The mere mention of February brings to mind images of cupids, conversation hearts, and cuddly stuffed animals – all symbols of love and romance. There’s a dark side to dating, though. In fact, 40 percent of girls age 14 to 17 say they know someone who’s been hit or beaten by the person they’re seeing.
About 72% of students in 8th and 9th grade report "dating." By the time they are in high school, 54% of students report dating violence among their peers.
It’s time we Do Something about it. Read on for interviews with victims of verbal and physical abuse and advice from the experts at Break the Cycle , an organization committed to breaking the cycle of abuse amongst young people and helping them to build lives free from domestic and dating violence.
Plus, we'll fill you in on signs that suggest danger may lie ahead -- and what to do if you or someone you know ends up in a relationship gone wrong.
A SHATTERED LIFE
Kristen Rambler was in love. Her senior year of high school, her first boyfriend Keith lavished her with roses and over-the-top declarations of love. Keith stood out from other high school boyfriends, bringing her presents and saying cutesy things like “I wuv woo,” says Kristen.
But Kristen’s perfect romance started to fall apart on graduation night. At a friend’s party, Keith had too much too drink and yelled across the room at Kristen, “Hey bitch, where’s the ice at?” Though Kristen says she snapped back, “I don’t know,” Keith wasn’t deterred by her firmness. He “came over and shoved me into a treadmill.”
Kristen was stunned at Keith’s behavior and “started crying so hard that I couldn’t talk.” Then, “all our guy friends surrounded Keith, asking him what he was doing. They took Keith outside to calm down and I left without saying one word to him.”
The next morning, Kristen awoke to an apology email, which promised “it will never, ever happen again.” She really loved Keith and figured she should forgive this one-time outburst.
Kristen went off to college reminding herself, “he would always tell me how much he loved me.” Looking back, Kristen recognizes Keith’s grad party aggression as the first sign of a potentially abusive pattern.
Months later, he beat her enough to leave bruises and ended up spending the night in jail After a year of on-and-off abuse, Kristen had enough and told Keith she couldn’t date him until he got professional help.
The next day, he showed up at her parents’ house with a gun, shot her friend, and held the gun to Kristen’s head before turning it on himself and committing suicide.
What happened to Kristen may seem extreme, but dating violence – verbal, emotional, physical – is way too common. Furthermore, this is a problem that will likely affect you or someone close to you during your teen years: 34% of teens say they know someone who has been hit, punched, kicked, slapped, choked or otherwise physically hurt by his or her partner.
More sobering stats: Dating abuse, in all of its forms, happens to one in three teens. And like Kristen, 80 percent of girls who have been physically abused continue to date their abuser.
DS found a chilling instance of foreshadowing in March 2008’s Cosmopolitan. Filling out a quiz in her own writing, Rihanna completed the sentence “You know you’re in love when…” with “it hurts.” Almost a year later, the singer was physically abused by her then-boyfriend, Chris Brown, the eve of the 2010 Grammys. The stark reality is that, for too many young women and men, love does indeed hurt. But it shouldn’t.
IT CAN HAPPEN TO ANYONE
Famous or not, dating violence “doesn’t only happen to a certain kind of person,” says survivor Veronica Meza.
Veronica, 25, had a high school experience out of a made-for-TV movie. She was the fun-loving popular captain of the basketball team, Homecoming Queen, a good daughter and sister. Veronica tells Do Something that she found herself embroiled in an abusive relationship – one that isolated her from her friends and family, and distracted her from her school work. “I didn’t look for it, I didn’t expect it,” Veronica says, recalling the abuse that she experienced at the hands of her then-boyfriend.
Veronica says she was in love and didn’t realize how deeply involved she was in her relationship until it was too far gone into the cycle of abuse. One year into college, she dropped out, unable to take it any longer. “I never saw that coming for myself. It’s a slippery slope and before you know it, you’re there.”
She added that that not letting yourself get to this point is crucial for avoiding the painful process of ending an abusive relationship and mending; “Once in it, it’s very hard to get out of it.”
BREAKING THE CYCLE
Kelly Bradford, 21, of Moorpark, Calif., has always looked up to her mom for her strength as a young single mother with no support system, raising her two-year-old son. But what Kelly admires most is the moment her mom “told her husband, no you can’t come home.” Kelly’s mom was physically abused by her ex-husband, who is not Kelly’s father. Kelly says “her courage always amazed me.”
Inspired by her mom’s journey, Kelly joined Belles, a 50 person all-woman service organization at Loyola University Marymount. Under Kelly’s guidance as President, Belles partnered with Break the Cycle to spread the word about youth dating abuse on campus and in their community.
