The Truth About Teen Dating Abuse

Illustrations by Thomas Pitilli

One in three teens will experience dating abuse this year—yet many won’t know it’s happening until it’s too late. Here’s why power and control aren’t healthy #relationshipgoals.*

 

If you’d looked at 15-year-old Kaylee’s Facebook page, this is what you’d have seen: adorable selfies of Kaylee and her model-cute boyfriend, Jacob, on the perfect Valentine’s date. 

Goofy inside-joke videos she posted, tagging only him. Supportive-girlfriend status updates about how he’s killing it on the soccer field this year. Photos of a giant bouquet of beautiful roses, with the adoring caption “Isn’t Jacob sweet?” 

What you wouldn’t see, however, was the fear in Kaylee’s eyes when Jacob, whom she’d been with for a year at that point, read her texts and raged at her for talking to a male friend. There were no photos showing her embarrassment when she bailed on her friends—again—because Jacob “sweetly” wanted her all to himself. 

And you’d definitely have zero clue that those flowers were one of his many “I’m sorry” gifts after he berated her for posting a photo he didn’t like online or accused her of cheating. “He loved getting me flowers when he knew he’d been a jerk,” she says now. “He’d say, ‘Put it on Facebook’”—so everyone would know what a great couple they were. 

BEHIND THE LIKES

Kaylee didn’t understand it at the time, but Jacob’s possessiveness wasn’t cute, and the relentless attention he gave her wasn’t affectionate. They were dangerous signs of something deeper. And unfortunately, what happened to Kaylee is not unique.

According to a 2010 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three teen girls and one in four teen boys who’ve been in a relationship have experienced dating abuse—and the definition of that abuse is broader than you might think. “Relationship violence isn’t just physical violence,” says April Wright of One Love Foundation, which works to raise awareness about relationship abuse. 

It also includes controlling, manipulative, and psychologically damaging behavior—from criticizing your appearance, to keeping you away from your friends, to pressuring you to turn over your passwords. And the biggest problem? “When it’s your first relationship, it can be really hard to know what’s healthy and what’s not,” Wright explains—no matter which side of the equation you’re on.

Often girls or guys who try to control or manipulate their partners aren’t evil. Like the people they’re controlling or manipulating, they may be confused by the strong emotions they’re feeling for the first time. “Sometimes intensity, extreme jealousy—it can feel like that’s love,” says Cameka Crawford, who works with Loveisrespect, an organization that educates young people about abuse.

NO JOKE

Maia, 13, knows what it’s like to experience meanness mixed in with caring. She stayed with her girlfriend for months before realizing that being with Ashley was making her feel really crappy. “We’d be having a fun day, and gradually she’d get more angry with me,” Maia says. “I didn’t know what to make of it. I thought it was my fault.” 

Ashley would make fun of Maia’s weight, and when Maia would push back, Ashley would say she was just kidding. Ditto when Maia asked about a hurtful Instagram post that said Ashley wanted to date another girl. “She said, ‘It's just a joke, get over it,’” Maia remembers. 

As the insulting behavior continued, Maia constantly felt as if something was wrong with her for not being able to roll with it. But that’s actually a typical control tactic, says Crawford: The other person makes you feel like you’re nuts for believing what you see happening in front of you.

Experts say that’s why victims of verbal and emotional abuse often stay quiet—to devastating consequences. “If these behaviors go unchecked, they will continue,” says Sarah Colomé, program training manager for Break the Cycle, an organization that empowers teens to stop dating violence. “And they can escalate to physical or sexual abuse.” 

AFRAID TO LEAVE

That’s exactly what happened to Kaylee. Shortly after her 15th birthday, she was feeling a little overwhelmed. “I just needed a night to myself,” Kaylee says, but she didn’t want to argue with Jacob about it. So she told him she was sleeping at a friend’s, when in fact she was at a party.

Jacob found out, and he was furious— showing up and punching her in the face in front of everyone. “My friends didn’t know what to do, so they told him to leave. He said, ‘Let’s go,’ and pulled me,” Kaylee recalls. “I knew if I didn’t leave with him, it would be worse. So I got in the car, crying.” 

If you’re thinking, “I’d never stand for that,” consider what was going on in Kaylee’s head. Jacob had isolated her from friends and family, so it seemed like he was the only thing she had left, and she kept thinking that maybe Jacob’s sweet side would return if she did the right thing. 

“There may be periods of calm that make you think he’ll change,” says Crawford. But he won’t. “The calm periods are actually the perfect time to reach out to someone you trust to make a plan for leaving.” 

GETTING OUT

Maia finally got fed up with Ashley’s insults and broke up with her after six months. For Kaylee, it took almost five years, going to a college in another state, and an eventual intervention by her parents to finally end her relationship with Jacob. 

Now she’s with a guy she’s pretty sure is a keeper. “He just wants me to be myself, and I feel really confident,” she says. “He’s always encouraging me to go do my own thing—he’s never possessive.” 

This, experts say, is what love feels like. “Everyone deserves to be safe and happy in their relationships,” says Colomé. “You should feel like your emotions matter—and like you have the power to speak up if something doesn’t feel right.” 

 

 

*All names and some details have been changed to protect the survivors 

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