Recognizing and Responding to Teen Dating Violence Toolkit

1.3 What Does Dating Violence Look Like?

female student in focus with male in background

It is easy to ignore, miss, dismiss, or minimize dating violence warning behaviors, especially at the beginning of a relationship. We may tell ourselves that abusive behavior is not a big deal or believe it’s the way the perpetrator of the abuse shows how much they care about us. We may even believe that this is typical behavior in all relationships. It is difficult to leave a relationship the longer we are in it because we are in love, our partner isn’t always abusive, and we have put so much of ourselves, time, and energy into the relationship.

Dating violence is abuse. It is easy to look at a list of abusive behaviors and believe that we, ourselves, would never end up in an abusive relationship. We may see victims of abuse as choosing to be victims, believing that they would leave if they wanted to. There is a metaphor about a frog that describes how in order to boil a frog, you need to first put it in cool water and slowly turn up the heat. You cannot put a frog in boiling water because the frog will immediately jump out. This is similar to how the perpetrator of the abuse slowly distances the victim from the support of family and friends and wears down their self-esteem. As a result, the victim feels dependent on the perpetrator of the abuse for a sense of belonging, worth, and sometimes even their own identity.

The perpetrator of the abuse may justify their behavior and portray it as loving or blame the victim for the abusive behavior. A person who threatens, intimidates, or controls their partner believes that their feelings and needs are what are most important. Abusive behavior is learned. A person who is abusive may witness it in their own family; a friend’s relationship; or through social media, podcasts, or television. An abusive person may also learn this behavior from the experience of trial and error. For example, a child learns that by throwing a tantrum in the grocery store, their parents buy them candy. A teenager learns that by threatening to run away, their parents give them what they want. A person who is abusive learns that by threatening, controlling, or intimidating their partner, it gets them what they want, and they will continue this behavior to get their wants and needs met. Some people are abusive toward others just because they enjoy exerting power over others.

The ONLY person responsible for abusive behavior is the person who is exhibiting abusive behavior. There is nothing that a person can do, or not do, to cause their victimization.

A person who has difficulty managing overwhelming emotions such as insecurity, jealousy, anxiety, anger, or fear may exert controlling and abusive behavior toward their partner to try and ease their own discomfort. For example, a boyfriend tells his partner that they are not allowed to have male friends because he fears that they will leave him if they have friends who are male. He may justify his actions by saying he was cheated on in the past. He is insecure and jealous, and instead of learning how to manage these feelings, he expects his partner to make him feel secure.