Recognizing Aggression and Violent Relationships

Dating 315

In her duet with rapper Eminem, Rihanna sings: “Just gonna stand there / And watch me burn / But that’s alright / Because I like the way it hurts … / But that’s alright / Because I love / The way you lie.” In a world where musical sensations like Rihanna portray violent relationships as something to tolerate, teens are constantly processing what are acceptable behaviors in a relationship.

Does your teen know the difference between healthy and unhealthy behaviors? Would she come to you if, after she talked to another guy at a party, her boyfriend got angry and smashed his fist into the wall? Does your son believe that a slap or a threat is violence?

It’s hard to know if teens understand when things can be worked out with an aggressive partner, and when they can’t. Ask her: “When would there be a good reason to stay?” If she responds with something like, “When I can take back my rights, trust him not to push me again and build a healthier relationship,” then you might want to talk about what makes for a healthy relationship, and what skills will allow her to get her needs met.

“Healthy relationships are about being mutual,” says Dr. Joanne Davila, professor of psychology at State University of New York at Stony Brook. “(They are about) being able to have open, two-way conversations to see each other’s perspective, listen (without judgment), take turns talking, and adjust your perspective when the other raises good points.”

Teens often don’t recognize violence within a relationship or understand manipulation when it comes from a boyfriend or girlfriend. They’re so into the relationship, they believe that no matter how the person treats them, it’s OK as long as they stay.

Effective Conversation

I once said to my teen daughter, “Honey, if you have to lie to him to see your friends, he’s a control freak. That’s not healthy. You have to break up with him.” But was that the right thing to say? Probably not; it’s dictatorial.

When you tell your teen, “You can’t do this,” and “You can’t do that,” she’s thinking, “You don’t trust me. You just want to control me.” So when you tell her this guy’s a control freak and you don’t want her seeing him anymore, a bell goes off – she recognizes you as controlling.

Rather than making demands, give her information. Approach the conversation in a more objective fashion, saying something like, “Emotional abuse often stems from disrespectful ways a guy gets his needs met. A guy shows respect by how he gets his needs met from you. In a healthy relationship he’ll ask for what he wants and leave it up to you to say yes or no. If he gets his needs met by telling, threatening or smashing his fist into a wall, he doesn’t respect you.” Or “Jealousy shows a lack of trust, not love. Excessive jealousy is emotional abuse.”

You also can ask questions: “How do you feel about not seeing your friends as much, now that you’re in a relationship?” Or, “Why do you think she doesn’t want you to be with your friends or family?” Then let him talk.

Setting the Bar

Emotional abuse shouldn’t clear any man or woman’s bar of acceptance, ever. It’s often a precursor to sexual and physical aggression. Our teens believe that who they date and what goes on in their relationships is their own business. It’s a parent’s job to help them set their own standards – their bar.

A girl can establish what behaviors she’ll accept by asking herself questions: “Does he ask for what he wants, and then leave it up to me to say yes or no? Or does he use controlling behaviors like bossing, pressuring, demanding and threatening?”

If a boyfriend or girlfriend gets angry at having to answer questions, or refuses to answer them, then he or she is not being mutual. Create mutual conversations with your teen so he or she can practice this line of thinking and responding in his or her personal relationships and avoid being victim to unhealthy behaviors.

Dr. Julius Licata is director of, and Kaycee Jane is the author of “Frog or Prince? The Smart Girl’s Guide to Boyfriends.”