By Juanita Westaby
Copyright 2005 The Grand Rapids Press
All rights reserved. Used with permission

Katie’s boyfriend called her a slut.

She was fat and ugly, too, if she believed the words he spat at her.

The day he shoved her into a wall, knocking the wind out of her, she felt like she barely deserved to live.

“I was on my knees, trying to breathe,” she says, “and I was telling him I was sorry.”

Katie is 15, a junior at a Grand Rapids-area high school. She’s eating a grilled chicken salad at Burger King on a late summer afternoon, talking about the boy she loved. It’s so embarrassing now that we’re not using her real name.

But last year, when she was in love with a guy who hurt her, it didn’t seem that bad.

“Everybody’s got something wrong with them,” Katie says. “I thought maybe that was just the thing that was wrong with him. I thought maybe it was just part of having a boyfriend.”

She thought she had to take the bad with the good. The insults with the kisses. Sure, he shoved her. But sometimes he was so sweet.

And besides, Katie says, not knowing how chilling her words would be, “You slowly get used to it.”

Just in case you get no further in this story, this is the most important message it brings to a teen-ager who dates: It isn’t normal to be yelled at, hit or cut down by the person you date. Jealousy, possessiveness and control aren’t love. And you should never, ever get used to it.

When you’re 15 and you have a boyfriend, life can be great. You always have a date for school dances. If he has a car, even better. If your friends think he’s cute and maybe envy you a little, you’re on top of the world.

He loves you so much, he wants you all to himself. He doesn’t like you talking to other guys, but that’s only natural, right? It’s sweet how he gets so jealous.

But then things change. The jealousy doesn’t feel so good anymore. He wants to know where you are all the time. If he sees you talking to the guy you’re working on that history project with, he calls you a whore.

Then one night after a football game, when you plan to go out with your friends, he shoves you against his car and slaps you. Funny thing, though. You still love him.

Maybe you’re reading this and rolling your eyes. If any guy hit you, you’d be out of there in a second, right?

Maybe. Maybe not.

That, after all, is what Katie said.

“I was one of those girls who said, ‘If he ever hits me, I’m gone,’ ” she says. “But it sneaks up on you. It’s not that bad at first — that’s what gets you used to it.”

Sitting next to Katie, eating a Whopper Junior, a woman nods. She’s met a lot of girls like Katie as she’s traveled West Michigan teaching kids that in a good relationship, people don’t hurt each other.

“Some girls say to me ‘one slap and he’s outta there,’ ” Lori VanHarmelen says. “But they don’t realize by the time he slaps you, you’ve already been through a pattern of emotional abuse that has broken you down. You’re no longer the same person.”

But you often don’t know it. And that’s the scary thing.

According to Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics, 28 percent of teens who date experience some form of dating violence — emotional, physical or sexual. That’s about the same rate of domestic violence among adults.

Teen-agers throughout West Michigan have told VanHarmelen they know all about dating violence. If they haven’t experienced it themselves, they know somebody who has.

VanHarmelen is program director for RAVE — Resources Against Violent Encounters to Women of West Michigan. The group’s mission is to educate about sexual assault, sexual harassment and dating violence. She’s taken her program on dating violence to about 40 schools in Kent County and several in Ottawa and Muskegon counties. She also has trained educators in area school districts to teach the program themselves.

“Whether I’m at an inner-city school or a suburban, wealthy school, when I ask the kids if they know anyone who has been in an abusive dating relationship, no less than half the class raises their hands,” VanHarmelen says. “When I’m talking to seniors, it’s even higher.

“Afterwards, I often get kids who come up to me and want to tell me more,” she says. One girl told VanHarmelen she wasn’t sure this was abuse, but her boyfriend makes her strip naked so he can stare at her.

Another girl she met had always used soccer as an excuse for her bruises. One day she came home with a red ring around her neck. Her boyfriend had been choking her.

One teacher told her about a student who flicked his girlfriend’s ear with his finger every time he caught her talking to another guy.

