Martorella: It starts early

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Purple ribbons are displayed around town to help build awareness of this often hidden crime and offer statistics and information on how to get help. Recently, there has also been broader coverage of domestic violence in the news, with incidents reported among professional athletes and other public figures, as well as a national focus on dating violence on college campuses.

But it starts even earlier.

The statistics are shocking. According to, the leading national nonprofit organization focusing on youth dating abuse prevention programs, in our country:

  • 33% percent of adolescents have experienced some form of sexual, physical, verbal, or emotional abuse from someone they were dating.
  • Approximately 1.5 million high school boys and girls admit to being intentionally hit or harmed in the last year by a romantic partner.
  • Only one-third of teens who were involved in an abusive relationship reported it.
  • Abusive behavior in dating relationships started as early as age 11
  • Teens who experience abuse often suffer long-term consequences such as eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, promiscuity, suicidality, or violent behavior.

When people hear the words “domestic violence”, they often envision a muscular male physically attacking a defenseless female, but that is often not the reality. The definition of domestic violence has been expanded greatly over the past few decades to include emotional and verbal abuse as well as physical violence. Females can be the perpetrators as well as the victims. Arrests can occur based on argumentative behavior alone in the complete absence of physical contact, the intent being to separate a couple before major damage is done.

The type of abuse may differ among relationships, but they all incorporate the misuse of power to exert control over another individual.

Emotional abuse includes abusive language, insults, name-calling and put-downs; intimidation through words, looks, actions, or gestures; threatening harm to oneself or partner; minimizing or denying the abuse; shifting the blame to the victim; or isolating the victim by controlling access to other people/support systems.

Adults may leverage their control over finances or access to children. For teens, the power card often has to do with their fragile self-esteem and desire for acceptance. Abusers may threaten to embarrass or humiliate their partner; expose secrets or spread rumors or lies to peers; use social status to place themselves higher than their partner or treat their partner like a servant; pressure their partner to engage in sexual activities; or damage friendships.

As parents, it is important for us to remember that we are the primary relationship role models for our children. Our conduct and gender role expectations set the scene for theirs. If they see inequality and abuse in their home, they will learn to expect it in their own relationships. In my years of working with domestic violence perpetrators and victims, I heard countless examples of this as they explained away their behavior: “Of course he hit me, I made him mad;” “Of course she belittles me, that’s what women do;” “Well, the man brings home the money so the woman better do what he wants;” “My parents fought all the time and they never got arrested!” And once they believe that is what a relationship is supposed to be, they may never think to question it.

Technology also plays a big part in teenage dating abuse. The popularity of cellphones, texting, and social media mean that this generation of teenagers are leaving a trail of interactions that are easy to access. Whereas in the past, we had private conversations over the phone or face-to-face, now most interactions are occurring over wifi. Personal notes used to be written in letters or diaries, and it was a clear invasion of privacy to read them. Now neither teenagers nor adults seem to think twice about scrolling through their partners’ phones, reading their messages, or logging onto their Facebook or Instagram accounts. They take conversations out of context and react based on their own, possibly faulty, conclusions.

Domestic violence is not an “urban” problem. It happens here. Parents and teenagers should be aware of the warning signs of abusive behaviors such as: physically inflicting pain or hurt in any way; extreme jealousy, insecurity or possessiveness; constant belittling or putdowns; making false accusations; an explosive temper or erratic mood swings; isolation from family or friends; checking cell phones, emails or social networks without permission; telling someone what to do; or pressuring someone to have sex. We can identify these behaviors easily in “bullies” but sometimes we don’t want to recognize them in the ones we love.

Visit for more information, or its partner site for 24/7 support online and via phone and text if you or someone you care about is experiencing an abusive dating relationship. Help end domestic abuse before it starts.

Rebecca Martorella, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist, author, and mother of two. She works with individuals, couples, and families, and can be reached at





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