This February, we’ve been encouraging you to have conversations with the teens in your life about dating violence. We know, though, that these conversations are often very difficult to have. I believe that one of the reasons for this difficulty is stigma.
The See the Triumph campaign is based on our research on the stigma surrounding intimate partner violence. We interviewed and surveyed survivors of intimate partner violence, and many of these survivors were involved in dating relationships. What we heard from these survivors was that stigma was often a major part of their experiences, both during their abusive relationships and afterward.
Today, I want to share some of the experiences of the survivors in our studies that illustrate the stigma surrounding dating violence. To do this, I pulled out the subset of participants who said that they were in dating relationships or were in committed relationships but not living with their partners when we asked them to describe the highest level of commitment they had in their past abusive relationship.
Next week, we’ll run a follow-up post that specifically addresses the isolation that teen dating violence survivors often feel as a part of that stigma. Today, I’ll focus on three other major aspects of stigma–blame, stereotyping, and shame.
Many of these participants noted that they were blamed for all or part of the abuse they experienced. One major source of this blame was the perpetrators themselves. For example, one participant said, “Each time I was abused, he would apologize after and say something along the lines of ‘I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you. It’s just that when you do X, it really makes me mad and you should know that by now.’ I was blamed for everything and believed it was my fault, that was so difficult that I could actually push someone to beat me.”
The blame often comes from other sources, too. One woman said this about her friends: “I was called a ‘slut’ and an attention-seeker by my friends. I was told I deserved it and it was my fault my boyfriend was sexually abusing and raping me. I was shunned by them, because he spread lies about me and they believed him over me.”
Another participant said that her family blamed her: “My family was understanding at first but then wouldn’t understand why I went back to him. After that they would be like ‘This is it. You’re on your own. You’re stupid for going back.’”
Stereotyping is another major part of the stigma surrounding intimate partner violence. This means that people often hold images in their minds about what defines an abusive relationship and who abusers and victims are. Some of the experiences of our study participants illustrate how these stereotypes can prevent survivors from getting the support and resources they need.
For example, one survivor said, “I feel as if I experienced discrimination and stereotyping by professionals (police officers, counselors) when I tried to get help or sometimes by individuals if I told my story. It’s like they had one opinion of me (young, energetic, bright college student) but then when I disclosed the abuse none of that other stuff mattered about me. All they could see was this stereotype of an abused woman.”
Another participant internalized these stereotypes: “Stereotypes of what relationship abuse looks like have created a big problem for me, because they prevented me from understanding for a very long time that what I experienced was emotional and sexual abuse. The stereotypes that exist about relationship abuse are still difficult for me, because I worry that admitting I was treated in abusive ways will make me look (and even feel) weak.”
These quotes show just how harmful these stereotypes can be for survivors of dating violence.
In our research, we’ve come to view shame as blame turned inward. Many survivors have internalized the blame they experienced from others, which can lead to a negative self-perception. The following quotes illustrate just how deeply the shame surrounding dating violence can impact survivors:
- “I was not only torn down, but further demolished until I was just a shell….a human punching bag with nothing inside. I felt shame during the relationship because I felt I was a bad girlfriend. But after the hospital stint, the shame I felt was no longer because I wasn’t good enough but rather that I had left someone tear me apart so badly, that I had allowed someone to overpower me in such a sickening way.”
- “I also began to blame myself and felt bad about myself and lost so much self-esteem. I was popular at school but because of the fact that I got depressed and paranoid about where he was (he cheated on me several times) and we were always fighting and making scenes in the hallways I lost a lot of social status at school.”
- “To this day I still feel an extremely high level of shame about having ever dated him…but I feel even more shame about so desperately having wanted to stay in the relationship at the end when he broke up with me. At that point I didn’t really have any other social support remaining, so the thought of not being with him anymore was extremely scary because I thought I would be completely alone. I am still extremely embarrassed about having felt so desperate and needy.”
- “I felt shameful that i allowed him to break me down like he did.”
How do we begin to counter this stigma?
All of the above quotes illustrate just how profound the stigma surrounding dating violence can be. Stopping this stigma is a major task, but I believe that continuing to raise awareness about dating violence and other forms of abuse is an important step in the right direction.
Awareness is so important, especially for young people. By virtue of their age, young people have very limited relationship experience, and therefore it’s often difficult for them to know what is normal and healthy. For example, one of our study participants said, “I was not aware that was an abusive/violent relationship until I was directed by my advisor to read some articles about dating violence after I told my story to her. (I was just thinking that it is LOVE).” This quote also shows how powerful mentors can be in helping younger people identify unhealthy relationship patterns.
We also need to help younger people learn the signs of unhealthy and unsafe relationships. This awareness can’t stop just when teens are entering relationships, because relationships can change, for better or worse, over time. Teen dating relationships often start off in a whirlwind of romance, and abusive patterns may not begin to show up until once the relationship has been established. For example, consider another of our participant’s stories:
- “It could almost be compared to the image of an ugly duckling and a swan. Boys started noticing me, but I was intrigued by my former abuser because although I knew he was interested in me, he was not aggressive like the others. We started dating and he was the perfect gentleman at first, until he had the green light to start mentally rewiring me and gradually easing into physical abuse.”
We also must be mindful of the longer-term effects of dating violence and the stigma surrounding it. Early relationships are powerful learning experiences, so it’s important to provide support to survivors to help them recognize unhealthy patterns and create positive, nonviolent, supportive relationships. Here’s an example of how these patterns can continue to surface over time:
- “Since this occurred with a HS boyfriend, getting through college and graduate school, and really not having contact with the ex-boyfriend or friends who took his side got me away from the event….It really took a toll on my relationships. Until I met my husband, I dated people who had personality flaws that I would try to fix. These relationships could have lead toward more abuse, but I noticed the pattern and got out before it happened, but then would enter into another relationship that would go that again start down that path.”
Dating violence survivors need our support and encouragement, not our judgment and blame. I encourage you to take advantage of the opportunity that Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month provides to start conversations with the young people in your own life. These conversations are an important way to raise awareness and stop the stigma surrounding abuse.