Speaking from experience

The first step to stopping domestic violence is to teach our teens

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column focuses on domestic violence and partner abuse.

No one in my charter school or public high school talked to us teenagers about what a healthy relationship looks like. In fact, many schools opted out of sexual education or pushed for abstinence-only sex ed. courses.

My mother, bless her, gave me a good run down and provided me with what I needed to live a healthy sex life. But she didn’t sit me down and tell me that women, and men, can find themselves in abusive relationships. Maybe she didn’t really understand this issue either. My parents have been married for nearly 35 years and my father was always a good example of what healthy masculinity looks like. For him and my mother, having a fair and balanced relationship came naturally. Like all marriages/long-term partnerships, they had their challenges and hard times, but they always treated each other with love and respect.

Maybe that’s why my dad didn’t sit his daughter down and tell her how sometimes people tell you they love you, but they mean to control you. Because to him being a loving husband and father came naturally. Or maybe my parents didn’t want to have that conversation, maybe it was too tough to talk about.

It wasn’t until I was in year three of an abusive four-year relationship where I finally had a friend say “he has no right to treat you that way.”

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month (also my birthday month, woo-hoo!) and this year I am hoping more people will stand up and take a stance against domestic violence. And not just the text-book version of domestic violence we see portrayed in Lifetime movies and in the news, but also the types of violence and abuse that goes largely unseen in many communities. I’m talking about the mental and emotional toll victims face alone with their partners behind the doors of their homes.

I don’t like to tell much about my own personal story about abuse and domestic violence, but this seems like a good month to speak from my own experiences to help others understand what really happens.

It wasn’t until halfway through our second year together that the abuse became physical. It was over two years of mental and emotional abuse. Gaslighting, put-downs, lying and more. It started small, with things teens are told other teens do. Things the media portrayed as regular relationship issues (more like dysfunctions) and things my friends were also dealing with. But it kept building, and all the while I was finding my life more ensnared with his, which made leaving more complicated.

When things did become physical, it wasn’t every day or even a monthly occurrence, which is one of the reasons I chose not to call the police, or tell my parents. I wasn’t a battered wife, I didn’t have black eyes. We had gotten into a large fight and it ended badly, but I was alive and this was a rare thing that happened.

This is not how relationships should be, and I wish I had learned that earlier. I wish someone would have taught me the cycles of abuse. I wish someone would have told me I didn’t have to be in a relationship to be a successful woman, or that just because it didn’t look like the abuse you see on TV or hear about, doesn’t mean it isn’t abuse.

According to the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, nearly one in five women and one in seven men have experienced severe physical violence. About one in six women and one in 12 men have experienced contact sexual violence from an intimate partner (this includes rape, being made to penetrate someone else, sexual coercion and unwanted sexual contact). Also, 10 percent of women and 2 percent of men report having been stalked by an intimate partner.

In King County, DAWN, a local domestic violence victim resource center, has provided over 9,000 shelter nights in one year and has taken over 5,000 phone calls on its crisis line. For every one family it can take in, another 57 are turned away. These numbers highlight how large of an issue domestic violence and relationship abuse is.

This led the CDC to create a violence prevention program anyone can implement at home, in their places of work or in community centers such as churches. One of the first approaches to preventing this issue? Early relationship education.

“Fostering expectations for healthy relationships and teaching healthy relationship skills are critical to a primary prevention approach to the problem of (intimate partner violence),” the CDC’s program states. “The evidence suggests that acceptance of partner violence, poor emotional regulation and conflict management, and poor communication skills put individuals at risk for both perpetration and victimization of (intimate partner violence).”

Parents and guardians of young teens and young adults should look into what their public schools offer when it comes to sexual education and healthy relationship education. And even though it’s an uncomfortable conversation, parents should take the first step in speaking with their teens about what is and isn’t OK in a healthy relationship. Parents can also find resources and classes outside of the school system to help their children learn more about these topics. One example is the “Our Whole Lives” (OWL) program, created by the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Don’t be afraid to have those hard conversations. In the future when I have a son or daughter, I’ll want them to be equipped with the confidence, knowledge and know-how to find themselves happy and with people who appreciate and love them in healthy ways. I had to learn some of these things the hardest way, and I am one of the lucky ones who can say I was able to get out and turn my life into something wonderful.

Neighbors and friends should also be willing to have those same conversations with each other. If we choose to open our eyes and face these issues head-on, we can make a difference for thousands of survivors and victims.