Thursday, January 29, 2009

Violence and coercion by teenage partners

(This is my That's Men column from The Irish Times, Tuesday 27th January 2009): School programmes on dealing with physical or emotional abuse from a dating partner might seem a step too far.

Yet a number of states in the US have required schools to introduce such programmes. In some cases, the legislation followed the murder of a teenager by a jealous ex.

The fact is that controlling behaviour and abuse occurs between teenagers as well as adults.

That teenagers would stay around to be abused may seem highly unlikely - but the cycle of abuse for teens is no different than that for adults. I will explain more about that cycle later.

First, look at the story of one teenage boy as told on the Teens Experiencing Abusive Relationships (TEAR) website.

He went for a night out with the guys and with his best friend Marie. He was flattered when Angel, their pretty waitress, slipped him her phone number at the end of the night.

He rang, they met, they dated and he fell in love.

Then Angel began to get jealous of his best friend Marie. If he loved her, she told him, he would end his relationship with Marie. So he did. She still went out her friends, both male and female, but he accepted that. Angel liked him to keep in touch with her so that she knew where he was at all times. Soon he was spending all his time with her except when she was with her friends.

Once, when she met him after being out with her friends she flew off the handle because she found out he had called Marie. She screamed at him, slapped him, pushed him, punched him and kicked him. Then she walked out.

Next day she was back, full of smiles and they kissed and made up. Then the jealousy and the fighting started again. But, at the end of his story he states that he can't break the cycle "because my love for her would always be stronger than that."

The website includes stories of teenage girls who went through the same sort of experience with their boyfriends.

The cycle of abuse has three stages which can be thought of as the green, orange and red stages.

In the green stage, all is well and the relationship is enjoyable and loving. In the orange stage, one partner is making escalating demands on the other, controlling the other, perhaps threatening him or her. In the red stage, the abusive partner explodes, into physical, sexual or emotional violence.

And the next stage? The next stage is the green stage again, the hearts and flowers stage as it is sometimes called. The abusive partner apologises, is loving and romantic and swears it will never happen again.

In all likelihood, it's the return to that green stage that keeps the cycle going until the person at the receiving end realises what is happening and gets out.

But teenagers? A couple of years ago, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the US surveyed 15,000 tens on the issue of abuse. Ten per cent said they had been hit or slapped by a romantic partner. Nearly one in twelve said they had been forced to have sex. (CDCP Factsheet - pdf).

If it happens there I think we can assume it happens here. What's behind it? In the case of the abuser I suspect it's a fear, even a terror, of abandonment. That terror of abandonment leads the controlling personality to put extraordinary and intolerable restrictions on the other person.

And why does the other person put up with it, even for a time? Partly out of love, partly because it takes time for the penny to drop, partly out of fear of the consequences of trying to leave (a justified fear in too many tragic cases) and partly because the return to that green stage, the romantic stage, keeps the person trapped.

The TEAR project is based in New Jersey and was started six years ago by four teenage girls.

Their website contains lots of useful information for teenagers trapped in this sort of situation. Actually, it contains useful information for people of all ages.

If you're being controlled by another person or if you're worried about someone in this situation, take a look at it. It's at

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