Looking from the outside in, it is easy to feel baffled by domestic violence. We wonder not only why the perpetrators engage in this despicable behaviour towards people they supposedly love, but also what leads the victims into such dysfunctional relationships in the first place.
Yes, some people walk out the door the day their partner strikes the first blow, but for many, making that wrenching break can be very difficult. Humans are not ruled by logic. Relationships have a momentum of their own – and it can very difficult to admit that you are a victim. What if you are still genuinely in love with your violent partner? What if you have nowhere else to go?
The roots of this thorny conundrum surely lie in childhood. For most of us, our parents were the original and greatest role models of adulthood, whether good ones or bad ones. If your parents were wonderful, then you were blessed but many people are not so lucky, and such people can so easily take the emotional turbulence and mixed messages of their childhood with them as they grow up and enter relationships of their own. Often they do so without even realising. And what happens then?
According to a new report from Girlguiding, based on a representative selection of discussion groups, “too many girls are ready to accept controlling behaviour and see it as a normal part of a ‘caring’ relationship”.
A significant proportion of the teenagers who took part said they saw jealous and controlling behaviour by boyfriends as signs of commitment and concern. Three quarters did not see such behaviour as indications of a dysfunctional relationship and a form of domestic violence.
Reading the report, we learn, rather disturbingly, that two fifths of the girls said they thought it was okay for a boyfriend to insist they tell them where they are all the time. On in ten thought their partners were allowed to tell them who they can spend time with, and a depressing 17 per cent thought it is okay for their boyfriends to send photos or videos of them to others without their permission. Incredibly, 21 per cent of the girls surveyed even said they thought it was acceptable for partners to shout at them and call them names.
This kind of behaviour is officially classed as domestic violence, under the newly expanded definition which came into force in March this year.
The report, called Care Versus Control: Healthy Relationships, notes rather tellingly that:
“Many girls interviewed struggled to envisage how they would react if they themselves were in a controlling relationship. Although most felt they could recognise different types of controlling behaviour in theory, when presented with specific scenarios that they or their peers might encounter they were quick to make excuses for the controlling behaviour. They readily imagined situations where it might be acceptable or even their fault. Some even found this behaviour endearing.”
Only 23 per cent of the girls surveyed “showed a full understanding of what an abusive relationship is.”
Where do such attitudes come from? Their parents will have helped shape their expectations, but the media has a role to play as well, the culture around them too. Interestingly, the report attributes at least some of the blame to social media:
“Social media facilitates a culture of constant ‘checking-in’, where monitoring a partner’s movements can be done at the click of a button. This can further cloud young people’s judgements into believing that a certain level of control and surveillance is acceptable. Girls in our focus groups had mixed feelings about the public nature of online interaction, and have experienced how it can lead to accusations of cheating and jealousy.”
There may be some truth in that. Young people are true ‘digital natives’, who have grown up in a world of ubiquitous mobile phones and computers, and their lives have been coloured accordingly. Facebook is now nine years old and will be ten next February. If you are 20, that is half your life.
Care Versus Control makes for very sobering reading, painting a vivid picture of unhealthy relationships in their earliest stages.
As Becky Hewitt, the director of Girlguiding, rightly notes: “Without the right support to interpret and examine their experiences, it is all too easy for early relationships to form unhealthy patterns of behaviour that they can take with them into adulthood. We have a responsibility to help young people to recognise unhealthy and controlling behaviour in their early relationships – helping them to establish positive relationship patterns for the future.”