Yeardley Love had everything going for her: She was a good student, a phenomenal athlete, and had a great family and circle of friends. The 22-year-old senior at the University of Virginia had a promising life ahead of her until a violent relationship with fellow classmate George Huguely tragically ended her life.
While it’s easy to write off terrifying stories like this one with a simple, “That would never happen to me,” the sad truth is that violent relationships are more common than we think. Relationships that appear to be perfect on the outside could be seriously dangerous behind closed doors. These abusive relationships can happen to anyone, from ordinary college women to celebrities like Rihanna.
While violent relationships are frightening and sometimes can be extremely hard to get out of, being educated on these types of dangerous men and the warning signs that come along with the abuse could be what saves your life.
Why College Women?
Abuse can happen to anyone in any age group, but college women are often the people who find themselves in these types of situations. Susan Shapiro Barash, a gender studies professor at Marymount Manhattan College and author of the book Toxic Friends, attributes the presence of abusive relationships on campus to the environment. “Really it’s a stranger you’re meeting, it’s not like high school where people know each other,” she says. “It’s an unprotected environment and you’re young and you’re trusting of who you meet.” The campus is a new place with all types of different people, and while some may have shown signs of abuse in the past, there’s no way for a student to know that.
A sophomore at Arizona State University was completely blindsided by her boyfriend’s abusive tendencies when she came to college because she was used to all the guys from her hometown. “I come from a really small town where everybody knows everybody, so I was so trusting when I first came to school…I assumed everybody had the best intentions. I started dating this guy freshman year and I figured he was just a normal guy because he seemed really nice. I guess I was just naive because I didn’t even think that anybody could be abusive. Turns out, I was wrong.”
Why Are Women Attracted to Them in the First Place?
Violent men are obviously not attractive, but most have qualities that will draw you in and get you hooked. “Many men who end up being violent are actually very charming men,” Barash says. “They’re seductive and they have a pattern—they’ve done this with women before you and they’ll do it again.” Some women actually are so drawn to an abusive man’s looks, style and popularity that they don’t and won’t face the fact that he could be dangerous.
While some women who are lured in to an abusive man are oblivious to the potential danger, other women gravitate toward these types of people. Often, women who come from a history of abuse, whether it’s from a father, uncle or brother, date abusive men because they want to try to remedy the situation. “These women think that even though they couldn’t make their abusive relative stop, they can make this man change,” Barash says.
When Does the Danger Strike?
Abusive relationships rarely start out violent. “The relationships start on a high note most likely, you feel great being with him, and it’s very exciting having a relationship with someone on campus,” Barash says. Once you’re into the relationship, however, things start to go downhill, sometimes gradually. “The dark side kicks in – he might be physically violent, he might squeeze your arm one time, he might physically hit you,” Barash says, adding that women are often in disbelief once the relationship starts to turn for the worst. Still, despite the physical danger, many women stay in the relationship.
A recent graduate of the University of Vermont says that she was in complete shock the first time she saw her ex-boyfriend be violent. “Our relationship started out perfectly, he was so sweet and affectionate and caring. As stupid as it sounds now, I actually thought that he could be the guy I ended up marrying. I remember we were out one night and he saw me talking to another guy, and he actually flipped over a table at the bar because he was so pissed. I was shocked and scared and really upset about it. Since I was so into him, I thought that maybe it was just a one time thing, but after talking to my friends about it, I knew he was too good to be true.”
Why Do Women Stay in it?
After starting the relationship on such a perfect note, women often make excuses for the man’s display of violence in an attempt to rationalize the abuse. Instead of chalking it up to his abusive nature, women will tell themselves that the man was violent because he was drinking or because he had a bad day. “It’s so unfamiliar to you that you’re not sure what do to and you don’t want to admit that this has happened,” Barash says.
As the abuse continues into a pattern, women will start to believe that they can fix the problem. “You think the love will make this better and that you can change him,” Barash says. “And sometimes it’s about your own low self-esteem – instead of taking a look at yourself and getting out, you try to fix it.”
Other times, and more commonly, women stay in the relationship because of fear. Women are scared that the man will become more violent once she leaves.
What Are the Warning Signs?
Abusive relationships aren’t easy to spot, especially when they are just starting out and everything is going so well. Still, there are some signs that you can spot early on in a relationship so you can get out before you’re sucked in too deep.
He’s too controlling.
An abusive man wants to have control over your every move, so not only is he telling you what to do, but he also needs to know where you are at all times. “He needs to know your whereabouts in an intense and inappropriate way,” says Barash. She warns that if he’s continuously stopping by your work to check up on you or if he’s following you when you go out, it’s definitely a sign of problems to come.
