When Relationships Go From Safe To Sinister

What is dating abuse, and why is it sometimes difficult to recognise?

This post originally appeared on Campus.ie

I, like many 16 year old girls, read Twilight. There’s nothing I like more than a good romance novel. And while I enjoyed the book in spite of its awkward turns of phrase and the two dimensional characters, the thing that disturbed me was how stalking was idealised.

In the beginning there’s lots of longing looks. Then Edward follows Bella when she goes out with her friends. Then she wakes up one night to find him in her bedroom.

I don’t care how in love you are with a person, that’s insanely creepy. Even if you were living with someone, and madly in love, I would find it odd if the person was sitting at the end of the bed staring at you while you sleep.

In fact, the relationship in Twilight meets all 15 of the criteria associated with being in an abusive relationship, where one is enough.

Twilight is not the only offender. The Notebook, widely held up as one of the most romantic movies of all time, features Ryan Gosling’s character threatening to fall to his death from the top of a Ferris wheel if Rachel McAdams doesn’t agree to go on a date with him.

In Beauty and the Beast, the Beast flies into fits of rage and makes Belle fear for her safety. The Breakfast Club sees Bender sexually harasses, torment and make Claire cry before they end up together. Don’t even get me started on 50 Shades of Grey.

A study released last week shows that movies play a part in romanticising stalking.

These movies not only represent stalking as romantic, they also encourage men to think of women as prizes to be won if they only try hard enough. Not taking no for an answer is seen as a virtue.

Romantic movies say “a woman shows no interest in you and wants you to leave her alone? That’s just her playing hard to get.”

Studies show 1 in 5 women in Ireland experience abuse in relationships. Surveys in the US and the UK show that girls aged 16-24 are most at risk of dating abuse. In Ireland, 60% of domestic abuse starts before a woman is 25.

Women’s Aid are launching a campaign called 2in2Uu in the build-up to Valentine’s Day to highlight the warning signs for dating abuse. They argue:

“A controlling boyfriend’s attention can feel like positive attention and attentiveness at the beginning of a relationship, but can slowly turn into more negative, controlling attention as the relationship continues and it becomes more difficult for the woman to break up or to seek help.”

They hope that by informing women about what constitutes an unhealthy relationship, they can leave these relationships earlier or avoid them altogether.

Many people assume that an abusive relationship only occurs where there is physical violence. However it is characterised by controlling behaviour.

10 signs of an abusive relationship include:

1) If he complains about your friends or says you spend too much time with them.
2) If he insists on picking your clothes and comments on how you look or dress.
3) If he complains that you spend too much time away from him and insists on your spending all your time with him.
4) He sends you constant texts checking up on you when you are not with him.
5) He is jealous and suspicious and accuses you of cheating on him all the time.
6) He demands your passwords and checks your emails and social networking accounts to see who you’ve been talking too.
7) He has a bad temper and you feel afraid to disagree with him.
8) He hits, kicks or shoves you or threatens to hurt you.
9) He puts pressure on you to do sexual things that have made you feel uncomfortable or has raped you.
10) You feel afraid to break up with him because he has told you he will hurt you or himself.

Women’s Aid

Margaret Martin, Director of Women’s Aid argues that emotional abuse is insidious and often hard to recognise.

“Emotional abuse is a highly effective means of establishing a power imbalance within a relationship. It is often unseen or intangible to those outside the relationship, because dating violence is not a one-off event, but rather a pattern which often escalates over time, it can be difficult to see.”

Abusers also tend to isolate their victims by cutting them off from their friends and family, constantly monitoring them online and through continuous texts and calls, and in some cases gaining control through financial abuse, making it impossible for the person who is being abused to leave the relationship.

Many victims also say that their abusers get inside their heads, convincing them that no one else loves them and they are worth nothing.

Vogue Williams, a model, presenter and columnist who is launching the campaign, argues that, “Dating abuse is about control and stealing someone’s identity so they have nothing left for themselves.”

Women’s Aid say they are very concerned about the rise in digital stalking, where mobile call and texts are being monitored, social media accounts are being monitored and women are being bombarded through every possible means of communication.

“Women’s Aid has been contacted by women whose online use was being tracked and scrutinised and whose boyfriends demanded access to their private email and social networking accounts.

“We also hear from women who had been photographed and filmed without their consent, sometimes having sex, and having their images uploaded or being used to blackmail them.”

Women’s Aid provide a helpline for women to contact where they can advise how to end the relationship and to protect themselves from stalking, including that online.

Martin argues that, although dating abuse is often violence by men against women, men can also be affected. She recommends men who are being abused access cosc.ie.

Young women are often sent confusing and conflicting messages as to what constitutes a healthy relationship. Women’s Aid suggest that if something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.

For more information visit www.2in2u.ie or phone the Women’s Aid Free Helpline on 1800 341 900. The helpline is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

Author: Liz O'Malley

Freelance journalist, sometime law student, political junkie, pasta addict.

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