Most teen-age victims are female, VanHarmelen says, so in these stories, the focus is on girls as the abused. But boys can be victims of teen dating violence, too.

A Widespread Problem

A 1997 study by University of Michigan professor Richard Tolman found that about 37 percent of boys and 36 percent of girls surveyed at a large Midwestern high school said they had experienced some sort of physical violence in a dating relationship.

But while the girls said that the violence really hurt, often leaving bruises, the boys laughed it off. Girls were more likely to be punched and forced to have sex against their will, Tolman reported. Boys were more likely to be pinched, slapped or kicked — possibly self-defense on the part of the girls who were being abused.

Sometimes abuse is as subtle as a finger flick. Other times it’s as subtle as getting the wind knocked out of you. Or worse.

A Grand Rapids Christian High School student was preparing to go to the homecoming dance one winter night three years ago when her former boyfriend kidnapped her, beat her with his fists and a hammer, cut her with a knife and drove her around for nine hours, an ordeal that ended only when police rammed his car.

It happened a month after she ended the four-month abusive relationship.

Katie’s story doesn’t end that violently. But it began pretty typically.

“He was sweet,” Katie says of her former boyfriend. “He opened doors for me. He’d buy me lunch.”

VanHarmelen nods. She’s heard it all before.

“They can be very charming,” she says. “They’ll win you over.”

Then, about a month into the relationship, Katie’s boyfriend started getting moody and angry. He’d call her slut, whore, fat, ugly.

A boy trying to control his girlfriend typically wears her down with verbal abuse, VanHarmelen says.

“Emotional abuse is the longest lasting,” she says. “A black eye will heal. The inner stuff takes forever to heal.”

The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde behavior is standard behavior in an abusive relationship. It’s part of a cycle of violence that abusers and victims get caught up in.

The cycle shows that victims aren’t constantly being abused. There are times of tenderness and kindness that trap the victim into feeling that maybe everything will be OK.

“Imagine the confusion,” VanHarmelen says. “One minute it’s ‘I love you,’ the next it’s ‘you look stupid — what did you do to your hair?’ ”

After a violent outburst, a boyfriend may shower a girl with gifts and attention. He’s so sorry. He’ll never do it again.

Who wouldn’t want to believe him? It’s not the relationship she wants to end — just the abuse. Maybe if she just hangs in there, she can change him, help him.

Besides, maybe this is all her fault.

“I figured I must have done something wrong,” Katie says. “He was happy before. Why wasn’t he happy now? It must’ve been something I did.”

Teen victims of relationship abuse describe the same progression of violence as adult victims do — from name calling, jealousy and possesiveness to slaps and shoves to severe beatings.

Sometimes sexual abuse is involved, typically beginning with unrelenting pressure to have sex.

Wyoming teacher Vivian Marsiglia sees boys yanking their girlfriends’ arms to control them. She often hears them forbidding girls to talk to any other boy.

Her students are 13 and 14 years old.

“I used to think they were too young to learn about dating violence, until I started teaching about it,” says Marsiglia, a teacher at Newhall Middle School for the last 10 years. “Then I saw all their heads nodding, and girls looking knowingly at each other. I thought whoa — they know exactly what I’m talking about.”

Marsiglia teaches a class called “Challenges and Choices,” a part health, part family living class that teaches kids about sex, drugs, stress reduction, career choices and — for the past four years– dating violence, using RAVE’s curriculum.

“Some kids this age are in a sexual relationship,” Marsiglia says. “Sometimes girls are involved with older guys who know even more about exerting pressure on them. I see a lot of 14-year-old girls attracting 17- and 18 -year-old boys.

“When you’re 14, you don’t even know how to carry on a good conversation, much less defend yourself.”

The scariest thing, Marsiglia says, is that kids think a relationship based on jealousy and control is normal.

“A lot of boys think they’re supposed to be jealous and controlling,” Marsiglia says. “A lot of girls think that’s how their boyfriends show love. That is not love, and that’s one of the biggest things I try to get across. My goal is to get kids to recognize power and control before they’re emotionally attached to someone.”

