You could be seeing it every day in your brother's, your sister's or your best friend's relationship. It could even be happening to you. Abuse in teen relationships is more prevalent than you might think; according to A-Troubled-Teen.com, about 1 in every 10 teenage relationships is physically abusive, and 1 out of every 4 involves mental or emotional mistreatment.
So why can dating abuse be so difficult to spot? The main reason is that a lot of people aren't exactly sure what to look for. In addition, an abusive partner wants to convince everyone involved in the relationship that what's going on is OK. The truth is, if a person is being broken down physically, mentally or emotionally, something needs to be done.
"If you feel you are being disrespected in any way, or treated how you don't want to be treated, you could be in an abusive relationship," says Kathleen Gasiecki, a health educator at Clarence High School.
There are more than a few signs to look for. If your partner is hitting, kicking or shoving you when he or she is upset or angry, he or she is physically abusive. If he or she throws things or breaks things around you when angry, these are also signs of physical abuse, and this sort of behavior is not normal.
Anna*, a sophomore at Clarence High School, speaks out about what she now realizes was physical abuse in a past relationship.
"He would lose his temper and scream at me, and I would instinctively cover my face," she said. "He would yell, 'Stop that! I've never laid a hand on you,' but he would punch things around me and he would grab my wrists."
It is not uncommon for a teenager to justify physical abuse by stating that he or she would never actually "hurt" his or her partner, but when any sort of physical violence is involved, it is abuse.
Abuse doesn't always begin when a relationship does. In fact, A-Troubled-Teen.com says most unhealthy relationships start out normally and turn abusive later. Sometimes, an abuser will try to make his or her partner dependent before showing any true colors. Other times, a victim does not want to believe that someone whom he or she once cared about so much is now behaving differently.
"I felt a lot of comfort in him and he treated me generally well during the beginning," says Lily*, a junior at Clarence High School. "I was happy until he realized he had control over me, and realized I was attached to him and I did whatever he said. That's when things got bad and I realized they were bad but I felt trapped because I didn't think I could leave him and be OK without him."
One reason that a victim may feel stuck in an unhealthy relationship is because he or she got involved a little too quickly. There could be a fear that if the relationship ends, he or she could be looked down upon for dating the abuser in the first place. There is no shame in ending an abusive relationship. The cruelty is at the hands of the abuser and never the victim.
Even if a person is sexually involved in a relationship and the relationship turns abusive, it doesn't mean that either party is trapped. If somebody is telling you that physical involvement means that you are irrevocably in love, it could be a method to control you through your body.
If a dating partner forces you to do any sexual act that you do not want to do, this is sexual abuse. Dating someone does not mean that he or she has any sort of control over your body. Decisions about sex or about abstinence are yours to make for yourself.
If somebody claims that by not wanting to be intimate, you must not love him or her, they are being manipulative. If that person really cares about you, he or she will be willing to wait until you're ready for that kind of commitment.
The main reason that someone will abuse his or her dating partner is because of the need for control. Controlling how you spend your time, who you are "allowed" to hang out with or your physical appearance is not normal. If your partner is making decisions for you that you and/or your parents should be making, then you might ask yourself how much freedom you really have.
"He would tell me that he didn't want me to wear makeup to school. He would act like it was because he was trying to help me somehow, but I think it was really because he didn't want any other guy to think I was pretty," says Anna.
Jealousy is often a large motivator for control. A dating partner should encourage other healthy friendships. If your boyfriend or girlfriend is telling you who you can talk to or who you can't associate with, this is a sign that he or she is jealous. Jealousy is not a sign of love. It stems from being possessive, controlling, lacking in trust and believing that a boyfriend or a girlfriend is someone that is his or hers to control, rather than a thinking and feeling person.
"I stopped hanging out with some of my best guy friends," Anna says. "Once, I was spending time with an old friend, and he told me that he was coming to get me because I wasn't allowed to be there. He acted like it wasn't safe, but these people cared about me. He wasn't loyal, so he thought that he had to control me or I'd cheat on him."
Cheating is another issue that some teenagers seem to "let slide." If someone cheats on you and it hurts your feelings, then it's not OK. Forgiving infidelity is your choice, but not doing so does not make you a bad person.
"He was cheating on me, and we broke up once because of the cheating, but I got back together with him because he convinced me it would stop," Lily said. "Then it didn't and I found out; saw for myself that he was cheating."
Cellphones and Facebook are unfortunately a good way for controlling or for jealous partners to keep track of a boyfriend or girlfriend. Constant texts and calls are not a good sign, because the person may be trying to keep track of you and invading your personal time. If someone demands to go through your text messages, contacts or photos, this is also a sign of abuse.
Verbal put-downs are a very common form of abuse in younger relationships. Your boyfriend or girlfriend shouldn't be dissing you; rather, he or she should make you feel good about yourself.
Lily explains verbal abuse in her previous relationship.
"When I would disagree or try to point out something, he would yell at me, calling me a b****, saying I was worthless, I was dumb, things like that. My self-esteem was completely ruined," she said. "I lost all self-worth. I was just destroyed. Now, I have problems accepting comments people give me."
Anna also went through mental abuse from her former boyfriend.
"He would tear apart my body. I changed my eating habits, hoping that I could become more attractive for him. He told me that everything that went wrong was my fault," Anna said. "I felt like I was messed up, that I was broken. He would tell me that his friends didn't like me and that they kept telling him to break up with me. He was lying the whole time."
So what is the best way to get out of an abusive relationship? Breaking up with someone is never fun or easy, but sometimes it has to be done. According to loveis.org, a good way to ensure that you end the relationship with as few issues as possible is to preplan; decide when and where it would be best to tell your boyfriend or girlfriend that you do not want to be in the relationship anymore. Do not do this in an isolated place where your partner can scream at you or hurt you.
If you are afraid that breaking up with this person could threaten your safety, talk to your parents or an adult that you trust. Every situation is different and could be handled in different ways. If necessary, you could get the police involved and possibly file for a restraining order, which legally bars the person from coming near you or harassing you.
More advice on getting through a break-up can be found at Teenshealth.org.
"When I finally ended things, he cried and threatened that he would hurt himself and that it would be my fault," Anna said. "I knew that I couldn't stay with him, so I told an adult what he had said when I finally left. I had to be strong and I knew that the decisions he would make were his own, and that I couldn't control how he feels."
If you suspect that a friend is in an abusive relationship, try talking to him or her about it. Remember that you can't make decisions for your friends, but you can try to make him or her aware of what an abusive relationship is. Sometimes, people can be in denial. Seventy-three percent of teens interviewed by A-Troubled-Teen.com said that they would most likely confess to a friend if in an abusive relationship, but the other 33 percent would stay silent. If a friend confides in you, believe what he or she says and let him or her know that you care. This is very important to a victim of abuse.
If you or a friend is in an abusive relationship and you need some more information or help, you can find help at loveisrespect.org or by calling peer counselors at the website at (866) 331-9474, or text "loveis" to 77054. You can also reach the National Youth Crisis Hotline at (800) 442-HOPE or the local New York State crisis hotline for kids at 834-1144.
Anna and Lily both received counseling to deal with the emotional problems that went along with their relationships. Both girls are doing better now, though, and have had healthy relationships since the abusive ones.
"A relationship should be fun, healthy and have respect and good communication," Gasiecki said.
* For safety and privacy, the names have been changed.
Erin Sydney Welsh is a sophomore at Clarence High School.