When I was 16, I became fast friends with a girl who I met through a mutual acquaintance.
...The friendship grew quickly and before long we were trading secrets, swapping clothes and hatching all kinds of plans together.
Some months later Bec* got her first boyfriend- a gorgeous young man who seemed almost too good to be true.
Adam would shower Bec with compliments and gifts- not just chocolates and flowers- but designer clothing and handbags too. He’d be waiting to meet her after school or after shifts at work. He’d text constantly and within a month he told her he loved her.
From where I was sitting, he seemed like the perfect boyfriend.
But as the months progressed cracks began to develop. They’d get into screaming matches over whether Bec should wear make-up or short skirts, and more than once Adam accused her of cheating or flirting with his friends.
When I found this out, I was horrified.
But I wasn’t sure what to say. The reality was that a lot of girls our age wanted 'protective' boyfriends and we expected them to exhibit certain possessive qualities and behaviours. According to the unwritten rules of Girl-World, a bit of jealousy over a girl’s relations with other males was considered a good thing because it proved that (unlike all those other one-track minded guys we’d be warned about), this guy must really be invested. He wanted you all to himself. That meant he cared.
Or so we thought.
Looking back, as teenage girls we were constantly being warned about the dangers of being “used and discarded” by horny boys who had “just one thing on their minds”, but I don’t remember ever learning about the dangers of possessive boyfriends who became too invested too soon.
As Bec’s relationship with Adam progressed, and she began spending less and less time with her other friends, she and I eventually lost contact.
Several years later though, well after the relationship had ended, we reconnected and I learned that the relationship had been far more abusive than I had ever realised. It had involved physical violence and other forms of abuse.
With the benefit of hindsight, the early warning signs were all there, but like many teenagers, I did not recognise them because I did not have the knowledge or skills to do so. I recently found the diary I kept at the time, and reading it back, the red-flags were all there recorded in ink, but I hadn't understood or interpreted them correctly.
For starters, the intense speed at which their relationship had developed hadn’t troubled me in the slightest: the infatuation seemed mutual and we had just studied the great love story Romeo and Juliet at school, so as far as I was concerned, this was how all great romances were supposed to start out. Besides, my own relationship with Bec had developed at similar speed – as teenage friendships sometimes do- and there was nothing troubling about that.
Adam telling Bec what she could and couldn’t wear was a different story. It certainly never sat well with me and that is recorded in my diary, but I didn’t recognise just how serious a warning sign it was either. In my own friendships at that age, girls were constantly trying on clothes and vetoing certain options on one another. In that context where teens are already scrutinizing and regulating one another’s appearances, it is that much easier to overlook the significance of that red-flag.
Nor, for that matter, did it ever occur to me that Adam’s gifts of clothing might have been an attempt to mould and manipulate her, like a human Barbie doll or trophy wife. I’d simply thought she was incredibly lucky.
Of course we now know that many of the signs that teen girls associate with ‘the perfect romance’ strongly correlate with the early stages of an abusive relationship: early declarations of love, rapid escalation of intensity of the relationship, possessiveness and jealousy, and keeping constant tabs on the other person, are all classic warning signs that a relationship may become abusive.
Our culture doesn’t help teens out much either. Fairy-tales and romantic comedies frequently romanticise creepy or stalking behaviour and they often blur the line between what is acceptable and what is not.
Even perfumes- which are often associated with romance- are given names like “Obsession” and “Envy” as those these are aspirational qualities.
Meanwhile, a new campaign launched by the Full Stop Foundation reminds us that the behaviours which abusers use when they are trying to reconcile with victims often mirror the behaviours associated with the early stages of conventional courtship (such as giving flowers).
Titled “I got flowers today”, the campaign includes a poem about a woman who receives flowers every time her partner assaults her, until eventually she receives flowers on her coffin.
It’s a confronting message, but growing up, it would have been helpful to know that after a violent or abusive incident, perpetrators often try to coax their victim into forgiving them through gifts, apologies or promises to change, and that this is a common pattern of behaviour and rarely is it suggestive of actual change.
It would have been useful to know that ultimately such apologies are are just another attempt at manipulating the victim and exerting control.
Indeed those who work in domestic violence refer to this as the cycle of violence and it has three main phases:
- The build-up phase (where tension begins to mount, before approaching boiling point);
- The explosion phase (where tension finally erupts and an incident occurs); and
- The honeymoon phase (where the perpetrator becomes remorseful and ashamed of their actions. They may offers promises or gifts and there will often be a period of calm, before the cycle begins again.)
As a teenager, I wish I had known this and had been educated on the other red-flags of abuse.
I wish I had been given practical skills and the vocabulary to discuss these issues.
Most of all I wish I had been able to support my friend, instead of standing by in silence.
Like many teenagers today, it never even occurred to me that teenage relationships could contain ‘domestic violence’ because the term seemed to only apply to adults who co-habited in ‘domestic’ settings.
And this is why we must provide young people access to quality respectful relationship education which is geared to their age group. Young people are experiencing violence and abuse within their romantic relationships, but this is rarely recognised and many adults still view young people’s relationships as trivial or temporary ‘puppy love’.
But our first experiences around relationships lay the foundation for future relationships and the lessons we learn early on shape our perspectives, expectations and our future experiences.
Preventing abuse needs to start young.
*Names and other identifying information have been changed.
This article was first published on Rendez View and has been republished here with full permission of the author Nina Funnell
Nina Funnell is an ambassador for The Full Stop Foundation and is the co-author of Loveability: An Empowered Girls Guide to Dating and Relationships (Harper Collins 2014). The Full Stop Foundation works to prevent sexual assault and domestic violence through funding research, education, counselling and behaviour-change work.