and when he starts yelling at her, she slaps him across the face.
Whoa! Everyone is out of control here! Zach uses degrading insults and threats to hide his possessiveness and jealousy. Even worse, he is lowering Kat’s self-confidence by criticizing her choices and controlling what she wears. In a situation like this, Chris says the abusive partner feels like “it is his right, his entitlement, to control and abuse his girlfriend.” Kat needs to speak up for herself and not make excuses for this unacceptable behavior. At the same time, it’s never okay for anyone to use physical violence, so Kat needs to express herself in ways other than slapping her boyfriend.
5. Sonya and Vinnie
Sonya really wants to try out for the fall musical, even though she’s never auditioned for a show before. She feels very nervous about pursuing this new hobby and meeting different people. Her boyfriend, Vinnie, feels a little threatened that Sonya’s going to be spending so much time away from him, but knows this means a lot to her. So he gives Sonya a pep talk then helps her memorize the lines and practice different dance steps after school. He even goes with her to the audition!
It’s easy to mistakenly think that having a boyfriend or girlfriend means you should spend every single second together. But that’s not true—and it isn’t healthy. Vinnie is being a great boyfriend by supporting and encouraging Sonya to pursue new interests and try different activities outside of their relationship. He helps her build self-confidence and achieve her goals. These are critical aspects of any healthy relationship, as long as both partners are equally supportive of each other.
You Deserve Love and Respect
Every relationship has its ups and downs, but if you think you may be a victim of abuse or an abuser, you should get help immediately. Taking the step towards change will give you the love and respect you deserve in a healthy relationship.
We recommend talking to a trusted adult or counselor. There are also many local and state mental health resources available; some programs are even specifically aimed toward abusers.
The warning signs of relationship abuse can be recognized, and relationship abuse can be stopped. By knowing the difference between what’s healthy and unhealthy in a relationship, you can make sure that both you and your partner stay happy and healthy!
For more information, visit Loveisnotabuse.com or Chooserespect.org. You can also call the National Teen Dating Abuse Hotline at 1-866-331-9474 or visit their Web site at Loveisrespect.org.
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