When you’re a teenager, it’s the time to learn about yourself and, for many, about relationships. I’ve seen lots of relationships around me through the years, both in the media and in my environment. I’ve spent months of my life reading and watching relationship dramas, experiencing relationships for myself, and watching my friends and classmates be in relationships. What teenager hasn’t? It’s captivating and exciting, but it’s not all holding hands and smiles. Fun and innocent relationships can warp into toxicity.
Despite seeing so many relationships and also some of their issues, I was shocked when I saw some statistics in Oyster River’s “Writing in the Stalls’ ‘ flyers about domestic violence. I read that one out of three young people experience relationship abuse. Relationship abuse is defined by the Dometic Violence Hotline as when one person tries to gain power and control through threats, emotional/verbal abuse, or physical or sexual violence. After reading the statistic, I talked to students from all grade levels about these issues to find out which issues are most prevalent in our school, share some teen experiences and find causes of these issues. All the sources I talked to are anonymous because this topic can be emotional and private. Through talking to students, I learned that most people have had or seen a controlling relationship that includes jealousy, separation from other close people in their lives and other serious factors. Some big things that came up in our conversations were the types of relationships teens see in their life and education on these issues.
How someone acts in a relationship is often a result of the kinds of relationships they’ve seen, especially for teens who haven’t been in many relationships. Teens typically have role models in their home lives and in the media they watch. However, these role models aren’t always healthy, even if they are normalized. One of the people I talked to told me that there is a toxic relationship in their home that warped their ideas of what a healthy relationship is like. These false normalizations of abuse in their household led to being abused in their own relationship, which they thought was fine until it hit a breaking point.
Media can also play a big role in what teens consider a healthy relationship. Where teenagers consume so much media in the modern age, it can be especially impactful on teen lives. There are many examples of relationship abuse that get normalized by popular romance movies that teens and children watch. Oftentimes, these stories connect with the age group by making the relationships young, humorous and complicated. Although the media is entertaining, it’s not always a good example for middle schoolers or high schoolers in navigating their relationships.
An example of media that I loved in middle school that falsified some of my earlier ideas on healthy relationships was Twilight. Twilight was entertaining for me because of its fantasy twists and drama. But, when reading the book, I thought many aspects of the relationships in the book were ok, when they were actually very toxic. Now, I can spot how there is an extreme unbalance of control in the main relationship in the book. The main character, Bella, is easily manipulated because of her low self esteem in her body image, intelligence and accomplishments. In the book, Bella gets swept off her feet by a Man/Vampire, Edward, who she views as perfect and out of her league.
Because of this, Edward gets away with treating Bella however he wants. The book romanticizes not only the idea of having a “superior partner” but also isolating Bella from other people who she cares about, always being together and normalizing jealousy. Not everybody reads Twilight, but many of these normalized examples of toxicity are displayed in other popular song lyrics, books and popular netflix shows. Unsurprisingly, these characteristics do make their way in teen relationships, but not always with a happy ending.
Just because a relationship is in the media doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Watching and reading movies and books can be innocent and fun, but while doing so it should be known that these stories do not represent healthy relationships. At the same age that children are fed this media we should also be learning what a healthy relationship looks like versus an unhealthy one.
Everyone I talked to agreed that in a healthy relationship, both people are excited to see each other, and there’s a sense of trust, comfort, good communication, and individuality between the partners. These traits aren’t always perfect in any type of relationship, but as long as it isn’t a prolonged problem throughout the relationship, the relationship is generally healthy. These problems can escalate, though, if not taken care of. Ways to go about these problems include talking it out, taking a break, and setting boundaries. Physically harming someone, pressuring them to do things for you, guilt trips, and constant judgment are not healthy ways to go about relationship conflicts. Those are examples of one-sided control and abuse.
Jason Baker, a school counselor spoke on this issue. He said, “every relationship has to have a little give and a little take. You have to put work into it and also get something out of it. I talk to students about that all the time.“
Baker and students who have been in unhealthy relationships have seen a lot of examples of one sided control in the form of jealousy and not wanting the partner to hang out with others. This type of relationship can be harmful and affect other relationships as well. Seeing a friend separate from others that they care about or start acting drastically differently is a sign that they might be in a controlling relationship. It’s important for high schoolers especially, to have multiple people they can go to because highschool is the time to try new experiences, gain independence, have social experiences, and figure out future goals.
One anonymous student I talked to noticed these unhealthy signs in a friend and discussed how draining and detrimental it was to many aspects of her friend’s life. This affected the friend’s grades, mood, and friendships. Although the relationship had many harmful effects, it still was hard to drop it because there were also high points in the relationship. This is why when you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, it takes support from others and sometimes professionals in order to get out.
In the situation above, support from a friend really helped the person see the problems in the relationship, break it off, and get through the grief of the break up. Friends are not experts or councilors, but are often important in realizing what’s happening in a relationship and helping someone get through it. After an abusive relationship, sometimes more support is needed, like the domestic violence hotline (1.800.799.799), a counselor or a support group. Another person I talked to said that a support group helped them a lot because they found people who had gone through similar situations. It also helped them realize that they deserved better than how they were treated in that relationship.
Although lots of people get hurt in their high school relationships, all students explained to me that they learned a lot from being in relationships and that it’s helped them have better, healthier relationships afterwards. Some big things that many teens learn from relationships are communication, working together, and figuring out who you’re attracted to. Many students, including myself, agree that being in a relationship when you’re ready can be very beneficial. However, there’s no reason to push yourself into a relationship if you’re not ready or to push the speed of a relationship.
When relationships and certain romantic gestures get glamorized in the media it can add pressure to teenagers, making them think that they should be in that type of relationship, too. Some students in my conversations talked about social media and how it always highlighted the spotlights of a relationship and portrayals of what a couple is “supposed” to look like. This can make people feel bad if their own relationships are not identical to the unattainable social expectations set online. It’s important to remember that what’s online is rarely an accurate depiction of a whole relationship, and that healthy relationships look different from person to person.
In addition to the pressure many teens feel to have relationships that mirror those in the media, they also feel pressured to be in a relationship. Although relationships can be fun and beneficial, there are many reasons teens might not be in one. Some people want to focus more time meeting their own goals and working on themselves. Others haven’t figured out what they want from a relationship or simply haven’t found the right person. Although relationships can help people grow in many ways, sometimes they can add extra stress on an individual and that’s the time to halt a relationship. In our society, letting go of or not being in a relationship is not celebrated nearly enough.
Children, teens and young adults might be exposed to more unhealthy relationships in the media than they are to education about healthy ones. Because teen relationships have such a strong effect on people’s lives, it’s vital that teenagers know what a healthy relationship looks like and what to do if a relationship isn’t healthy. It’s not that unhealthy relationships in the media should be hidden from kids and teens but that there should equally be representation of healthy relationships and doing the healthy thing for yourself. Lessening the rates of abuse is going to take conversation and awareness. Above all, it’s important to remember that everyone deserves love and respect.