One Michigan State University junior recalls her ex-boyfriend’s crazy and controlling demands when it came to her going out. “He literally made me call him every fifteen minutes when I went out with my friends. Sometimes, if the music was loud wherever we were, he would make me go outside so I could talk to him, and he’d always insist that I told him exactly who I was with and what we were talking about. If I ever missed a call from him, he would grow extremely angry and call me non-stop until I picked up. Finally, after five months of being trapped in the relationship, my friends opened my eyes to his antics and I broke up with him.”
He’s angry for no real reason.
Abuse often starts with anger, and it can escalate quickly. If your guy is getting really mad about small things, it’s a red flag. “He loses his temper and directs his anger at you,” says Barash. “He’s controlling your universe and getting angry about your independence.” If a man blows up at you over minimal issues and his temper is out of line, it’s time to get out.
A Her Campus reader from Hofstra had a boyfriend who got angry often, and usually expressed his fury with physical force. “He literally would pick fights with everybody. He’d get so mad and get up in their faces and just scream. He’d be pissed off and punch trees…his knuckles were always bruised or bleeding because he’d just get so mad about something and always had to take it out physically. He’d say that punching things released his anger and made everything better, but it just made me realize he was a psycho that clearly needed help.”
You start making excuses for him.
Excuses are a way to cope with the dangerous situation, so if you find yourself saying that a bad day at work made your man throw somehing at you, head for the nearest exit immediately.
A University of Rhode Island junior remembers telling herself that her ex-boyfriend’s violence and verbal abuse was a sign that he cared about her. “One night we went out and I tried talking to other guys, but he would get really angry and say things like I ‘could never get with anyone else’ and ‘no other guy would ever want me’. I shrugged these incidences off because I thought it was a way of him showing he cared for me and he was just being possessive. He would apologize later, but it would always end up happening again. When things started to get physical that’s when I knew that I needed to end it. A few times he grabbed me hard, shoved, or pushed me down. Like before, he would always apologize after and try and make up for it, and at first I accepted his apologies. I once again tried to use the excuse that this was the way he showed that he liked me.”
You leave out important details to your friends.
Women are usually excited about a new boyfriend, and they can’t wait to gush all the mushy details to their friends and mother. Those in abusive relationships will tell stories but leave out the part where he started screaming at you for going out with your friends or smashed a glass because you were texting while he was talking to you. “They don’t give all the information because they have a sense that their family members or friends would not approve,” Barash says.
A Syracuse University senior says that she suspects that her sister’s boyfriend is abusive, and that her sister rarely ever talks about her boyfriend. “We’ve always been close, and she’s had boyfriends in the past and she’d always tell me all about them. She barely ever talks to me about her current boyfriend. She’s called me a couple times crying to tell me how mean he is, and I think it’s just because she’s been at her breaking point a couple times now. When I bring up the situation after the fact, she will tell me that she was just being dramatic and they really have a great relationship.”
He’s threatening you.
The threats could start off as non-physical but could begin to get dangerous. Some abusers use threats to control their partner, and say things like, “If you go out with your friends, I won’t talk to you again.” The threats can start to get graphic and frightening as the relationship escalates, with words like, “If you go out with your friends tonight, I’ll kill you.” Instead of brushing off a threat as harsh words by someone who is angry, take any threatening language extremely seriously.
A senior at UMass Amherst says that she knew her boyfriend was abusive because he was constantly threatening her. “Looking back on my relationship with my ex, I can’t believe all the signs I missed. I’m so glad I got out of that relationship when I did, because even though I never saw him be physically abusive to me, he used to threaten me all the time about everything. He’d tell me he’d break up with me if I ever talked to my ex-boyfriends and that he’d kill me if I ever cheated on him. One time, my guy friend bought me a drink at the bar and my boyfriend told me he’d punch him if my friend talked to me again.”
How Do You Get Out?
Barash suggests completely extricating yourself from the situation and cutting off all modes of contact with the abuser. Sometimes, this is difficult to do on your own, so you need to talk to a counselor, teacher, friend or parent to seek help and protect yourself. “If you can’t really handle it yourself, you don’t really have to,” Barash says.
If you have a feeling that a friend or loved one is in an abusive relationship, the best thing to do is to push her to get out of the situation. “You have to push her and say, “Listen, I’m the innocent bystander and I see problems in the relationship. It could be dangerous and this really isn’t what your family would like for you,’” Barash says.
If you feel like your friend is too far into the situation to pull herself out, you could even take the initiative to report it. “This could be very hard, because your friend will be denying it so you have to really believe that helping her is the way to go,” Barash says.
Although abusive relationships may start out perfect, once you see any signs of violence, it’s time to reevaluate the situation and get out before it’s too late. Be sure to seek help and talk to someone about what’s going on in your relationship. Knowing that you’re not alone will help give you the strength to leave.
Susan Shapiro Barash, gender studies professor at Marymount Manhattan College and author of the book Toxic Friends
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