The Dark Side of Dating
It’s crazy to think that someone you like so much could be bad for you. But here’s why feelings (especially love) can be confusing.
Brittny Henderson was in 10th grade when she started going out with Max*, a senior who was a starting running back on the football team. He was her first real boyfriend, and she was psyched. “It was amazing to like someone and have him like me back,” she remembers. “I had butterflies when he was around.”
For the first few months, Brittny and Max did all the normal couple stuff—Max even walked Brittny to her classes. It felt sweet and special.
Then something began to shift. Max started telling Brittny that her friends were a bad influence and that his friends couldn’t believe he was slumming it by being with her. That really hurt.
But it got weirder. Suddenly, Max needed to be in constant contact with Brittny. He’d drive her home from school, go to football practice, then head back to her house. After he left, he’d call her while he was driving home, and they’d talk until they went to sleep.
One night, Brittny woke up to the sound of Max screaming into her phone. She had fallen asleep, and he was absolutely furious.
Max’s outburst confused Brittny, but she didn’t understand that she and Max were starting down a dangerous road.
Although she would never have described it this way at the time, their relationship had become abusive.
Brittny isn’t unique. Whether it happens in a serious boyfriend/girlfriend situation or with a girl or guy who is just a casual hookup, dating abuse is a serious problem. Every year, as many as one in three teens experience some kind of verbal, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse from someone they’re dating.
And in a recent national survey, one in 10 teens reported being hit or otherwise physically hurt on purpose by a boyfriend or girlfriend.
But you don’t need to have a black eye to be abused. “Dating abuse is when someone repeatedly tries to overpower and control their girlfriend’s or boyfriend’s life,” says Casey Corcoran, from Futures Without Violence, a nonprofit organization working to end violence against women, children, and families.
If your boyfriend calls you names, makes you turn over your passwords, pressures you to go further sexually, or tries to drive a wedge between you and your friends or family, you’re in an abusive relationship.
It’s also abuse if your girlfriend does it. Though girls are less likely to be violent and guys are less likely to admit to being scared, cruelty can come from either gender.
Life isn’t always horrible when you are in an abusive relationship. Even though Max’s possessiveness confused Brittny, she still had a lot of fun with him. “When there are good times, you might think that once the bad stuff is ‘fixed,’ the relationship will go back to how it was before it went bad,” says Corcoran.
But being with someone who swings between being cruel and being kind can have huge consequences, including making you feel depressed or really bad about yourself. “Max had put me down so much that I had no self-esteem,” says Brittny.
It’s also common to isolate yourself from family and friends (the very people who can pull you out of your funk) when you sense something isn’t right about your relationship. You fear they’ll call you out on it.
The person you’re dating may want to keep you apart from friends and family for the same reasons. Brittny remembers that when her best friend’s mom died, Max was late to pick her up for the funeral and wouldn’t let her sit with everyone else.
A Good Date
It can be really hard to know if you’re in a good or bad situation if you’re new to relationships and dating. “I’d never heard the term ‘unhealthy relationship,’” says Brittny. And movies, songs, and books about teen love don’t help either, since they often make you think that the best kind of love is tortured and obsessive.
When the Twilight series became all the rage, teen advocates cringed. The books made being with a controlling, possessive guy seem romantic.
That doesn’t mean intensity is bad—nor is having an argument every so often. In fact, arguing can be a good way to get both people’s feelings out in the open. But a good relationship isn’t so all-consuming that you’ve got nothing of your own.
“A healthy relationship is when I have a feeling that I am giving as much as I am taking,” says David Wolfe, who created The Fourth R, a dating-abuse-prevention program used in schools across Canada.
In a healthy relationship, you don’t demand that your boyfriend quit the soccer team so that he can spend more time with you or abandon his love for Macklemore, even though the music gets on your nerves.
Likewise, he wouldn’t ask you to give up being in the school play because he knows he’ll be able to keep a closer eye on you if you join him in the orchestra.
By the time they reached the nine-month mark, Max’s need to be with Brittny had taken over both their lives.
When Brittny got a job, Max grabbed her keys, locked them in his trunk, and soaked her uniform so she couldn’t wear it.
A few days later, Brittny woke up to find out that her tires had been slashed. She was terrified, because it meant she’d be late for work again. She had no idea who would be so cruel.
Her father, on the other hand, knew. His pocketknife had gone missing, and the only other person who had been in their house recently was Max. He told Brittny that the relationship was over. The breakup was devastating.
“I’d ignored my friends, so I thought Max was all I had left,” says Brittny. “Leaving him made me feel more isolated and like I had no one to turn to.”
When Brittny was a freshman in college, she went to a lecture on dating abuse given by a father whose daughter had been murdered by her ex-boyfriend. It was terrifying. “Everything he described that had happened to his daughter had happened to me,” says Brittny. “It was the first time I truly understood that there was something wrong with me and Max.”
After the talk, Brittny felt like a rock had been lodged in her chest. She called her dad, thanking him between sobs. “I knew that if he hadn’t ended the relationship, I could have died,” she says.
“It took me until I was 18 to hear that I deserved better than an abusive relationship,” she says. “I want people to understand they don’t have to go through it.”
Now Brittny is in a new relationship that is different in every way from her troubled one with Max. “We have our own lives and friends, but we also enjoy being together,” she says. “We encourage each other’s goals and support the other person’s interests—even if they aren’t our own.” In other words, she found love.