No, You Didn’t Deserve It: Spotting the Differences Between Healthy and Unhealthy Dating Behaviors

 
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It’s still February, and that means it’s still Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. And if your sex ed classes were anything like mine, this topic probably got skipped right over. You know how to put on a condom, what birth control options are out there, and the names of a whole host of sexually transmitted infections. Your educators prepared you to practice sex safely. Except, they didn’t. Not really. Safety in sex and relationships isn’t limited to proper condom usage; it extends to all areas of how you and your sexual or romantic partner(s) interact. In fact, according to Love is Respect, a project of the National Domestic Violence Hotline,one in three adolescents in the U.S. is a victim of physical, sexual, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner.” That number is way too high. 

In my opinion, here’s a big part of the problem. Adolescents don’t receive adequate lessons from their guardians or educators about how to identify unhealthy or abusive dating behaviors, so they look to other portrayals of relationships to form an image of what a good relationship should resemble. The only problem is that most of the models of romantic relationships that we’re exposed to come from the media that we consume, and, spoiler alert, a lot of that media romanticizes abusive or unhealthy dating relationships.

Remember the Twilight series? Sooooo many unhealthy dating behaviors in there. Edward Cullen is jealously possessive of Bella, and he uses that jealousy to negatively color her friendships with male characters. He uses random bouts of anger, during which he displays his disproportionate strength, to manipulate Bella’s actions. He sneaks into Bella’s room at night, without consent, to watch her sleep. That shit is hella unhealthy. But, thirteen-year-old me dreamed of meeting my Edward Cullen. 

So, how do we combat this romanticization of abusive dating behaviors? We learn to spot the differences between loving behaviors practiced by partners who regard each other as equals, and abusive behaviors disguised as excessive love or protectiveness. The examples below explore some of these differences.

Jealousy

Jealousy is natural feeling—it’s normal to feel jealous when your bond with the person you love or care about feels threatened. But jealousy becomes a problem when it’s used to manipulate a partner’s actions or control their relationships with other people. 

Here’s an example of unhealthy or abusive jealousy:

Ciara has a lot of male friends, and that makes her boyfriend Tom jealous. Tom tells Ciara that he loves her so much, he just can’t control his jealousy, and that if Ciara really loved him back, she would only hang out with her female friends. Ciara believes that she is hurting Tom when she hangs out with her male friends, and she cuts these friendships out of her life.

And here’s an example of that same jealousy addressed healthily:

Ciara has a lot of male friends, and that makes her boyfriend Tom jealous. Tom admits his jealous feelings to Ciara, and Ciara assures him that her friendships have nothing to do with their relationship, and she gently reminds Tom that it is important for her to have strong friendships. Tom realizes that he needs to trust Ciara, and he makes a conscious choice to believe her when she says that her male friends are just that—friends.

Anger

Like jealousy, anger is a completely natural emotion to have. It’s necessary to express anger, but only in a healthy manner and environment. When anger is expressed explosively, excessively, or unpredictably, it becomes unhealthy or abusive.

Here’s an example of anger addressed in an unhealthy or abusive way:

Megan’s girlfriend Fatima promised that she would call Megan tonight, but now it’s 11:58 pm and Megan’s phone still hasn’t rung. She feels angry and hurt, and she wants Fatima to know exactly how much she has inconvenienced her. She sends Fatima a text, writing: “Why haven’t you called?! We need to talk. RIGHT NOW!” A couple of hours later, when Fatima’s phone finally has power again, she responds, “Baby I’m so sorry! My phone ran out of battery, and I didn’t have my charger. I’m really, really sorry.” When Megan sees this text in the morning, she doesn’t answer. Fatima sends a few more apologies, but Megan waits to reply until late afternoon. She wants Fatima to feel hurt the same way she did last night. 

And here’s an example of anger addressed healthily:

Megan’s girlfriend Fatima promised that she would call Megan tonight, but now it’s 11:58 pm and Megan’s phone still hasn’t rung. She feels angry and hurt, but she understands that Fatima probably has a good reason for not calling. She sends Fatima a text, writing: “Hey Love, I was waiting for a call from you, but I guess you got held up. Hope everything’s ok. Love you lots.” A couple of hours later, when Fatima’s phone finally has power again, she responds, “Sorry Babe! My phone ran out of battery, and I didn’t have my charger. I love you, and I’ll call you in the morning :)” When Megan sees this text in the morning, she answers, “Good morning! I figured that’s what happened, can’t wait to talk to you today!” 

Manipulation

Let’s be honest; there is no healthy way to manipulate someone. Sometimes, people are manipulated into feeling unnecessarily responsible for their partner’s feelings, into having sex with their partner, or into staying in a relationship even if they don’t want to. 

