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Epic romance or a 'Red Flag'? Addressing Coercive and Controlling Behaviour in Teenage Relationships

Posted on 6 December 2022

Abuse in romantic relationships has long been thought of as an adult issue.

Whilst significant strides have been made in recent years in expanding awareness of what qualifies as domestic abuse, there remains a prevailing misconception that this type of abuse applies only to older couples.

In 2019, Women's Aid launched the website 'LoveRespect' to tackle this misguided stereotype, after a study revealed that nearly two-thirds of teenagers had been in abusive relationships. Whilst this figure is concerning, perhaps more worrying was the fact that many did not recognise they had been in abusive relationships, until the different elements of abusive behaviour were clarified for them.

The study speaks to the wider issue of why many still find it difficult to identify the 'red flags' of domestic abuse. As part the UN's 16 days of activism against Gender-based Violence, we seek to examine the mixed messages young people receive about domestic abuse in popular culture, and how families, friends and concerned third parties can help identify and support young victims experiencing this type of abuse.

Mixed messaging: romanticising the 'red -flags' of coercive and controlling behaviour

Popular culture has often blurred the lines for teens in what should be considered acceptable or unacceptable in intimate relationships. In film, television, literature and other media content, coercive and controlling behaviour is often portrayed as a passionate and all-consuming expression of love to be desired and even idealised.  

Examples may be seen in the relationships depicted in many teen or young adult films – particularly those of the "fantasy" genre, where the handsome young man's stalking, controlling and obsessive behaviour toward the (usually naive) girl is construed as passion, protection and inescapable. With the abuser depicted as the hero in the story, rather than as a villain, it is clear why this type of abusive behaviour can be considered by some as aspirational.

This type of narrative is not a new phenomenon. Fairy tales where the female protagonists give up everything for love, are made to feel special because they are the only one who can fix their troubled partner, or are shown as loving or forgiving for sticking with them or taking them back are in fact, tales as old as time.

To help separate out the fact from fiction, the below are some examples of coercive and controlling behaviour which can often be blurred in popular culture. Whilst on their own these examples may not amount to abuse, combined they can constitute a pattern of behaviour which qualifies as domestic abuse as defined by the Domestic Abuse Act 2021. Despite its portrayal as "romantic" in some parts of the media, coercive and controlling behaviour is a criminal offence under the Serious Crime Act 2015.

  1. Protection and control

It is important to feel safe in any intimate relationship. Any protection, however, should always correspond with your personal boundaries (as set by you). If you partner needs to know where you are and who you are with at all times, or is incessantly monitoring your activity through an app or by following you, it is likely this behaviour stems from a desire to control, not protect.

Control can also extend to your partner having strong opinions on how you present yourself. A relationship where your partner criticises what you wear, eat, and who you interact with, to the extent that you start changing these elements to please them, could be a sign of a coercive and controlling dynamic in your relationship.

   2. Love-bombing

Love-bombing occurs when someone overwhelms you with loving words, actions, and behaviour as a manipulation technique. This often happens at the beginning of a relationship and is reminiscent of the grand romantic gestures which win the hearts of so many of our on-screen heroines.

Lavishing you with gifts, constantly complimenting you, and bombarding you with phone calls and texts can appear harmless enough. However, if this is balanced with your new partner becoming angry at divided attention or when you place boundaries, this may be a red flag that indicates you need to take a step back and evaluate things at a distance.

   3. "Crazy in love" or the "crazy ex-girlfriend"

If your partner regularly labels you as "crazy", "insane" or a "psycho", convinces you that you are imagining things, or makes you feel unimportant and deficient, these are all characteristics of Gaslighting. Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse that involves the act of manipulating someone psychologically.

The well-known idea of the 'crazy ex-girlfriend' can be linked to the historic association between women and a sense of emotional instability, and has been pervasive in popular culture through the ages. It is a common silencing technique for women in an unhealthy relationship dynamic and it is important that it should no longer be allowed to silence victims of domestic abuse.

  4. The one and only

Isolation from your support system is often used by abusers to exert their control over you. This may present itself in them becoming jealous when you spend time with family and friends, or your partner convincing you that any third-party concerns about your relationship are merely attempts to "sabotage" your relationship. A support system outside your romantic relationship is healthy.

  5. Till death do us part

Popular fiction romanticises the suitor who declares that they will "die" without their paramour. In fact, many abusers use the threat that they will kill themselves if their partner leaves as a method of manipulation and ultimately, control.

Healthy relationships: the 're-education"

The Government's statutory guidance for Relationships and Sex Education (RSE), updated in September 2021, highlights the need to educate students about "grooming, sexual exploitation and domestic abuse, including coercive and controlling behaviour" which "should also be addressed sensitively and clearly." The guidance extends to teaching secondary school teachers to spot "red flags" amongst their pupils who may be experiencing this type of abuse, and how they should communicate that to the victims.

The guidance is a significant step forward in giving schools the authority to educate their pupils about healthy and unhealthy relationships, however the influence teachers have over their students often stops as soon as students leave classroom. Healthier story arcs and critical reading in popular culture are still essential if the interpretation of controlling behaviour as "passion" is to end.

If you are a concerned parent, friend, or interested third party of someone you are worried could be in an abusive relationship, Women's Aid #loverespect campaign offers free, bitesize advice and information to help you or a loved one address these concerns.

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