Emotionally attached at age 13? You bet, Marsiglia says.

“I have a couple students who have been dating for two years, in seventh and eighth grade, and they’re totally attached,” she says. “That’s hard for parents to believe, but it’s true. I see girls all the time get so attached to their boyfriends they start spending all their time with him, and abandon all their friends.

“They’ve never experienced a breakup and recovery before, so they’re convinced this person is the only one for them. I see girls who are absolutely convinced that nobody will ever love them again.”

An Attempt to Control

When Marsiglia invites her students to write anonymous comments after the session, she typically hears from boys who admit they’ve been controlling or hurting their girlfriends without realizing it was wrong.

“They have a fear of losing them,” she says, “and the only way they know how to keep something is to control it.”

Katie says that’s what her boyfriend did.

“He always wanted to know what I did all day long,” Katie says. He didn’t want her socializing with anyone else — a classic sign of an abuser, VanHarmelen notes.

One day Katie told him she wanted to go see a friend. She asked if he’d drop her off on his way to work. Instead, he made her sit in the back of the fast-food restaurant where he worked until his shift was over.

Another classic sign.

“He tries to isolate her,” VanHarmelen says. “He doesn’t want her to have other sources of support. He tears her down so she’ll feel nobody else will want her.”

Sometimes, Katie felt he didn’t even want her.

“Sometimes he liked me and sometimes he didn’t,” Katie says. “If I wore a shirt that was too tight or showed my belly, he’d call me a slut. Other times he’d say he liked the shirt. I never knew if I’d be a slut that day or not.”

“Didn’t you just want to punch him?” VanHarmelen asks her.

Katie nibbles her salad and shakes her head.

“No,” she says. “I just wanted to make him happy.”

Sad, VanHarmelen says. But true.

“I’ve had girls say to me, ‘I’d rather be in an abusive relationship than no relationship at all,’ ” she says. “That sounds so unbelievable, but it’s true.

“There’s a need inside most girls, especially younger adolescents, to feel accepted, to be loved,” she says. “They’re willing to put up with it. This is a guy. It’s so important to be loved by him. He takes you places, he buys you a locket. This is the best thing that’s ever happened to you.”

And because it may be the first relationship a girl has ever had, she doesn’t have a healthy one to compare it to.

“An adult who has been in some healthy relationships is more easily tipped off if a partner is abusive,” VanHarmelen says. “With teen-agers, it’s often their first relationship. They don’t know exactly what their role in a relationship should be.

“A girl may not know that she has an equal say in where they go or what they do — especially if there’s abuse at home, and that’s what she’s used to.”

The Wrong Role Models

Girls who watched their mothers be abused learn that’s the role a woman has in a relationship, just as boys who grow up with abusive fathers learn that’s how a man treats a woman, says Eileen McKeever, director of domestic violence services at the Grand Rapids YWCA. Katie remembers her boyfriend telling her his father had hit his mother “but he said it was OK, because she deserved it.”

McKeever counsels women who have tried for years to change their man’s abusive behavior.

“They say ‘maybe if I marry him he’ll change’ or ‘maybe if I have a baby with him, he’ll change,’ ” McKeever says. “It’s important for girls to realize that there’s nothing they can do that’s going to change their boyfriend’s behavior.”

They can only change their own behavior and leave. That’s what Katie did when her boyfriend’s verbal and emotional abuse turned physical. She heard her mother’s voice in her head.

“My Mom always told me, ‘Don’t let any guy hit you, ever,’ ” she says.

Katie has a new boyfriend now, one who treats her with respect and love. When she wants to socialize with friends who are boys, he trusts her enough to tell her to have fun.

VanHarmelen has taken Katie with her on speaking engagements, to high schools and a statewide Native American conference.

“She does an incredible job,” VanHarmelen says. “The kids listen to her.”

“What happened to me makes me so mad,” Katie says, “that I want to tell everybody. Love isn’t supposed to hurt like that.”