In honor of Relationship Violence Awareness Month, we bring you the first in a blog series by our resident expert on high school students, Trinity Casimir.
What does an abusive relationship look like? When having conversations in school health classes or watching a movie, an abusive relationship conjures up certain images: a woman taking her children and escaping her husband on a Greyhound bus, broken dishes on the floor, a child carefully choosing outfits to conceal bruises, yelling in the night. While these scenarios are real and devastating, they do not encompass the full definition of abuse. What about the people suffering when no one has laid a finger on them? What about the men and boys pressured to appear invincible when they are hurt? What about high school students, whose relationships are fundamentally different from those of married couples, or even adults in general?
While most students are taught how to identify abuse, they may only be taught to see a narrow set of signs. According to stoprelationshipabuse.org, relationship abuse includes a wide variety of tactics used to create a power imbalance in the relationship. Behaviors like emotional coercion, isolation, and intimidation can be used in any relationship at any age. A primary reason many teenagers in abusive relationships struggle to name that reality is because they do not identify with the victim that they see portrayed in media or that they learn about in health class. Likewise, teenagers who engage in abuse excuse their behavior because they have never seen themselves as the abuser. What abuse looks like in a high school relationship has yet to be illustrated, and toxic behaviors are quickly becoming normalized. In my school, it is almost commonplace for a partner to prevent their significant other from talking to groups of people or wearing certain clothes, to guilt trip and threaten them. These are all real forms of abuse but are often dismissed simply as childish behavior or as a result of hormones.
Another primary reason abusive relationships in high school go unaddressed is a failure on the part of adults to take teenagers’ relationships seriously. Adults who do not consider the gravity of teenagers’ romantic lives will fail to recognize the severity of abuse when it happens, which in turn deters high schoolers from reporting abuse. By seeking help, a student risks retribution, and when the adult takes no action, a student is left even more vulnerable. When students feel that they have no adult support or advocacy, they are severely limited in their options to escape an abusive relationship.
Some resources do, however, center teen lives and provide insight into how to help teens cope with relationship abuse. The website loveisrespect.org demonstrates the obstacles that youth in particular face in abusive relationships, and goes further to highlight the ways that identity matters with an exploration of special issues for certain cultures, LGBT+ couples, and immigration status that can further hinder someone from seeking help or addressing the toxicity of their relationship. For the more visually-minded, the One Love Foundation has created a series of videos on Youtube clearly contrasting healthy and unhealthy behaviors in a relationship. These videos give scenarios that allow for a difficult topic to be easily understood and are an excellent teaching tool for parents and teachers. The foundation also produced a film called “Escalation” that is recommended for a high school workshop.
So to answer the question, “What does an abusive relationship look like?”, it takes many different forms- all of which are valid and important to identify. Abusive relationships in high school remain underrepresented in the media, so we must take it upon ourselves to question “normalized” behaviors and encourage teenagers to do so in their own lives. Pushing for authority figures in schools to become educated on various types of abuse is also fundamental to create a supportive community that can ensure a safer environment for high schoolers.
Trinity is is volunteer at the OCRCC and a student at East Chapel Hill High School. She is interested in sociology and the intersections between gender, race, and sexual assault as well as the presence of rape culture among youth. She is also a member of the Youth Against Rape Culture club at East.