Kelly wants teens to make sure “not to hesitate to get help,” saying “I know it’s scary but find someone to help – a teacher, a nurse, a doctor, a friend – if you don’t stop the cycle you’ll bring it into your future.”
Luckily, Kelly’s mother was able to end her relationship, but Kelly’s older brother still remembers his dad abusing his mom, a reminder that abuse really can follow you into your future.. Fortunately, her mom went on to recover from the unhealthy relationship, remarry and have another child, Kelly!
OTHER SIGNS OF ABUSE
Though her mom experienced the most visible kind of abuse, Kelly Bradford wants to drive home the point that abuse comes in many forms, “It’s not just a slap across the face,” she says “it’s the belittlement, constant scrutinizing, it can be incessant texting, stalking…young people don’t realize if you’re not being hit, it can still be abuse.”
“Anywhere we go, there’s technological abuse. Text messages, constantly harassing, people don’t associate that with abuse,” Kelly says, talking about this new kind of 21st century abuse. While emotional abuse was limited to verbal communication in the past,the advent of the digital age offers abusers endless ways to reach a victim.
16-year-old Alyssa* tried to break up with her boyfriend of three months last year after he “wouldn’t leave me alone…on my phone, on MySpace, on AIM I would get these nasty messages where he would call me names no one should call a girl.”
After Alyssa’s mom saw her texts, she talked with Alyssa, reminding her that name-calling can be a form of abuse and no young person should stand for it.
“He was treating me badly but I just thought when he called me that it was because I wasn’t making as much of an effort as a girlfriend should,” she said. “He hated that I would do stuff with my friends after school instead of just sit around with him.”
Alyssa says she ultimately learned that she should be able to be in a relationship “and have my own life,” and that her ex-boyfriend wasn’t letting her do so.
Still, she let the relationship go on long enough to develop anxiety and “terrible stomachaches” from the constant texting and online messaging. “I would get headaches from being hunched over the computer trying to explain myself and couldn’t eat because I would be so nervous about the next time my phone would chirp.”
Despite all this, Alyssa said she never thought the word “abuse” could possibly apply to that kind of situation. “I knew it was wrong. I knew it sucked, but I wouldn’t tell someone it was ‘abuse.’ Now I know.”
Kelly Bradford watched her mom work to regain what she lost in an abusive relationship. “From watching my mom I can say keep putting one foot in front of the other,” Bradford said, “There’s no way you can get out of it if you’re not moving.”
Sounds like simple advice, and while survivors should take small steps towards big progress, that first step can be extremely scary.
Veronica says acting on that first “this-is-bad-for-me” impulse is one of the hardest but most important choices. “There is that point when you think how can I get out of it and you’re in the relationship but you know you want and need to rectify your situation.”
The road to recovery was bumpy for Veronica, who found that the law wasn’t always on her side. “I waited, then wanted to press charges and was sent away by police officers who didn’t want to hear it or weren’t educated,” Veronica told us, “or even worse, they just tagged me as a jealous ex-girlfriend and didn’t take me seriously.”
Veronica says education is key to getting law enforcement and society on-board with helping victims of domestic and dating abuse. “We need to educate people who wouldn’t otherwise know enough about it – intervention and prevention can happen if we all know enough.”
If you have a loved one or friend in your life who you think is experiencing abuse, Veronica told us that you can help them before they slide down that path, but it’s important to arm yourself with info first. “Gather some resources, get some info and say ‘I found this for you if you ever need it, it’s here and if you need me, I’m here.”
Being a good and non-judgmental listener is extremely important if you want to help someone out of an unhealthy relationship because ultimately “they have to do it for themselves and are more likely to if they know you are there just to listen.”
But, Veronica makes sure to add that if it “gets serious enough” – if your friend is getting seriously hurt or psychologically damaged - “get their parent, a parent, a teacher, just get someone.”
Once the bad love is out of your life, “you face healing and dealing with the memory of it,” Veronica says. She adds that “trying to get your relationships that were damaged as a result” – with friends and/or family, for example – “takes a lot of work.” Veronica focused on rebuilding her relationship with her parents and friends and graduating college.
“Relationships are meant to be joyous not painful,” says Veronica, who tells victims of abuse “there is something better and more beautiful…there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I can promise that.”
Today, she continues to create light from her past darkness, working for Break The Cycle .
So…are you ready to Do Something about this issue that will affect you or someone close to you during your teen years? Learn more about Dating Abuse  and what you can do to Break the Cycle . *Name has been changed at individual’s request
Need help now? Make the call .