by Teresia Smith
A little girl comes home complaining about a boy in her class who keeps pulling her hair and being mean to her. She’s told that when a little boy likes you, he picks on you. A teenage girl tells her mom that a guy she dated a couple times keeps showing up at the restaurant she works at after school, watching her as she works and he keeps sending her random texts after she’s told him she’s not interested. She’s told she should be flattered, he’s harmless and he just likes you more than you like him so just be nice to him and be flattered. A teenage boy decides he can’t go with his friends on a camping trip because the girl he is dating gets mad if he goes anywhere without her. She tells him that she really doesn’t think his friends are good for him, so he shouldn’t hang out with them anymore. A woman’s boyfriend insists that she call him as soon as she wakes up, arrives and leaves work, and when she gets home and always answer quickly when he calls her because he just wants to make sure she is safe. When she tells a friend she is feeling smothered and that he is too protective, the friend tells her she’s so lucky to have such an attentive man in her life.
These are just some scenarios in which we excuse improper behavior and romanticize the beginnings of domestic abuse. People have been conditioned to be unrelenting in their pursuit of romantic partners even when rejected, and many think we should be thrilled by this persistence. Studies have even shown that when women watch romanticized portrayals of abuse in movies, they are more likely to accept it as a desirable behavior. The way we have been accustomed to accept this as normal makes it hard for us to identify abusive behavior as abusive, rather than just excusing it as an extravagant act of love.
Instead of brushing off these incidents off with, “He just likes her!” or “That’s just how little boys are when they have a crush!” or “He just wants you to be safe”, we need to call it out as stalking, manipulation and abuse and we need to educate our children and young adults in what a healthy relationship looks like. When will we say is it not acceptable for abuse to be used to express love? At what point does hitting someone, or following someone, or controlling someone become something that we are concerned about, rather than something we brush off as an act of passion? At what point do we stop romanticizing abuse?
When a kindergartner shoves their classmate, or when a teenager insists on reading all of their friend’s text messages and tracking who they talk to, we identify this behavior as a little possessive, perhaps, and maybe a little extreme—but it’s romantic, it’s cute, and they clearly care about the other person so we excuse the behavior. Yet, when it’s a grown man hitting his wife or a wife forbidding her husband from even speaking to other women, or someone not allowing their partner to have access to a job or income, we suddenly cringe and call it abuse. We draw a line separating love and abuse when we didn’t identify it before. By not teaching our children the way they are being treated is wrong, we normalize toxic behavior to them at a very early age.
The way we romanticize abusive behavior is dangerous because it makes us think that abuse can be okay. It makes us think that abuse can even be romantic. And this makes it hard for domestic violence survivors to realize their partner is being abusive, and even harder for them to leave or seek help, because they second guess themselves, unsure whether it’s love or abuse.
Nian Hu explains it well: “Love and abuse: the two are complete opposites. Love is about caring for and supporting someone else and making them happy. Love is not about hurting someone else, or making them unhappy, or causing them pain. That is called abuse. And when we conflate love and abuse, we not only glorify toxic and abusive relationships, but we also undermine the value of strong, healthy, mutually supportive relationships that are truly grounded in love.”
February is National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month. Talk to your children, teens, and young adults frequently about relationships. Educate them and give them tools to identify not only abusive behaviors, but characteristics of healthy relationships. And help them to understand how to express their feelings in healthy ways to someone they are interested in and also how to accept being rebuffed in a positive manner. No relationship is perfect; however, abusive behaviors have no place in a healthy relationship and should never be excused or romanticized.
If you need information to educate your teens or young adults in how to determine if their relationship is healthy or abusive, our advocates are here to help. You may reach Crisis Services of North Alabama Jackson County office at 256.574.5826 or email at Teresia@csna.org.