Photo Illustration Connor Lawless

Taking Control: Psychological, physical abuse impacts students

March 15, 2019

To other students walking by, it just looked like a couple holding hands.

What they didn’t see is that when senior Janette’s* (name changed to maintain anonymity) partner let go of her wrist, it was sore for minutes, hours or even days later because of how tightly he held on.

Of the 60 percent of students who have been in a romantic relationship, 11 percent report being physically threatened or intimidated by an intimate partner, according to a Harbinger survey of 236 students from Feb. 1 to Feb. 27 through Google Forms.

Physical abuse is any intentional act causing injury or trauma to another person by way of bodily contact. Out of 235 responses, 4 students reported being physically abused by a romantic partner, and 6 students were unsure if they had been physically abused by a romantic partner.

Adjustment counselor Sarah McNulty worries that students who are physically abused by romantic partners may struggle with their self-esteem long after they are out of the unhealthy relationship.

“I just feel like that emotional piece can sometimes be an even more long-lasting challenge to feel good about yourself,” McNulty said. “I worry that it sets you up for maybe a pattern [of falling into unhealthy relationships].”

Students seeking help for domestic abuse can call REACH Beyond Domestic Violence Massachusetts at (800) 899-4000 at any time, any day and receive support, shelter and/or referrals for affordable or free counseling. Even for students who are not ready to end their relationship, REACH offers programs and supports to help students work through the ups and downs of navigating an abusive relationship.

Psychological Abuse

Psychological abuse is characterized by a person subjecting or exposing another person to behavior that may result in psychological trauma, including anxiety, chronic depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.

According to The Harbinger survey, 25 percent of students who have been in a romantic relationship feel they have endured psychological abuse; Janette is one of those students.

“A lot of [psychological abuse] is manipulating you and guilt,” Janette said. “You’re like ‘Hey, this is making me uncomfortable’ or ‘I don’t like when you do this’ and they’ll turn it right back around and they’ll be like ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe I would do that, I’m so sorry, I’m such a terrible person.’ They flip it so that you’re the one that ends up comforting them and then the whole problem is brushed under the rug.”

According to McNulty, a big part of psychological abuse stems from control; a psychologically abusive person wants to control their partner.

“It’s things that get said, put downs, telling someone they’re worthless, sort of that power play that starts to occur in an emotionally abusive relationships,” McNulty said.

Janette’s former partner controlled what she was allowed to post online, what she could wear and who she could speak with. Janette said sometimes the psychological abuse escalated into forms of physical abuse.

“I drift from side to side when I walk, and it really irritated [my former partner] for some reason,” Janette said. “We would be holding hands while we walked, and in order to keep me walking in a straight line to stop from bumping into him, he would squeeze my hand or hold my wrist so hard that it hurt. I can’t have people touch my wrists anymore because of that.”

Recognizing Unhealthy Relationships

According to McNulty, students should be wary not to lose too much of themselves when they enter new romantic relationships.

“I always get a little concerned when I hear that friendships are being dissolved,” McNulty said. “Almost like an isolation starts to happen.”

More overtly, McNulty warns students to watch out for any signs of blatant disrespect from their partner.

“Obviously if they’re pushing you or hitting you [that’s not healthy],” McNulty said. “[That includes] verbal stuff, verbal abuse and put-downs, too.”

According to Janette, possessiveness is another huge red flag in a relationship.

“People really like the whole possessive aspect of a relationship and, sure, the concept you might think is cute, but once you’re experiencing it, it’s really not,” Janette said. “It really loses its novelty and then it’s like ‘Okay, I can’t do any of the things that I want to.’”

Health teacher Melissa Arvanigian agrees that students should not encourage possessive behaviors.

“Sophomore year [in health class] we go over a lot about progressions of an unhealthy relationship,” Arvanigian said. “Jealousy is kind of warning sign or a red flag because it’s showing that they’re insecure, in either the relationship or with themselves, or both.”

According to sophomore Iva*, who has experienced unhealthy relationships, another thing to consider is a person’s motive for being in a relationship.

“[A warning sign is] if they only seem to be after you for the sex,” Iva said.

Even after recognizing that a relationship is unhealthy, getting help can be difficult according to Iva.

“It’s hard to admit that you let yourself get into a situation or you were forced into a situation that you thought you were better than,” Iva said.

Janette had trouble ending the relationship with her abuser because she was in love with him at the time.

“When you’re dating someone and you love them, or you think that you love them, breaking up is the scariest thing that can happen to you,” Janette said. “But once you get out of it, it’s absolutely wild to have this [different] boy treat me like a real human being and not push me to do things that I don’t want to. He doesn’t make me afraid.”

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