Here’s an example of an abusive, manipulative situation:

Sable and Jérôme have been dating for six months, but lately, Sable hasn’t been feeling very romantically attached or sexually attracted to Jérôme. When Sable tries to break up with Jérôme, Jérôme demands to know why. Sable replies that they’re just not feeling the relationship anymore. Jérôme is heartbroken. “That’s not a real reason,” he accuses, “you can’t break up with me unless you have an actual reason.” When Sable tries to repeat themselves, Jérôme interrupts, saying, “If you leave me, I’ll hurt myself.” Sable feels responsible now for Jérôme’s physical safety, so they stay in the relationship.

Here’s an example of the same situation being handled healthily, without manipulation:

Sable and Jérôme have been dating for six months, but lately, Sable hasn’t been feeling very romantically attached or sexually attracted to Jérôme. When Sable tries to break up with Jérôme, Jérôme asks to know why. Sable replies that they’re just not feeling the relationship anymore. Jérôme is heartbroken, but he respects their decision. 

Financial Abuse

Finances can be a sensitive subject between romantic partners. When they’re not addressed in a way that is healthy and fair, they can be used for abusive ends. 

Here’s an example of a financial situation being handled in an unhealthy, abusive manner:

Ever since Chiron and Mel started dating, they’ve tried to split their dating expenses equally. One day, right before the couple goes out to see a movie, Mel says something that hurts Chiron’s feelings. Chiron informs Mel that he hurt him, and Mel immediately apologizes. Chiron claims that he accepts Mel’s apology, but he demands that Mel pays for the movie tickets, to make up for his hurtful comment. 

Here’s an example of that same financial situation being handled healthily:

Ever since Chiron and Mel started dating, they’ve tried to split their dating expenses equally. One day, right before the couple goes out to see a movie, Mel says something that hurts Chiron’s feelings. Chiron informs Mel that he hurt him, and Mel immediately apologizes. Chiron accepts Mel’s apology, and since it’s Chiron’s turn to pay, he buys movie tickets for them both. 

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse in a dating relationship can take a lot of different forms. Often it happens in the form of coercion. Regardless of the manner of sexual abuse, it is never acceptable.

Here’s an example of a coercive, abusive sexual situation:

Emma and Trent have been dating for a while. She’s in her third year of university, and she doesn’t have a lot of extra cash. Trent, on the other hand, is a few years older than she is, and he has built a successful business. To keep things fair, Emma and Trent both contribute a proportionate amount towards their dating expenses. This means that Trent spends more money on dates than Emma does. One day, Trent makes a sexual advance towards Emma. “Not now, Baby,” she says, “I’m too stressed from studying for my exams. I’m just not in the mood.” “Oh, come on, you owe me,” Trent wheedles, “I just spent $150 at a nice restaurant for you.” Emma feels guilty refusing sex after Trent just paid for an expensive date, so she relents and agrees to have sex with him.

And, here’s that sexual situation again, handled healthily this time:

Emma and Trent have been dating for a while. She’s in her third year of university, and she doesn’t have a lot of extra cash. Trent, on the other hand, is a few years older than she is, and he has built a successful business. To keep things fair, Emma and Trent both contribute a proportionate amount towards their dating expenses. This means that Trent spends more money on dates than Emma does, but he recognizes that her financial sacrifice equals his own, and he respects her financial contributions. One day, Trent makes a sexual advance towards Emma. “Not now, Baby,” she says, “I’m too stressed from studying for my exams. I’m just not in the mood.” “I understand, good luck studying,” Trent replies, and he opens a book while she studies.

Dating abuse or violence of any kind is unacceptable. As the above examples show, often these forms of abuse are intermingled: sexual abuse can combine with financial abuse, jealousy can lead to manipulation, and sometimes, excessive anger or verbal abuse can lead to physical abuse. These examples only begin to cover the many ways in which abuse can present itself. An awareness of these subtle forms of abuse is key to keeping yourself safe in romantic or sexual relationships. If you or someone you know has been the victim of any of these forms of abuse, please seek help from a trusted friend, adult, or professional:

If you are in danger call 911

National Domestic Violence hotline: 1­-800-799-7233 or TTY 1­-800-787-3224

Online chat 24/7: www.loveisrespect.org

Love is Respect hotline: 1-866-331-9474 or TTY 1-866-331-8453

Text: LOVEIS to 22522

Check out LoveisRespect's YouTube Channel for videos discussing the complex nature of relationships

 

SARA DUECK - STAFF WRITER & EDUCATOR

Sara Dueck (she/her) is a queer, feminist, usually nervous, over-educated millennial with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a Master’s degree in Medieval Studies. Sara grew up in a small town in Southern Alberta, Canada - deep in the heart of right-wing territory.

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